Christopher G. Moore is a Canadian author who has lived in Bangkok, Thailand for nearly 30 years. His first novel, His Lordship’s Arsenal was published in New York in 1985. Since then he has published 33 books, including the Land of Smiles trilogy, three books of essays including Fear and Loathing in Bangkok, and 16 novels in the Vincent Calvino Crime Series. Asia Hand in that series, won the Shamus Award for best original paperback in 2011. In addition he is the editor and contributor for the anthologies, Bangkok Noir and Phnom Penh Noir. His latest Calvino novel, Jumpers was released in November, 2016.
Christopher was first pointed out to me several years ago as he sat at a large horseshoe shaped bar, drinking an orange juice and staring up at the colorfully decorated ceiling. I introduced myself that evening and asked him a couple of questions. I have been asking Christopher questions at every opportunity since then and paying attention to his answers.
All good artists, whether they be a portrait artist or a novelist look where others fail to look. They see what few others see. They take the back roads and document the journey. Christopher’s books over the years are now frozen portraits in time. And for me there have always been plenty of brush strokes that, while not particularly flattering, painted things as they were. About society, about Thai culture, and about us. He writes books worthy of reflection and he has done it again with his most recent entry in the Vincent Calvino crime series, Jumpers. The novel, Christopher readily admits, is part of a creative loop inspired by a portrait sitting he did for acclaimed new art movement painter Peter Klashorst. The sitting itself was inspired by a book Christopher read, The Man in the Blue Scarf by Martin Gayford. He later wrote an essay by the same name which you can read here. I hope you, as a creative consumer, are not in a hurry. You are invited to read this lengthy interview, and at the conclusion there is a one hour video titled The Impatient Artist which films Moore interviewing and sitting for Klashorst. Please enjoy them both.
The author Christopher G. Moore with his portrait painted by Peter Klashorst
Interviewer: John Irving said, “Writing a novel is actually searching for victims.” Do you agree with Irving? There are many kinds of victims found in fiction: murder victims, victims of power, victims of circumstance, exploited victims, and victims of society. What do you think readers search for in a novel?
Moore: I admire John Irving’s novels. Though, I am not certain I’d agree that writing a novel is a search for victims. Our lives are filled with contradictions, paradoxes, and confusion. Does that make us victims? If it does, then the concept of victims needs substantial redefinition. The search in a novel is the same for everyone who seeks answers to questions: Who are we? What are we doing here? What is a satisfactory life? How to reconcile the creature like person we are with the symbolic self that seemingly travels outside of our bodies? Seriously, no one has the answers. Never have had and likely never will have any better answer in the future.
Rather than looking for the elusive and definitive answers, we cling to cultural illusions that appear to provide answers. In that way, maybe John Irving is right—we are victims seeking refuge in beliefs and myths because the alternatives are too terrifying. The current discontent, suggests people are waking up to the fact they’ve been lied to; it is becoming more difficult to set the ambushes and traps by business, politicians, government, media, and our rivals.
We look to books as we once looked to religion for self-transcending drama, heroic models and a worldview that creates the illusion that the human condition is loaded with purpose and meaning.
Interviewer: To live an adventurous life in Thailand often means not conforming to societal norms. Can you put your finger on any particular influences that caused you to leave the relative safety of Canada as a university law professor to go first to New York City and later to Bangkok where you now call home? Did you have mentors along the way?
Moore: There is a built-in tension inside all of us between experience and reflection. A life of exploring the back roads, and a life contemplating the meaning of back roads and why we bother to explore them. The back roads, are the ones that lead out of town to parts unknown. It doesn’t mean you must resign your job and leave your country in order to write. Those back roads loaded with new experiences are everywhere. But you have to search for them. And remember adventure is not risk free, and the more you plunge into the world the more likely you will run into some sharp edges and dangers. Experiences aren’t always good. They can be fatal. Most of us are cowards who do what is expected and narrow our lives down to a bite sized comfort zone that is safe, predictable and seemingly stable.
Take a jump and plunge into experience and climb out of that pool and reflect on matters of fact—the nature of what has been experienced. We know the world through our experience of it. All reflection and no experience is arid, dull and lifeless exercise in futility. All experience and no reflection and we forgo meaning of how lives are shaped, our relationships formed, and our values tested. Burn the candle at both ends and then reflect on the pool of wax dripping on the floor of life, and know that is you with a flame at both ends.The most valuable life hack is to discover your own balanced combination of experience and reflection. A university tenured position grants status, access to power, money and influence. It is also a kind of luxury prison where the trustees are honored and admired. That said, I loved the academic life. It was a difficult decision to leave. I wanted to roll the dice. It was a gamble. The odds were not something I rightfully calculated or understood at the time. I was lucky. Let me say that again, for some random set of events, it turned out well for me. If it hadn’t, you wouldn’t be interviewing me. That’s why interviews like this are a distortion of the odds. You’re not interviewing a thousand other writers who tried something similar but it didn’t work out.
