James Newman is a 36-year-old English writer who has been in Thailand since 2001. He is the author of Bangkok Express (Spanking Pulp Press, 2012) and many other works of fiction and non-fiction. In this interview he talks about his books, the writing process, Thamkrabok Temple, literature and the writing scene in Thailand.
Voicu Mihnea Simandan: Bangkok Express is the first work of fiction you have written. What inspired you to write it?
James Newman: Picture the scene…Dusk on a tropical balcony overlooking the bay with a notebook and a glass of fruit juice… A cloud of bats wheeling in the air…
…As the sky darkened death was in the air…
…I wrote it in a feverish frenzy…
…It was almost like that….
…I recently went back to Samui and had a look at the bungalow where I wrote that first draft… What a wonderful spot, Coral Cove, up on the mountain road, limestone rocks, gliding lizards flying from tree to tree… Monitors, sunbirds, smell of tree blossom… Bangkok Express began as a backpacker type book and mutated into a crime novel as I went happily along from town to town…
VMS: I don’t particularly like your telegraphic style of writing, but in a world where everything happens at an overwhelming speed, I can see how you can easily find a readership interested in your books. What authors have influenced your writing?
JN: Raymond Chandler once wrote: “The English may not always be the best writers in the world, but they are incomparably the best dull writers.”
I was born in England but have a hard time nowadays picking up and reading a crime book by an English writer unless the writer acknowledges the American style (for example crime writer James Hadley Chase.)
Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones (on the bands success in America) once said: “I can’t believe we’re selling this stuff back to them!” You see, he was covering Chuck Berry and Little Richard riffs and selling the songs back to the USA.
I believe there’s a huge renewed interest in Pulp fiction. I write crime, horror and sci-fi in a pulp style. Short, concise sentences, with lots of action.
There has been one great writer for me over the last six months and his name is Ken Bruen… I’ve torn through his novels in a short space of time. A major influence of mine at the moment is Bruen and if you think my stuff is telegraphic and clipped check that crazy Irishman out… You see, when he was a kid, Ken Bruen found a box of old pulp books in his local library and those titles (Black Mask, Hammett, Cain etc) were what shaped his style rather than Beckett or Joyce…
Writers I have admired over the years? William Burroughs (immense breaking down of barriers), Charles Bukowski (for the novel and short stories), James M. Cain (economy of language), Celine, Raymond Chandler, J.P. Donleavy (Ever read the Gingerman?), Dashiell Hammett (Invented the modern day crime novel), Hunter S. Thompson (legend), Alexander Trocchi (gifted and underrated – ruined by drugs), Patrick Hamilton (gifted and underrated – destroyed by alcohol), Lawrence Block, Knut Hamson, many, many more…
VMS: There’s a lot of carnage in Bangkok Express? Is this part of the genre you’re writing in?
JN: I would say that there isn’t enough carnage in Bangkok Express. My novel Itchy Park (to be released with Blood Moon Press Canada in 2014) or novella Lizard City (2012, Booksmango, free on itunes) are much more graphic. And I would say – better for it.
The classical detective story (e.g: Miss Clarence Sutton-Smith abused with a candlestick in the old Red House library by the mute butler) was outdated the moment Black Mask and The Maltese Falcon came onto the scene in the 1930s. By the time Naked Lunch won the censorship trial in a Boston court in 1965 any subject matter was fair game in a novel.
Jack Keoruac: “the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.”
I have no time for mediocrity in art, film or literature.
Let it burn, baby, burn.
VMS: Is writing a cathartic process for you?
JN: I believe psychology is an art rather than a science. I am interested in the notion that a compulsion directed in a wholesome area can produce astonishing results in any field – artistic or otherwise. Any writer worth his salt must be obsessive. For a start a writer must read hundreds, thousands of books before he begins to write with any clarity. The same cognitive motion of ‘escape’ is at play with the compulsive reader, writer, as with the compulsive gambler, drug user, sex addict or collector of train numbers. Any great artist, doctor, architect, actor, candlestick maker; all would have to have the same compulsive personality type to succeed.
VMS: You have also published a few books of non-fiction. How do you deal with the two personas, the fiction and the non-fiction writer? Which has “priority”?
JN: I don’t write much non-fiction, but I’m currently writing a comedy television screenplay with my friend Tom Earls. Tom has grown up in Bangkok since he was eight years old and is a mean pool player. This is a new form for both of us and is proving to be a lot of fun. He tries to keep the script real while I continue to go off on mad pulp tangents as is my want.
Most of my non-fiction is gonzo style stuff at best to be honest. I don’t have the training to be a straight journalist.
VMS: Bangkok Express was initially published as an ebook but has recently come out as a self-published paperback too. Why did you need the paper format?
JN: Well, not everyone owns a kindle or an iPad.
VMS: How has Bangkok Express been received? How are the sales going?
JN: eBook sales have been steady for a couple of years. Print version? I don’t know until the first royalty statement. You know, a bookstore is a showroom. The stores display the books and hopefully readers buy them. My book has been well stocked and displayed in Bangkok. Perhaps it has sold well too. The market is a bit of a saturated niche. Who knows? The plan is to make enough for the Spanking Pulp imprint to put out the next books. Myself and John Daysh are working on an anthology of expat authors called Escapology and the reissue of his first novel along with the second Dylan book…
VMS: In your opinion, how has the publishing world evolved in the past few years with the boom in e-publishing?
JN: I think it is similar to what happened with the evolution from hardback to paperback. Paperback originals and mass-market paperbacks, you know pulp books, last century…
There was a time in the life of great writers when they would have an idea for a book and just think – ‘well what’s the point, nobody will ever read it. Too much sex, too much violence.’ Well thanks to publishers such as the late Barney Rossett (Grove Press, old mentor, friend and publisher of Christopher G. Moore) we can pretty much sell any good idea nowadays.
And with eBook technology the field is wide open. One may argue that it fills the market with dross. I agree yet if one can evaluate a page of writing on a preview he or she won’t be fooled into buying something substandard.
Besides… why should we have no choice but to read only what five or six big publishers think is the next great thing?
VMS: What can you tell me about the Bangkok literary scene? You seem to be quite involved…
JN: There was a time about ten years back when I would read every title I could find in Asia Books…. So yes, I know most of the players and I know about most of the work. What I can tell you about the scene is that it is unique….Christopher has mentioned this before…. There are no other countries outside of English speaking nations (that I’m aware of) where so many books in the English language are written and published, printed and sold…
I like the idea of noir scene developing through art and literature in Bangkok. There is so much scope here for noir art. I see noir as a corrupt world, a dark world lit by neon and populated by hard beautiful women. One man with more morals than cash who shaves in a broken mirror and drives a heap around town… A world where there is no welfare state, no second chances…
Writers such as Christopher G. Moore, John Burdett, Tom Vater with his imprint Crime Wave Press are building inroads. I hope I am doing my bit by putting together Bangkok Fiction Night of Noir.
It should be fun.
VMS: What work of fiction are your writing at the moment?
JN: The screenplay called Natives. Red Night Zone (sequel to Bangkok Express and originally called Bangkok City) is on final edit. Undead Cargo a zombie apocalypse novella and Stripper Ripper (third in Joe Dylan saga) are all on the hard boil.
VMS: Thank you for your time.
JN: My absolute pleasure.
March 19, 2013
Voicu Mihnea Simandan