Here is my interview with the multi-talented Tom Vater!
Tom is a crime author, journalist, documentary writer and the co-founder of Crime Wave Press. If that wasn’t enough, he can write in two languages and his work has been published in an impressive variety of cool places such as: The Wall Street Journal, The Times, The Guardian, The Nikkei Asian Review, Marie Claire, Geographical and Penthouse, as well as being The Daily Telegraph’s travel’s destination expert for Thailand!
Although his publishing imprint is based in Hong Kong, Tom is always on the move somewhere in Southern Asia; his last known whereabouts being Cambodia, where it was great to have the opportunity to catch up with him and ask a couple of pertinent questions!
You first travelled to Asia in 1993, to document indigenous music for the British Library’s International Music Collection, and have remained there ever since writing novels, documentary screenplays, and travel features and guides; why do you find Asia so fascinating?
I suppose, after fifteen years in the UK, where I studied and then played guitar in punk rock bands, I felt it was time to move on. Two friends invited me and my then partner to India and I was hooked from the minute we touched down in Delhi. Everything I’d learned in school and life could be upended here. I realised that one could think about reality and live life in a way that was diametrically opposite to the way one lived in Europe. I also understood that as a European one could live outside of Europe however one chose to. Of course that is part illusion but when you are in your mid-twenties, it’s very real. We stayed five weeks in India. I think I never slept. We returned to the UK, sold all our belongings and hit the road for five years, traveling around India, Pakistan, Nepal, Iran, Turkey, The Philippines, Thailand and Cambodia. Of course I needed something to do beyond recording music for The British Library who graciously supported me with a small grant, so I started writing. I needed to deconstruct and then reconstruct my new reality to make sense of it, but also to celebrate it. I fell in love with India and by extension with Asia, with its people, its outlook, its culture, its bright and its dark side, and it has never let me go.
When you had your first article was published in 1997, was it a pivotal moment for you as a writer, maybe a sense of being in the right place at the right time?
Absolutely. I was living in Kathmandu and had met a couple of cyclists who’d ridden their bikes from Switzerland to Nepal. They were writing about their experiences but needed help to get the stories into good enough shape to sell them. So I accompanied them to the offices of The Rising Nepal, the government daily. I edited their work and watched the editor pay them for their efforts. A light went on in my head. I asked the editor if he’d take one of my stories and he agreed if I had anything interesting to say. I knew a little about Nepali music, so a month later I was back with text and photos and they gave me the weekend supplement and I never looked back. I’ve been making a living from writing ever since. Definitely an epiphany.
You seem to live a nomadic existence, travelling far and wide across Southern Asia – is this purely for work projects or does this ‘on the road’ lifestyle fuel your own writing?
After some twenty-five years on the road it is both work and life style, it has become second nature. It is for work of course. I am writing these lines in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Last week I was in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Next month I will be back in Thailand, then in Hong Kong, then on to London, France and Germany. From there back to Cambodia. And so on. I have my usual stomping grounds but I also live exploring new destinations. I was in Sri Lanka for the first time last year. In January 2018 I hope to be traveling to Colombia. Most of the travel is work related but as I have friends in lots of corners of Asia, the travel has become life. I don’t think I have been anywhere for more than three months in the last two and half decades.
Your detective novel, ‘The Cambodian Book of the Dead,’ is incredibly atmospheric and engaging, how were you able to create such an amazingly authentic sense of place and time in your book?
I first came to Cambodia in 1995, illegally on a speed boat from Trat to Koh Kong. Someone wrote that Cambodia is the most dangerous country in the world, first you fall in live with it and then it breaks your heart. Someone else had told me that a kilo of weed was one US$ in Cambodia. I wanted to find out whether either was true. And it was, and there was more… the realities of forty years of conflict infused with the superficial, trivial cultural reference points I brought with me – Apocalypse Now, the Vietnam War, the Khmer Rouge and the Killing Fields movie.
When I had returned to Had Lek, on the Thai side of the border, a man called out to me from the Cambodian side, asking me if I was going to the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh and whether I might be able to deliver a letter for his wife whom he had not seen for years. We talked through the wire until the Thai soldiers shooed me away. One fate in millions, terrible, broken by war and life that has reverberated with me to this day. I could not help him.
