Author Q&A: John Burdett

  • February 13, 2012

A discussion with the author of Vulture Peak

“Nobody knows Bangkok like Royal Thai Police Detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep, and there is no one quite like Sonchai: a police officer who has kept his Buddhist soul intact — more or less — despite the fact that his job shoves him face-to-face with some of the most vile and outrageous crimes and criminals in Bangkok. But for his newest assignment, everything he knows about his city — and himself — will be a mere starting point.

“He’s put in charge of the highest-profile criminal case in Thailand — an attempt to bring an end to trafficking in human organs. He sets in motion a massive sting operation and stays at its center, traveling to Phuket, Hong Kong, Dubai, Shanghai and Monte Carlo.

“All will be revealed here, in John Burdett’s most mordantly funny, propulsive, fiendishly entertaining novel yet, Vulture Peak.”

John Burdett has published seven novels, including the Bangkok series.

Q&A with John Burdett

Did you learn more about human nature as a lawyer, writer or foreigner living abroad, observing a new and different culture?

All of the above. As a lawyer you learn about the structure of the society and, depending on the kind of law, an awful lot you don’t really want to know about people’s motivations. Family law was always the most distressing, but you did get to see people in the raw. As a foreigner living abroad, you are much more sensitive to how you are received and what the local rules are. You find yourself studying how people react to different forms of approach. Then, as a novelist, I find I have to make an effort to be fully conscious of all this, to turn what is basically subliminal calculation into a conscious analysis.

Your powers of description are amazing. Does opium have many part-time users?

Opium is virtually unknown in Bangkok these days. I am told it can be obtained in the north, in the mountains around Chiang Rai for example, but it is very much a cottage industry. A long time ago I visited a poppy farm near Mae Hong Song. It was owned by Hmong, and the perimeter was patrolled by men in black skull caps carrying AK 47′s. The people were just as hospitable and friendly as if they were growing wheat, and they insisted that we sample the product free of charge. I recall lying on my back in a bamboo hut staring at the structure of the roof and finding much meaning therein. It was a most amazing experience, but due to law and capitalism, most opium is turned into morphine and heroin, which of course are far more dangerous. So I never did get to repeat the experience.

“Not memory but displacement in time” – this is part of the character’s opium experience. Is it like being your current age but in your five-year-old setting?

I am afraid that is rather a sly reference to an experience commonly claimed for spiritual or shamanic personalities. The underlying idea is that time is a kind of illusion, a pantomime that takes place against a backdrop of infinity. The claim is that someone whose internal structure has been altered, whether by hallucinogens or spiritual discipline, is able to move within the illusion of time; usually backwards, but the future is, of course, also fair game: Nostradamus.

Do you believe that women are more evolved when they are more oppressed? In other words, are the workarounds far more sophisticated? Your women are clearly amazing characters.

The short answer is yes, but that principle does not only apply to women. Sonchai also has developed an extraordinary sophistication due to the burden of being a Eurasian son of a working girl. Also, the Chinese character, Sun Bin, has honed his intelligence to laser quality because of pressure and hardship. Another way of putting it, of course, is that modernism has made wimps of all of us and the endless combat between men and women is a consequence of a profound lack of self-respect. I would say that my women in particular are personalities who have succeeded in finding power and self-respect outside of the social structure; but that is true of almost all the men, too, including Vikorn and Lek. I guess I just love monsters.

Is it the setting in Vulture Peak that makes the reader believe that prostitution is an acceptable occupation for a young woman in Thai society?

It probably springs from my own experience. One day I was walking in the city with a young woman who had become one of my premier informants. After quite a few interviews I summoned the courage to ask: “Tell me, Nong, really, why do you work in a bar?”

As it happened, we were passing a large building site. Such projects are quite different in developing countries than in the West. Young women, with faces and heads protected by rags against the sun and the dust, were carrying bricks and cement buckets to and fro. They generally work 12 hour days for a couple of dollars a day. The work is quite dangerous and they are normally employed without written contracts; almost always they are immigrants from the Northeast, or Burma or Cambodia. Nong nodded at one of these young women, who could not have been more than seventeen years old. “See that girl? I used to do that. I was sixteen, very skinny. I worked until I was exhausted every day. My lungs were full of dust and cement powder and my skin looked like an old lady’s. On my one day off all I could do was sleep. And I didn’t earn enough to eat properly, never mind pay rent or help my parents with their medical bills.” She paused and looked at me. “Then I went to work in a bar. It’s not the way farang think. I arrive at about 11 a.m., chat with my friends. If I’m approached by a man I like, I go with him. It lasts between twenty minutes and one hour. I only have to do that twice a week to live free and help my parents, the rest of the time I hang out with my pals. Tell me, Mr. John, what would you do in my position?”

What about for the Katoeys – does their prostitution cost the same, more? What kind of sex do they practice? Does it change their kind of sexual purgatory (as for purgatory, I just mean “waiting” without all the other connotations)?