My mentors came after the breakout. Most mentors look for that act of courage that risks a great deal before bothering to nurture another writer.
Barney Rosset and Stirling Silliphant filled the role but that was after I’d arrived in Thailand and had published a few novels. Barney taught me about the literary sensibilities upon which good fiction was built; Stirling taught me the Hollywood décor that the vast majority of people find holds their attention. I started out in a very different time. Those were the pre-Internet days. Mentors who worked with me for years are gone; they belong to another age. Technology has disrupted the idea of a mentor, apprenticeship, isolation, publishing, and author. Writers now turn to workshops and reading groups for support.
A case can be made, that in part, globalization and the Internet has made us more selfish and there are fewer established writers and publishers willing to put in the long hours to mentor a writer. The world of legacy publishing is brutal: either a writer hits with a book or he or she is dropped. No mentors left in that world. And in the self-publishing world where hundreds of thousands of people are hoping for a breakthrough, who do they have as a role model? It is likely to be Sisyphus.
Interviewer: Is it possible to get bored living in Bangkok?
Moore: One lifetime isn’t long enough to get bored. There is enough to experience in life for several lifetimes. Trust me, I know. Take to the road. Lose yourself to the experience of living. At the same time, re-read Darwin’s Origin of the Species and every AI report, study and finding you can lay your hands on. What happens when you reach the end? No one knows. But I have a theory: Prepare yourself for an infinite journey of imagination to a place where you mingle with all the characters spilling out of all of the books in Borge’s Library of Babel. And they know you by name and you become part of their never-ending story.
Interviewer: There are two words that often come up in your writing. They are cooperation and competition. May you talk about these two subjects? What have you learned about cooperation and competition in your lifetime?
Moore: What little I’ve learned about the pendulum swing between cooperation and competition is it acts as a kind of cultural yin and yang. As a species, we couldn’t have scaled to the level of providing food, transport, education, medical care, and communication to billions of people without cooperation. The problem is cooperation appears to work best in small groups where everyone knows everyone else. They all have skin in the game and it is in their interest to cooperate. Over the past 20,000 years we competed not so much with each other but as individuals and groups against the forces of nature and predators.
If you look at infantry squads in the military, they are twelve men. To stay alive they bond, they cooperate, they look after each other’s back. These tight fighting units, deployed by politicians, are psychologically closer to our original bands of brothers. Those who make the big decisions are in competition for votes, popularity, and status, and they have no problem putting a knife in someone else’s back. We fight in pre-Dunbar numbers; we govern in a post-Dunbar number political system.
We live inside this contradiction without being fully aware of how group size has changed our relationships with one another. We are post-Dunbar number casualties. When is the last time a politician threw himself on to a grenade to save those around him? Get back to me on that one.
Our fears were, in other words, different from modern fears. We needed to balloon the population to go to the next stage. Once the group expanded and disappeared into large cities, the walls protected against the old enemies but they didn’t protect us against ourselves. We saw ourselves differently. The world wasn’t us against a tiger or lion; it was us against others like us but different. We came to view outsiders with different beliefs, values, ethnic and racial profiles as a threat to group identity. Once the dynamic driving fear changed, our behavior changed.
The irony of this shift is apparent when you look at the way we process climate change. We are back 20,000 years ago where the most immediate threat is from nature. That requires cooperation. So far all the evidence is that cooperation is difficult to scale at a worldwide level to meet the challenges of climate change. We are too busy competing for resources and it is too profitable to shut down. If climate change reduces our species to pre-agricultural society numbers, it will be because we were frankly too good at arguing the virtues of competition.
We have forgotten how we began and how our original fears were triggered. Nature is giving us a lesson in humility and teaching us that cooperation is not a code word for loss of liberty and freedom.
Interviewer: In addition to be being a novelist you are an accomplished and prolific essayist. Your essays have appeared in the Evergreen Review among other places and can be found on your web site www.cgmoore.com. Your latest essay is about Artificial Intelligence. May you talk about writing essays in broad terms? What do you get out of it personally and what do you hope to provide to those who read them? Which essayists do you read regularly?
Moore: Essays are my diversion from the world of fiction. Imagination shouldn’t be contained to the realm of make believe. They are a way to reach out to others with descriptions, explanations, and speculations about a range of subjects that interest a writer. For me, my interests lead to me to: AI, climate change, crime, culture, or science. A good essay is a conversation with a friend about a matter that opens us to a better understanding of our limits, potentials, and the dangers and obstacles to living and dying.
The term essays, like the term fiction, covers a broad area. My essays tilt toward cultural, political, and scientific inquires. They don’t try to change anyone’s opinion or influence larger debates. An essay might be on my experience at the Jaipur Literary Festival (“Drinking From A Silver Urn” to the “High Cost of Badly Paid Cops”. I’ve also written about the writing and publishing process as I thought it might be helpful for other writers to share my experience and ideas.
