Thailand Footprint: People, Things, Literature, Music and Henry Miller too. Forget Yourself Here

Posts by Kevin Cummings

Are you a fan of GG Allin? Are you more likely to read Mike Fook than John Burdett or Lawrence Osborne? Do you remember how Chris Rock understood O.J. and empathized with the Juice? Does your comedic sense of timing go more to Sam Kinison than Bill Cosby? If you answered yes to any of these questions, Dead Bangkok – A Novel of Thailand by J.D. Villines may be the apocalyptic Zombie flesh eating ghost thriller that you have been waiting for your entire life.

Click the book title to go to the Amazon page for Dead Bangkok

As Zombie thrillers go this is the best one I have ever read. I should qualify that I have never read John Russo’s Night of the Living Dead or The Walking Dead series by Robert Kirkman …. or any other walking dead book ever written for that matter. But, hey, everyone has to start somewhere, and there is no better place for a Thailand Zombie ghost thriller than the corroded razer sharp mind of J.D. Villines. His style is not so much like getting a smooth shave as it is watching a hemophiliac try and stop a nose bleed. Villines delivers his prose with the tat tat tat of a Craftsman nail gun bought outside your corner 7/11 store from a perfect stranger.

As our story unfolds an outbreak of brain parasites has turned the living into flesh eating cannibals. Our protagonist, Joel, is a manly man who longs for the days when there were no bills to pay and “A man’s worth would be measured by how well he could swing a machete.” He gets his wish and then some. There are Conan poses to be made and at least one war cry to whoop. Along the way he also gets to throw some grenades, expensive Molotov cocktails, and one well hardened turd of his own meditative making.

Nok is Joel’s Thai girlfriend who is along for the adventure and their relationship is a joy to read about as the expat from California tightropes that fine line between love and hate, talking his Tarzan Thai and making his Tarzan love. The reader can tell Joel does care about Nok, despite his homicidal tendencies. “I had wanted to kill many people in Los Angeles, for no other reason other than that they irritated me.” Of course who hasn’t had the following thought going on in Joel’s drug fueled synapses if you have ever been in a relationship of any length, “My mind was flooded with thoughts on how to kill her.” At one point Joel offers Nok some kind advice, “Honey, if something bad happens; kill yourself okay?”

Joel notices that the best defense against Zombiehood is to be in a perpetual state of drug and/or alcohol intoxication. This explains the pockets of life existing in Bangkok amidst the parasite carrying flesh eaters. It also supports why his new best friend, Vato, a drug dealer has survived although not exactly thrived. Joel is the sharpest crayon in this colorful box of Crayolas. Before the threesome head to Pattaya, (another pocket of the living hung over) they meet up with a lady boy named Esmerelda who has a Paris Hilton transplanted face. She becomes the equivalent of the black guy in a 1970s action movie. We know when the face starts to rot if anyone is going to die next it will probably be Paris Redux. She was fun while she lasted.

When Joel and Vato see a fat woman in big underwear Joel thinks her bra will make the perfect slingshot to be used for humanitarian efforts among the parasite afflicted who have unwisely practiced sobriety. It’s a scene I would love to see on the big screen some day, including the attempt at a double leg take down. It turns out, “Fat bitch is a pro wrestler.” And we haven’t even gotten to Pattaya yet.

The action really picks up once they reach the family town by the sea. Some of it I quite liked such as the frequent shadowy ghosts, some of it a bit too scatological and Japanese for me. Give me Linda Blair and some green projectile vomit. I’m a simple man.  Maybe this whole Zombie worm flesh eating genre is an acquired taste, like Vegemite. There’s a paranormal government study sub-plot involving a mind altering toupee that also adds to the fun. As another reviewer noted, we could have used more of the Joel / Nok banter, tension and confusion as the writing and humor consistently shined in that arena.

What I absolutely loved about Dead Bangkok – A Novel of Thailand , in addition to the ending, is the author uses his considerable imagination to the max and only sprinkles in his knowledge and understanding of Thailand when it adds to the story. As it did frequently with his Thai ghost references. This is a well written tale for fans of the genre. And even if you are not the brisk pace, macabre humor, and sheer transparency into the human mind will keep you turning the page. Go for it, one and all.

There is nothing worse for a reading experience than a book that cannot compete with what you did during a memorable summer vacation. That’s not the case here. Thanks to the first time author for the inside look at someone Rick James would have dug hanging out with. Dead Bangkok is a super freaky book; the kind you don’t take home to mother. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

The author, J.D. Villines boxing the shadows in his mind as the owner and instructor at Echo Park Boxing Gym located in Echo Park, California

Born at home on a pile of newspapers on Chicago’s South side, J.D. Villines led a truly remarkable life that involved freezing temperatures, reading stacks of books, and accompanying his grandfather to neighborhood bars to play Donkey Kong. He survived Catholic Schooling, and vowed that if he lived long enough, he would move to a warmer climate. 41 years later, he is finally living the dream.

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Photographic evidence that Collin Piprell (center) dies his beard grey. During his Canadian mining days

KC: You’ve seen it all and done it all. On land, sea, and air. An elephant tracker, a miner, a scuba diver, and paraglider.

CP: Although I have followed elephant tracks, I’d hesitate to call myself an elephant tracker.

KC: Anyway, I’d rather hear about the dangers of being a traditionally published author in the 21st Century. You’ve got a new book out. Tell us about MOM. I hear it’s the first in a trilogy.

