Since the highly acclaimed, international bestseller, Bangkok 8, came out in 2003, John Burdett has written five more literate thrillers in the series, mingling the sacred and profane, which have been translated into more than 20 different languages. The latest book in the series is The Bangkok Asset (see review on p66-67). In this email interview he tells Jim Algie how the Thai capital saved his soul and why he started writing about the city’s nightlife.
You grew up in London, England, you worked for 12 years as a lawyer in Hong Kong, and you own a house in France: Why on earth did you decide to spend most of your time in Thailand?
I came reluctantly to the conclusion that my soul was starving. As a novelist I can make such an admission without fear of losing my job or damaging my social life, so I suppose in a way it is my duty to confess. For me, the extreme materialism of modern times, which has reached a stage of religious fanaticism, has shrivelled hearts worldwide. The disease of narcissism is a pandemic for which our ancestors had only one cure: religion. However, as a product of Western education I cannot take gods seriously, especially when one discovers how much they seem to mirror human egotism. In Thailand about 90 percent of the people are Buddhist. That means they have been brought up to keep self-importance under control and to be generous and useful to others without the need for a deity.
I am perfectly aware of the tsunami of problems that seems to be overwhelming the country at the moment, which may make it less than a dream destination for many, but I remain confident that the open hearts of the people and their extraordinary inner strength will enable them to shrug off problems that would cripple most others. These qualities are largely the consequence of following the teachings of the Buddha and they feed the soul.
How and why did you become interested in Bangkok’s nightlife?
I had no particular interest in the nightlife. I came to Bangkok about 12 years ago because I wanted to write a crime novel based in Bangkok. It didn’t take long to discover how open the bar girls were about revealing their life stories. From the information they freely gave I was able to build up a picture of a country that, so far as I knew, had never been very well described by Western writers. I also realised it would be a long haul if I wanted to deepen my understanding. In addition to researching the nightlife I decided to learn Thai. The life and soul of a people are revealed in their language, but after more than 10 years of study it is only recently that I have been able to read Thai-language newspapers. As a consequence I don’t spend so much time at the bars.
How have your studies of Buddhism and meditation influenced your life and work?
The effect has been subtle and profound, despite that I have been fairly casual in my approach to Buddhism and meditation. Vipassana meditation in particular enables one to see the workings of one’s own mind, which can be quite a revelation. Socrates once said: The unexamined life is not worth living. I have come reluctantly to the conclusion that the unexamined mind is not worth having, because it will always mislead you.
Why do you think the denizens of the digital age are so obsessed with crime stories, whether dramas or true crime shows, and what can the novel do that these other genres can’t?
Good question, especially since I am more or less addicted to crime stories myself. I love FBI Files, 20/20, Behind Mansion Walls, etc. I often sit watching and wondering: why would anyone read a thriller when these true crimes stories are so abundant and usually quite well narrated? My answer is: context. I have eagerly gorged on hundreds of these episodes without once receiving any information at all as to why crimes of extreme violence have suddenly erupted and spread worldwide. In a good dramatic work, we end up understanding the villain even if we disapprove. We understand Iago and Macbeth (and his wife), the anti-heroes of a Greene or Conrad, all the villains in cinema noire, but we do not have a clue about the soul of the walking cliché with lurid tattoos and a history of drug abuse who becomes a serial killer or some other kind of psychopath and who stars in virtually every true crime episode. He—or occasionally she—remains a two-dimensional cut-out that serves as the template for all our reactions to extreme violence. No thinking necessary.
But suppose you actually want to think and to know more? Then you need a good novel, because only novelists still believe in thought for the private citizen who wants to make up their own mind.
Like your detective hero, you have a fondness for roaming Bangkok’s streets in the early hours. How different is the city during those hours and what memories or scenes stand out?
I used to remind myself of the mime character in Les Enfants du Paradis, who hungrily roams Paris in the early hours, unable to sleep while there is the life of the night still to be explored. I have witnessed quite a few dramas, the worst being when a young Nigerian tourist stabbed his companion to death. But for me it is more to do with the total change in ambience and behaviour, after about 2am. By that time the fever is largely spent. Male lust and curiosity sated, young women hang out with each other over a bottle of rice whisky on folding tables all along Sukhumvit from Nana down to Asok. The come-on is muted, hardly more than a gesture, everyone is happy to chill out in the relative cool, before the onset of another day in paradise. Often the girls are more interested in a tarot reading from the lady with the magic cloth and the Tarot cards squatting on the sidewalk. Most of the johns are too drunk to be much of a nuisance and not much of a prospect either as far as the girls are concerned. You have to be there to get it.