Interview: Tom Vater, author of The Cambodian Book of the Dead

Tom Vater is a journalist, screenwriter and author of both fiction and non-fiction. His book, THE CAMBODIAN BOOK OF THE DEAD, was published worldwide by Exhibit A Books came out in July, and he was kind enough to answer a few questions about it, and more!


tomvaterYour novel, The Cambodian Book of the Dead, was released worldwide in June! Will you tell us about it and what inspired you to write it?
I first visited Cambodia in 1995, towards the end of the country’s civil war. I was young and reckless and crossed the border from Thailand without papers on a plastic speed boat with my then girlfriend, a man with a suitcase handcuffed to his wrist and a Cambodian taxi girl on her way home from work. We traveled up the Ko Kong River, passed between what I assumed to be opposing armies, bought a kilo of ganja for a dollar and managed to spend a day in Ko Kong before being deported.

I returned in 2001 to help make a film about Angkor Wat for German TV for which I’d co-written the screenplay. Since then I have returned to Cambodia every year. The small kingdom by the Mekong really got under my skin.

I published my first novel The Devil’s Road to Kathmandu in 2006 and had been planning to write another one ever since but my day job as a journalist/non-fiction writer got in the way. Eventually I started thinking about a German detective roaming around Asia. And Cambodia seemed like a great starting point for a series of detective novels set in Asia. I wrote The Cambodian Book of the Dead as a historical novel as well as a crime yarn.

CambodianBookOfTheDead-300dpi (2)I read that you have a background in journalism. Will you tell us a bit more about that and what led you to write your first novel?
I studied publishing and literature in Oxford in the 80s, then ran off to play punk rock around Europe and went to Asia in 1992. I was immediately hooked by the narrative there. For a while I just traveled, with a very tiny grant (much appreciated) from The British Library to record indigenous music. I documented many of the musicians I met in India, Nepal, Thailand, The Philippines, Pakistan, Indonesia, Laos and Cambodia. In the late 90s I had the opportunity to publish some of my research in a Nepali English language paper. I realized straight away that this was what I wanted to do, look at this crazy world and write, write, write…

I worked as a freelance journalist in South and Southeast Asia for the next 15 years for clients like The Asia Wall Street Journal The Guardian, The Times, Marie Claire and Penthouse. I co-wrote several screenplays, including The Most Secret Place on Earth, a feature documentary about the CIA’s covert war in Laos in the 1960s. I published several non-fiction titles on the region, most notably the very beautiful Sacred Skin, an illustrated book on Thailand’s spirit tattoos. Sacred Skin was photographed by my wife, Aroon Thaewchatturat, got three pages in TIME and is now in its second print run. The book has been subject of two documentaries.

I’m The Daily Telegraph’s Bangkok expert and contribute regularly to the paper.

My first novel The Devil’s Road to Kathmandu is the tale of three hippies who drive a bus from London to Kathmandu in 1976. On the way a drug deal in Pakistan goes horribly wrong, though the boys escape with the drugs. Once in Kathmandu one of the trio disappears with the money and is never heard of again. Twenty five years later the remaining friends receive an email inviting them to Kathmandu to claim their share of the loot.

The Devil’s Road to Kathmandu is a hippie travel adventure/thriller, nothing fancy, really just a road movie kind of tale. The book was published by a tiny HK imprint called Dragin’s Mouth Press, sold 800 copies and disappeared. Last year I got the rights back and the book has recently been republished by Crime Wave Press. A Spanish translation is now also in pint.

What is your writing process like?
Writing fiction is a very focused and intense process for me. I try and finish off other writing projects before I get down to writing fiction. I write quickly and without break, that means about 6 – 10 hours a day every day, until I have a rough and complete manuscript. Sometimes I get stuck for a few days, but this is quite rare.

