Steven W. Palmer is a Scottish expat currently living in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. He has been living in Asia since 2012 and currently works as Managing Editor for three magazines published in Cambodia. His previous working life has seen him work in diverse roles from drugs counselor to social worker to DJ and promoter. He has self-published two previous novels; ‘Angkor Away’, the first in the Angkor series which introduced Chamreun to the world, and ‘Electric Irn Bru Acid Test’; a coming of age story set in 1980s Scotland and part of the planned ‘Glas Vegas’ trilogy. Palmer is part of the thriving South East Asian Noir movement, which spans literature, poetry, art, photography and music.
KC: Welcome, Steven. You’re an author, so I like to start off with musical tastes right off the bat. Who were your early musical influences growing up and who catches your ear now?
SP: I cover a lot of my musical ‘evolution’ in my first novel, ‘Electric Irn Bru Acid Test’, which is a coming of age story set in Scotland of the late 70s/early 80s. I include a lot of autobiographical facts in it, especially about my own music tastes, my early gigs and my start as a DJ. I was lucky enough to have a twin path so to speak. My older cousin had been a guitar technician from the late 60s on and had worked with everyone from T-Rex to The Who and also counted folk like Alex Harvey and Rory Gallagher as close friends. He introduced me to ‘his music’ and would ‘educate’ me from his very extensive record collection. John also introduced me to soul and northern soul; two genres that have also remained part of my regular musical diet all my life.
But then there were also my peer influences. I was 11 when punk became big but it was really a year or two later when I really began listening to current music of that time. I’d say The Clash were my favourite band of that time and probably still are. I rate Strummer as the greatest lyricist of his era and I viewed him as a natural successor to Johnny Cash. I was also greatly influenced by the emerging electronic sound. I’d started with Kraftwerk but became a big fan of Gary Numan and Tubeway Army, early Human League, Depeche Mode etc. Another band/act who has stayed with me throughout my life is Julian Cope, then of The Teardrop Explodes. He is a fantastic lyricist as well as one of the foremost authorities on Megalithic Stone Circles (another interest of mine).
Nowadays my tastes are equally if not more eclectic. I have been a DJ on and off since I was 15/16 so that side of my music has evolved alongside that career/hobby. I do like a lot of early House music, especially the original and often soulful cuts that came out of Chicago and then later the techno coming out of Detroit. Although I have never really been a big fan of rap and hip hop, I do love some of the home grown tunes coming out of Scotland, particularly acts like Hector Bizerk and Stanley Odd. And living here in Cambodia, I have to give mention to Krom. A band that breaks the mould genre wise, combining the ethereal and haunting vocals of the Chamroeun sisters with Chris Minko’s amazing blues guitar.
KC: Pitch me your latest book in 50 words or less. When will it be released?
SP: Angkor Tears is a hard hitting tale of child trafficking in Cambodia and features Hoem Chamreun from my first novel as one of the protagonists. It brings together an unlikely team of allies in a race against time to unmask a pedophile network operating in the Kingdom.
It will be released globally on August 8th, though the physical launch here in Cambodia will likely be a month or so later when the hard copies arrive from the US.
KC: Why write fiction? Is it the fame, the riches, the women? What have you gotten out of it personally and why do you keep at it?
SP: Fame, riches or women have yet to happen though I remain hopeful! I’ve always felt there were stories inside me but never had the confidence to unleash them onto paper from the confines of my mind. I finally put a novella onto the page and then friends nagged me to write more. I’ve always seen fiction as a form of escapism, both writing and reading, so if my stories help even one person to escape reality for a few hours, then I see it as a big achievement. I also like what Hemingway said about writing: “I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, “Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now.”
From a personal view, there is almost a feeling of lightening a burden. Though it took me years to start writing seriously, now that I have, I feel I can’t stop. I’m in the somewhat ridiculous situation of having my next five or six novels already planned out. Now it’s a case of actually finding the time to write them. Do I want a bestseller? I think any author who says no to that question is lying to themselves. But for now I am happy to have the respect of my peers, authors I admire within the South East Asian writing community. Having other writers say that they enjoyed my book(s) is, for me, the greatest accolade to date. But I’d relegate that down the table if those fabled women and riches came along!
KC: You’ve lived in Bangkok and Phnom Penh as an expat – compare the two cities, give me the pros and cons of each.
SP: My time in Bangkok thankfully involved no work at all other than writing. It was more a period of travelling with the occasional sprinkling of hedonistic adventures. Bangkok is, or has become, a very cosmopolitan city, much changed from my first visit in the early 90s. One of the downsides of that is that it has become quite an expensive city to live in unless you really get away from the central areas. But it still has so much to offer. There are so many layers to it. Peel one façade away and another appears below it.
I think many expats, particularly those working in business there, tend to live in a bubble of luxury condos, wine bars and rooftop restaurants. You can experience those things in any major city. To experience the real Bangkok, the noir Bangkok, you have to get down and dirty with the city. Explore the klongs in a water taxi, wander down Sois you have never seen before, spend time drinking with the motodops outside the 7/11. One of my favourite activities when I lived in Bangkok was sitting on the outside terrace of Tilac in Soi Cowboy and people watching. Because Cowboy is quite short, you get more of the curious tourists there than you do elsewhere, wanting to dip their toes in the supposed moral depravity they have read about online. Though much of the city has become sterile, the vast majority of it still retains that gritty feel underneath the concrete and steel. It’s just a case of finding it, especially if you don’t know the city very well. Oh and I can’t talk about Bangkok without mentioning Charley Browns; source of the best Margaritas in Asia. (And no, that mention did not earn me a free burrito!)
