Interview: NICOLAS MERRIWETHER
Nicolas Merriwether's first novel, Apsara Jet, was released in late 2001. Set in Thailand, Cambodia and Myanmar, it is the story of a down and out pilot who gets a job offer that seems just a little too good to be true. The story takes place in this exotic part of the world, both in the air and on the ground, including some of the more salubrious locations that South East Asia is known for. From reading the book, it is obvious that Nicolas knows this part of the world and I was very luck to have the opportunity to interview him.
What was it that first brought you to Bangkok and when was that?
As I recall, it was summer or spring of 1969, I was a young flight engineer for the Flying Tigers cargo airline, passing through on layovers. There obviously wasn't the sky train back then and there weren't nearly as many people as there are now, there were a
lot of GIs in town too on their R+R. All in all, as an older guy, looking back 33 years, the ladies look "same same" just from a different generation. Although not many young Americans here now, as back then. But, I guess as long as I don't look into a mirror, it all is about the same, like a bit of a time warp! The old pilot hangouts back then were Lucy's Tiger Den, The Roaring 20s, The Barrel and the Cloud Nine, all over around Patpong II and Silom Road area.
What was it like with the GIs here? Were they flooding the streets, were they just found and confined to certain areas or could you find them all over the show?
There were certain GI hotels around town, some areas where they kind of were concentrated in. Some of them just minded their own business and some of them kind of went crazy, which isn't surprising considering the chaos that they came to get rest and
recuperation from. A couple of my close friends who first arrived in Bangkok back then, went AWOL, but were given a chance to get a get out of jail free card, so they didn't end up in Leavenworth. Its still as interesting a town now as back then, maybe more so. I think I was a little more naive back then than I am now. <laughter from both of us>
So what do you think is better about Bangkok now, than the time when you first came here, many moons ago?
The metered taxis for one and the fact that because of the financial crisis, it is very good
value, in fact it offers better value than just about anywhere. You get pretty damned good value for your hard earned money spent. I do wonder if they didn't have the recent crash if it would be as popular as it is now, at the old exchange rate of 20 baht to the dollar.
What do you think is worse about Bangkok now than when you first came – or what did you prefer about the city back then, to now?
I can recall the horrible flooding of the streets back then which we used to wade through waist deep water. So I guess the flood control seems to have been improved on these days over the past. I know I liked the music played at the a-go gos better back then, Jimi Hendrix's "Voodoo Child" and "a Whiter Shade of Pale" also, the girls were happier with their natural hair colour back then. I think like with every young man, and I was in my 20s remember, was struck by the beauty of Thai women. Their grace, elegance and sheer beauty, and for someone who may have led a rather sheltered life, I was pretty much naive to the greater things of nature at that time. But I was a fast study, lets just leave it at that. <laughter again>
You're a pilot. Is being a pilot as much fun as many of us imagine it to be? I mean it is like a dream job, just one step below a formula 1 driver!
I think so, but I think its the only job that I can think of, that I ever wanted. You know when you turn 60 years old, it's is all over – that is mandatory retirement age in the
United States for a captain and I'll miss it. I feel very lucky, very privileged to have been able to fulfil my dream career from the standpoint of going back to when I was a kid, leaning up against a fence at the airport, dreaming of airplanes and then actually going through the whole gamut and ending up in the left seat of a 747 flying international routes, nah, I wouldn't change it for the world.
So you wanted to be a pilot when you were a little nipper running around?
Sort of, yeah. I had other aspirations but being a pilot was more of an adventure, like the comic book character "Steve Canyon" and a hell of a good way to defer ever growing up and becoming an adult, a thing that I am still trying to stave off to this day.
What about the book? How long had the book been in the back of your mind for?
Actually not very long. Probably about three to six months after I had the idea to write the book I actually put pen to paper. I didn't have a computer then. Shortly thereafter I got a
computer and the actual writing of the book took a little under two years.
Thats a long time – but you were a pilot during that time
Yes, I was working during my time off and I found it to be very difficult and disconcerting to take my computer with me and work on layovers because I just couldn't seem to write
on a layover in say San Francisco or Indianapolis in the middle of winter time when its
snowing outside and I'm trying to think of brown skin and narrow derrieres of South East Asia. I had a hard time concentrating and a lot of it was sleep depravation due to the kind of hours we work flying cargo. It is different from passenger Carriers.
I'm sitting across from you, a fellow I have met before who strikes me as a real gentleman, yet I imagine that the enduring memory that many people will have of this book will be of the heavy sex scenes which are less common from say a male author than a female author. What were they like to write?
Actually they were difficult to write because it seemed that when you know how to write as a person visualizing this in your mind but when you read it, it sounded laughable! And yet, there was an edge that I wanted to create that didn't pull any punches. I wanted to add raw, hard-edged eroticism and so I kept coming back and looking at it from different angles, and some people think that I went too far in its present state, but then there are a
few people that think that I didn't go far enough. So having both critiques, must mean that I did something right, because I ended up somewhere in the middle! Being very erotic but not being vulgar and offensive, if that is a possibility? While I know that the controversy of whether I took it too far, or not far enough, to me is a moot point, and is for the individual reader to decide. I can tell you that my intent was to strongly focus on the "reality" of the human sex drive, libido, or whatever you wish to call it? It's within all of us, from the
teenage girl, to the very old man, and being at the center of us, it's what makes us human. Like it or not, this visceral driving force from within guides us through much of our life.
Has there been that much feedback about the book – I know it hasn't been out that long yet, and these sex scenes?
