Bangkok: City of sex, scandal and wannabe expat authors

Bangkok: City of sex, scandal and wannabe expat authors

Went to Bangkok, got drunk, wrote a book. So goes the story for many an expat. But the honeymoon for aspiring wordsmiths is coming to an end, say those who've done it successfully
Book publishing in Thailand
Book covers of novels written by three of Thailand's most successful expat writers, John Burdett, Jake Needham and Christopher G. Moore.

“Writing is easy, you just have to be prepared to live with a permanent identity crisis,” says British crime-writer John Burdett, whose credits include “Bangkok 8,” “Bangkok Tattoo” and “Bangkok Haunts.” 

“A lot of expat writing on Thailand -- fiction and non-fiction -- is all about Western, especially male, self-indulgence,” he adds. “The sub-text is usually the writer’s failure to empathize outside of his own culture -- or ego -- resulting in a more or less total misunderstanding of everything he sees.”

John Burdett“A lot of expat writing on Thailand -- fiction and non-fiction -- is all about Western, especially male, self-indulgence,” says British writer John Burdett.

It used to be that anyone and his dog could rock up to Thailand, get buzzed up to the eyeballs and then have a book published about it all. But when it comes to actually making cash off of tales of sun, sin and sex, the honeymoon period is long over for wannabe wordsmiths.

Today, the notion that there are endless racks of books by unknown writers is off the money, says Canadian Christopher G Moore, the man behind the successful Vincent Calvino private eye series, the 12th installment of which, "9 Gold Bullets," will hit shelves soon. 

“The scene was quite vibrant up to about five years ago when there was a fair chance that people would be able to get a book published by one of the local publishers. That’s basically ended,”  he says.

Indeed there are very few expat writers who are actually able to make a living solely off writing and gain an international following.

Among these are Burdett, Moore and American Jake Needham, primarily because the quality of their work is of an international standard and stands apart from all those cliched tales of bar girls and red light districts seen on Bangkok bookstore shelves. (Not that their work doesn't touch on those quintessentially Bangkok subjects.) 

Lower standards and distribution dilemmas

Moore’s current project -- "Bangkok Noir," due out early-2011 -- pulls together an all-star line-up of 12 Thai and foreign crime writers for a collection of short stories with a Bangkok edge. One of those writers is Thai-American composer-cum-author S.P. Somtow, who says that while it isn't as easy as it once was to get published, standards in Thailand still differ from those in the United States and Europe.

“Since it’s cheap to get things printed here, and the publishing system in Thailand is based on authors making direct deals with distributors and there’s no formal system of publishing as there is in the West, it’s easier in that sense,” he adds.  “It’s therefore completely unnecessary to know how to write to get published here. There is no editorial process.” 

Christopher G. MooreThe book publishing scene was quite vibrant up to about five years ago, says Bangkok-based author Christopher G. Moore.The distribution of English-language books in Thailand is dominated by Asia Books, with smaller publishers bringing up the rear, says crime author Needham, famed for “Laundry Man “and “Killing Plato,” which, he adds, were published in Hong Kong after a spat with Asia Books. 

“The only other way to get an English-language book on any shelf in Asia is to publish it in New York or London and let the booksellers import it, or to publish and distribute it yourself,” he adds.

“Since almost no Asian-set fiction is published internationally anymore, that leaves self-publishing as the only route open to the overwhelming majority of those inspired by Bangkok hookers who think they can write a novel.”

The raucous and the restrained

One writer who unashamedly polarizes audience opinions is American Dean Barret, whose titles include “The GoGo Dancer Who Stole My Viagra & Other Poetic Tragedies of Thailand.” A former U.S. Army specialist, Barret has had a play produced on Broadway and written children’s literature, but he is best known for his racy novels in Thailand.

“I just do the best I can with whatever project interests me and am happy to be living where I want to live and doing what I want to do, which is to write and to cavort with lovely Thai ladies,” he says.  

Book by author Dean BarrettPartial cover of Dean Barrett's "The GoGo Dancer Who Stole My Viagra," a volume of poems and ballads on Thailand.“I once had a lovely Thai lady up to my apartment and she saw all the books and said, ‘You know, you should get out more.’ That got topped when a lovely young thing entered my bedroom and saw all the books and said, ‘Oh! I never made love in a library before.’ She has now.”

But not everyone is as flamboyant in their writing approach. Retired British corporate lawyer Andrew Hicks bounced onto the scene in 2004 with "Thai Girl," a “tropical Romeo and Juliet without the coffins,” he says.

“In many ways Thailand is a paradise for writers as there genuinely is lots to write about, book production is inexpensive and, most importantly, Asia Books, the principal distributor, is generally prepared to put unknown writers on the shelves and to let the market decide,” Hicks adds. “Bangkok is therefore a lively scene for both writers and readers and this I very much applaud.”

Do it. But not for the riches

So should budding authors put off penning novels about their adventures in Thailand? Absolutely not, says Moore. Just don’t expect to make any money.

“In other words, yes, go to Thailand and write a book about your experience … there’s absolutely nothing but a positive thing to be gained by that,” he says.

“Where I think the line is though is the questions of whether they’re commercial, and commercial means: is there a market where a publisher that publishes in commercial quantities believes that there would be sufficient readers who would find that story amongst the thousands of others that come out the same year compelling enough to fork out the money to buy.”

 

As a freelance journalist over the past six years Matt has reported from Thailand, Timor-Leste, Indonesia, Malaysia and Bangladesh. Matt’s stories have been run by AFP, IRIN, Guardian, Reader's Digest and many more.
Read more about Matt Crook