Eating tarantulas and other morsels of Cambodian Noir: James Farrell interviews Tom Vater

Tom Vater, author of Asian Noir

Tom Vater, author of Asian Noir

[This gritty interview of Tom Vater by James Farrell was first published in the Ciang Mai City News. Noir Nation is grateful to Mr. Farrell for the opportunity to republish it here for distribution to the international crime noir community. — The Editors ]

Farrell: Who are you and what do you do?

Vater: I am an Asia based writer and journalist. I was born in Germany, studied in the UK, played in punk rock bands across Europe in the late 80s and early 90s and have since lived in India and Thailand.

Since 1997, my feature articles have been published widely around the world – from The Times, The Guardian, Marie Claire to Penthouse. I am currently the Daily Telegraph’s Bangkok expert.

I have written numerous books on Asian themes in both German and English, most notably Sacred Skin, an illustrated book on Thailand’s sacred tattoos, with my wife, photographer Aroon Thaewchatturat.

In spring 2013, Burmese Light, an illustrated book by Hans Kemp will be published by Visionary World (HK), for which I wrote the text. Also in 2013, an illustrated book by Lonely Planet photographer Kraig Lieb titled Cambodia will be out and I wrote the text for that as well.

I am the author of two crime novels – The Devil’s Road to Kathmandu, first published in 13557570132005, now republished by Crime Wave Press in 2012 and out in Spanish with Editorial Xplora in December. My second novel The Cambodian Book of the Dead, first published with Crime Wave Press in Thailand and Cambodia in 2012, will be out worldwide with Exhibit A in June 2013.

I also write documentary screenplays with my brother, director Marc Eberle, most notably The Most Secret Place on Earth (2008), a film about the CIA in Laos in the 60s which has been broadcast in 25 countries.

Basically, I am constantly flat out with new projects and am very grateful that so many talented artists want to work with me. My working life and much of my social life revolves around a kind of little family of people working together in Asia.

Farrell: Can you tells us a little about Crime Wave Press?

Vater: Crime Wave Press is Asia’s only English language crime fiction imprint. Founded by acclaimed publisher and photographer Hans Kemp and myself in October 2012, the company is based in HK and has published four titles so far, covering thrillers set in The Philippines, Nepal, Thailand and Cambodia.

CWP currently publishes ebooks and PODs and will move into print in summer 2013. Hans Kemp and I are positively surprised by the reaction to our output. We have already sold foreign rights for two titles and are talking to a film director about optioning a third. We are looking for writers and full manuscripts. Submission guidelines can be found on our website.

Farrell: What are you working on these days?

Vater: I am working on a follow-up to The Cambodian Book of the Dead, featuring German detective Maier solving cases around Asia. UK publisher Exhibit A will publish this book, as yet untitled, in early 2014.

1355757122Farrell: Tells us about your book, The Cambodia Book of the Dead?

Vater: In 2001, German Detective Maier travels to Cambodia, a country re-emerging from a half century of war, genocide, famine and cultural collapse, to find the heir to a Hamburg coffee empire.

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, captured and imprisoned, is forced into the worst job o

Crime Wave Press have sold world-wide rights to The Cambodian Book of the Dead to British crime imprint Exhibit A, though CWP have retained English language rights for Thailand and Cambodia.

Farrell: Have you written more?

Vater: I enjoy a modest publishing career in Germany: I have published a travelogue on the source of the Ganges and a book on Thailand’s minorities, the only such title in German.  My wife Aroon has published three photo books in Germany, all on Asian subjects, all with my accompanying text.

Farrell: Did I see you with Nick Cave recently? What was that about?

Vater: My wife Aroon and I were invited to present Sacred Skin at the UBUD Writers and Readers Festival in Bali in October. We also launched Crime Wave Press at the festival. Nick Cave and John Pilger were the main draw at UBUD and we got the chance to hang out with both (separately, mind you) and talk books, politics, music, life on the road etc. Good times.

Farrell: What the most popular titles from CWP?1355757062

Vater: Our current bestsellers are The Devil’s Road to Kathmandu and Mindfulness and Murder.

The Cambodian Book of the Dead was doing well but since signing over the rights to Exhibit A we have taken it off the net. It is still available in print in Thailand and Cambodia.

Crime Wave Press will offer the high seas thriller Dead Sea by Sam Lopez for free as an e-book download from amazon on December 22,23 and 24.

Farrell: What were you doing before you sat down to answer these questions?

Vater: I was having breakfast in the Z Hotel, a small palace in Puri, Orissa, on the east coast of India. It’s a great place to get a lot of writing done.

Farrell: How does a writer in this part of the world go about being published for the first time?

Vater: Hm, I am not sure I am a typical example. When I arrived in SE Asia in 2001, I had already been published in newspapers in India and Nepal, had done a writing stint for Rough Guides and had a film writing credit under my belt (The Greatest Show on Earth, a documentary about the Maha Kumbh Mela, the largest gathering of people on the planet for GEO TV and arte) I arrived with a job as script writer and production manager for a film about Angkor, produced for German TV, which was shot in 2002. This helped me get work with regional magazines. Initially, I worked for Bangkok publications including the seminal Farang Magazine, then moved on to The Far Eastern Economic Review and The South China Morning Post. I had an agent in London who got me into international publications and finally I managed to get a foothold in the British broadsheets.

