The Monsoon Ghost Image

Tom Vater Author Interview

Laure Siegel Interviews Tom Vater

You’ve lived in Thailand for fifteen years. Your latest novel, The Monsoon Ghost Image, the third and last part of your Detective Maier series, is largely set in Thailand and this is the first time you have chosen the country as a location for a novel. How would you define your relationship with the country and why did you finally decide to write about Thailand?

I love living in Bangkok. It’s the greatest, most liveable city in Southeast Asia. People are super-friendly and you can get anything you can possibly imagine and quite a lot of stuff you probably can’t. And I’ve been traveling around Thailand extensively for years because I’m the co-author of a German language guidebook to the country which is blessed with incredible natural attractions, decent food, good infrastructure…. And then there’s the mad, convulsive politics… so there’s a phenomenal amount of shadow and light there and it took me some time to be able to see between the extremes. I have written plenty of non-fiction about Thai culture, including the best-selling illustrated book Sacred Skin – Thailand’s Spirit Tattoos ( with photographer Aroon Thaewchatturat, but it took me a long while to take a step back to select the issues I wanted to talk about, the kind of things readers in the West can relate to and those that are too far out for anyone to relate to – the ethnic minorities, the mass tourism, the tawdry sex industry and its foreign adherents, the general air of impunity and injustice when powerful forces become involved, but also a straightforward personal singlemindedness when it comes to social justice that many Thais quietly carry with them.

Also, I can’t think of many novels set in Thailand that I really like myself. So much of the fiction about the country written by foreigners is inhabited by the very lack of sophistication its authors ascribe to Thais, which is actually a form of detachment, both from daily horrors and overwrought empathy. It’s hard to explain. When Europeans come to Bangkok for the first time, they often have this impression of a modern, thriving metropolis, cosmopolitan, brash, and money-driven with abject leers in uniforms. And that is surely all there. But then there’s this other side to the city – quiet back alleys smelling of frangipani, perfectly symmetrical lotus plants floating like deep sea oceanic apparitions in bottomless clay pots, quickly passing smiles that drip with promise, laughter so light it floats through the smog straight to heaven, someone being so incorruptible in the face of absolute venality, it might appear frightening to pragmatic western minds.

The background of the novel is the CIA rendition program which went in full force after 9/11 and which used third-parties countries to interrogate and torture people. Thailand was briefly one of those host-countries. Why did you use this theme?

The previous two Detective Maier novels had historic themes. The Cambodian Book of the Dead revolved around the Khmer Rouge genocide, while The Man with the Golden Mind touched on the CIA’s secret war in Laos in the 1960s. With The Monsoon Ghost Image, I wanted to bring the series into the recent past. Rather than have Maier sift through the detritus of long gone cruelties, I wanted him to face something that is relevant today – the war on terror, America’s endless war and the co-option of weaker nations into its realpolitik. I’m not out to blame Thailand. The pressure applied by the US to assist in its barbarism was presumably immense.
I feel that the clearly undemocratic actions of nations who talk about democracy incessantly and who pride themselves on their apparently participatory governance, need to be a much more prominent part of our common narrative if we are to create a future in which it’s worth living. And I am not sure we’re doing anything like that. The renditions were a collective failure, not just of agency people, the military, the politicians, but of everyone who waves this off as a mad minute, including Europeans. I love American arts, their music, their movies, their paintings, but the abuse of the very norms the US cherishes is so commonplace now, it comes with a sheer endless number of historical precedents and is nonetheless so fiercely defended by many Americans, that there needs to be a counter-narrative. Incidentally, most of the information I used came from the Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program, published in 2012. Read that and weep.

You write many other things, political and cultural journalism, illustrated non-fiction books, guide books to well-known Southeast Asian destinations, but you seem to find solace in fiction. What do you find in fiction and which message do you want to convey?

I think you can get much closer to essential truths with fiction than with what is published in mass media. And the writing process is so solitary, the author is in control, within the limits of her skills, of the message, the characters, the plot, the whole thing. Like a painter, one goes to places by oneself, in one’s head, in one’s memories, alone. That’s always appealed to me.

What are your current projects?

I’ve just co-written a long crime story about sharks in La Reunion. That’s currently being published as a five part serial in Ecoute, a French language magazine for sale in Germany. I’ve also just finished a short story called To Kill an Arab (not a meditation on MAGA fantasies, I’m afraid) which is set in Morocco and which will be out in an anthology in the US later this year.
And I am currently on my way to Nepal for the Mekong Review, an Asia-based literary magazine, to write an essay on the changes I’ve seen there in the past twenty years, especially since the 2015 earthquake, which I had the misfortune to witness.

You are German but write mostly in English. Why? Is this a way to detach yourself from yourself?

I learned English as a teenager, not just in school, but also because my parents spoke English and because I hung out with American GIs as I grew up near a military base in West Germany. When I was 18, I moved to the UK and studied literature. I always liked Joseph Conrad for whom English was a third language. And I loved America’s literary and musical outlaw landscape from Paul Bowles to William Burroughs and Charles Bukowski, from The MC5 and Patti Smith to Captain Beefheart and The Velvet Underground. When I started writing obsessively, I was already in South Asia, where English is a prerequisite….it seemed a natural thing to do. It’s served me well. There’s more interest in Asia in English speaking markets, so I stuck with it.

What is your writing routine and would you recommend it to anyone else? How do you feel about the fact that it’s almost impossible to make money from personal writing?

I used to write a thousand words a day, for a couple of decades. But I write so much journalism now that the fiction and even longer non-fiction projects only come in intermittent bursts. But once I’m on a project, I generally don’t stop until there’s a first draft.
Making money from fiction is a huge challenge. Making money from popular music is a huge challenge. Being a painter might not earn you enough to eat either. I mean, who manages to do that? You can count bankable writers in any given country on one hand. Basically the arts are on their knees, trapped between old, broken, no-risk and elitist Swengalis who no longer function as creative gatekeepers because decisions on the merit of a story are made only with money in mind, and the Internet which has opened the floodgates for millions who write whom no one will ever read. And with Amazon both distributing unfiltered cultural waste and hogging almost all distribution channel, art will continue to die until we find a new mechanism that provides artists with a chance to create and lead a reasonably dignified existence.

In these confusing times, what can genre literature bring to our collectively troubled minds? And is the trade doing the job?

Genre literature either brings comfort or a rude shock. In rare cases perhaps both. Most mainstream crime fiction falls into the comforting kind, from Lee Child (whose single-minded tone I love) to whatever title with ‘The girl…’ in it that is being pushed this week. I don’t know if crime writers like David Goodis, Ross MacDonald or Jim Thompson would be read today. Guys like Massimo Carlotto are not on the bestseller lists.

But I also read that there’s a lot of challenging Sci-Fi out there, driving issues like climate change and gender equality. Incidentally, my favorite novel that features Bangkok is The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigulapi, a brilliant Sci-Fi take on the city being consumed by rising sea levels.

Laure Siegel is a French journalist who has been reporting on popular culture in Europe and Asia for ten years.

Tom Vater has published three crime novels and is the co-owner of Crime Wave Press, a Hong Kong based crime fiction imprint. He writes for The Wall Street Journal, The Daily Telegraph, CNN, Marie Claire, Penthouse and others, and has published some twenty non-fiction books, including the best-selling Sacred Skin.

Crime Wave Press

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