CP: Actually it’s no longer a trilogy – we’re now describing it as a series.
MOM kicks off around AD 2057. Feral self-replicating nanobots have very nearly brought about the extinction of the entire biosphere, including the human race, and the last two refuges – Eastern Seaboard USA Mall and Eastern Seaboard SE Asia Mall – are under siege.
Behind the story of how a few humans manage to survive the PlagueBot, we find another story: a war between the machine MOM and the human MOM she superseded, a 113-year-old who remains invisible to her in a hideout concealed in part by selectively blinding her with bugs he left in her operating system before she came to self-consciousness. So the machine MOM covertly recruits our heroes to help her home in on her human foe.
And behind that thread there’s yet another tale, one that unfolds more clearly in the second and third novels to come – i.e. the emergence of novel evolutionary developments of a significance comparable to the emergences of life, perception and motility, and the subsequent rises of intelligence, language use, culture, artificial intelligence and generated realities.
Ironically enough, the PlagueBot – the global superorganism that arose from the new grey-goo scenario – itself becomes one element of the basis for a human renaissance within a renewed, though radically different kind of biosphere.
That may sound way too stodgy. In fact MOM presents a lively, even funny, read that focuses on dramatic conflicts between our motley cast of characters. Or so I claim here. For one thing the book presents a story of elaborate revenge; here’s a teaser, something from Leary, one of the characters (see below):
“The Inuit, what we used to call Eskimos, they had a trick. An early kind of trojan. They’d bend a piece of sharpened whalebone over, wrap it in blubber, tie it up tight with something and freeze it. Then they’d take the string off the bait and leave this nice surprise lying around for a polar bear to find. The bear would see it, hardly believing its good luck, and wolf it right down. The blubber would thaw out way down there inside his gut and the whalebone would spring open. After a while the bear would bleed to death, or at least slow down enough the Inuit hunters could catch up and kill him some other way.”

KC: I don’t normally lose my appetite so early in an interview.  What’s the upside (if there is one) and the down side to the digital age we live in for writers in particular and the human race, such as it is?

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CP: The internet and 24/7 connectivity by way of our gadgetry can give us a godlike feeling that we’re parked at the hub of the universe with all that is right there at our fingertips. If you’re a working freelancer, for example, you can’t understand how anyone ever got along without it.
But our machines are fast learning how to do much of what has traditionally been reserved to humans. Already there are programs that churn out routine journalistic pieces and company reports and so on, a development that can leave us wordsmiths feeling less godlike.
Here’s something I blogged for fun a year or two ago, but I believe the real McCoy lies just around the corner: “Mickey’s Muse: Henry Ford for Writers.” I even had a couple of queries regarding where you could find the app. Before long that won’t seem so funny.
And there’s another downside to our enthusiasm for digital gadgets and the internet. We’re steadily outsourcing what we’ve always thought were essentially human capacities, and it’s quite likely we won’t recover some of them. Again, I’ve blogged on this issue, for example with “Outsource our minds? What a good idea!”
Of course there are also all the distractions. Many a professional writer has suggested, at least in so many words, that nobody can write a book on a computer that’s connected to the internet.

spring day darkening:
the locust digital swarm
eats my absent mind

KC: Do you have a routine? 

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CP: Wish I could say I did. I believe that straight out of bed to the writing in the morning is the best way to go. For sure go nowhere near the internet till you’ve spewed some hours of words. But given my basically undisciplined nature plus too many other commitments at any given time, I write when I can. Sometimes that’s straight out of bed, but not often enough.

KC: You once wrote a lot while you were at sea. Tell me about that experience. Were there distractions or was it pure bliss?

CP: I once worked some fragments up into a complete novel in draft during nine weeks on a derelict yacht between Israel and Thailand. I did it against all odds, against my own belief it wouldn’t be possible.
I really enjoyed the experience, but I wouldn’t describe it as bliss. I was doing odd jobs and standing watches all the while, and after a work crew in Cyprus stripped some cabins, mine for example, so they could patch a bunch of holes in the steel hull, I had nowhere to call my own to work or sleep. My nomadic approach to both sleeping and writing was complicated by the fact the rest of the pick-up crew were doing the same (aside from the writing, that is) and, by the time we hit the Red Sea, the temperatures were ranging to around 500 C and rather higher in the engine room. Nothing worked – not the air-con, not the fans, only the twin Gardner diesels, a pump or two and my laptop.
But yes, I find I work well on boats. The in-between times are ideal for gazing at the sea, which puts me in a fine semi-meditative frame of mind.

KC: Tell us about your body of work to date.

CP: DK Books published my first book, Bangkok Knights, way back when I was still teaching (mostly writing) at Thammasat University. A British doctor who used to live here in Bangkok recommended the ms. to Khun Suk, the owner of a chain of bookstores and a publishing house. Later DK also published Kicking Dogs, a novel. Both of those books were later picked up by bookSiam and then by Asia Books, who also encouraged me to write Yawn: A Thriller, which they eventually published as well.

Sometime around the time I came up with Kicking Dogs I left the university to make a go of it as a freelance magazine writer and editor. And during that period Post Publications brought out Bangkok Old Hand, a collection of mostly humorous pieces that had appeared in the Sunday Bangkok Post and various other local publications. I also did a book on coral reef natural history and conservation with the underwater photographer Ashley J. Boyd for White Lotus Press, as well as a collection of diving stories for Artesia Press and a diving guide to Thailand for Times Editions (now Marshall Cavendish, Singapore) and Hippocrene in the USA. I co-authored a book on Thailand’s national parks with Denis Gray and Mark Graham (IFPC, Bangkok); I did part of the introduction and all the marine national parks.
But most of my income was from magazine work.

KC: Where do the plots for your books come from?

CP: My stories generally emerge from hard dint of bashing my head against draft passages, dialogue, settings, whatever, till the structure and the point of it all finally appears. For me (and, I’d argue, for most writers) the writing activity is typically a conversation with the page, a process wherein the text evolves in the back-and-forth give-and-take of proposition and critique, experiment and revision. Or so I say.
To perform this trick successfully, I’d further claim, you have to wear two hats: that of the writer/editor and that of the reader/editor.

Two Hats Are Better Than One

You don one hat and then the other, role-playing on some level – switching back and forth and back and forth as the prose passage develops. The writer proposes a word, a phrase, a sentence, a paragraph. At each step, the writer swaps between the standpoint of the writer – proposing – and the reader or editor – critiquing. At each step of the way, the writer proposes a change and the editor – the same person, wearing a different hat – either accedes or doesn’t. And so on. In principle, this applies to virtually any written text. Even a shopping list, as we see in “Story: A conversation with the page.”