I returned in February 2001. I made a film with my brother about the future of Angkor (we were too conservative in our imaginings) and began to write about the country, the people, the politics. I travelled everywhere and sucked up as many stories as I could for a few years. I was at the current king’s coronation and the grave of Pol Pot. I saw Khieu Samphan (since convicted for mass murder and crimes against humanity) in the street in Pailin. I interviewed the sons of the elite about their hobby – gang raping impoverished sex workers. Because of the Khmer Rouge history and the subsequent venal government that rules the country to this day, the appalling were and are common place and I was mesmerised by this for a long time. Everything one could point to as corrupted and unjust in European society was amplified by a thousand times in this beautiful and terrible country.
And I am writing these lines in Cambodia. More than fifteen years on, there are roads and a couple of hospitals now but by and large the venality has not changed. My eye has changed and I am more detached now. But I still think Cambodia is a very special place, full of lovely people. And some right bastards. So all that sucked me in and enabled me to write The Cambodian Book of the Dead.
One of your collaborations with the renowned photographer Aroon Thaewchatturat produced the bestselling book ‘Sacred Skin’ – what drew you to this unusual project and did you discover anything that you hadn’t expected to find?
Having been based in Thailand for years, I wanted to write a book about the country that was not about monks, beaches or elephants. I also wanted to write a book about working class Thais who almost never get a voice in their own country – the elite dictates the cultural discourse and looks down on darker skinned people, indigenous people, foreigners, really anyone who’s different from the top 5%. Sak Yant, the country’s sacred tattoo tradition was the perfect subject and with Aroon, I submerged myself in this mystical world of mantras, hidden meanings and blood for a year.
You are the co – founder of Crime Wave Press, an indie publisher based in Hong Kong – this seems like a brave move as the area is not best known for its crime fiction – has your publishing imprint proved to be as successful as you had originally hoped?
Well, we are still here after five years. We have published 31 titles to date. We have sold thousands of books. The company keeps itself afloat. One of our books The Curious Corpse by Nick Wilgus, will be made into a feature length movie. But selling books is a hard slog and we can’t compete with massive advertising budgets of the five large publishing conglomerates. And of course most people read terribly conservative crime fiction pap. The days when incredible writers like Raymond Chandler, Chester Hymes, Jim Thompson or Ross MacDonald shifted copies have given way to shallow authors like Jo Nesbo which I find simply mind-numbing. There are some exceptional crime fiction authors around today. I am a big fan of Philip Kerr for example. But the publishing business is so totally profit oriented and readers by and large want to be comforted, not challenged, so a lot of real talent is not published or ends up with tiny imprints like ours. And me and my partner Hans Kemp are quite eclectic in our choices of what we publish. But I love publishing exceptional crime fiction and am very proud to have provided a platform for many writers who might otherwise not have been published at all
Are all of the crime books on your list about Asia or written by Asian writers?
Initially we wanted to publish only titles set in Asia. But we could not find enough good titles and did not want to publish bar girl novels or Vietnam War reminiscences – that’s what most of the submissions we initially received boiled down to. There are an awful lot of retired white men living in Southeast Asia, most of them insufferable conservative bores, who feel the need to put their rather modest fictional ideas to paper.
So we branched out and now sign authors from all over the world. That said, our two most successful writers, American Nick Wilgus and Kiwi Brian Stoddart both write crime fiction series set in Asia. We currently only have one Asian writer in our catalogue, Kalyan Lahiri from Kolkata, who writes wry whodunits set in West Bengal.
In ‘The Man with the Golden Mind’, which is the second in the Maier detective series, the story originates in Laos, where you filmed a revealing documentary about a clandestine CIA War; are there more secrets for Maier to discover in this new novel?
Indeed, the research for The Man with the Golden Mind was largely derived from a documentary I co-wrote with director Marc Eberle called The Most Secret Place on Earth about the CIA’s largest clandestine mission at the time in the 1960s in Laos. The film, broadcast in thirty countries to date, demonstrates how the US committed crimes against humanity on the sidelines of the better remembered Vietnam War and whether this has informed US military adventures since. The novel is a meditation on foreign intervention but it is also, as it turns out, a father son story as Detective Maier encounters his long lost dad and is confronted by very serious personal questions – what does it mean to be adrift in this world without home or roots for example. And Henry Kissinger gets a cameo.
That was interesting! Any closing thoughts Tom?
Thanks very much, Sonia, for the opportunity to answer your thoughtful questions.
My pleasure – I feel a little closer to exotic Asia, after this interview!
More info on Tom Vater