Phnom Penh is a very different beast. Though there are a few skyscrapers dotted around, and quite a few under construction, the city remains, thankfully, mainly a low rise capital. Although there have been big changes over the last two years, with lots of fancy new restaurants, shops and bars, the dark underbelly of the city is never more than a few steps away from wherever you are. I especially love what I call the ‘canyons’ of Phnom Penh: the narrow thoroughfares that dissect many of the city blocks, narrow and shadowy but bustling with life. Traffic is awful and in some ways can be worse than Bangkok, but it all adds to the chaotic beauty of the place. There is also, to my perception, more of a lawless feel to Phnom Penh, far more than Bangkok, which makes it so much easier to formulate story ideas. In some ways you could say Bangkok and Phnom Penh are Yin and Yang though I know people may disagree with that view.
KC: What book are you most proud of?
That’s a difficult question but I’d probably have to say Electric Irn Bru Acid Test because it was my first completed novel. It proved, to me and others, that I could do it and the process seems to be getting easier as time goes on. Because I included a lot of autobiographical fact in among the fiction it is also a very personal book, and as my mother had passed away the year before it was difficult to write at points.
KC:Give me two of your seediest hangouts you’d recommend to a PP visitor and what it is you like or dislike about the places and the people who hang there?
SP: I’d mentioned earlier that one of my favourite Bangkok spots for people watching was the terrace at Tilac on Soi Cowboy, though I personally don’t think Cowboy is particularly seedy when compared to other areas of the Bangkok sex industry. In Phnom Penh I do like the riverside for sitting watching the world go by though it doesn’t have that seedy feel you are asking about. What it can have is an almost intrinsic sadness when you see some of the limbless beggars, the street kids and the glue sniffers.
But for seediness in Phnom Penh there is one destination that is head and shoulders – or should that be breasts and thigh – above anywhere else in the city and that is Golden Soraya Mall on Street 51. It used to be second to the awful Walkabout bar which is closed now; I called it the ‘bar girls’ retirement home’. But now GSM – as we ‘fondly’ call it – stands out as a world leader in seediness and exuding pathos. I can’t actually say there is anything I like about the place other than if you are suffering from low self-esteem then spend an hour there and you will feel much better about yourself. The working girls there tend to be the older ones who are freelancing because they cannot get work in any of the actual hostess bars anymore so are a little older and further down the aesthetic league table so to speak. But the customers pretty much match them. You’ll find the worst of the sex-tourists there and the worst of the sex-pats too. The Cheap Charlies who are looking for a 50 cent beer and a $15 dollar whore. It’s not a pleasant destination by any stretch of the imagination but for a first time visitor to PP would say go and have a look. After there the only way is up.
I suppose the other place I’d ‘recommend’ (a word I hesitate to use as I’m not really into the bar scene) is Street 104, which given its short length is probably the closest Phnom Penh comes to Soi Cowboy. What it lacks is that terrace choice that a few of the Cowboy bars have, but it does have Oscar’s which is a damn good music venue and one of the few places where the girls do take ‘no’ for an answer. It is also, sadly, going to be the location of Cambodia’s first Hooters outlet. But if it’s high season and the street is busy then you may get the chance of grabbing one of the outdoor seats the girls normally occupy to shout “Hello, you welcome here” (the standard sales pitch). If you get that opportunity then grab it as it is the best chance you have here of people watching in this sort of environment. And as you have probably guessed by now I love watching the tourists and locals go about their lives. I really feel that as a writer, it is an activity that can give you both ideas and insight for characters. But make it over to Phnom Penh and I promise to take you to far less seedy locations!
KC:What cultural value, if any, do you see in writing fiction based in Southeast Asia?
SP: I’m going to answer with a book. In particular what is probably one of my favourite books of all time and certainly my favourite sci-fi book, ‘Stranger in a Strange Land’ by Robert Heinlein. That is what all of us – writers or otherwise – are here in SE Asia. No matter how long you have been here, how well you speak the language, how integrated you THINK you are, you will always be a stranger. And just as Valentine Smith in Heinlein’s book, we all observe, interact with and occasionally change some of what surrounds us. The way we ‘report’ this strange land can be many-faceted, from mere observations – which can occasionally be almost voyeuristic – to social commentary or imposition of our own ideals. But there will always be a cultural value to what we all write, whether intended or not, as we cannot help but be influenced by the culture in which we are living.
KC: Will you be going to the Kampot Writer’s Festival in November of this year? Who else will be there if you know?
SP: I wouldn’t miss it for the world and plan to have a free short story, in both English and Khmer, specially written for the festival. One great announcement is that Carlos Andrés Gómez – poet, actor and writer – will be appearing as one of the main guests. Phillip J. Coggan will be back, as will Brian Gruber, and from the Bangkok scene, James Newman is coming also, so I predict some messy late night sessions in the literary salon! It is fantastic that the festival proved so popular last year and looks like it will go from strength to strength. It is also very good to see that it is encouraging young Khmer writers and artists to have more confidence in their work.
Steven Palmer speaking at the 2015 Kampot Writer’s Festival
KC: What three songs would you like played at your funeral?
SP: If cremated, the final song, as my coffin descends/slides into the flames is to be Roky Erikson’s ‘Burn The Flames’. A great song by a much underrated artist. Second song would be ‘Belfast’ by British electronic band, Orbital, a wonderfully chilled piece of music that I used to end a lot of sets with. And for the sheer irony/amusement value, ‘I am the Resurrection’ by Manchester band, The Stone Roses.
KC: Thanks, Steven. If you go to my funeral I’ll go to yours. Have fun in Kampot.
SP: Thank-you, Kevin. I hope to see you there.