My guest today is Tom Vater. Tom is a writer and publisher specializing in crime fiction and Asian subjects.
Hi Tom, thank you for joining me.
Would you like to kick off by telling my readers and I a little about yourself and your background?
I have walked across the Himalayas, dived with hundreds of sharks in the Philippines, and witnessed the Maha Kumbh Mela, the largest gathering of people in the world. I have travelled with sea gypsies and nomads, pilgrims, sex workers, serial killers, rebels and soldiers, politicians and secret agents, artists, pirates, hippies, gangsters, police men and prophets. Some of them have become close friends.
I’m a journalist and author of books, both fiction and non-fiction, and have lived and worked in Asia for more than twenty years. I haven’t slept in the same place for more than three months since 1994. Always on the road.
How did your journey as a writer begin?
I was living in a cheap room in a cheap guest house on Freak Street in Kathmandu in the mid 90s. The couple in the room next door had cycled from Europe to Nepal and were trying to sell stories about their adventures. I was in Nepal recording indigenous music, I had a tiny grant from the British Library to do this. The couple’s English wasn’t great, so I helped them edit their stories and then went to a local newspaper with them. They sold one of their stories and I asked the editor if he’d buy a story by a foreigner about Nepali music and he said yes.
I don’t think I’ve done anything else professionally since then, other than writing. I wrote a few articles for the paper in Kathmandu and then went back to the UK and was interviewed by Rough Guides and then sent to Thailand to write part of a guidebook. Once in Thailand, I started working for local magazines. Then international ones. Now I’ve been a journalist for more than 20 years, covering cultural, economic stories across South and Southeast Asia for a bunch of media outlets. And I write crime novels and co-own a crime fiction publishing house, Crime Wave Press .
Incidentally, that couple, I met them again a year or so later in Thailand and by that time they’d been on the road for so long, they’d gone crazy. They thought everyone was out to get them. We spent a couple of days together in the south and had planned to travel to a remote island by the Thai Burmese border. But then they suddenly accused me of having stolen some of their money and broke into my hotel room to beat the crap out of me. They didn’t find their money of course and scuttled away eventually. I lifted that moment into my first novel, The Devil’s Road to Kathmandu.
What motivates you to write?
It puts food on my table. I like telling stories. I have travelled a fair bit, met a lot of interesting people. I tell their stories or stories about them or about people like them. A magazine article is one way to do this, my bread and butter way. My crime novels are another way to do it, a totally different way of story-telling with different techniques and different priorities.
What are the hardest and easiest parts about being a writer?
As the market has consolidated around a few huge publishers, it has become more difficult to find publishers for fiction, in whatever genre, that’s a little niche. And it has become harder for smaller publishers to sell books. So I think making a living from fiction is a real challenge.
Finding an idea, a spark tantalizing enough to invest in a book that will take six months to produce, is also tricky. I only have those kind of ideas every now and then.
The easiest part of being a writer is letting go of your book once it’s published. Usually I am already working on something else. In some ways it feels like it is no longer mine, it belongs to the world. Of course books published with small press need continued nurturing once they are out, a job writers are rarely made for.
Do you work to an outline or plot or do you prefer just to see where an idea takes you?
I’ve done both. I mapped out my first novel, The Devil’s Road to Kathmandu, on a wall in the room I wrote in, with little colour coded papers to control the pacing, have an over view and to flesh out the characters in their own charts etc.
I still follow this technique to some point though it now all happens on my screen. That said, I never stick to the outline, no matter how detailed it is. I get ambushed by my own ideas, and change course and then spend ages to find simple, natural and plausible ways to get back to my original route. Or abandon that altogether.
Tell us about your Detective Maier series and what inspired the first book?
The Cambodian Book of the Dead was largely inspired by my own experiences in Cambodia in the early 2000s. The country was chaotic and unruly, a few years after the long civil war had ended. The genocide of the Khmer Rouge communists which had taken place in the mid to late 1970s still dictated a lot of life and politics there at the time. The country was awakening from a terrible nightmare and for a while there was a dark but also hopeful vibe there, very raw, that permeated everything. I had been wanting to write about a German detective, a former conflict journalist, solving cases involving Germans abroad. And I had been a German correspondent in Southeast Asia by then for some years. I wanted to write about familiar territory. So I sent Maier to Cambodia, in search of the young heir to a Hamburg coffee empire who’d gone off the rails and disappeared.
