Thailand Footprint is pleased to interview Jame DiBiasio today. Jame was a featured reader at Night of Noir III held in Bangkok at Checkinn99 this year. He’s based in Hong Kong where his day job is as a financial journalist. Jame writes both fiction and non-fiction and his Val Benson series is published with Crime Wave Press. To make it a bit more fun, Jame will be interviewing me at his blog, Asia Hacks. You can read that interview here.
Here is some promotional information from Amazon about Cowgirl X: From California to Bangkok and the Cambodian jungles, Val and Naomi tangle with a playboy tycoon, a porn movie director and a lost Navajo cowboy on the trail of Eriko. But Val has another reason to return to Asia. In her luggage, she carries the hilt of an ancient Cambodian sword that’s said to have magical powers. Soon the girls are pursued by a couple of trigger-happy assassins, an occultist turned politician and the leader of a sinister nationalist cult. All roads lead to Angkor Wat and an explosive finale.
KC: Welcome, Jame. I am pleased to have the opportunity to do this interview with you for many reasons. You are an author of fiction – you’ll have the second in your Val Benson series coming out soon after your initial novel Gaijin Cowgirl, published by Crime Wave Press debuted in late 2013 – and you are also an author of non-fiction, also with Asian themes. Please tell our readers about your protagonist Val Benson – what adventures will she be getting into on the pages of the sequel, “Cowgirl X”?
JD: Hi Kevin, and thank you for inviting me onto your blog. Just to let your readers know, I’ll be returning the favor at http://asiahacks.com.
Val Benson, the Gaijin Cowgirl, is a former bar hostess in Tokyo. Her good-time girl lifestyle ended when her number-one tipper, an old man with sinister hobbies, revealed a map to stolen wartime treasure. With yakuza, biker gangs and rogue CIA on her high heels, Val had to get her hands on the loot in the borderlands of Southeast Asia.
As things didn’t turn out exactly as she would have liked – even I lost track of the body count – “Cowgirl X” finds her in Los Angeles two years later plotting ways to bring justice to the perpetrators. She gets sidetracked to chase down a Japanese porn starlet who’s gone missing in LA, which takes her back to Southeast Asia and ultimately to Angkor Wat.
KC: Let’s switch to the non-fiction for a bit. You’ve also written “The Story of Angkor”. Here is a nice quote I pulled off your blog at AsiaHacks.com: “The Story of Angkor is an interesting and somewhat old-fashioned little book, old-fashioned in the pleasant sense that DiBiasio writes well and relies on crafted prose.” – The Asian Review of Books, August 7, 2014. Tell us about your process of writing The Story of Angkor, what does crafted prose mean to you, exactly, and who has been the market for the book to date?
JD: That review was by Peter Gordon, an erudite and generous person who is a fixture in Hong Kong’s small but growing literary scene. His interests and experience are actually a lot more varied than that. Anyway, the Angkor book emerged at a time when Gaijin Cowgirl was in the publishing wilderness and I was struggling to get another novel going. I’m a history buff and had read quite a lot on Angkor from a few visits, and in 2008 I went with some Hongkie friends with the intention of playing tour guide. It was an act of sheer ignorance. I jotted some notes and began to realize just how little I understood about the place.
By the time I had done some more research and taken notes, I had enough to justify going the whole way and making a book out of it. More ignorance.
I was in for a slog but finally banged something out. Many houses took a pass but Silkworm Books in Chiang Mai saw a glimmer of something in the manuscript. They handed it to David Chandler, the great historian of Cambodia, who returned it to me swathed in his red ink. Very humbling. More work to be done. But Professor Chandler had given me a chance to salvage my reputation. Another year or so of work passed until the book finally saw the light of day.
Crafted prose – I don’t know, other than I kept it short and relied on text rather than pretty photographs to do the job. I just wanted to tell what I thought was an exciting story, or interlinked stories, in a concise way. I cram in an awful lot of information into a little over 30,000 words. The book is deliberately short. I felt people visiting Angkor were not being that well served by the academic tomes trying to explain it. When I’m a tourist I want to know what role the particular set of rocks I’m climbing around played. So I based the narrative of Angkor’s rise, glory and fall around the major monuments.
People who visit Angkor are the obvious target for the book but it should also appeal to anyone with an interest in Southeast Asian or pre-modern history.
KC: You’re based in Hong Kong as a financial journalist. You travel when you can. Tell me about your experience at the Irrawaddy Literary Festival in Burma and throw in a Tom Vater or Hans Kemp anecdote if you can. That must have been an interesting experience.
JD: I attended the second Irrawaddy gig, in February 2014. Tom and Hans, the guys behind Crime Wave Press, banged on enough doors to get us in. I wrote a few blog posts from the event, which was marred by domestic political intrigues. The event’s primary financial sponsor was the Htoo Group, backed by a family connected to the military junta and on the US State Department’s blacklist – yet the US State Department and the British high commission were both official supporters of the event. Strikes, veiled threats and fickle ministerial pronouncements made for a real “welcome to Myanmar” moment for the organizers and the participants.
