Thailand Personality Interviews January 30th, 2001

Stephen Leather


Interview: STEPHEN LEATHER


Stephen Leather is a very successful British thriller author with a dozen novels in print, including The Tunnel Rats, set in Bangkok and Vietnam, and The Solitary Man, set in Thailand. Recently, Stephen has become more well-known amongst those in the Bangkok nightlife scene with the release of his novel, "Private Dancer" which is set directly in Nana Plaza. The book is only available online at www.stephenleather.com where it can be downloaded for free! Here he answers some questions about himself as an author, his views on life in Thailand and about his fictional works, including "Private Dancer".

When did you first go to Thailand and since then, how much time have you spent there?

I guess I've been coming to Thailand on and off for about fifteen years. Initially I used to pop over for R&R when I was business editor of the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, but never spent more than a couple of days there and most of the time I was in Bangkok, and most of that time I was in Pat Pong. Back then there were no metered taxis at the airport and only one go-go bar in Nana Plaza.

I moved to Bangkok when I was writing The Solitary Man and The Tunnel Rats. I spent a year taking Thai classes at the AUA school and another year just travelling around Thailand, and now there are few parts of the country that I haven't visited. Now I probably spend up to six months a year in Thailand.

In the time that you have been visiting in Bangkok, how has the city changed and have the changes changed the way that you have looked at, commented on and described Bangkok in your novels?

I've been coming to Bangkok for fifteen years, on and off, and it's changed incredibly, mostly for the better. When I first came there weren't any metered taxis and getting around was a constant challenge, every taxi ride had to be negotiated in advance. People who complain about the taxi service from the airport now don't know how lucky they are. You used to arrive and be met by dozens of drivers who'd crowd around trying to get your business. It's much fairer, and safer, these days. The airport is so much better than it was, too. The immigration lines are shorter and luggage arrives in half the time it used to.

The expressways and toll roads have made a huge difference – it used to take a good ninety minutes to get from the airport to the city, now on a good day the trip takes less than half an hour. Rush hour traffic in the city has got worse, of course. Fifteen years ago tuk-tuks were a sensible way of getting around the city, now they're stuck in traffic like everyone else. I've switched to motorcycle taxis. Or the Skytrain.

The city seems to be becoming more Westernised (i.e. Americanised), especially as far as the kids are concerned, and I think that's a pity, but it's the way of the world.

Communications are way better than they were, and I love the way the Internet has revolutionised the way that bargirls keep in touch with their customers worldwide. It used to be tear-stained letters proclaiming love and asking for money for a replacement water buffalo, now it's an e-mail asking for money to pay for the mobile phone charges. Brilliant.

On the other hand, I hate the way mobile phones have taken over here. Every cinema and restaurant is now spoiled by a succession of beeps and stupid electronic tunes followed by a loud 'Hello?'

When it comes to describing Bangkok in my books, all I have to do is to tell it like it is, hopefully avoiding the clichés. Bangkok is such a mix (if not clash) of cultures, that you don't have to exaggerate anything, in fact you tend to have to tone it down because people who've never been here have a hard time believing what goes on. Until you've actually seen a full grown elephant striding down Sukhumvit Road, you'd never believe it.

Of the books that you have written, what is your favourite book and why?

Favourites are always hard to pick. The first published book is like your first real girlfriend, you always have a special place in your heart for it, but now I look at Pay Off and cringe a little. But then I cringe a little when I think of my first girlfriend. There is more of me in The Fireman than in any of my books, certainly the 'me' that spent three years living in Hong Kong. The Chinaman was a very special book because it was my first real 'bestseller' and is still selling well almost ten years after it was first published. In terms of quality of writing, Private Dancer is my favourite by far. I enjoyed writing it, and it's one of the few of my books that I actually reread from time to time.

In addition to these books, you also have some books available to download absolutely free on your website (www.stephenleather.com) Why have these books not been published and made available in print form?

I write thrillers, and over the years I have accumulated an audience that expects a certain type of book. My publisher feels that it would cause confusion to release books by me which weren't 'big international thrillers' and I do understand that point of view. But I do enjoy writing in different styles and genres, and I especially enjoy writing in the first person, something which large-scale thrillers don't lend themselves too. I figured that the best way to give them a wider audience was to put them on-line, and it's also a way of saying 'thank you' to the people who buy my books. There aren't many things in life that are totally free, and these four novels are.

There are four books available on my website as free downloads and they were all written in the first person.

Dreamer's Cat is a science fiction murder mystery that I wrote more than ten years, between writing Hungry Ghost and The Chinaman. It's a virtual reality love story, too, and when I wrote it I think it was ahead of its time. Now virtual reality films are quite common and I doubt that it'll ever get published. Pity, because I love the style of it.

The Basement is a detective story with a great twist at the end, and I think the main reason it was never published is that frankly it's too short to be a real novel, and the nature of the twist is such that it's difficult to extend it any more. I might try to write a longer version one day, because, in my humble opinion, it is a gripping story.

Once Bitten is a vampire story and I had a ball writing it. I'd like to do more horror stuff but my publisher isn't interested. It's a hard market to crack, too, because I'd be up against the likes of Stephen King.