KC: To write one must read or so I have read. What have you read recently that impressed you and what disappointed you?

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CP: I think you do have to enjoy reading if you want to write successfully.
Like a lot of people these days, however, I find my attention becomes torn in too many directions – we suffer from a surfeit of choice. I read too much and too eclectically online; I have digital magazine subscriptions and digital books on three different devices; I’ve got paper books stacked on all sides, some of them unread, some half-read, some awaiting a re-reading. This isn’t the way to do things. It’s overwhelming. Sometimes my default position is to read nothing at all, only sit there and reflect on how much I think I have to read and how little time there is.
Recent fiction? Someone gave me a copy of Six Four, by Hideo Yokoyama, a best-selling mystery now in translation. I enjoyed it, but I suspect you have to be Japanese to properly appreciate its 650 pages; not being familiar with the subtleties of relative status in the social hierarchy and so on I tended to get impatient and skim some of it. I’ve read Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Tetralogy (Sara gave them to me.) Very good reads. And a bunch of other stuff.
I should say Thailand has a vibrant gang of English-language novelists. I’d like to mention some of them here, but I fear slighting all the others I haven’t had time to read. Maybe on another occasion.
The following – both reading for pleasure and theme reading for the Magic Circles series – are among the non-fiction books in progress: Stuart Kauffman, At Home in the Universe: The Search for the Laws of Self-Organization and Complexity (some years ago I read Kauffman’s Re-inventing the Sacred: A New View of Science, Reason, and Religion, and found it compelling, if sometimes difficult reading). In a similar vein, I’m reading Terrence W. Deacon, Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter. I’ve also recently read Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees and Hold Still, Sally Mann’s memoir with photos.

KC: Why do you write? 

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CP: As I said in my interview with the publishers, it was mostly to annoy my father, who wanted me to be an engineer. But it’s really because of all the groupies and stuff.

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KC: When did you first consider yourself a writer? Put another way, when did the whole groupie thing come together? 

CP: I remember clearly one particular morning, just after DK Books published Kicking Dogs – that was some time after they’d already brought out Bangkok Knights – and I was getting enough requests for articles and things that I’d quit the university job to freelance full time. I woke up in my old shophouse in Bangkok, mentally reviewed the day’s schedule and thought, “Holy cow. I’m a writer! I really am.” And what a great feeling that was. Until that moment this notion had always been a never-never kind of thing – nice to contemplate, but maybe only true in another life.

KC: Who were your mentors?

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CP: In part they were writers I enjoyed reading when I was younger. I’d always been a voracious reader, but by my teens I tended to favor novels such as The Lost Weekend, where the heroes were really anti-heroes, creatures of dubious character bound to come to grief. So I enthusiastically adopted that persona for many years before I ever wrote anything commercial.
When I was a kid, my father built me a bed with bookshelves for a headboard. Some of the titles I recall, favorites I read again and again, included Tom SawyerHuckleberry FinnPenrodA Child’s History of the WorldA Child’s Geography of the World, a couple of books by archaeologists, including Mortimer Wheeler’s Archaeology from the Earth, some fat hardback with B&W photos of Petra, a field guide to the denizens of pond water (my folks had bought me a microscope, a good one), and more. An account of some paleontologist’s expeditions in the Gobi Desert.
Many years later, when I was still in my twenties, I returned to my parent’s home to find that my middle brother had appropriated all my favorite fiction, and now called these books his favorites. A few of them come to mind: J.P. Donleavy’s The Ginger Man and The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B.; Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita; a couple of P.G. Wodehouse novels; stories by James Thurber; stories by Damon Runyon; and lots more, many of them world classics, though itemizing these would feel pretentious. Plus I was probably too young and parochial for them, and tended to speed through everything from Tolstoy to the back of the cornflakes box as little more than pleasant diversions.
Among readers I especially admire now, in no particular order, I’d name Flann O’Brien, Cormac McCarthy, David Foster Wallace, V.S. Naipaul, Neal Stephenson and Margaret Atwood. There are plenty of others, but those will have to do for now. How much have they influenced my own writing? I couldn’t say.

KC: What inspired you to write MOM? When did you first know you had a series on your hands?

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CP: Having read about the “grey goo scenario” – where almost overnight self-replicating nanobots turn the planetary surface into nothing but more of themselves – I found myself trying to imagine how anyone or anything could ever survive such a disaster. Plus I’d encountered intriguing notions related to nanotechnology, quantum computing, artificial intelligence, virtual realities, theories of complexity and novel emergencies. As though against my will – I’d never thought of writing a science-fiction novel – characters and settings began to emerge in my mind and I wrote some stuff.
Wisely enough, I then relegated this stuff to a bottom drawer and went back to other writing projects. One of these I showed to a good friend who hated it; he asked me whether I didn’t have anything else to show him. So I dug out some chapters of what was to become MOM, and he claimed that this was what I should be doing. I didn’t really believe him but, what with one thing and another, including his offer to let me use his lakeside cabin in the mountains of Japan for a solitary writer’s retreat from all the chaos of my life in Bangkok, I went back to MOM with a will. And here we are today.
I knew I had a series on my hands the moment I wrote MOM’s concluding chapters. They pretty well demanded I discover what happened next.

KC: Would you say MOM is character driven or setting driven? Tell me more about the motley cast you have created.