George Orwell’s essays are an inspiration. Given his background in Burma and Spain, his combining novel writing with essay writing, Orwell showed the way a novelist can take useful detours into the realm of essay writing. On first reading (and they bear re-reading) Orwell’s essays are like a sniper’s bullet that goes straight through the heart. Before you feel the pain of the wound, he reloads and the next round slams into you. Before long you realize you are reborn with a heart better adapted for living world where no one is watching our back unless it is to figure out how to lift your wallet. We become atomized. That condition in itself makes cooperation more difficult. People are basically afraid. Orwell explains the background of how these conditions emerge and will likely continue as long as we are a species.
I also like reading and have learned from essays written by Christopher Hitchens, Geoff Dyer, Pico Iyer, Annie Dillard, Tony Judt and Michael Chabon.
An essay is a clue to a writer’s interests and preoccupations if not his obsessions. My essays are written during periods when I am writing a novel and arise from my research. Sometimes an essay is a good test run for ideas to see if they can make a supercharged, foot against the accelerator lap around the track without the wheels falling off or the engine blowing up. Other times, the essay is a way for me to organize and structure my thinking around an idea as I am curious as to what the final construction will look like once I step back.
One of my novels takes at least a year to write. By contemporary standards, that is a slow dance. An essay takes a few hours. If it takes much longer, it means I’ve not thought through the problems sufficiently. The feedback from readers (there are a handful) has been positive. A few people read them. With so much competition for awareness, the long essay, which I tend to write, are not in favor. That should never be a concern as the flavor of the month shifts: fast dance, slow dance, no dancing allowed. You can never predict what will happen next on the dance floor. Most of the time you are dancing with yourself. So take the time to make certain that public display rewards the observer with a memory worth returning to now and again, as a cloak against what life throws at all of us and teaches us when to duck, when to weave, when to run and when to lie low.
A reality check is also in order. An essay in the tradition of Orwell will draw a fraction of attention that goes to videos of funny animals, or photos of food, as we seek out what makes us laugh, what makes our mouth water. We’d rather watch funny animals than read Animal House. An essay about crime is like the last straggler in a marathon and only his mom and best friend are there to cheer him across the finish line.
I recently posted on FB something called the Cognitive Bias Codex, a chart of the hundreds of biases that everyone has and can’t cure or avoid or overcome. Understanding the meaning of that chart may be the single most important thing anyone for insight into their own limitations and those of others. It can change your life in all kinds of ways. Maybe nine people liked it. A group photo of me at a dinner table with three friends registered five times as many FB likes. And so it goes.
Interviewer: Your latest Vincent Calvino crime novel, Jumpers has recently hit the cyber-stores. What can you tell us about it?
Moore: Hardly a week goes past without a report of a farang suicide. A “jumper” is local slang for jumping off a balcony or rooftop.There is often a question as to whether the death was suicide. That small bit of doubt creates suspicion of the police and other authorities are covering up a murder. Why does someone jump off a balcony? There is no one explanation that fits all. Death, like life, is complicated. Jumpers is about the leap between belief and faith, art and commerce, the chasm between what we wish to be true about life and its ultimate meaning.
Every writer, if he or she lasts long enough, writes his version of the Tibetan Book of the Dead. After all, death is the ultimate mystery; it is the one act of nature that awaits us all. The fear of death is buried inside all of us. When a private investigator looks into a suicide victim’s life and death, he is finding emotional layers that we don’t often talk about. Once these issues are exposed, there is a new way of approaching the meaning of death.
Jumpers is number 16 in the Vincent Calvino crime novel series. A modern day Caravaggio, a young artistic genius from Quebec, is painting a sex worker in his Bangkok studio where Calvino finds him. Raphael, the artist, begins as a missing person case. For Calvino, it would have been better if he’d not found this artist.
By opening that studio door, Calvino enters into a hidden world of payoffs and local gangsters. What’s interesting is the globalization of art and art collectors. Raphael has a commission for a series of portraits. Most of the women he paints for the series end up as suicide victims.
Rituals of death, the myth of art, and the circulation through the underground rivers of drugs, sex, and guns delivers a look at the convergence of art and human sacrifice. It all starts with a brush, a set of paints, a vision, and the accidental encounters with members of the painter’s childhood in Quebec commune.
The forces that shaped Raphael’s life are powerful enough to draw into their orbit Calvino, Pratt, McPhail, and Ratana who seek to reconcile his artistic vision, underworld connections, and parade of sex worker models with his death.
Crackdown, the previous Calvino novel before Jumpers, came out eighteen months ago. For a series of crime novels, that is a long time between books. With each of the Calvino novels, I’ve sought to capture the zeitgeist of Thailand. I hope that Jumpers will take its place alongside the other books in the series as a record of human struggle where the idea that while the end is always known, the actual date of the end remains a mystery.
The Impatient Artist – An Interview and Sitting between Christopher G. Moore and Peter Klashorst
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