The follow up to The Cambodian Book of the Dead which I have just finished, took four months of uninterrupted writing. Then I left the text for a while. A month later I came back with fresh eyes, advice from a couple of readers and a high sensitivity to plot holes. I then spent eight weeks on re-writes, focusing on certain aspects of the text with each reading – the main characters perhaps, the political background, historical continuity etc. I also always read the text aloud to myself. It helps with the overall rhythm. On the whole I hugely enjoy writing fiction, though there are plenty of moments of sheer terror, self doubt and delusion. In the end though, I try to take a step back and read the text in the cold hard light of an early morning and by the time I am done with all the re-edits, that last read through leaves me with an uneasy feeling of closure.

devilsroadWhy crime fiction?
At its very best, crime fiction offers beauty, quality prose and levels of meaning on a par with literary fiction, but the reading and writing is made simpler by certain rules and laws that govern genre fiction. The crime fiction framework helps me stay on track and bring the story home. Even by breaking out of the framework.

Will you tell us a little about Crime Wave Press?
Crime Wave Press is a Hong Kong based fiction imprint that endeavors to publish the best new crime novels, novellas and True Crime titles from Asia and about Asia to readers around the globe. Founded in 2012 by acclaimed publisher Hans Kemp of Visionary World and myself, Crime Wave Press publishes a range of crime fiction – from whodunits to Noir and Hardboiled, from historical mysteries to espionage thrillers, from literary crime to pulp fiction, from highly commercial page turners to marginal texts exploring Asia’s dark underbelly.

Our titles (seven so far) feature regularly in the Kindle Amazon charts, we have sold foreign rights to two of our books and we continue to look for new titles. Crime Wave Press are currently signing new authors.

Are there any particular authors or novels that have influenced your writing?
I grew up on the Beats – Burroughs to Bowles to Bukowski – and heavyweights like Graham Greene and Joseph Conrad. Since college I have been reading the Hardboiled writers – Raymond Chandler to David Goodis to Jim Thompson, Chester Himes and Ross MacDonald.

My favorite female writers are Patricia Highsmith and Katherine Dunn whose Geek Love I adore. I am also a fan of Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther novels.

Other authors I read regularly are Massimo Carlotto, John D. MacDonald (Travis McGee series) and Ross Thomas. Stand out novels I love include The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, The Lost Horizon by James Hilton, The Quiet American by Graham Greene and 92 in the Shade by Thomas McGuane,

sacredskinWhat do you look for in a good book?
I want to be surprised and moved. I want to be entertained as well. I am looking for scarps of truth amongst the fiction. Generally I am more interested in the ordinariness of extraordinary people than in ordinary people doing extraordinary things. I don’t care much for kitchen sink and I abhor crime writers with overtly conservative political agendas.

In your bio, it says that you play punk rock in your free time, so what are a few songs that you would put on the soundtrack for The Cambodian Book of the Dead?
I play punk rock and RocknRoll whenever possible. I travel a lot, so a regular band is out of the question. But I am playing a couple of shows in Cambodia this week.

These days I actually listen mostly to Jazz, 50s & 60s RocknRoll and Bluegrass. But here are a few cool songs of discontent that I listened to while writing The Cambodian Book of the Dead.
1 The Dead Kennedys – Holidays in Cambodia: Classic commentary on US policy towards Cambodia in the 70s and 80s 
2 The Rolling Stones – Gimme Shelter: Counterculture classic, often associated with the Vietnam War 
3 Pan Ron – Snaeha: Khmer version of Bang Bang by Nancy Sinatra, Classic Khmer RocknRoll from the country’s golden age sung by famous 60s singer who was killed by Khmer Rouge
4 Ros Sreysothea – Chnam Oun16: Classic Khmer RocknRoll from the country’s golden age sung by famous 60s singer who was killed by Khmer Rouge 
5 God Speed You Black Emperor – Dead Flag Blues: Canadian music co-op offers doomsday sounds for a broken world 
6 Black Flag – Police Story: The ultimate American punk rock resistance song. Any teenage boy who doesn’t like this isn’t right in the head 
7 The Cambodian Space Project – Whisky Cambodia: Signature song by contemporary Khmer RocknRoll band 
8 Charles Trenet – Que Reste-T-il De Nos Amours: Indochina nostalgia
9 The Stooges – Search and Destroy: US delinquent punk rock classic, Vietnam War related song

