JN: Dean Barrett, you are the godfather of Bangkok noir and a great historic novelist. Your work is studied in libraries and read in bars. You are the first true Bangkok legend to appear on my humble blog. I look forward to your performance on April 17th and hope you can deliver something like you did at the Word Play festival last year at the Neilson Hayes library.
|One of Sterling's Girls.|
DB: Many thanks for all the undeserved compliments; but you still have to buy your own beer.
JN: Beer for free! I paid my bill in full at the Cactus the other night... Did they sting you for the bill also...did they try and pull a fast one?
DB: No, I was joking about the beer. And I do remember speaking at Nielson Hayes, what about, I have no recollection. I guess age and uppers take their toll.
JN: We were talking about crime writers, I think. For me, as a pulp writer, I'm interested in crime novels. You've read the classics, Hammet, Chandler, Cain. Which crime novel or crime novelists are your favorites and why?
DB: There are so many fine mystery novelists these days it is hard to name them all. But if I look to the bookshelf on my left I see all of Robert Crais, some Jeffery Deavers, a Barry Eisler, a T. Jefferson Parker, Robert Parker, Lee Child, Donald Westlake, David Goodis, Qiu Xiaolong, etc. In addition to the titles of some excellent local mystery writers in the other room and the classic writers you mentioned.
When I was in high school or even before I got into R.H. van Gulik's Judge Dee series based on a real Chinese magistrate who lived during Tang Dynasty (618-907), one of the elements which whetted my appetite for all things Chinese. I also got into the Travis McGee series by John D. McDonald and also into Chester Himes's wonderful and wonderfully violent series of two Harlem cops known as Coffin Ed and Grave Digger Jones. Nope, you didn't give them there boys any static. The film "Cotton Comes to Harlem" was made from one of his novels. If I thought about it I would come up with many more so I'd better stop here.
JN: David Goodis is a writer I've being meaning to check out in more detail. I'm interested in his life. As a reader we invest into an author and how he developed as a writer. I buy into the writer just as much as the words he or she writes. I like novelists who live life to the extreme. I like people who have reached the edge. Goodis had quite a tragic existence right?
DB: Goodis, yes, I read about him I think inside one of his mysteries, it was quite a strange life, although I forgot the details exactly. He had a few fine noir novels to be sure.
JN: He killed himself at his mother’s house, shoveling snow. Wrote ten thousand words of pulp fiction a day and must have been taking some kind of prescribed medication… Talking of uppers and performance enhancing drugs, which is your preferred writing crutch? Christopher G. Moore drinks coffee. Jake Needham smokes cigars. Colin C sips red wine while penning Asian mysteries. I drink beer, for free, some of the time. What helps you get the word down, Dean?
|Dean is featured in Bangkok Noir.|
Remember: in a first-person detective story, the reader sees everything through the eyes of your detective. If he's a boring guy with boring thoughts why should anyone read the novel?
Now that I am long-in-the-tooth, I occasionally use a crutch not because I have lost my desire to write but because my energy isn't what it once way. Of course, I would never use uppers such as Ritalin or Provigil (Modafinal) and don't even know what color those little white pills are but let's just say while talent cannot be taught focus and energy can be improved upon. I do drink coffee and liquor but while coffee might wake me up a bit liquor might work for at most an hour and then just make me sleepy. Make no mistake about it: Writing is tough work. Hemingway referred to placing a blank sheet of paper in the typewriter and trying to write on it as "wrestling with the white bull." Whatever crutch one needs to wrestle the son-of-a-bitch bull is fair game.
JN: Hemingway wrote standing up, which is simply impressive, considering his alcohol consumption. You say you began writing when you were quite young. What were you writing then? Was it for the stage or for the page? I know you spent some time writing scripts in New York. How would you compare the process of writing for the stage against writing novels? I imagine that with the novel you have much more freedom. With the stage or the screen you have many more folks in the equation, more people to please?