CP: I think MOM is character driven. But the settings – the generated realities and the PlagueBot-ravaged surface of the earth – are also important. Especially later in the series, when we could say the planet’s surface itself takes a role in developments. Here’s an outline cast of characters:
MOM is the mall operations manager, a machine intelligence recently come to self-awareness.
The PlagueBot is a global superorganism. It is emerging from a failed grey-goo scenario, where feral self-replicating nanobots consumed nearly all of the biosphere, including humankind and its works.
Cisco Smith is a 22-year-old Worlds UnLtd test pilot. His best friend is Dee Zu, the only other surviving test pilot in the Eastern Seaboard, United Securistats of America (ESUSA) Mall. Dee Zu is also his lover. His main lover.
Sky is his other lover. What to say about her? Sky is Sky. You’ll have to read the book.
Leary, a 113-year-old baby boomer, is the last surviving inhabitant of the Eastern Seaboard SE Asia (ESSEA) mall, and a father figure to Cisco. He’s also an old drinking buddy, from Bangkok days, of Brian Finister.
Brian was sometimes known in the old days as Brian the Evil Canadian. Before he was put out to pasture by his machine successor, he was the last human mall operations manager.
Ellie, yet another Boomer relic, was Leary’s wife and long the object of Brian’s unrequited lust. Before Brian drove her to suicide.
Sweetie, a demented former psychiatrist once involved in US military intelligence, is Brian’s longtime consort.
Sissie is Cisco’s troubled adolescent sister of whom there’s no record in MOM’s databanks.
Joy Sequoia Bean, Smoke, Rexy, Toot, Rabbit and Muggs are other members of the cast, more or less important at any given point to the story’s unfolding.

KC: What are the challenges that writing a science fiction novel poses that, say, a crime fiction novel doesn’t have?

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CP:  I can’t say. I’ve never really written a crime fiction novel. I suppose some would describe Kicking Dogs that way, but I think of it simply as a comic thriller where Jack Shackaway, the hero, is suffering a massive case of culture shock he systematically refuses to acknowledge even when his Thai girlfriend keeps telling him he’s a babe in the woods and any minute now he’s going to get himself killed.

Kicking Dogs

Maybe writing a science-fiction novel has this advantage over writing stories set in situations people are prone to calling “the real world”: nobody can say my settings lack verisimilitude. These worlds are of my own creation, and they are exactly what I say they are.
There. That was my moment where I was God. In fact, if they’re to work, these alternate worlds require just as much attention to detail as the “real world” settings do. And part of the appeal of the MOM species of science fiction is that readers need to consistently sense its very real relationship to the world we inhabit now.

ISBN-13: 978-0995072961
ISBN-10: 0995072965

Click the Book Cover to go to the Amazon USA web page – Amazon Pre-orders of MOM for April 5th delivery

KC: How has the experience of telling someone you are a writer changed from the 20th Century to the 21st Century, if it has? 

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CP: One change is that these days it has to seem less world-shaking to recognize yourself as a writer, given this syndrome seems to have become pandemic. (Let it be recorded that, at this juncture, the interviewee grinned.)

Collin Piprell, grinning. Sort of.

To learn more about Collin Piprell and his books go to his blog, Collin Piprell, in reality at www.collinpiprell.com

The Epub version of MOM is available now if you wish to support small publishing houses in an Amazon age, at Common Deer Press

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“We judge time by technology. We judge information by the date of the technology. Time is an exact messenger. I’ve decided to be a typewriter fundamentalist. I don’t change with the times. You don’t hear much about us, but of course you wouldn’t. We’re not online or in a chat room. But we know we are out there.”

“You won’t last. You’ll be back on the computer before the day is over.”

Crackdown, Chapter 25 by Christopher G. Moore

Recently I read two newspaper articles regarding technology that gave me pause. Of course they weren’t actually read on paper; they were read online. I don’t buy or read many actual newspapers nowadays. A sign of the technological times.

The articles are:

Why We Can’t Look Away From Our Screens written in the New York Times on March 6th, 2017 and

Subtle and Insidious – Technology is Designed to Addict Us written in the Washington Post on March 2nd, 2017

I recommend both.

The concluding lines in the New York Times article made me seek out the Crackdown passage above. It’s where Vinny ditches his smart phone and goes for Sam Spade office decor.

All good literature stays with us in one way or another and it can be triggered months or years later. It’s what separates the good novel from the forgettable ones. The New York Times suggests that, “There should be times of the day where it looks like the 1950s or where you are sitting in a room and you can’t tell what era you are in.”

The article also reminds us that finding time to be in natural environments is a good priority to have. For those of us lucky enough to be living in Thailand those times and places present themselves in various spots. One need only seek them out.

Anyway, that’s it. A short blog post. The New York Times and  The Washington Post offer up some good advice. As does Vincent Calvino.

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henry-miller-in-greece

“When you’re right with yourself it doesn’t matter which flag is flying over your head or who owns what or whether you speak English or Monongahela. The absence of newspapers, the absence of news about what men are doing in different parts of the world to make life more livable or unlivable is the greatest single boon. If we could just eliminate newspapers a great advance would be made, I am sure of it. Newspapers engender lies, hatred, greed, envy, suspicion, fear, malice. We don’t need the truth as it is dished up to us in the daily papers. We need peace and solitude and idleness. If we could all go on strike and honestly disavow all interest in what our neighbor is doing we might get a new lease on life. We might learn to do without telephones and radios and newspapers, without machines of any kind, without factories, without mills, without mines, without explosives, without battleships, without politicians, without lawyers, without canned goods, without gadgets, without razor blades even or cellophane or cigarettes or money. This is a pipe dream, I know.”
Henry Miller, The Colossus of Maroussi

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A little over two weeks ago I got a text message from the effervescent proprietor of Checkinn99, Chris Catto-Smith asking me if an upcoming Friday Fight Night to be held at the Ambassador Hotel would be of interest to me. It was. I wrote him back, “Yea, I’m working on inviting some people. I’ll get back to you.” Those people included the professional photographer Eric Nelson, whose photos you will see throughout this blog post and Melissa Ray, the three time Muay Ying Champion who is written about extensively in my book Bangkok Beat. Eric and I had taken two trips to Eminent Air Boxing Gym to do an interview and profile on Melissa as well as some of the other Muay Thais and the thought was it would be a good excuse for another reunion. Melissa couldn’t make it that night, due to a previous engagement, but Eric and I joined Chris and a group at ringside, including Sam from Australia and Emily from New Zealand for what would prove to be a most memorable evening.

