Thursday, October 1, 2015
9mm interview: Jake Needham
While those in the crime critic world often focus inordinately on books sprouting from Europe and North America, there is plenty of great writing going on around the globe. Two of my favourite 'discoveries' in recent years set their books in their adopted home of Bangkok - John Burdett and Timothy Hallinan - and thanks to a recent recommendation, I'm now adding Needham to that list.
Needham is a Texas lawyer turned writer who's spent the past quarter-century living in Asia, and has sold several hundred thousand copies of his crime novels there, while being rather overlooked in his native United States. He has two main crime series, one starring a world-weary Singapore homicide cop, Inspector Tay, and another centred on legal troubleshooter and 'fixer' Jack Shepherd. Both series have been acclaimed for their atmospheric portrayal of the Asian continent, and Needham's stylish and exciting storytelling.
There's so much more that could be said about Needham, who seems a bit of a fun and rebellious 'do it his own way' iconoclast in the world of publishing, but let's be real - you want to hear it straight from the oxen's mouth, not mine. So here, staring down the barrel of 9mm, is bestselling thriller writer Jake Needham.
9MM: AN INTERVIEW WITH JAKE NEEDHAM
Michael Dibdin died eight or nine years ago, but he left us with Aurelio Zen, a middle-aged, slightly dour Italian cop with an unforgettable name. What I like most about Zen is his struggle to function as a policeman in a culture that has no regard for law, one in which today’s friends are likely to be tomorrow’s fugitives.
Zen is erratic, occasionally emotional, and always very human. The early books in the series have a lightness to them, but they become progressively darker as the hopelessness of Italy’s future wears Zen down. He becomes an anti-hero adrift in an ocean of corruption and incompetence who every day slips further away from the shore.
A lot of people say Thailand is the Italy of Asia – great food, beautiful women, joyously corrupt, and utterly dysfunctional – so I understand how Zen feels. Sometimes I feel a bit like that myself.
2. What was the very first book you remember reading and really loving, and why?
Hardly anyone today knows the name Richard Haliburton, but in the 1930’s Haliburton’s adventures were chronicled in a series of books that were best sellers in America. When I was about six, I found a copy of Haliburton’s Complete Book of Marvels at some relative’s house and I was instantly enthralled.
The book was made up of a series of adventure stories. Haliburton swam the Panama Canal from end to end, slipped into the city of Mecca disguised as a Bedouin, crept into the Taj Mahal in the dead of night, climbed the Great Pyramid of Giza, and dived into the Mayan Well of Death in Mexico. He retraced the expedition of Hernando Cortez to the heart of the Aztec Empire, emulated Ulysses' adventures in the Mediterranean, duplicated Hannibal's crossing of the Alps by elephant, and climbed both the Matterhorn and Mt. Fuji.
I learned from that book that I could go anywhere in the world I really wanted to go and do anything I really wanted to do. It was a magical discovery, and it shaped the rest of my life.
3. Before your debut crime novel, what else had you written (if anything) unpublished manuscripts, short stories, articles?
I was a screenwriter. It was entirely accidental, but I was.
I had practiced law for a couple of decades, doing mostly international corporate work, and I found myself involved in a complicated and unpleasant corporate merger. To get the deal closed, I ended up buying a piece of the target company myself that no one else wanted, a very modest little Hollywood production house that was making movies for cable TV in the United States. Since I was stuck with the company, I did my best to make it profitable, and I tried to focus it more tightly on what I thought it could do well. I dashed off an outline of the kind of movie I wanted the company to make and a copy of that outline accidentally got sent to one of the TV networks the company worked with. Several weeks later the development people at the network called up and asked me to write it for them.
‘Write what?’ I asked. The movie you sent us that treatment for, they said.
‘That wasn’t a treatment,’ I said, ‘it was a business plan.’ That’s okay, they said, we want to write it anyway. And that, girls and boys, was how I became a screenwriter.
I wrote screenplays for American television for quite a while after that, but eventually I came to realize how little I actually liked American television. That was when I decided to see if I could figure out how to write novels instead. I guess that’s worked out okay for me.
4. Outside of writing, and touring and promotional commitments, what do you really like to do, leisure and activity-wise?
When I was a graduate student in history, my primary interest was the American civil war. I still enjoy visiting the battlefields whenever I can and walking the ground where so many suffered so much. Sometimes when I stand on the same rocks where those men stood a hundred and fifty years ago, I can still hear the guns.
Every now and then I think maybe I’ll give up writing crime novels and write a historical novel set during the civil war. Maybe, but writers like Michael and Jeff Shaara have already done that so brilliantly that I’ll probably never work up the courage to try.