I have always loved live theater and spent 14 years in Manhattan as a playwright and librettist/lyricist in musical theater. Yes, I love writing a novel as I can do what I want but as a playwright I could do the same until others such as actors and a director got involved. And in musical theater of course even more people are involved. But I had some wonderful experiences working with actors, directors and producers.
There are some striking parallels between publishers and theaters in the USA. Broadway is too expensive to put on the average show now, esp. new ones cannot be tried out there, so many independent ("regional") theaters have sprung up around the country. One still hopes the play will be a success and eventually move to Broadway. In the same way, large New York publishers no longer take chances on new mid-list writers so many small publishing companies have sprung up. But, again, a writer most likely hopes his book will be picked up by a New York publisher so it will be promoted well.
Alas, most large publishing companies and regional theaters will not look at new material unless sent in by a literary or dramatic agent. But of course the agents are now swamped and take almost no new material. So despite the proliferation of "independent" publishers and theaters I am not so sure that a writer is any better off than decades ago. At least then you could get a rejection slip from a publisher; now you can't even get that! But of course now we have Kindle and the other gadgets.
But when I was a member of Dramatists Guild, any changes to my scripts by a director or anyone else had to be signed off by me in writing. Not so with film. Once the filmscript is sold, writers are road kill. Yes, I love writing novels but I also loved seeing an audience react to actors on stage acting out my play.
JN: I guess some agents lurk around Amazon looking for the successful indie writers and pounce on a live one. Not all, but a few maybe. At least with social-media and ebooks artists/writers now have a platform to get their work recognized. An author can put his work out there and let the readers decide - for better or worse. The days when a young writer with talent but little understanding of the business could be nutured by an agent / publisher seem to be over. Plus there are all these great internet forums where writers share advice. Overall, I think the publishing world for fiction writers is healthy right now. Healthier than when I first started submitting stuff.
Memoirs of a Bangkok Warrior is a very touching book. I recall reading the book in deepest darkest Isaan, chorus of insects humming outside the window, ceiling fan rotating. We have spoke about how Bangkok has changed over the years and the biggest change people keep mentioning is the mobile telephone. For Dean Barrett is this the most noticeable difference in the way the city lives and breathes. What has changed over the last fifty years in Bangkok?
DB: When I first arrived in Thailand there were hardly any telephones at all. You had to be rich to have one in your house. Of course all that has changed and now I like to scare young ladies by describing that world of no-phones to them, a world they never imagined and one which scares them more than a ghost movie.
But the city was a beautiful flat city and I remember going to the top floor - 5th floor - of the Colonel's office and being able to see out across the city. The klongs were still beautiful and a friend and I used to go paddling in one. All generalizations are dangerous but in general people were perhaps more friendly and even Thais admit that on the outskirts of Bangkok they never used to lock their doors; now they do. But this kind of development happens in all cities.
The Thai desire for, indeed need for, fun is still there. The saying was relevant then and still is: "Thais play at their work and work at their play." If you want to be a popular teacher in Thailand and really reach your students you had better be humorous and a bit playful. Brilliant but serious types don't last long here. The basic Thai character has not changed; there is simply a rather thin layer of modernization and sophistication on top of it. In Permanent Damage my character described Thailand this way:
Something about the incongruity of his offer and the resigned expression on his face made me smile; and then I began to laugh. And then we both did. We were laughing at life in Thailand and how the normal and abnormal often seemed to overlap, dissolve, and, with no advance notice, change places. We had both chosen to live in a parallel universe devoid of Western logic; an uncharted cosmos with its ever-changing kaleidoscope of emotions, colors, sounds, tastes, joys and sorrows, loyalties and betrayals. And we were laughing at ourselves for doing so...
JN: Dean Barrett, Bangkok legend, thanks so much for your thoughts and your time. Look forward to seeing you at our next event.
Dean will be appeared along with Christopher G. Moore and others at all three of the Bangkok Night of Noir events held by James. You can find out more about the author here…