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Eric Nelson Photography

If I may indulge you with my own limited pugilistic tale before getting back to the ring in Thailand. In 1964 I was a member of The Boys Club of America in Long Beach, California. Not The Boys and Girls Club of America, just The Boys Club. As Frank Zappa said, “Without deviation from the norm, progress is not possible.” The Boys Club was the norm in those days and at this particular club, which had all the accouterments one would expect for such a facility including outdoor basketball courts, it also had, smack in the middle of the center, a boxing ring. It was the norm to settle any disputes that arose between two boys, and disputes occurred frequently among those boys, by putting the gloves on and having them sort it out in the ring. An imperfect system to be sure and I never recall signing any waiver of liability forms or parent permission slips back then. After my one bout wearing the over-sized red gloves and no head gear, win, lose or draw I cannot recall it has been so long ago, my behavior improved. Put another way, given the choice between shooting hoops outside, playing ping pong, banking in the 8 ball or taking blows to the face as a 10 year old I made a judgement call that day.

Thai children, of course, come from a different culture and make different judgments. They are put on a path at an early age to get in the ring, repeatedly, particularly if they have few other options to bring honor and funds to the family. I spoke with a Muay Thai fighter in Florida once who had over 100 professional victories and many losses too. He began training and fighting seriously at age 8. Muay Thai is as important to Thai culture as bull fighting is to parts of Spanish culture and both have their controversies, just as American football does.

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Photo by Eric Nelson

For the evening of Friday, February 3rd there was a four event under card and two main events. The match I enjoyed the most pitted Muhammad Iffat vs. Bowkow O. Junubon. (Below) Whether it was because these two fighters were of lighter weight or because it went all five rounds I am not sure, but their technical mastery of their art was apparent and that made it more enjoyable to watch.

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The complete results for the evening were as follows:

ProFlex Fight Night by Ambassador Results:

Main Event: Mohd Azizi vs. Sansab Manoprungrod (W) – Decision After 5 Rounds

Co-main Event: Azwan Che vs. Henry Lee (W) – TKO – Elbow Round 2

frenchfighter

Undercard:

Mat Pitjean (W) vs. Nhupchai Sor Sankumlung – KO – Kick to Face Round 1

Muhammad Iffat vs. Bowkow O. Junubon (W) – Decision After 5 Rounds

Decha “Jack” Kotiegym (W) vs. Saifah Sor Bangyai – TKO – Did not Answer Bell 3:00 Round 2

Rafael Flemming (W) vs. Konstantine Zap – Decision After 3 Round

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Winner Mat Pitjean from France by First Round Knockout

As Joel Villinis, the owner and instructor of Echo Park Boxing in Southern California advises, “Never block with your face.” Joel has been a frequent visitor to Thailand and trains in the martial arts including Muay Thai. The bloody TKO by Henry Lee with an elbow to the face and the first round knock out by Mat Pitjean from France using his foot as a weapon are a reminder that as Mike Tyson said, “Everyone has a plan ’til they get punched in the mouth.”

muaythaibw

Eric Nelson Photography

The previous Muay Thai event I attended was at the Channel 7 Arena in Bangkok and it was an entirely different spectacle, complete with gambling and meant for a mainly Thai audience. What the Ambassador Hotel has done in conjunction with Proflex Fight Night and a group of congenial bar owners is create a western friendly environment that showcases talented fighters at a cost that is reasonable for spectators and fans of martial arts. It was notable that a good 20%+ of the audience was female that night, including members of Music of the Heart Band, Donna, Cherry, Grace and April who gave a knockout performance of the song known from the Rocky movies, The Eye of the Tiger. Well done ladies, particularly Donna on that number.

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Left to Right: April, Grace, Donna, Cherry of Music of the Heart Band

Last Friday the Ambassador Hotel held a Mixed Martial Arts fight card and once again Music of the Heart Band was on hand. If you are a fan of the martial arts and are in Bangkok or have been reluctant to deal with the crowds and ticket prices at Lumpini Stadium this is a perfect venue to check out as part of your Friday night activities. The next scheduled Proflex Fight Night at the Ambassador Hotel is March 3, 2017. Go to this LINK for more details about this and future events. Thanks again to Eric Nelson for taking the great photographs and to Chris Catto-Smith for being Chris Catto-Smith. proflex-fight-night

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Kevin Wood is a talented man. I first met him at Checkinn99 four years ago. I got to know him a little bit during a rehearsal for a live performance he was directing and starring in for the The Rocky Horror Show. As he admits in this lengthy interview he is not one for small talk. So we went for big. Mr Wood has been involved in the music business for over five decades and he has lived to tell some of that tale here today. It is my pleasure to interview Kevin Wood, finally, at Thailand Footprint. We discuss the music business, introversion and extroversion, writing, audiences, the idiocy of smart phones, and cockroach infested domiciles among other things:

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Photo of Kevin Wood by Alasdair McLeod

KC: Hunter S. Thompson famously said, “The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There’s also a negative side.” I want to get to the negative side, but not yet. Tell me about your career highlights in the music business from the time you were just a frisky kitten to recent times when the whiskers turned a whiter shade of pale.

K Wood: The music business is indeed cruel and unforgiving and you have to be strong and know how to keep a smile on your face when you’re hungry, broke, living in cockroach infested accommodation and the only thing to keep you going is an attentive audience and the sound of their applause… of course this is also why alcohol and other mind altering substances often come into play. It’s a roller-coaster ride with lots of lows and some tremendous highs.

As you said, we can get to the low points later. As for the highs, well, I’ve had quite a few in my 50 years in the business but some in particular stand out.