masterandmargaritaAsia is a big part of your life and writing. What do you love most about it, and where would you take someone visiting you for the first time?
I love that moment when you round a street corner somewhere in Asia (or almost anywhere else in the developing world), and you make eye contact with a child, a young woman, a tough guy or an old lady. A brief exchange takes place between yourself and the Other, a smile, an acknowledgement. It might lead to a conversation, more often it doesn’t and one moves on and the moment is lost a second later. Simple stuff, really.

I suppose I also enjoy the feeling of being apart. When I lived in Europe, I was always the weirdest guy in any room I walked into. In Asia, I feel more normal but I am actually completely apart. I fit in even less which is fine by me.

And finally, the sense of adventure, of the unknown, the volatile aspect of living in Asia is very appealing. Stability and security are potent illusions and we spend a great deal of effort and money on feeling safe. When I first arrived in India on a cold December night in 1992, I ended up utterly lost, somewhere in wasteland behind New Delhi railway station, only to be rescued, entertained and driven home by a bunch of slum dwellers.

If I took a friend round Asia for the first time I either would take him/her to India or to Cambodia. The differences to our own way of life and culture are very pronounced in these two countries. And both India and Cambodia are exceptionally beautiful and troubled, have amazing histories and of course, most Indians and Khmer are exceedingly friendly and hospitable. What more could you ask for?

What are a few of your favorite destinations when you travel?
For the past 15 years my work has taken me on a regular round of India, Nepal, Cambodia, Thailand, Laos. Occasional work trips have led me to Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, and Vietnam.

In my spare time I like traveling in Europe (I have not lived there for a long, long time, so even small town UK can be exotic), India and the Middle East. Puri, a town on India’s east coast is close to my heart, I have good friends there and I have written several books there. I love Kathmandu and Kolkata.

I dream of a trip to Africa, Ethiopia perhaps to slouch around in the footsteps of Rimbaud. But really, I am up for anything, anywhere, any time. The older I get the less important the destination becomes. It’s all about the people you meet along the way.

What’s next for you?
I am just finishing the follow-up to The Cambodian Book of the Dead. The second Detective Maier Mystery will take my German sleuth to Laos. It’s called The Man with the Golden Mind and will be published by Exhibit A next year.

Other than that I am busy with promoting new Crime Wave Press titles and a brand new illustrated non-fiction title called Burmese Light, a collaboration between Dutch photographer Hans Kemp and myself just out with Visionary World in Hong Kong.

I am gathering my wits for another crime novel of course, but the dust has yet to settle on the one I have just finished. I have a couple of good ideas for a stand-alone thriller and there’s another Detective Maier Mystery out there, slowly taking shape and sparking far away, somewhere close to the horizon.

Keep up with Tom: Website | Twitter

About THE CAMBODIAN BOOK OF THE DEAD:
Cambodia, 2001 – a country re-emerges from a half century of war, genocide, famine and cultural collapse.

Detective Maier travels to Phnom Penh, the Asian kingdom’s ramshackle capital, to find the missing heir to a Hamburg coffee empire.

As soon as the private eye and former war reporter arrives in Cambodia, his search for the young coffee magnate leads into the darkest corners of the country’s history and back in time, through the communist revolution to the White Spider, a Nazi war criminal who hides amongst the detritus of another nation’s collapse and reigns over an ancient Khmer temple deep in the jungles of Cambodia.

Maier uncovers a tale of mass murder that reaches from the Cambodian Killing Fields back to Europe’s concentration camps. But it is a tale not yet finished and Maier soon realises that, if he is to prevent more innocent lives from being destroyed, he will have to write the last terrifying chapter himself.

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