Transsexuals (katoeys) have long held a special place in Asian societies. Even today in India and Thailand they often officiate at spiritual and shamanic events. Their recognition goes back many thousands of years: it is a Buddhist tradition that there are in fact three sexes, and all of us must re-birth in the body of the “third sex” sooner or later – probably every third incarnation. However, over the past ten years there has been an extraordinary increase in their population and projection into the “entertainment” industry. As far as I can tell this is a pure example of market forces. An ever-increasing number of Western men are interested in the “katoey” market, therefore there are more and more katoeys. Generally, these are young men who decided at a very early age that they did not want to be men. The profile of a “genuine” katoey is usually a boy who, long before puberty, decides that he likes girlish things, likes to cross dress, hates physical competition and is determined never to carry the burden of a “head of family.” One big irony is that such people are often quite without libido; they put up with the sex, but their real thrill is to hang out at home in drag and do some cooking, perhaps entertaining some katoey friends. They ramp up the sexual aspect of their choice and dress sexy for the market. Of course, there are plenty of imposters who forever talk about having “the surgery” but never do so. I have no idea of the price structure for their services. I believe that, just as for working girls finding a farang husband is a way of hitting the jackpot, so with katoeys they hit pay dirt when they find a man to sponsor their gender reassignment.

What’s the so-called moral voice talking about in Thailand? Is there an entirely different Thailand that has nothing to do with the sex trade? How do they relate to one another?  (Just as Los Angeles isn’t only Hollywood even if Hollywood is most interesting to outsiders.)

This is absolutely the truth and I sometimes regret that the thriller form does not leave much room for the other side of Thailand. But we need to examine where our own “moral voice” comes from. Usually it consists of the unexamined remnants of Judeo-Christian culture that was high-jacked early on by the Roman Empire for its own purely military purposes. We need to accept that other cultures have other moral histories. In particular, all morality in Thailand comes from the Buddhist faith, which, although in many ways just as strict as Calvinism or Catholicism, is far more sophisticated in its application. You do not make people good by damaging them, whether with physical torture, mental torture, incarceration, fear of sex, war – or any of the other methods we have tried in the futile attempt to force others to think like us. In Buddhism the education is by life itself; that, in a nutshell, is why we incarnate. If people go wrong, then they need to find that out for themselves, in a environment of maximum freedom. You end up with a totally different society. The vast majority of young women in Bangkok would not dream of selling their bodies; but then, they don’t need to. The working girls almost all come from very poor farming communities, where the priority has to be survival. I suppose the local moral voice would say something like: “Honey, you screwed up pretty bad last time round and that’s why you’re an impoverished farm girl today, but now you have a chance to repair your karma by looking after your family. It may be a dirty job, but you’ve been born into a Buddhist community where the chances for personal evolution are great. Hang on, make merit, and who knows, you might find a generous old white man to take care of you for the rest of your life – and next time round you could be HiSo.”

Again, I love your description. “Frozen music” for Shanghai’s architecture. I had to add this to this interview just to read it again. Are there other places in the world that remind you of the frozen music of architecture besides Shanghai?

My Buddhist conscience forces me to admit that the idea can be traced back to Goethe. Just take a look at the baroque – and especially the rococo – architecture of western Europe of the 18th and 19th centuries, which of course was also the golden age of classical music. It amused me to apply the thought to modern-day Shanghai – not entirely ironically, because it’s quite an astonishing skyline, as is downtown Hong Kong. There are plenty of aspects of modernism that one dislikes on principle but that blow one away with astonishment at the same time. I think it’s important to be honest about that.

Texts and cell phones are now part of the story as if they are hundreds of years old, just like prostitution. What’s the next thing that will appear in our literature as if it had always existed?

iPads. Look out, I bought one this year and it’s been my constant companion ever since. I could hardly believe I was able to download all the great classics of world literature for free from the Guten Project. Wait ’til Sonchai finds out!

“The anguish of being alive is something he drowned with booze years ago,” you say this about the British? Is there an equally arresting observation about abuse that you can make about Thais, Americans?

In the Godard movie “Breathless” (A Bout de Soufflé) Jean-Paul Belmondo says something like “the French die of sclerosis, the Americans of enthusiasm.” He’s not all wrong. An awful lot of good meditation time is lost in transient bursts of enthusiasm over the next new shiny fad that keeps you high for a week or two – or a year or two – and lets you down (sub-prime joy?). As far as Thais are concerned, they may be the victims of their own favorite saying: mai penn rai: never mind. They tend to be a tad too generous in the way they forgive their political class for the endless corruption and incompetence, which is perhaps a form of moral indolence. That seems to be changing, though.

Vulture Peak was my first of your novels. Which one should a new reader read next?

I always claim that each book stands independently and you can start with any one of them. However, as an author I like to feel I’m evolving all the time, so I guess I would be happiest if people started with the last and proceeded backwards, ending with Bangkok 8. On the other hand, there are plenty of die-hards who say that Bangkok 8 is the best …


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