The most uncomfortable moment was when I did a reading of “Gaijin Cowgirl”, with Tom serving as an introducer and interviewer. The small audience had settled down when in came four monks and an interpreter. The monks, given their revered social status, were led to sit in the front row, right in front of us. I proceeded to read from my first chapter, which introduces Val at work in the hostess club, flirting with salarymen, musing on the dark edges of drugs and sexual politics underpinning these places. To four Buddhist monks. I read slowly enough for the interpreter, and I have to assume he was reasonably faithful to what I declaimed. Harrowing and hilarious – what other literary festival puts its authors in such a ludicrous situation? On the other hand, maybe the monks enjoyed it. Literature’s ability to broaden horizons and all that. Well, literature certainly had a field day on that occasion.
One other anecdote: I had gone off to write a blog post. Later, Tom and Hans told me they had been trying to contact me to no avail. Aung San Suu Kyi had been receiving authors in a private room, and Hans got a photo of them presenting her with a copy of his photography book, “Burmese Light”. I could have gotten a pic of Suu Kyi holding up a copy of “Gaijin Cowgirl”! So I had missed out…although I’m not sure it would have been appropriate foisting the novel on her. The cover is kinda racy, and I had already burned the ears of the Sangha.
KC: I’m curious about the differences between writing fiction and writing non-fiction. How are they the same, how are they different and where are the lines blurry? And use your most recent book and novel to illustrate when you can.
JD: They are totally different. Non-fiction calls for creativity but it’s research-based and closer to journalism. The hard parts about non-fiction are ensuring accuracy and being able to explain things in an interesting way. Fiction requires imagination. The hard parts about fiction involve sustained suspension of disbelief, making credible characters, telling made-up stuff that’s worth a reader’s time, constantly putting myself in the heads of fictional human beings…plus thinking about craft. It’s a non-stop emotional, psychological and intellectual engagement. And I’m just writing pulp! Good quality pulp, I hope, with subtexts and deeper purposes, but still…
KC: Lets have some fun with the subject of traditionally published books vs self-published books and paperback books vs eBooks. Opine with a sense of humor whenever possible.
All of it is terrific so long as your readers buy my books. Libraries suck.
KC: That did make me laugh. Lets talk about settings and characters in your two Val Benson novels. How important is it to you to have multiple settings in your novels and where and how do you develop your characters? Tell me about a favorite character other than Val.
JD: “Cowgirl X” is actually a double helix of narratives. Val is one strand, and the other is Naomi Sato, a somewhat lost Japanese native who has been trying to work as a journalist in LA. Here’s where my own background indirectly comes in: I’m a trade journalist, covering a specific industry, as opposed to someone who works for a mainstream, mass market publication. So is Naomi, only her industry is pornography – the only place she could get a job was a rag covering the business of porn. I actually had to Google around to make sure such things exist, and they do – there are a few publications in that vein in California. They mostly cover mundane things around finances, distribution deals, and so on; they’re as ordinary as the titles I work on covering banking and fund management.
As a Japanese national, most of the stories Naomi ends up getting involve the frequent visits by Japanese adult-video producers and performers to LA. (Okay, so it’s not exactly like financial journalism.) One of these young ladies goes missing and an interested party from back home, the head of a religious cult, recruits Naomi to track down the girl. By this time Naomi is already wrapped up in Val’s own pursuits and their stories mesh.
The multiple setting I use in the Val Benson novels are part of the fun. In “Gaijin Cowgirl”, she ran from Tokyo to Hong Kong to Bangkok to the Thai-Burma border. There were also flashback scenes to World War 2 Rangoon and Vietnam-era Thailand. In Cowgirl X, Val goes from LA to Bangkok to the dodgy Cambodia border and finally to the Angkor temples at Siem Reap. There are also flashbacks to Guadalcanal and to Phnom Penh on the eve of its fall to the Khmer Rouge.
All of which is to say, because it’s a lot of fun. The third hallmark of a Val novel is some kind of treasure. In “Gaijin Cowgirl” a map led to a stolen treasure. In “Cowgirl X” there is an ancient sword.
KC. What’s next for Jame DiBiasio?
“Cowgirl X” is out June 30 in e-book format with print to follow a little later. I’ve finished the first draft of another non-fiction book in a similar vein to the Angkor book called “The Story of Bagan”, about that other great pre-modern temple city of Southeast Asia. I’m tinkering with the text and will contact publishers soon. I have another thriller that’s with a US publisher and should see daylight in the spring of 2016. And of course Val Benson will be back, although I haven’t really begun putting that one together. For now, though, I’m enjoying a little break from writing – which after all has to take place exclusively on weekends and holidays, as I have a full-time day job – and spending free time this summer with my wife.
Kevin, thanks for suggesting the exchange of interviews. Different questions, different vibes, all good. Stay cool in Bangkok.
KC: Thank-you, Jame. Best of luck with Cowgirl X.
To read the blog of Jame DiBiasio go to www.asiahacks.com