BPM: BOOK POSTMORTEM is delighted and intrigued to interview the successful crime novelist, JAKE NEEDHAM, author of nine stories based in Asia. And published there, I might add.
As an ex-pat American embedded in Asia for some twenty-five years – Bangkok, Thailand and, I believe now Singapore, what is it that continues to draw you to the region? I gather that you wound up in Asia more or less accidentally for corporate reasons as a lawyer, but, excluding family anchors, what keeps you there? The people, sights, smell, atmosphere?
JAKE: Nothing really. Like most of life, my presence in Asia is just an accident.
I was one of the producers on a film I had written for HBO that was shooting in Thailand back in the early 1990’s and I met my wife there. She had been born in Bangkok, but had grown up in the UK. After graduating from Oxford, she was with some difficulty persuaded to go back to Thailand to become the editor of the Thai edition of the popular UK magazine ‘Tatler.’ We met when she was on the set one day with one of her writers who was doing a piece about us for the magazine.
After we were married, it seemed natural to stay in Bangkok since she had a magazine to run and I could continue to do the screenplay work I was doing from almost anywhere. Over time, however, life changed as it generally does for everyone. She gave up the magazine business and I gave up the screenplay business and we had a son. When Charles started boarding school in Connecticut, we began dividing our time pretty evenly between Thailand and the United States. Our son has graduated from college now, but we’re still doing pretty much the same thing. However, following the last coup staged by the Thai army, we spend a lot more time in the US than we do in Thailand. I suppose the simple truth is that both of us, for entirely different reasons, find Thailand far less congenial now that it was twenty-five years ago.
BPM: In my view, your Sam Tay has an innocence embedded in his character, an ingenuous quality that is both endearing and puzzling, given his career as a policeman. You have, in another interview, rightly pointed out that a writer’s characters, from heroes to villains, are all parts of the writer. As a worldly wise, widely travelled ex-lawyer, would you admit to such an aspect to your own makeup?
JAKE: I’ve never heard the word ‘innocence’ applied to Sam Tay before, but I suppose it’s not a completely off-the-wall characterization. Sam certainly isn’t naïve or morally innocent, he just laments the loss of the more straightforward world in which he grew up. Or perhaps he only imagined he grew up in a more straightforward world. Sometimes he’s not absolutely sure.
I think of Sam as a man continually disappointed by his discoveries of how muddled the world really is now. In middle age he has developed a keen sense of time having passed too quickly and for far too small a purpose. His values are clear and straightforward, and the older he becomes the clearer it is to him that straightforward values are out of style. I think that makes him a bit old fashioned rather than innocent.
BPM: Yes, I get that.
Caught in between your two series, both not only successful, but gaining momentum steadily, you profess a desire to do something different. As a writer myself, I have several plots vying for attention besides my own series which has several tales to run. Can you give us some idea of what shape your own possible somethings might take?
JAKE: Ever since I made that comment in an interview, people have been asking me what this other thing I want to do might be, and I have no idea what to tell them. None at all.
When I said that, I was simply lamenting the difficulty of keeping up with both series. In an era in which readers are able to consume books at a voracious rate because of their easy availability and relatively low cost, an expectation has developed that writers ought to produce books at the same rate their readers consume them. When people are fond of a series, they want a new titles as soon as they have finished the last one. Not very long ago a writer who produced one book a year was considered quite prolific. These days, you need to produce at least two books a year or readers start thinking of you as lazy.
I would like to add one book to each of my two series every year, but I’ve found that’s simply impossible for me to do. And it’s out of the question for me to write anything else without letting one or both series slide altogether. But I’m not about to do that. I’m terrified of my readers. If I stopped producing book in their favorite series, some of them would almost certainly show up at my front door and kick the crap out of me.
BPM: I applaud your thoughts on the dinosaur of mainstream publishing and the excitement you express regarding the new frontier of ePub and self-pub. Besides writing a gripping and captivating story, the writer has to learn a lot more about the basics of editing, cover design, marketing, distribution and sales. This would not leave much time for writing, of course. How do you get around that, if not by once more putting yourself in the hands of, well, a publisher of sorts?
JAKE: I don’t think you do get around that. Not having a publishing company coping with all of the non-writing stuff and hustling constantly to keep your name and your titles in front of readers is a tremendous burden. You get something back for assuming that burden, of course – your independence and your self-respect for starters – but that doesn’t decrease the weight of it.
Writing is an individual endeavor, but publishing is a team sport. When I decided to terminate all my publishing contracts and go it alone instead, I simply accepted that I would fall far behind my brothers and sisters who had other people helping to push them along. I confess that now I feel like an individual playing a sport against a team of several dozen on the other side of the field.
How do you do that? Simple. You understand and accept that you are going to lose.
BPM: In what way has a screen-writing background helped, or hindered, your novelist career?
JAKE: You know, that’s a question that no one is ever asked me before. And now that you have, I’m not sure what the right answer is.
My first novel was THE BIG MANGO, and I wrote it strictly on a whim. I had absolutely no idea how to write a novel. I’d never tried to write a novel before, never even thought about it or met anyone who had, so I think what I ended up with was a screenplay in prose format.
The best proof of that is probably that the film rights to MANGO have been under option more or less constantly since it was first published more than twenty years ago, but I’ve never had even a tickle of interest from film or television with respect to any of my other books. Of course, no one ever actually made MANGO into a film either, but those option fees have been a nice little earner for the last twenty years.
BPM: By strange coincidence, the only excerpt from any book read to me/our class at high school that I can name, because it made a lasting impression, was Richard Halliburton’s daring adventures. He took on challenges that these days would only be attempted with a huge back up team and the newest technology. His setting off into what was quite likely to be a one-way trip to disaster was, it seems, inspiring to us both! Has your own life been in any similar way physically challenging?
JAKE: Not in any way. Oh, I’ve had the odd scrape in a dark alley where I shouldn’t have been or some other encounter with an unpleasant reality here or there – you couldn’t live in Asia for twenty-five years without stuff like that happening to you – but they were all things that were entirely accidental. I have never in my life set out intentionally to have an adventure. I simply have never felt the need.
BPM: Thank you for all your insights, Jake. It is all invaluable to any writer, established or not. BOOK POSTMORTEM has enjoyed keeping up with the life of Sam Tay, but has yet to meet Jack Shepard. An introduction would be most welcome.
to learn more about Jake Needham’s international crime novels:
THE GIRL IN THE WINDOW
THE DEAD AMERICAN
THE KING OF MACAU
THE UMBRELLA MAN
A WORLD OF TROUBLE
THE AMBASSADOR’S WIFE
THE BIG MANGO