Private Dancer is the one I'd really like to see in print, but my publisher has turned it down twice. The first time he said that to publish it might well end my writing career! There's always the option of putting it out just in Asia or under another name, but I'm reluctant to do that – it's my book and I'm proud of it, so I'd rather have it on the website rather than hide behind an alias. At the end of the download I've put a note asking people to send my publisher a postcard if they think it should be published. Hopefully if he gets enough postcards he'll have a change of heart!

"Private Dancer", is known by readers of this column as it goes into quite a bit of detail in the bar scene. What prompted you to write it and was it any more difficult to research than your other novels?

I went through a phase of bar-hopping which went on for over a year and only ended when my publisher suggested that I'd been spending too much time in Bangkok and that I ought to return to London for a while and write a book set there (I wrote The Bombmaker, though I did manage to squeeze in some South East Asian content!).

I had my fair share of bad experiences, and also spent many hours in Jool's Bar, just down the road from Nana Plaza, where I heard all sorts of horror stories of what went wrong when farangs lost their hearts to bargirls. But I also heard an equal number of horror stories from the girls, and realised that there were always at least two different sides to the equation. It's easy to write the "I was ripped off by a bargirl" story but I wanted to show that it's never as clear cut as that.

I'm quite proud that Private Dancer does show the girl's point of view, and you realise that she is doing what she has to do to survive. And I think it does go a long way to explaining why farang/bargirl relationships go wrong. It's not because the girls are Thai, it's because of the nature of their work. Hell, no one would go into a lap-dancing bar in New York or London and expect to meet the woman of their dreams, but it seems that guys just check their brains in at the door when they walk into a bar in Nana Plaza or Soi Cowboy.

The research was easy – all I had to do was sit and listen. Anyone who has lived for any length of time in the Land of Smiles has a horror story to tell. They always have a million wonderful things that have happened to them, but that would be a different book. And I spent time with a sociologist who has written about the Thai bar scene, and a Thai private detective who is often paid to check out whether bargirls are being faithful or not. But it has to be made clear that it is a work of fiction. A novel. It's not a true story.

What are your thoughts on the Thailand nightlife scene?

I go through phases of loving it and hating it. I think it's almost impossible to participate in the bar scene for a long period of time without becoming damaged by it, and that goes for the customers as well as the girls.

When you first walk into a go-go bar it's like, 'wow, this is heaven' and then after a while you realise that it isn't heaven. It's a factory where girls learn how to relieve customers of their money as quickly and efficiently as possible. Now if you can keep that thought in your head, that it's solely about money, then you can sit back and enjoy it. It's like going into a casino – the only healthy way is to set a limit on how much you are going to lose, and regard that as what it costs to have a good time. If you go into a casino expecting to win, you're a fool. Similarly, if you go into a bar looking for a relationship, you're deluding yourself. You have to go in realising that you're going to have a great time, but that you are going to pay for that great time.

How has the farang orientated nightlife industry changed during this time?

I don't reckon it's as much fun as it was fifteen years ago, but maybe that's because I'm getting older. Certainly the girls don't seem as pretty as they used to, and it's rare to see a girl actually dance in a go-go bar, now they just seem to shuffle. The music has definitely taken a turn for the worse, I don't understand why the owners let the DJs play music that the girls can't dance to. What was wrong with good old rock and roll?

Pat Pong used to be the place to go to bar-wise, but these days it's more a shopping venue and a place for tourists. That's no bad thing, I guess, but the bars are suffering as a result. The first go-go bar I ever went to was Pussy Galore in Pat Pong, and it was packed to the rafters, great music, everyone having a great time. These days it's quite a sad place and generally empty. As leases come up for renewal, the bars seem to be moving out and handbag shops are moving in. There's good restaurants there now, and more families seem to be going – though I've never figured out why Westerners think it's a cool thing to take their children to a red-light area.

Fifteen years ago Nana Plaza was just a collection of beer bars and it was a quiet place to go for a drink. Wow, has it changed. I reckon it peaked about five years ago, and was completely spoiled when they filled in the middle of the plaza with all the outdoor bars. Too packed to move these days and God knows what'll happen if ever there's a fire there. It's still my favourite place to go, though. It's great to sit at the entrance to the plaza, watching the ebb and flow of the place, seeing the girls arrive on the back of their boyfriends' motorbikes, seeing them walk in and out with customers or to grab food from the street vendors, then seeing the boyfriends come back at two in the morning to pick up their meal tickets. Great stuff. All human life is there. Well, the seedy side, anyway.

The disturbing thing for me is that the girls stay the same age as I get older. When I first hit the bars I was in my late twenties, and the girls were five or six years younger. I'd sit and drink and play stupid games and laugh at the old farts nursing their Singhas and sitting with girls half their age. Now I'm one of the old farts (okay, I drink whisky and coke, but that's not the point) and it's rare for me to see a girl who isn't young enough to be my daughter. That changes your perspective, somewhat. It seemed to happen so quickly, too. That's the scary thing. I guess in another blink of the eye I'll be in my sixties and the girls will be young enough to be my grand-daughters, though hopefully by that time I'll have come to my senses and will be sitting at home with a cup of cocoa and my slippers on. We'll see.

What does the future hold for Mr Stephen Leather, master thriller writer? From your website, one can see that you have also dabbled in TV work. Do you plan to continue to write thrillers or does TV and perhaps the cinema industry interest you more?

More books, for sure. I'm trying to write one a year. More TV work, because that's a lot less solitary than writing novels. And I'd love to see Private Dancer made as a movie.