I've had some feedback from some customers via the Internet, both through Amazon and
my own website. Many of the people depending on where they are coming from. I noticed that from certain people from different backgrounds – many people seemed to be from the military – and many of these people are in their 40s or 50s – or they have retired and / or had experience in the Vietnam era and it seemed like it struck a chord with them. But on the other hand I did recently send copies to some of the US Navy ships off Afghanistan for their library, and I have gotten some feedback from the sailors – and they are definitely in the younger category and they loved every bit of it. They liked the characters – they talked about characters by name as if they were their heroes and it was all sort of strange because here you have some guys pushing 60 years old and some younger, barely 20, and they all think the characters are kind of cool!
The book covers what I term naughty nightlife, in parts. What are your thoughts on naughty nightlife in this part of the world?
I think its great. I think its great to have an option and not have the sort of hang ups that we have in the States. Personally, I think its good to have options, and so its good to see in Thailand, an older guy walking hand in hand with a young girl. Even in a place like mainland China – which might blow your mind, but I have seen a teacher in his 70s walking down the street hand in hand with a teenage girl and no-one even turned a head. I don't think you could do that in somewhere like Los Angeles, San Francisco or New York without someone complaining, and calling for his arrest.
Did you have any particular goals with this book – did you set out to write a book, to see if you could, for fun, or do you perhaps see yourself as a novelist in the future?
It sort of evolved and came in stages. I think initially it was gee, could I do this? And then it became, I'm doing it and then it became well I have done it so now what do I do with it? I don't really take myself that seriously about anything except that I am serious about trying to enjoy life, retain my sense of humour and keep my perspective on what really matters. But of course, I would like to be considered a serious novelist. I know I'm not an Earnest Hemingway and I never will be, but I'd like to be able to introduce a certain product to the market that people perhaps say "I like this guy" and they can sit down on say an airplane from New York to Tokyo and read the book cover to cover before landing. I want to write books that people don't have to think too hard about, just to read them. Above all else, my book should entertain the reader. "Entertain" is the key word here, I wrote the book to entertain people. Granted, I zeroed in on my target guy audience, but the point is, I want to give people a good exciting read! People, possibly who are not great adventurers, or world travellers, but who can vicariously lose themselves in the pages. The biggest thrill of all is getting customer feedback. One fellow the other day, a former green beret sent me a nice long email about how he loved "Apsara Jet" so much and that it took him back to when he was in Bangkok back in '65 or '69 and it made me feel real good. A very "alive" former soldier, who by the way, is happily married to an Isaan Thai girl and is living in Idaho today. Another customer, an American guy who just retired and moved to Chiang Mai, relayed that he read the book in one sitting, cover to cover, choosing not sleep one night.
Are you happy with how the book turned out?
Probably not as happy as I would have liked to have been, but at some point, it is sort of like being a chef, you have got to declare that the food is cooked and is ready to serve. I suppose all writers feel that in some ways there manuscript could have had more polish, it could have had more things happening in it and it could have been a longer story. But I don't regret anything, as those ideas are for other stories to come.
Obviously you have plans to write more. Will they be novels of a smaller nature set in this part of the world and will they appeal to the same type of audience that this book appeals to?
I think yes on all points. I'd like to have a style of writing that would develop a following. I'd like people to enjoy this first book of course too, but I would like to have a book to follow in its footsteps that they will enjoy even more, that's my goal. The locale in this next story will definitely be South East Asia, but I'd rather not say exactly where. I will say that my books will continue to be set in his region, for several books to come. Make no mistake, these will also be "guy " books, "in your face" intense, erotic, and action filled. When you pick up a book by Nicolas Merriwether, and although the stories will be entirely different and the characters will be entirely different, from book to book, I would like the reader to feel as if, the only way they could possibly be any better, would be if they came with a free ice cold 6 pack of Budweiser and a pizza.
There are a few other South East Asian novelists, for want of a better term, Westerners writing in this part of the world. Have you read much of the other stuff that is out there?
No, I haven't read but a couple so far. I do feel lucky to have had the opportunity so far to meet Jake Needham, and Christopher G Moore. I hope also to meet up with Steven Leather in a few weeks. I have found the other authors so far, to be very interesting and I hope to further the friendship with all of them in time.
Tell us a little about yourself. Obviously you do a job that a lot of us dream about so what does a pilot do for fun in his spare time?
It varies. I collect automatic weapons…but my real love is music. I love the guitar and I love to play the guitar, or more specifically, I like playing' the blues. My heroes growing up were Freddie King, BB King, Albert King and all the great younger blues players too, like Stevie Ray Vaughan. You know, I just sort of lose myself in the intensity of playing blues. I think I've got about 25 different Fender Stratocasters and dozens of old amps, and you know, I wouldn't part with any of them.
You're retirement will come some time in the not too distant future. Where do you think you'll settle?
Well, without a doubt, I'll probably spend at least a third to half the year in South East Asia. Most likely Bangkok, but I have a lot of friends that live and work in Phnom Penh too, and a lot of my heart's still in Cambodia, from my experiences in 1975 and all.
That just about wraps it up. Is there anything that you would like to add?
Only that I believe that the customer is always right. For those who have read the book and liked it, as the guy who wrote it, I'm real happy. And for those who read it and were disappointed, or just plain didn't like it, all I can say is, hey, give me another chance… Work on my second book is underway.
Oh, yeah one last thing, Nicolas Merriwether firmly believes there is absolute truth in that old lyric of "faster horses, younger women, older whisky!"
Apsara Jet is available in Bangkok at Asia Books and Bookazine stores. It can also be purchased online through Amazon.com.