Monsoon Ghost Image is the third book in the series, can you tell us a bit about it?
When award-winning German conflict photographer Martin Ritter disappears in a boating accident in Thailand, the nation mourns the loss of a cultural icon. But a few weeks later, Detective Maier’s agency in Hamburg gets a call from Ritter’s wife. Her husband has been seen alive on the streets of Bangkok. Maier decides to travel to Thailand to find Ritter. But all he finds is trouble and a photograph. As soon as Maier puts his hands on the Monsoon Ghost Image, the detective turns from hunter to hunted – the CIA, international business interests, a doctor with a penchant for mutilation and a woman who calls herself the Wicked Witch of the East all want to get their fingers on Martin Ritter’s most important piece of work – visual proof of a post 9/11 CIA rendition and the torture of a suspected Muslim terrorist on Thai soil. From the concrete canyons of the Thai capital to the savage jungles and hedonist party islands of southern Thailand, Maier and his sidekick Mikhail race against formidable foes to discover some of our darkest truths and to save their lives into the bargain.
What is your favourite part or scene in the Monsoon Ghost Image? Can you give us a peek?
There’s a lot of gripping actions scenes as well reflective moments in the novel. In this particular scene, Maier meets Dr Suraporn, a plastic surgeon for the first time, as he traces the movements of Martin Ritter, the photographer has been tasked to find. He encounters a little more than he can chew.
The Good Doctor
The reception area was dressed in hushed beige. A glass fridge bulged with small cartons of cold mineral water and vitamin juices, complimentary for waiting patients. TIME Magazine and the local English language papers sat neatly stacked alongside fashion magazines on the glass table in the center of the room. Ambient music hummed from invisible speakers. It was cool, rather than arctic. A framed photograph of the Thai king holding a camera graced a wall.
A photo of the doctor taken in front of the Statue of Liberty, accompanied by his wife, shirt unbuttoned and vivacious, and three kids, faced Maier. It looked like an ad for American family values. Except that the doctor was Thai.
The remaining walls were bare.
Dr. Suraporn, one of the country’s leading plastic surgeons, would have time for Maier in a few minutes, the lady at reception had told the detective in lilting but flawless English. Maier judged, by the professional attention she was bestowing on him that dropping Ritter’s name carried weight.
Hans had furnished Maier and Mikhail with the doctor’s identity in the early hours of the previous night, dead drunk and psychologically strong-armed by the detectives to help find the photographer. A wad of cash, Vitamin M as the Thais sometimes called it, had smoothed the passage.
Despite the crushing hangover, Maier felt optimistic. He was closing in on Martin Ritter. This was bigger than a man’s disappearance. This stank of the serious stuff – life, death, dignity, history. Maier also knew he was back, doing what he did best. He wasn’t sure whether he wanted to be back, but at least it was more agreeable than waking up in his apartment in Altona, surprised to be alive. Maier had risen from a dark slumber. Bangkok had a rejuvenating effect, it seemed. For a split second the detective wondered whether he was deluding himself in the same manner as the Fellinis on the street.
“Good morning. Let’s get right to the point as I have a consultation in fifteen minutes. What can I do for you? You’re not a prospective patient, I understand. You are here to inquire about someone else’s surgery? ”
Dr. Suraporn was reasonably handsome, 40ish, almost tall, sharp grey suit and hair cut out of a 90s John Woo movie, an expensive but rather small and effeminate watch on his left wrist and a pair of almost square rimless and impossibly delicate glasses on his nose. His face looked like it enjoyed the world’s best moisturizers and spa treatments.
“Thanks for taking a moment to see me, doctor.”
Shaking hands, Maier detected something unsettling in the doctor’s radiant expression, the same undercurrent he’d felt when he’d studied the family picture outside. Suraporn welcomed the detective with a curious, apparently open smile momentarily grounded in utter fakery before turning into seasoned and earnest professionalism in a matter of nanoseconds. A small shock passed through the detective. This man was very dangerous. He’d shown his true face, on purpose.
Maier tried to look detached and at ease.
“So you are here about the famous war photographer who blew up in Thailand. Incredible story, Detective…Mr. Maier. I read all about it.”
“When was the last time you saw Martin Ritter?”