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Kevin Wood as a young lad, guitar in hand

The first time was when I was just 17 years old. I was playing in a group called the Gripping Effect; they were considered the best band in our local community and I was elated just to get the job as the lead singer. We played Soul music, Otis Redding, Wilson Picket, Sam and Dave, the Temptations etc. We got ourselves an agent and played regular weekends but the highlight came when we were booked to do, (what we considered a big event at the time) an outdoor gig in a marquee that held 300 people. The only problem being that the star attraction was a famous Trad Jazz musician called Humphrey Littleton so, being a young Soul group, we felt like sacrificial lambs to the slaughter but by the end of our set the house erupted and we were encouraged to do an encore and again the audience screamed for more. By the end of our third encore Humphrey Littleton’s manager had pushed passed my crying mother and my beaming girlfriend and was verbally attacking my father; who he thought was our manager, and telling him, in no uncertain terms, to get his bloody group off the stage and make way for the star. Whilst this went on the audience screamed for more so we obliged with our 4th encore but by the end of that we had to stop as HL’s manager was yelling at us and threatening to physically pull us off the stage. But if that in itself wasn’t a tremendous high for 4 teenagers relatively new to the business we then spent the next hour signing autographs and also took great pleasure in noting that HL’s performance got a lukewarm reception.

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Kevin Wood paying tribute to one of his few idols, David Bowie

More highlights followed but the next big one was to last 4 years. In the late 70s I was lead singer with a group that had been doing very well for some time and though at first we declined the offer to become the backing band for the ex-60s pop star Wayne Fontana we finally succumbed to the offer of more money, bigger gigs and better opportunities. Over the next 4 years we played almost all the biggest concert halls in the UK including the Hammersmith Odeon in London, Glasgow Apollo, Brighton Dome and many more, as well as touring Germany where Wayne was still considered a big star and consequently we were treated royally. We became stars overnight taken to the best places where everything was free and when I say everything I mean… everything. But for me one of the great joys at the time was getting to work and become friends with many of the big stars whose photographs I’d had plastered all over my bedroom walls when I was kid.

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Kevin Wood behind front man Wayne Fontana

In the mid-80s I was working in Singapore with my English band when my keyboard player and I were approached by a local Chinese/Singaporean drummer to form a band which would include a Filipino female singer and 2 Malay/Singaporean musicians making it the first Eurasian band in Singapore. We accepted the job and almost from the start we became very successful and were voted best group of that year in Singapore (1985). We got a great deal of press, worked on TV and radio and I couldn’t go to the local shop without having to sign an autograph or two on the way, but the biggest moment came when we played the open air Police Academy Concert.

We arrived early for the sound check and noted that only a couple of hundred people were scattered around the enormous grounds so we adjourned to the dressing rooms to relax and have a beer thinking the event was going to fall flat, only to find that by the time we went on to do our show a few more people had arrived… 55 thousand to be exact. When I saw the crowd my legs turned to stone and the only way I managed to climb the stairs to the stage was because my mind was completely focused on trying not to throw up and soil my pants at the same time, but the audience were with us from the first few chords.

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Kevin Wood (in the dark pants) in front of 55,000 adoring fans

I can tell you in all honesty there is nothing better than holding an audience in the palm of your hand; it’s even better than the best sex you could have. But what made it even better was making the front page of the Straits Times the next day; just me in the corner of the picture with my arm raised in a fisted salute and 55 thousand people doing exactly the same.

There have been quite a few highlights since then, such as singing with Bangkok’s 72 piece National Symphony Orchestra, or singing My Girl with the Temptations but I think I’ve blown my own trumpet long enough.

KC: Let’s talk psychology. It’s one of many licenses I don’t have so why not? Specifically introversion and extroversion. How do these two traits play a role in your performances, and in your preparation as a musical artist? Put another way, how do you use introversion and extroversion in your art and in your life to your benefit?

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Kevin Wood: part introvert – part extrovert

 

K Wood: Difficult question… I suffered a childhood trauma when I was 6 years old that made it very difficult for me and although I wanted to be the center of attention (like most kids) I tended to keep to myself just to stay out of harm’s way, this made me an introvert who enjoyed his own company. Then when I was 12 years old The Beatles hit the music scene and I burst out of my shell with a vengeance, only I actually had to learn how to be an extrovert, but once I got the hang of it I enjoyed it, so over the years I’ve developed a kind of Jekyll and Hyde personality but these personalities are both very real and very me… I think.

As a singer I think it’s important to do the music you like best because, as with everything, what you like to do best is usually what you do best but I think of myself as an entertainer first.

An example of the two opposing traits is; when I was younger I had my own back stage mantra; the introvert in me was a nervous wreck who desperately wanted to crawl back under his isolated rock, so to force out the extrovert I would repeat to myself, “the audience is a multi-headed monster and you have to go out there and kill it or, sure as hell, it will kill you.” So once I’d psyched myself up I’d go out there guns blazing and taking no prisoners… except maybe the cute chick with the low cut top and cheeky grin.

As a writer there have been various reasons for writing my books but an audience was always there, to a lesser or larger degree, I see no joy in doing it if you can’t share the joy with other people.

Art on the other hand, for me, can’t be anything else but introverted, yes I want other people to like my work but art has to be introverted or you’re lying to yourself and the public.

KC: Sticking with personalities, can you describe the various types of audiences you have had in your five decades in show business?

K Wood: Well, it would be easier to describe the kind of audiences I haven’t had.

Apart from doing my party piece for mum and gran I guess my first audience was in our carriage for some neighborhood friends. My older brother acted as my manager and tried to extort money for my performance. I sang Emile Fords ‘What do you wanna make those eyes at me for’ acapella, which resulted in a swift mass exodus of said friends and I think my cat attempted suicide because it couldn’t get out… I was 9 years old at the time. Since then I’ve played to almost every kind of audience there is, including, some of the more notable; the Queens Guards in London, patients and nurses of a Mental Asylum near Manchester, Strangways Prison in Manchester, British soldiers stationed at Bergen-Belson (formerly a Nazi concentration camp) in Germany, and several members of the Thai Royal Family.