My advice to up and coming writers: Write, write, write, a thousand words a day at least. Don’t do free work for too long. Pitch, pitch, pitch, to newspapers and magazines. Don’t get disheartened by rejections. Work in many disciplines, one is not enough these days – learn other skills beyond writing, like photography, film-making, radio etc. Take constructive advice to heart. Doubt your abilities but never admit your doubts to the sharks out there. Read a lot. Develop a signature style. Don’t go after the money from the start. If you are committed and have a long breath, it will come. Don’t drink too much and don’t take too much drugs. Don’t forget to fall in love and live as much as your body and mind can sustain.

Mindfulness&Murder2Farrell: Can you talk about the Southeast Asia literary market? Do books travel? Is there a particular genre coming from this part of the world, i.e., noir?

Vater: I don’t know about genres in this part of the world. Southeast Asian countries barely have a literary scene and good novels by local writers are scarce. The novel is a western construct. The target group for CWP is clearly a western audience, whether expatriates residing in Asian countries or readers back in Europe, the US or Oz. Though we are grateful for every Asian reader.

Travelers and tourists tend to read a limited list of international bestsellers. Titles such as Wild Swans or Shantaram keep cropping up in these lists. These books clearly travel, they can be found on every second hand bookshelf between Goa and Bangkok.

The Bangkok literary scene is pretty checkered. The locally published deluge of bar girl novels is dreadful. There has been some noise about Asian Noir with veteran author Christopher Moore publishing two anthologies (Bangkok Noir and Phnom Penh Noir). John Burdett and Colin Cotterill write decent crime novels (neither writer fits into the Noir genre, mind you). Crime Wave Press does not limit its publications to Noir, our output would be too thin. We also publish whodunits, thrillers, spy novels and any other variations on the crime genre.

Farrell: Cambodian writers, as HS Thompson once said, have gotten so close to the edge they have fallen off. Does Cambodia attract writers? Why? Why do so many people go “off the rails” in Cambodia?

Cambodia is a place lots of white men go to roll around in it. ‘It’ being the country’s pervasive culture of impunity. Thanks to a corrupt and venal government, the nasty realpolitik by western donor nations and the Chinese, a bloated and self-serving NGO industry and a tragic history that would take too long to explain in the context of this interview, Cambodia is a place where everyone can do anything, so long as they have dollars in their pockets. That attracts a lot of people who call themselves writers before they have written anything of substance. Most promptly go off into the deep end and lose their pencils at the first sign of a couple of bar girls and a vial of crack. There are some notable exceptions.

Farrell: Tells us what we’ve got to look forward to for the future from CWP?

Vater: 2013 will be the year for Crime Wave Press!!! We have two new titles lined up for the spring. First up is Sister Suicide, the sequel to Mindfulness and Murder by Nick Wilgus, a second Father Ananda title, which follows the Bangkok-based Buddhist monk turned sleuth to the Thai hinterland to solve a crime involving the seven Buddhist hells. Following that we will publish a really exciting action packed thriller spanning 50 years and a trail of greed and crime that reaches from Japan to Thailand and Burma. We hope to have published about a dozen titles by the end of 2013.

Farrell: What should we do if we visit Cambodia?

513Ge3TlAxL._SL500_AA300_Vater: Pray.

No, in all seriousness, the immense suffering endured by the Cambodian people has not stopped. While the genocide is long gone and the civil war ended in 1997, Cambodians have few rights and the government is made up of former Khmer Rouge. Democracy is a sham. Evictions and political assassinations are common place, activists are routinely threatened and the police shoot to kill.

Tourists rarely see any of this. If you visit Cambodia, go and see the Angkor temples of course, which you will share with millions of package tourists from around the world. If you are seriously interested in the Angkor era, do the main temples in three days and then head to more remote sites like Banteay Chhmar or Koh Ker where you might have some temple corners to yourself.

Beyond the remnants of the Khmer empire, check out the coast around Kampot and Kep — wonderful colonial architecture and some nice beaches – and the highlands of Mondulkiri and Ratanakiri, home to the country’s indigenous minorities. For the latter, don’t wait too long, the military/government/local tycoon/ foreign company nexus are raping these parts of the country as quickly as possible and the wonderful forests, crammed with wildlife we know little about, will soon be gone.

The Cambodian people are resilient, great to hang out with, super friendly and very funky. Head out to the villages and you will be welcomed with open arms. And you might get to eat tarantulas.

Farrell: What shouldn’t we do?

Vater: Have sex with children, smoke crack, hob-nob with politicians, drink with police, support moronic NGO projects, drive without a helmet. Common sense stuff really.

ADDENDA:

Tom Vater is also an avid Punk Noir music performer. In the video below he performs as the Stetson-wearing Tom Learjet, lead guitarist of Pussy and the Learjets:

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