John Burdett 2010

 
John Burdett
 
How to explain the works of John Burdett?  To say that he writes books about a cop in Bangkok would be factual, but not entirely accurate.  To say that he writes a fever dream into a mystery would be perhaps more accurate, but not complete.  He writes about a cop in Bangkok.  An amazing cop in a city most of us have only heard about on tv or in cheesy muscial numbers by ABBA.  He makes Bangkok come alive, step into your room, and seriously mess with your mind.  And when it's all over... you say thank you and look for another book.
 
 
Drew:
So we'll lead off with the most obvious question, and one I'm sure you've answered innumerable times: why Thailand?
 
John:
 I went to work as a lawyer in Hong Kong in 1982 and stayed until 1996. During that time various studies described H.K. as second only to Beirut in terms of the stress endured by its citizens - but Beirut was in the middle of a civil war. I make this point to give a sense of the need all of us expats in Hong Kong felt for somewhere - say a vacation dream land - where the pace was slower and the culture interested in something other than money. My first escape was to the Philippines, where I was blown away by the beauty of the islands. Thailand, however, which I first visited in 1984, had something extra. Unlike the Philippines it was a fully integrated, centralized society in which the people seemed far more interested in relaxation and meditation than the insane pursuit of dough. I was addicted on that first visit and went back about four times a year after that, to save my sanity. When the opportunity eventually arose to write crime fiction based in Southeast Asia, the choice of country was a no-brainer.
 
 
Drew:
Buddhism has played a central role in all four books, particularly in the last.  Did you decide to integrate Theravada Buddhist practices into the stories simply because it's the religion of the land, or was the idea of a semi-corrupt cop aspiring to monkhood just too interesting a contrast to pass up?
 
John:

You could describe me as an accidental Buddhist. I knew very little about Buddhism until I started writing the Sonchai books. I thought that if I'm going to have a Thai cop as the central character, I need to know how he is going to react as a Buddhist. I started off with some of the the Dalai Lama's books, which, I have to confess, I was not particularly impressed with, although the personality of the D.L. is very attractive. When I hunted around some of the religious bookshops in Bangkok for more detailed information about what serious Buddhists do with their minds, I was astonished to find a number of detailed descriptions of the meditation experience and how to acquire it. I realised that this was something I'd been seeking all my life: a map of the mind which actually worked and could be applied practically. I confess the narrative benefits also became obvious: a cop who is striving to follow a path to enlightenment whilst serving a crook of monstrous proportions in the form of Colonel Vikorn. I have not, by the way, ever formally become a Buddhist: I prefer to see Buddhism as a science of the mind that requires no ritual, although I remain fascinated by the role ritual plays in Thai Theravada.

 
 
Drew:
One of the hallmarks of the Bangkok series are the descriptions of food good enough to make a reader salivate.  Do you have a favorite Thai delicacy?
 
John:
I forgot to mention that in addition to its other attractions, Thailand is a food culture. The other country where I spend a lot of time is also a food culture: France. Having been brought up on school meals in government schooling in the U.K., I have spent my adult years seeking compensation in world cuisine. Food cultures are different, people tend to be more easy going, less work-obsessed, more sensitive to other art forms, more alert to the bounty and variety of nature - okay, I may be exagerating here, but food cultures are infectious in the way they teach an appreciation of the art de vivre. Having said that, I have to admit one of my favorite Thai dishes is a kind of miniature custard pie made on the street with coconut cream and durian as a filling - and quite a lot of sugar.
 
 

Drew:

Sonchai occasionally addresses the reader with the assumption that they're farang, someone of European descent.   Did you always know you wanted him to address the reader this way?
 
John:

Addressing the reader is of course a very old technique which I adapted originally on instinct. I use it to break up the narrative and introduce a different perspective. Once I'd realised how useful it was I also realised I was going to continue to use it. I'm not entirely happy about using the word "farang" because some readers find it off-putting, as if the word is an insult. It is not really, though I suppose it is not particularly respectful. I've thought of using "Dear Reader" but it doesn't have the same impact. There is also the feeling, I think, that Sonchai has something urgent to say to foreigners, as if the books are a chance for him to get something off his chest - the voice of the Third World, you might say. 

 

 

Drew:

Ok, a pronunciation question: Vikorn - V-eye-corn, vee-corn,  or something else I haven't even thought of?

 
John:

Vigh korn.

 
 
Drew:
Although the Bangkok books are mystery novels, some of them seem to almost back-burner the central mystery for  long segments in order to address different aspects of Thai society.  (This isn't a criticism at all, by the way; I found the Tietsin segments of Godfather absolutely fascinating)  Do you decide early own how much of the novel will be devoted to the mystery, and how much to Sonchai's personal life, or is it more of a case of  just wait and see how it comes out?
 
John:
I am as interested in the background - what is happening on the street and why - as the plot. I have found readers seem to like the idea of a crime thriller with a central character who is interested in food, religion and the social background of prostitutes and who is liable to be distracted from the pursuit of law and order from time to time. I am not much attracted to thrillers which are a trail of murders and clues with no depth.

 

Drew:

This one's purely personal curiosity: is the elephant game from Haunts a real practice, or did you make that one up?
 
John:
I got the game from an autobiography called The Damage Done, by Warren Fellows who spent 12 years in Thai prisons. I believe I have described the game itself more or less as he gives it.
 
 
Drew:

Sonchai's life has changed a great deal between the ending of Bangkok Haunts and the opening of The Godfather of Kathmandu.  Why did you decide to make such drastic changes in his life? (Again, not a criticism -  it absolutely floored me.)

 
John:

There is no certainty but change.

 

 
Drew:

                                            Now a couple of personal questions:

Are there any authors you feel were especially influential to you
 
John:

It terms of recent development of the thriller genre, using a foreign detective as hero, I owe a great debt to Cruz Smith for Gorky Park, which I continute to consider one of the great masterpieces of late 20th century literature. On a more general note, I have been much influenced by Graham Green, Lawrence, Joyce, Genet. I am a also a great fan of Elmore Leonard, although I'm not sure how much influence he has had.

 

 
Drew:
What did you buy with your first royalty check (if you remember).
 
John:

The first was very small. I believe I bought some durian and feasted on it at home (durian is a Southeast Asian fruit famous for its rich custardy taste and notorious for its noxious odour).

 



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