I’ve performed to very large audiences in football stadiums and concert halls and I’ve performed to as little as 2 people in a small club but, as they say, size doesn’t matter. In fact some of the best shows I feel I’ve done have been to an intimate crowd in a small club. Queen Bee in Sukhumvit 26 is a fine example, performing with a couple of musicians whom I like and respect (Ted Lewand and John Branton) to regular customers who pay attention and get involved in the performance and allow and encourage us to be adventurous and go off the rails; that’s a blast. On the other hand the worst audience I ever performed to was Strangways Prison; the audience paid us no attention at all and we were a very visual and excitingly insane rock/pop band that incorporated many stage changes and pyrotechnics. To cut a long story short we could have all committed ritual hara-kiri on stage and the only reaction we would have got would have been from an angry janitor who had to clean up the blood afterwards.

Nowadays the cell phone is the curse of all musicians; there’s nothing worse than performing to a bunch of ignorant, zombiefied, people who neither know nor care if you are even there; I simply can’t get my head round it, why would anyone go to a live music bar with their friends, then all of them spend the evening staring at their phones?

KC: How important is the audience to the performance? Can you perform well to a bad audience and conversely can you bomb in front of a great audience? 

K Wood: To me audiences are extremely important, it’s a two way street, it’s like making love; you give the best you can give and if they do the same it’s gonna be a great night, but if they don’t, well, you might as well stay home and play with yourself.

For me applause and reaction spell satisfaction. A great audience usually makes for a great night even if I’m off form but there have been times when things have gone badly wrong; usually equipment failures, vocal problems, the bass player being fall down drunk, the girl singer has just broken up with her boyfriend who, as usual, is a member of the same band.

The trick for me of doing a good gig in front of a bad audience is just to let it go and have fun with the guys in the band. Of course sometimes that’s not easy because you don’t like the guys in the band, because the bass player is fall down drunk, the girl singer…

KC: In addition to being a singer and musical performer you’ve also written a number of books and you are a visual artist as well. Tell me about these art forms. What do you get out of them that you don’t get out of singing and performing in front of an audience?

K Wood: As a singer/entertainer I enjoy making people happy, making them laugh and even making them cry; for all the right reasons of course, but it’s a sequence of passing moments and all the things you do in those moments flash by ‘warts and all’ they can’t be changed, you can’t say, “damn that was bad, or good, let’s do it again”… it’s gone. This is why I prefer to write E-mails rather than speak on the phone. The same applies to my writing and my art; I can do it again, I can trash it if  I think it’s bad and I can keep it if I think it’s good.

KC: What books are you most proud of? 

K Wood: I wrote my first book, Onist specifically for my children because I believed it was important for them to know about my upbringing and about their descendants. I re-wrote it 5 times over a period of 12 years till I was happy with it… or maybe just sick of rewriting it; at Art College I was taught that art is never finished, you just have to know when to stop and move on.

My second book, Opium Sparrows was about my personal experiences living in Bangkok and working as a singer, Radio DJ and manager of a live music bar in Patpong. I wrote it as a novel and all the names were changed to protect the innocent (me) but it was a very graphic and true account of what I’d seen and done, you could say it’s my biggest seller but now I look back at it and think it was way too graphic.

I was commissioned to write another book Sin, Singer, Singapore about the music scene back in the 80s in Singapore and my days as a “pop star” there, note the inverted commas; the jury is still out on that one.

I had no intention of ever writing a book again, but one day this idea popped into my head and it wouldn’t leave me alone, it wouldn’t let me sleep at night, it kept poking me when I was nodding off and if I did get to sleep it would prowl round my subconscious and then attack me with a big stick yelling, “Write me down or I’ll eat your children” so in an effort to exorcise the demon I wrote The Bougainvillea Bush (basically it’s a love affair between two orphans, a street cat and an ageing, reclusive, disillusioned musician) and, as it turned out, it’s the book I’m most proud of. But I only printed 50 copies so I could give it to loved ones and friends and sell enough to pay for the printing costs. Several people have said it would make a great Disney Movie but I’m way too long in the tooth and short in the pocket to chase that carrot.

KC: I’m too big of a Temptations fan to not ask for the back story of singing My Girl with them. What is it?

K Wood: I went to their concert here in Bangkok (11th May 1993) and in the show they asked for volunteers to get up and sing My Girl with them. The person I went with, knowing I knew the song, insisted I get up and against my better judgment I did.

But there’s an interesting back story to the back story.

When big name artists invite guests onto the stage to sing with them those guests are, more often than not, pre-rehearsed plants in the audience as it was in this case; enter me.

It gets better. After the show I left and went to work at the club I was performing in 3 days a week and some hours later a woman, who was a regular customer and knew me, came racing over to me excitedly and, to cut a long story short, she was in fact the organizer of the Temptations concert. She went on to tell me that when the Temptations had seen me heading for the stage they panicked and told her to stop me but she told them not to worry, that she knew me and that I was a pro.

When I’d finished the song Melvin Franklin (an original Temptation) called out to me and when I turned he gave me the thumbs up and said, “Great man” I said thanks and asked him how he was doing he smiled and gave me thumbs up again.

After the concert they told her to come out and find me and join them at the after show party but I’d already left.

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Kevin Wood on stage with The Temptations

KC: You mentioned Queen Bee and Ted Lewand along with the proprietor and musician John Branton. Tell me what those two friends and colleagues mean to you at this stage of your career?

K Wood: The collaboration between Ted and I wasn’t intentional, in fact we hardly knew each other when we were asked to form the duo, we weren’t even sure we liked each other but were quite sure it wasn’t going to work. Nonetheless we decided to give it a shot and to our mutual surprise it did work and it was a great fun, largely because we didn’t think it would work. It worked so well that at one time we were working 6 days a week until we decided to cut back.

Jump ahead almost four years to Queen Bee and we’re now a three piece duo with John on keyboards and I find myself working with two extremely accomplished musicians. Ted is a music teacher and John was a music examiner; there is almost nothing these guys don’t know about music. Both Ted and John are great guys whom I have a great deal of respect for and fun with.

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Ted Lewand on a typical evening working with Kevin Wood at Queen Bee

Photo by Alasdair McLeod

This is not to say that it’s all hearts and flowers there are times when Ted and I piss each other off, we’re not kindred spirits, we perceive entertainment differently but I guess you could use the old adage that ‘opposites attract’.  We’re often told that we have a chemistry and that what we do is special, we approach our performance as if we’re amongst friends and for the most part Ted, John and I make a great team.

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Ted Lewand, Kevin Wood and John Branton

KC: What do the three of you talk about in the wee small hours of the morning after your gigs?

K Wood: Philosophy, religion, life in general, aches and pains, knife wielding maniacs and sometimes music.

KC: How important is the wind down portion of the evening?

K Wood: For me, usually, it’s the only time I get to socialize with friends and acquaintances and I enjoy it very much, I’m not one for small talk but when the alcohol kicks in people tend to go deeper.

KC: What’s the future of live music, specifically for Bangkok.

K Wood: I think live music is reaching its zenith. Gone are the days when people would go out specifically to watch an unknown band. Nowadays people in general seem to see live performances as background music, but the onus doesn’t lie squarely on the shoulders of the potential customer; club owners deserve some of the responsibility. There was a time when a club was judged on the quality of its performers. Now it’s more a case of, why pay a lot of money for a great show when you can get some relatively decent singer to sing to backing tracks for the price of a couple of beers and a packet of fags, or some wannabes who’ll do it for nothing?

In Bangkok it’s very difficult for musicians because Thai’s love familiarity so any musician who tries to break out of the mold often finds themselves without work, extremely under paid or playing to an empty house. It’s a vicious circle.

KC: Besides Queen Bee what places can you recommend?

K Wood: I don’t go out to other clubs (unless I’m working) it’s a busman’s holiday for me. Even though I haven’t been to the new Check Inn 99 I do know the boss and the Music of the Heart Band who perform there so I can safely say you’ll be in good hands and have a good time there.

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Ted Lewand and Kevin Wood at the Old Checkinn99

Picture Courtesy of Bangkok Beat and Alasdair McLeod 🙂

KC: Thanks, Kev. See you at Queen Bee soon. I want to hear more about those freebies sometime. 

Kevin Wood appears regularly at Queen Bee as does Ted Lewand with his band Saranac. Check the Queen Bee Facebook site for information regarding their live music schedules:

https://www.facebook.com/bkk.queenbee/?fref=ts

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One last picture of Kevin Wood smiling for some reason, with Posh and those other Spice Girls, just because I can.

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Last week I published a long interview with Christopher G. Moore where we discussed a variety of subjects, including his recently released novel, Jumpers. If you missed it you can read that interview hereThis week I review Jumpers.

JUMPERS

A Book Review

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Christopher G. Moore is a master message teller as he crafts his crime tales. Jumpers is #16 in the Calvino series and as a long-time fan I am familiar with the cast of characters: Vincent Calvino, Bangkok P.I. and his cover my back, retired Royal Thai Police General Pratt – not many friends have matching bullet entry wounds for looking after each other. Ratana his loyal secretary, and the cranky and pleasure seeking pal, McPhail. The One Hand Clapping Massage Parlor also makes a cameo appearance or two.

Jumpers features the complex, questionable suicide of Raphael, a young and talented artist who likes to paint the working girls of the Bangkok night. Raphael has a voracious appetite for painting and women with a little Muay Thai on the side. His appearances are a mixture of flashbacks and memories. I liked him better alive than dead but as suicides go he went out in style. Jumpers came across to me as a straight mystery with plenty of components, including a freedom portrait art series that Calvino takes part in, painting forgeries, counterfeit money, Bitcoins, the omnipresent secret notebook that contains incriminating info, a well written Chinese heavy named Sia Lang, and a Hong Kong billionaire who could prove problematic for Calvino.

We learn that, “What an artist looks for is what other people hide.” But it turns out the artist is hiding a great deal himself not the least of which is a cool $750,000, which he has left in his will to the suicide hotline group where he used to volunteer. Calvino, of course, is the executor of the estate. Vincent is more brainy than tough guy these days, more likely to be found cleaning his gun than firing it in junta ruled Bangkok. Pratt, likewise, cannot be found playing the saxophone but he gets in plenty of appropriate Shakespeare quotes, at one point musing that the Bard must have been a Thai in a former life. There is still plenty of action as Calvino manages a good head slam for a TKO in a bar with four sharks swimming in a tank overhead. Justice eventually gets carried out noir style, by the other bad guys and there are plenty of them. But as Calvino concludes, “Dig deep enough down and you will find some good in everyone.” That is certainly true of the philandering Rafael and the many models who drop by to shed their clothes at his busy studio.

There were times when a story board would have been helpful to keep track of the characters and plot points but the author does a good job of tying things up at the end and we find out a recurring question for Vinny that many an expat has asked himself: should I stay or should I go? Moore excels once again at deciphering the culture clash we call Bangkok. While the story is the best since Missing in Rangoon it’s all the message points that make a Moore novel worth the time for me. As when Calvino goes to visit a psychologist and counselor named Gavin who runs the Bangkok Suicide Hotline. It’s like a cerebral shootout at the I’m OK, You’re OK corral.

I like the way Vincent thinks nowadays. Whether he has changed or I have changed I am not sure. As is written late in the book, “In the noir landscape of Bangkok, the default was tragedy; things rarely ended well.” A possible exception is Charlie, a Golden Retriever featured throughout the novel. Charlie loses two owners to suicides in Jumpers, but I see a good future for him, and Vincent Calvino too.

Jumpers is a dense read full of great messages and those messages will be different for each reader. That is Moore’s strength. Jumpers takes you on a personal and cultural journey. It leaves you with as many questions as answers but that is quite alright with me. Dig deep into Jumpers by Christopher G. Moore and you will find plenty of good messages sitting right alongside the default tragedies that find everyone, whether you live your life as a work of art or not.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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