THE WRITING LIFE ... Christopher G. MOORE
SWITCHING FROM TEACHING LAW at the University of British Columbia to writing fiction full-time proved to be a fruitful decision for CHRISTOPHER G. MOORE. The Canadian writer has since garnered international acclaim for his noirish thrillers. Leaving his academic profession and moving to Bangkok, Thailand, to become a novelist, he finds that the city provides much inspiration for his writing. The success of his first book, His Lordship’s Arsenal, has led him to write some 20 other novels, two nonfiction books and a short-story collection. His Vincent Calvino crime novels have often been compared to the works of Graham Greene, another crime novelist.
Moore has lived as an expatriate in Bangkok for almost 20 years, where according to Marilyn Stasio in The New York Times Book Review, he “successfully captures the dizzying contradictions of the vertiginous landscape.” His Bangkok is a steamy, unrelenting city of darkness and light, power and greed, pleasure and sin. And Vincent Calvino, the disbarred American lawyer-turned-private investigator and antihero of Moore’s crime series set in the seething stew that is the modern Thai capital, shares those extremes with the dangerous city whose streets he roams.
In this Q&A, Moore talks about what makes him tick, what influences his way of writing and his views on the Victor Calvino series, among other things.
What first brought you to Thailand, and what made you decide to stay for good?
Fate, karma or blind luck—call it what you like—first brought me to Thailand. In 1983, I set off for Asia. In Thailand I found an ancient culture that was still largely unchanged by the modern world. Upcountry provincial towns and villages were very much untouched by contemporary ideas, material possessions, or the means of communications. I’d time travelled to another century.
There was no point in the first few years living in Thailand that I consciously said, “This is it. I’ve decided to settle in Thailand. I am here for the duration.” I have stayed along for the ride because I was in the right place at the right moment in history. Thailand hooked a ride from the last remains of Conrad’s century to globalization and suddenly change was everywhere. And with vast change over a short period of time, an author finds the best and worst of the human condition, and people and governments try to adjust.
How would you describe Bangkok to someone who has never been there?
Bangkok is vast geographically with over 500 square kilometres and around 11 million people. Chaotic, exotic, crowded, polluted, confusing; a place of radiant smiles and serious revenge, whispered voices and ear shattering music and revved up motorcycles, both fun and sad. The mind-twisting contradictions go on and on: compassion and injustice; thoughtfulness and cruelty; peace and violence; friendliness/xenophobia. Hot/spicy/sweet/sour—like the food. You will never be bored. Living full time in Bangkok is like being reborn into another world, which looks like ours but with different rules, expectations, and perceptions.
Has expatriating changed or influenced your writing approach?
Canadian and American cultures encourage (in theory) immigration, and set aside resources to assimilate the immigrants. They have been built by immigrants. That isn’t true in Asia where immigrant is closer to a dirty word. Most of the time the word “immigrants” is preceded by “illegal.” No matter how long I live in Thailand, I will always be an outsider. A farang. My books reflect that fact. It gives the stories their edge, and reflects the true nature of lives of people who no longer belong to their place of origin and through cultural barriers can never truly belong to the place where they live. Like a lost tribe, they huddle along the margins one day at a time.
With three other well-known expatriate writers—Colin Cotterill, Matt Benyon Rees, and Barbara Nadel—you launched the International Thriller Writers Reality Check blog. What made you decide to team up?
We all share a love of cross-cultural settings, characters, and have lived a significant part of our lives in the countries where we set our books. The “reality check” part of the blog title is important. What unites the four of us is our commitment to portraying the cultural details with accuracy and authenticity. Part of the job of being an author is to give back something more than the books to our readers; some insight into other lives, perspectives, and ways different from our own. Fiction is one of the last places left where there is truth to be found in the way people live in the world. We need to preserve that small space and prevent it from behind littered with falsehoods or wishful thinking.
Publishers Weekly noted you reveal in the Calvino series “the seething stew of wealth, corruption, cultural clashes, poverty and lust that is modern Bangkok.” Where do you find the material for these novels?
By keeping on the move. Circulating among various classes of Thais, the business community, talking with journalists, lawyers, bar owners, drunks, retirees, spooks, petty criminals, gangsters, students, NGOs, making notes, asking questions, and observing the flow of people’s lives. Like Chandler’s Los Angeles, Bangkok is also called the City of Angels, a place where foreigners from all nationalities have washed ashore to find their dream, fortune, or romance. Setting out in search of paradise is the first step to disillusionment. There are a lot of disillusioned paradise seekers stranded in this part of the world.
How was the main character of the series, Vincent Calvino, first developed?
I have four years of living in New York City to thank for the creation of Vincent Calvino. In 1984, when I arrived in New York, I had the chance to ride with the NYPD as a civilian observer. I had a British connection that smoothed the way into the police force. Riding along for many nights in a squad car is one way to understand a city. During this period, I found a number of people who helped me sketch out the character of Vincent Calvino. Half-Italian and half-Jewish, Calvino reflected in my eyes important cultural aspects of New York. He was raised in a cross-cultural household. He is the product of two ethnic backgrounds and faiths, and reconciling those differences inside his own family equipped him with the agility required to live in Thailand.
In Paying Back Jack, current world events are woven into the plot. How much are you influenced by political events in Thailand and abroad?
I’ve lived through a number of coups—the military overthrowing the elected government, and states of emergencies where governments have sought to control the streets. What is going on? How does it happen? What does it mean to ordinary people who live in those countries or to tourists caught in the middle of political turmoil? Readers look for answers to these questions. Part of the reason international crime fiction has become so popular has been the realization that fiction has become a new way to understand the political process in other places.
As in other novels, Calvino relies on his Thai assistant Ratana and his best friend, Colonel Pratchai, in Paying Back Jack. Where did these characters come from? Could Calvino survive in Bangkok without them?
Colonel Pratchai and Ratana are essential to Calvino’s survival and well-being. They are more than just friends. They act as cultural advisers, spiritual guides, and social grace teachers. Both of them provide insight into the Thai way of thinking through a problem. The colonel and Ratana are composites. There is no one person who would fit the attitudes, personality, and quirks of character that define both fictional characters.
Do you have advice for authors looking to delve into new cultures and exotic locations to set their novels?
Learn the language, the culture, and the history of the place. Live among the people. Speak their language. Understand their fears, desires, frustrations, and dreams. Don’t project your own cultural expectations like a lantern on the dark corners. Find bridges that unite people with different backgrounds. Observe how they resolve conflict. How they express their feelings, treat their children, their elderly, and the people locked in prisons, or living in poverty. Then once you’ve done the homework, write from the heart. Always from the heart because that is why a reader will pick up your book and finish it; not because you have a fancy idea or philosophy about life, but that you care enough to understand the ways people love, fight, and die, and are perceptive enough to chart the limitations that the grandest love and ambitions must confront.
Books courtesy of Meredith Kessler of Grove/Atlantic, New York