Interview: DEAN BARRETT
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Dean Barrett is a multi-talented artist, being both a first rate author and playwright, and a top quality photographer. He has had four novels published, two of these set in Thailand and a photo-based pictorial of the women of Thailand, funnily enough, titled "The Girls of Thailand.” He has also had several plays on New York’s 42nd Street and writes screenplays as well. He has written three books of satire and his satire column, “Uncle Yum Cha (Uncle Drink Tea)” appeared for 5 years in the Hong Kong Standard. Here Dean answers some questions about himself, his life in Thailand and his work. His website for novels is: http://www.angelfire.com/de/YumCha/Novels.html and the site for his new photobook on Thai women is http://www.angelfire.com/de/YumCha/Girls7.html.
When did you first go to Thailand and since then, how much time have you spent there?
I arrived in Thailand as a Chinese linguist with the American Army Security Agency in 1966. I was stationed here (in Bangkok) for two years. In 1970, after getting an M.A. in Hawaii, I returned to Asia and spent 17 years in Hong Kong. During that time I probably averaged one week per month in Thailand and even had a small Thai-style house in Bangkok for a few years. I had started a company in Hong Kong, “Hong Kong Publishing Company, Ltd.,” and my main client was Thai International. I published and edited (and often wrote for) books and magazines in English including Thai’s Sawasdee magazine, Dusit Thani Hotel magazine, and a photobook on Thailand called “Images of Thailand” with a wonderful text by William Warren. I left Asia for Manhattan and, after 14 years in Manhattan, I’ve been back in Thailand now for about six months.
During this time how has Bangkok changed?
Superficially, lots of things. The traffic, the skyline, the skytrain, the meters in taxis, the need to lock doors, picturesque klongs paved over, beautiful houses torn down for golf driving ranges, etc., but the Thais are still a very gracious, hospitable people. And the khao phot stands with the shaggy dogs and the Mehkong whiskey and the fluorescent lights and the plump woman and her kids working at the steaming wok are all still here. And, of course, the women are still irresistibly gorgeous.
Many foreigners living in Thailand have a love/hate relationship with the country. What about you? Are there any things that you strongly either like or dislike about life in Thailand? Are there many things that you miss from your native USA?
I cannot say I have any hate for Thailand. Over the decades I have seen both beauty and ugliness in the Thais, and one or two have disappointed me in business, but, in general, I have a deep affection for Thailand. And although I am the world’s worst Buddhist, decades ago I became a Theravada (Southeast Asia) Buddhist. Dislikes? Well, I dislike it when I challenge a go go dancer to guess my age and she guesses OLDER than I am. As for missing the USA, in Manhattan I spent much of my time writing plays and musicals and going to fantastic bookstores. I’m still a member of Dramatists Guild and I still go to bookstores here in Asia, but it’s not the same. So I guess I do somewhat miss an atmosphere of Western intellect. But the girls of Nana Plaza are doing their best to help me get over it.
There are now quite a number of writers penning novels set in Bangkok and Thailand. Do you read many works from other authors who write stories set in this part of the world and if you do, who is your favourite author and what is your favourite book?
I do read the novels of others set in Asia and I don’t subscribe to the theory that there are a lot of bad novels written about Bangkok. Whatever novel I have read set in Thailand, I have always learned something from. Certainly, Stephen Leather writes wonderful, well-plotted thrillers and in Collin Piprell’s books of short stories, beneath the surface humor, it is obvious he knows Thailand well. But I think it is true there are no Somerset Maugham’s or Graham Greene’s writing on Thailand at the moment. And how come you spell “favorite” the British way? Because I speak, or at least like to think I speak, "the Queen's English"!
How do your novels compare to those by say Stephen Leather, Jake Needham or Christopher Moore? While all of these authors are a little different in their approach, do you write about similar things or are your novels a little different?
Stephen Leather knows more about bombs than I do, Jake Needham knows more about cigars than I do, Christopher Moore knows more about the Thermae coffee shop than I do. Of course their approach is very different. They have their strengths and (I like to think) I have mine. I think one of my strengths when writing on Thailand is that I have seen Thailand through the eyes of an American soldier, an English teacher, a businessman, a photographer, a writer and an inveterate barfiner. Another thing that serves me well is that I know Chinese culture and speak Mandarin so I have had interesting conversations with Chinese minorities in Southeast Asia which a non-Chinese speaker would have missed. And that is one more point of view I can add to my writing. So while I don’t claim to be an expert on anything, I have learned a bit about Thailand. And I bought my first ladies drink for a Bangkok bargirl in 1966 – let’s see Stephen, Jake and Chris match THAT!
Being based in Thailand and writing novels centered in this part of the world, does this make your job as a novelist easier, more difficult, or is it neither here nor there?
The raw material for fiction is here in Thailand but so are the succulent, curvaceous, gorgeous women with long glossy black hair and almond eyes and high cheekbones to die for. In Manhattan, I was known as an incredibly dedicated writer; even after returning to my apartment after dinner, I wrote until the 11 o’clock news. Now, by 11 o’clock, I’ve probably covered half the bars on Soi Cowboy.
Sometimes when I am working away on my website writing about Bangkok I get a little stuck, and for inspiration I blast the song "One Night in Bangkok" as loud as possible and well, it works. Do you have any special techniques that you employ to help you when writing?
The best technique to get writing done is to wake the girl up and tell her it’s time to leave.
You put together the book, "Women Of Thailand" quite some time ago. Exactly when was the book released and how did you go about putting it altogether? What were the challenges and / or difficulties that you faced?
It was called, “The Girls of Thailand,” and it was published in 1980. Men loved it and (some western) women loved to dump on it. I had traveled all over Thailand while photographing for Sawasdee and other magazines, and had boxes of photographs not being used, so I decided to do the photobooks “Images of Thailand” and “The Girls of Thailand.” Some men told me the book changed their lives and they came to Asia because of that book. (I hate that kind of responsibility.) Feminist reviewers found it not to their liking, to say the least. Actually, I was not trying to photograph erotically like Shrimp and there was no nudity in the book at all. I was simply sending a love letter to the girls of Thailand. A paean, I believe it is called, “an exultant song of praise or thanksgiving.” As I told the very talented Shrimp, who was a bit miffed that I beat him to the punch, I always knew some day some fool would do this book and I wanted to be that fool.
What are the plans for the new edition of the book? Are you re-doing the entire book or will you use some material from the first edition? How is it different making this book now, compared with the first edition?
The new book will be published by a new company in June this year with the title, “Thailand: Land of Beautiful Women.” The text of the first section describing Thai women in history, culture, etc., will remain much the same and maybe half of the photographs will be changed. The text in the section on Thai nightlife has been greatly rewritten and expanded, and almost all of the photographs will be new. However, I want to leave about a dozen photos from the earlier book to show contrast and continuity. For example, in 1980, many dancers embroidered slogans like “Kiss Me” or “Sexy” onto their bikini bottoms. Now, either the bikinis are too skimpy or else they wear no bikinis at all. But again there will be no actual nudity in the new book. Making this book is still a great deal of fun but, 21 years ago, I could photograph in bars, no problem. Now, it is a challenge. The girls worry photographers might put them on the internet. Who me?
Some people would say that putting together such a book was a dream job – what would you say to that?
Heck no, it is incredibly hard work. Night after night, being surrounded by lovely, sweet, young women who actually LIKE white, heterosexual males. It’s sheer horror. And, now and then, they forget themselves, and I even have to light my own cigarette. The indignity. Or they forget to put a dish of peanuts out for me. The abuse. Or being out in the Thai heat and humidity in Korat or Surat Thani trying to photograph lovely but skittish construction workers or girls in the snake-filled ricefields. And always the boyfriends lurking nearby. Watching. Believe me, photographing the women of Thailand takes a man of exceptional daring and monumental courage who is willing to face any danger known to man.
When is the book scheduled to be released? Where will it be available? What are your thoughts on the Thailand nightlife scene?
The book is scheduled to be released in Thailand in June. It will be available in the United States, Singapore, Hong Kong and on the internet probably in July or August. I hope also to make arrangements for German-language editions, etc. I think many in the West think that those of us who frequent the Thai nightlife scene are horrible people. They don’t seem to understand that not all cultures are alike and that much of the sordidness that exists in Western nightlife is not here. And the Thai sense of humor is always present in the bars and I hope to capture some of that in the new book. As a playwright, I regard Nana Plaza and Soi Cowboy and Patpong Road as similar to off- off- off-Broadway plays. And every night for the price of a ladies drink you can watch (and even join in) the show. More and more, I especially like to sit outside the bars and people watch. Which I suppose means I’m getting older. By the way, did I mention Thai women are still irresistibly gorgeous?
What does the future hold for Mr. Dean Barrett? Do you plan to continue to write novels based in Bangkok / Thailand?
I am writing a novel now set in Thailand called Skytrain to Murder and I’m traveling back and forth into China writing a bizarre non-fiction book called “Don Quixote in China: The Search for Peach Blossom Spring.” I’m writing the sequel to my novel set in 1857 China, “Hangman’s Point.” Avalon Books’ erotic imprint in New York, Blue Moon Books, has just published my erotic novel set in 1862 China, “Mistress of the East.” A producer is trying to get the film of it made. If so, in addition to photographing hundreds of beautiful Thai women for a book, I may have to go to China and audition hundreds of beautiful Chinese women for a film. Will these burdens never end?
Even here in Thailand with only a relatively small number of Westerners, your books are very popular. Are your books available anywhere else outside of Thailand? If yes, how popular have they been in other markets?
Yes, my books are selling in the United States and in other parts of Asia. They sell well on the internet. At the moment (March, 2001), Amazon.com is sold out of “Kingdom of Make-Believe.” “Memoirs of a Bangkok Warrior” was optioned for film four times; “Hangman’s Point” three times. Options seldom get picked up but they help pay the rent. As for my popularity in Thailand, my books would sell much better if the clerks in Asia Books stores and in other stores would take my suggestion and throw all of Jake’s books and Chris’s books and Stephen’s books and Collin’s books into the klong behind the Hilton Hotel. So far they haven’t done as I asked. Maybe I’ll try a bribe. It’s nothing personal; just that my books would look so much better without all that clutter around.
Is there any message you would like to send to your many fans, both in Thailand and around the world?
Hi, mom. Hi, dad.
Dean's novels http://www.angelfire.com/de/YumCha/Novels.html
Dean's new photobook http://www.angelfire.com/de/YumCha/Girls7.html