Suraporn waved Maier onto a leather couch so white, the detective was sure he’d leave part of his shadow behind when he got up again.
“Even if Mr. Ritter had been my patient, I am sure you understand, I am not in a position to divulge information about any procedure he might have had here. It would clearly be unethical. Even, I should say, if you come to me in the name of this man’s widow.”
Maier chose conversational, though he felt increasingly uneasy in the too cold office.
“You have a great reputation for skin grafts and cosmetic surgery, Dr. Suraporn.”
The doctor let the question drop to the dead ground as if it had never been uttered.
“By the way, who told you that your Mr. Ritter has anything to do with me?”
Maier didn’t answer. This was as far as he was going to get here.
For a moment nothing happened. Smiles on both sides of the table started to wane. The doctor leaned forward. His presence moved the glacial air which had gone stale around the office.
“Mr. Maier, in a few seconds, you will get up and leave my office. You will never return. We will never meet again. I don’t know what you want but I understand very well what you are. You are trouble. And trouble invites more trouble. But you have a choice. A little bit of a choice. Because we take these haters who trouble us to the afterlife, where they will be dealt true justice in the afterlife court.”
The doctor didn’t blink.
“And sometimes, very rarely, we get them into the afterlife court before they have died.”
Maier waited for more, short of breath, on the spotless white couch.
The doctor grew across his desk towards the detective.
“Where is it?”
Maier managed a faint stammer, “Where is what?”
“The image. Where is the image? The Monsoon Ghost image? Where is it?”
Suraporn leaned back and began to bark, like a small dog. Maier was suffocating. Whatever air hadn’t been used up by the barking was toxic. As the doctor grew hoarse, his vocal efforts grew in intensity. Maier rose to leave. He swayed, his eyes on Suraporn. The man’s face looked twisted. Sweet, but wrong. As the detective turned with effort, he noticed that a part, a small grey sliver of his soul remained imprinted on the surface of the couch. Perhaps he’d been drugged, he couldn’t be sure. He had to get out. He never wanted to meet this man again. Back on the street, he vomited his breakfast into a rubbish bin.
Give us some insight into Detective Maier. What does he do that’s special? What motivates him?
He’s a middle aged former journalist who grew up and started his career in East Germany before the Berlin Wall came down, and then went on to become a conflict journalist for international media. He retires in the opening chapter of The Cambodian Book of the Dead, in 1997 and then returns to the country in 2001 as a detective. Maier tells himself that detective work is less compromising and compromised than media work. He no longer has to tell a story, he just has to find out what the story is and then do whatever his client asks him to do. Maier is motivated by experience and curiosity and as the series goes on, by loyalty to his boss, his colleague Mikhail, a former Russian hitman who’s gay, and his detective agency which he sees as his family.
Do your characters ever seem to have a life of their own or an agenda of their own?
They do while I write the book, yes. Sometimes I finish writing a chapter late at night, go to bed and when I come back to the text in the morning it feels like the protagonists all moved around in my absence. At other times, they fight me while I am writing and I have arguments with them about where they should go next, what they should say or do next. I always win of course.
Which, if any, of your personality traits did you write into your characters?
Maier is an ex journalist a few years older than myself, with many years spent in Asia. So those are the very, very obvious parallels. But in other ways he is quite different. He drinks a lot, especially in the first two books. I don’t drink at all. That may seem like a small thing but I think it forms the character to quite some degree. He is a little more morose than me, though some friends of mine would probably dispute that. In the first two books, he has a moustache. I don’t. Ever. In any case, he’s not me, he’s totally crazy. Like all writers, I am a perfectly well adjusted, well balanced human being…
How many stories does Detective Maier have in him? Will the series be a long-running one?
This third novel is the last for now. But I have an idea for a short story.
If your books were made into a Film/TV Series, who would you cast as Detective Maier?
You’re stranded on a deserted island and you can take three people who would they be and why?
My pragmatic side would take three farmers. That would increase my chances of continued existence. My romantic side would take my partner and those two of my best friends who don’t mind sitting round on sun-kissed beaches for an indefinite time.
And finally a quick fire round:
5.Favourite singer / band?
The Rolling Stones
Thanks again for your time, is there anything else you’d like to share with us before you leave?
Thanks for letting me ramble. Buy The Monsoon Ghost Image. What would the world be without great story-telling?
Find out more about Tom and his books: