Thailand Personality Interviews January 16th, 2001

Jake Needham

Interview: JAKE NEEDHAM


Jake Needham's name burst into the Bangkok expat scene in 1999 with the release of his highly acclaimed novel, "The Big Mango". Within a short period of the release of this solitary novel, many long term expats suddenly and perhaps somewhat prematurely hailed Jake Needham as Bangkok's best expat writer. Since then, Jake's second novel "Tea Money" has also thundered into the charts, confirming his class as a highly accomplished novel writer.

When did you first go to Thailand?

The first time I was in Thailand was in 1970. I was fresh out of law school and teaching history in a backwater college not far from Washington DC so I could dodge the draft. Clinton went to Oxford. I went to Immaculata College for Women. I leave it to you as to which of us showed the better judgment. Anyway, the father of one of my students was a high ranking State Department type attached to the American Embassy in Bangkok, but she had confided in me that he was really a spook, so when I got the chance to do a little traveling in the exotic east, naturally I headed straight to Bangkok and looked him up.

Since then, how much time have you spent in Thailand?

Over the next couple of decades I probably averaged two or three visits a year to Thailand for one reason or another, mostly in connection with the international investment banking business that I found myself involved in. Then after I have managed my odd metamorphous into a screenwriter — and I won’t bore you with the details of that story here — we were in pre-production for a movie being filmed in Bangkok that I’d written, and I met my wife. That was nearly ten years ago, and we’ve maintained a permanent residence in Thailand ever since. We’ve spent a good deal of time in the States and Europe as well, of course, and even now we still have a house in San Francisco, but I don’t think we’ll keep it much longer. We really have no reason to be there much anymore. Bangkok is our home, and our family and friends are here. And of course, Northern California really started sucking a few years ago as a place for a serious human being to live. There’s that, too.

During this time how has Bangkok changed?

Not a great deal really. Oh, superficially it has, I guess, but no matter how many Starbucks they build or how many metered taxis they put on the streets, under the surface the old place is pretty much the same as it’s always been. Whether foreigners sense that or not, I think it’s actually one of the things they find so beguiling about the city.

Many foreigners living in Thailand have a love/hate relationship with the country. What about you?

Foreigners living in Bangkok do seem to have this almost unnatural emotional relationship with the city, it’s true. I’ve written about San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington, Hong Kong, Singapore, Paris, and London and have never heard a peep out of anyone as to what they thought of my perceptions about any of those cities one way or another. But Bangkok is a different deal entirely. Would you believe I get a fair bit of hate mail as a result of my novels? People saying that since I obviously detest Thailand I ought to go back where I came from; that I must be just another of those dim-witted foreigners who’s been in Thailand only a couple of times but thinks he knows everything; that it’s stupid for me to write about things that I know nothing about and make so many factual errors that it’s all just a lot of rubbish; things like that. How anyone can read my stuff and get that is beyond me – and of course I also get a lot of letters saying how my books make people miss the city or love it more or something like that because the portrait of it is so dead on and overflowing with affection — but all that’s beside the point anyway, I guess. Anyone who’s paid their four hundred baht or so and is entitled to think and say whatever they want to think and say. What I can’t get over, however, is the extent to which Bangkok seems to engage a lot of people on some genuinely emotional level, and how deeply it pisses some of them off when anyone says anything about the place that differs even in the slightest way from their own personal perceptions. A remarkable number of foreigners here see themselves as the self-appointed guardians of ‘the truth about Bangkok,’ and they sneer loudly at anyone who sees things differently or who may have a different perception of the details of the place. They swell up at you like you’d insulted their girlfriend. I don’t get it. Really I don’t. This is an interesting place to live, and I’m very fond of it, but I don’t intend to marry 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?

Actually I don’t think there are really very many writers who’ve done much with the real Bangkok in fiction at all, and that’s a shame. It’s a city rich in the kinds of layers of treachery and confusion that make for the kind of novels I like best. Steve Leather has drilled down pretty well into those layers in a couple of his books, and I’m a great fan of Steve’s, but most of the rest of the stuff that’s around seems to me to be kind of bland and self-important. Worse, most of it has been more or less the same thing over and over. Just bar girls and beer and and pissed-off, bitter farangs with no life and no better place to go. A city as complex and multifarious as Bangkok deserves more than that.

But some of the story from your first novel, The Big Mango, was set in Bangkok's nightlife district. Isn’t that exactly the same kind of thing you’re talking about?

I hope not. THE BIG MANGO was written as a sort of Elmore Leonard style send-up of the usual Bangkok novel. The whole plot teetered right at the edge of going completely over the top, and the Soi Cowboy and massage parlor bits were all played with a grin and a wink. No one was meant to take it very seriously. TEA MONEY is quite a different kind of thing, however. While I hope the funny bits haven’t got lost – because, God knows, the funny stuff about Bangkok is too good to ever let it slide completely out of sight – TEA MONEY is far more of a classic international thriller than MANGO was, and it draws on the same kind of settings in Bangkok that one would draw on for an international thriller set in New York or London – places like the Chulalongkorn University, the Polo Club, Spasso, Lumpini Park, Anna’s Restaurant, Starbucks, Q Bar, those sorts of places. You won’t find even one bar girl in the whole thing.

So then what are your thoughts on the farang orientated Bangkok nightlife scene?

I don’t think about it much one way or another. Maybe there was a novel in it once, but not anymore. At least not for me. Either I’ve grown up, or it’s gotten old. Or maybe it’s the other way around. I think there’s a certain myopia that develops from looking too long at Thailand through the bottom of a beer bottle. It’s a pretty much cheerless, too, and it’s just not part of my life.

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?

Yeah. I put my butt in a chair and keep it there for six or seven hours a day, six days a week, for about three months. When I do that, I find I usually end up with a novel. Mostly.

Bar Phillips, one of the characters in both The Big Mango and Tea Money bears a remarkable resemblance to a certain Mr Trink. Do you know Bernard Trink? If yes, what has his feedback been regarding "his" appearance in your novels?

No, I don’t know the guy, and I don’t know anyone who does, or now that I think of it, particularly wants to. I thought a job sort of like his might be an interesting one for a character in a novel to have, so I gave it to Bar Phillips. I’ve never heard anything from the guy about it one way or another.

When I read Tea Money, I was amazed at how clear the descriptions of Bangkok were which I felt were right up there alongside the descriptions of the city in Stephen Leather's The Solitary Man. How do you go about writing such rich and downright accurate descriptions of Bangkok?

Jeez, I’m overwhelmed at the complement. Steve Leather’s work sets an awfully high standard, and if you think I’ve even come close to meeting it, I couldn’t be happier. Still, I’m not really sure how to answer your question. I guess I love Bangkok, and because of that, I think I’ve been able to tune into it on a lot of different levels. In addition to that, my wife, her family, and our friends have given me an entré into the city and the layers of its life that very few foreigners ever get to see, or if they do, to understand what it is they’re seeing. If a richness of feeling flows out of that and becomes part of my novels, then I’m glad, because it’s that richness that makes me love the city in the first place. I’m probably guilty of over-romanticizing Bangkok a bit because of the way I feel about it, but what the hell. Too much romance is a damn sight better than not enough.

The rumour about town is that you chose not to keep any of the profits from the sale of The Big Mango and rather donate them to charity. Is this rumour true and if so, why did you decide to do this? Are you the original Mr. Jai Dee?

I don’t know where you heard that, but yeah, it’s true. There’s an orphanage here my wife and I have been helping to support for quite a while now and we signed all the royalties from the books over to them. That’s it. It’s no big deal really.

What does the future hold for Mr. Jake Needham? From your website (www.jakeneedham.com), one can see that you have also written screenplays. Do you plan to continue to write novels based in Bangkok? Is there any chance that any of your books could one day become a full length feature movie?

I intend to continue doing a book a year for a while, and no doubt many if not all of them will touch on Bangkok in one way or another because we intend to keep living here. But I’m pretty much out of the screenplay business. I wrote screenplays for ten years and was well rewarded for my efforts, but I just got bored with the things, I suppose. They’re more of a parlor trick than real writing, and maybe I’m too old to put up with all the Hollywood crap that goes with them anyway. On the other hand, if someone gave me a chance to adapt one of my own books for the screen, I’d jump at it, but as the Aussie expression goes, there are two chances of that happening: none and Buckley’s. There’s not anything in Hollywood that’s less hip now than a thriller set in Asia, except maybe one that doesn’t take itself too seriously, and my stuff pleads guilty on all counts. Don’t get me started on all that.

Even here in Thailand with only a relatively small number of Westerners, your books are very popular. Are your novels available anywhere else outside of Thailand? If yes, how popular have they been in other markets?

Yeah, Asia Books has done three printing of MANGO for Thailand alone, about fifteen thousand copies during the year or so it’s been out, and the first printing of TEA MONEY is ten thousand copies. The sales here have been really nice. The books have apparently been selling very well in Singapore and Malaysia, too. I hear I've sold something over a thousand copies of MANGO in the last six months at Changi Airport alone, and as far as I know, that happened without any promotion or publicity at all. Then, too, there’s this great story. I was introduced recently to Prince Ranariddh, the son of King Sihanouk of Cambodia and the president of their National Assembly, and he startled me considerably by starting right out to talk about how much he had enjoyed reading THE BIG MANGO. So I guess I’m selling in Cambodia as well, at least that one copy. Actually Asia Books doesn’t have much distribution outside Southeast Asia, so there’s been no real effort by them to push the books anywhere beyond this immediate area. In spite of that, however, my web site has had hits from thirty-seven countries, so I guess a lot of the books are getting around on their own. Maybe one of these days we’ll see what we can do about getting together a co-publishing deal in Europe or the States, but that’s really not a priority for me right now. I already have an enthusiastic audience right here, and I’m not sure that having a bigger one, in and of itself, would give me any greater sense of satisfaction than I already have.

Is there any message you would like to send to your many fans, both in Thailand and around the world?

Yeah. Buy more books. They make great gifts at either Easter or Halloween, depending of course entirely upon your own personal beliefs.