I’ve also got a pretty interesting collection of firearms, both antique and modern, and I’m a fair shot myself. I try to get out on the range at least once a week to stay sharp.
5. What is one thing that visitors to your hometown should do, that isn't in the tourist brochures, or perhaps they wouldn’t initially consider?
By hometown, I suppose you mean Bangkok, the city where I’m known for living. So what would I suggest to a visitor to Bangkok? Honestly? I’d suggest they leave as quickly as possible.
Bangkok isn’t an exotic city filled with lovely, smiling people. It’s not even, as most of the world seems to think, a gigantic brothel. It’s… well, pretty much a shithole.
The place is so polluted you can't breathe; it's gridlocked with cars and crazies; hardly anyone speaks English; the police are predators looking for their next victim; it's hotter than hell and the humidity is crushing; half the year the streets are flooded and the other half their full of rabid dogs; and Thai thugs target any foreigner who looks weak or vulnerable.
I can’t understand at all why anyone comes here. I really can’t.
6. If your life was a movie, which actor could you see playing you?
Robert Mitchum. Roger Ebert called Robert Mitchum “the soul of film noir.” How can you beat that? Yeah, I know he's dead, but I will be too by the time this movie gets made.
I actually had a few drinks with Robert Mitchum once back in the 1990's. Well…I had a few, and he had a great many. Mitchum was living in Santa Barbara and we both ended up at a very dull party there. At some point he proposed we split and find a saloon, and I agreed. I don't remember much of what happened after that.
You must know that asking a writer which of his books is his favorite is exactly like asking a parent which child he prefers, but you’re asking anyway, aren’t you?
Maybe the most diplomatic way out here is to say that I do have a bit of a soft spot for KILLING PLATO, the second book in the Jack Shepherd series, but the reason for that is mostly that it has gotten far less attention than most of my other books have. I really don't know why, my wife even says that KILLING PLATO is her favorite of all my books, but it just never attracted the attention that most of my other titles did.
The premise of the book is that a well-known guy in the United States, a sort of O.J. Simpson figure, is charged with murder and jumps bail before he can be brought to trial. He becomes the world’s most famous fugitive and ignites a media frenzy. With half the world looking for this guy, one night in a little bar in Phuket he walks up to Jack Shepherd and says he wants to hire him. He thinks Shepherd is the man to secure a presidential pardon for him so he can return to America. Shepherd has some really good connections at the White House, so it’s not beyond reason that he could do something like that, particularly when our fugitive tells him what he has to trade for his pardon. And that half the US government is trying to kill him before he makes it public.
It's a damn good book. You ought to read it.
8. What was your initial reaction, and how did you celebrate, when you were first accepted for publication? Or when you first saw your debut story in book form?
My first novel was THE BIG MANGO and when I finished it about twenty years ago I had pretty reasonable chops as a screenwriter so the manuscript went straight into the hands of one of New York’s really legendary literary agents. He was confident that he would trigger a major bidding war with it, but then he began circulating the manuscript to a few carefully selected editors and…well, nothing. He heard exactly the same thing from every editor and publishing house he showed it to. A novel set in Asia isn’t commercial, they all said. Americans don’t like Asia and they don’t want to read about it.
After six or eight months of that, I’d had enough. So I took the book back and gave it to a small regional publisher in Asia that I knew would like to have it. They were indeed delighted to get it and rushed it into print within a few months.
I honestly don’t remember any having special feeling about that. The fiasco with American publishers had made me unhappy enough with the whole publishing business that I really didn’t much care anymore what happened to the book. But then over the next couple of years this little regional publisher in Asia sold well over 100,000 copies of it in just a handful of countries where almost nobody spoke English. That was when I decided I’d better start taking this novel writing thing seriously.
9. What is the strangest or most unusual experience you have had at a book signing, author event, or literary festival?
Some years ago I was asked to share a stage at the Hong Kong Literary Festival with Amitav Ghosh, the Indian novelist much revered by literary types, particularly in the UK. The organizers’ idea was that he and I would discuss the Asian novel from contrasting standpoints: his being the literary view, of course, and mine being the commercial view.
Mr. Ghosh was clearly far less enamored with the whole idea of doing this than were the festival organizers. What’s more, he had obviously never having heard of me or of any of my books, and he wasn’t all that pleased that we were being presented as colleagues of a sort. He clearly didn’t see me as nearly as significant or worthy as he was.
It was an awkward and strained hour, but eventually I had enough of being patted on the head and stopped being polite. I rather forcefully raised the question of how many people actually gave a damn about anointed literary luminaries. The audience loved that…
Thank you Jake, we appreciate you taking the time to chat to Crime Watch
You can find out more about Jake Needham and his stylish Asian crime thrillers here.