Readers love to discover an author whose work suggests they’re a kindred spirit. Novelists, engaged in the often lonely work of writing, enjoy it even more. That’s how I feel about Christopher G. Moore, whose path is in many ways similar to mine (as you’ll see in this interview). Based in Bangkok, he’s the creator of one of the most striking sleuths in crime fiction: Vincent Calvino seems a distillation of all the most intriguing expats you’ll ever meet traveling the world and at the same time utterly unique. Moore's “Spirit House” is one of the most riveting crime novels I’ve read, and I’m delighted that he’s the first fiction writer to participate in “The Writing Life” interview series.
How long did it take you to get published?
My publishing history is a checkered one. My first professional sale was a radio drama to the CBC in 1979, and my first novel (His Lordship’s Arsenal) was published in New York in 1985. After what will soon be 21 novels (The Corruptionist will come out in 2010), I look back and think that I was lucky to start out when I did. It is much tougher now.
Would you recommend any books on writing?
There is a small library full of books on various aspects of writing. Ranging from the mechanics, to the business and legal issues, to self-help. A good web site which includes a page titled Writers Resources which has a lot of useful information about the creative process. Novelist Timothy Hallinan is the brains behind the website. It is hard to disagree with Stephen King’s "On Writing". He says that all writers must be readers. The best education is to read and re-read a diverse range of very good books. I read between 50 to 150 pages a day.
What’s a typical writing day?
The smell of fresh coffee and a long plume of black smoke rising from a burning bus across town. Seriously, there is no “typical” day as any book is a long series of marginally connected events: on the street for research, note making, organizing material, gathering profile information on characters, assembling the cast, selecting an incident that sets off a chain of events much like breaking the rack of ball in pool, fiddling with the outline, working on plot points and structure. Then there is going back to the desk to write the first draft. . .
Plug your latest book. What’s it about? Why’s it so great?
Grove Press will release the hardback edition of Paying Back Jack in October 2009 and Atlantic Books will release it in December 2009. This is the 10th novel in the Vincent Calvino crime fiction series.
In Paying Back Jack, Calvino agrees to follow the “minor wife” of a Thai politician and report on her movements. His client is Rick Casey, a shady American whose life has been darkened by the unsolved murder of his idealistic son. But what seems to be a simple surveillance job pulls Calvino into a quest for revenge, as well as a perilous web of political allegiance. Calvino narrowly escapes an attempt on his life and then avoids being framed for a murder only through the calculated lever-pulling of his best friend, Thai police colonel, Pratt. But unknown to our man in Bangkok, in an anonymous apartment tower in the center of the city, a two-man sniper team awaits its shot, a shot that will change everything.
I’ll let a review place Paying Back Jack in the context of contemporary Thai culture. “It's easy to see why Moore's books are popular: While seasoned with a spicy mixture of humor and realism, they stand out as model studies in East-West encounters, as satisfying for their cultural insights as they are for their hard-boiled action.”—Mark Schreiber, The Japan Times
How much of what you do is:
a) formula dictated by the genre within which you write?
I am told there are quite a few rules. But I never bothered to learn what they are. The private eye novel is mainly thought of as the creation of American authors; notably Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. It is an American invention based on crime in American cities and the social and class structure within which the private eye, police, victims and villains live and die. If there is an American location formula, I broke it in 1992 by setting Spirit House, the first of the Vincent Calvino novels set in a foreign location.
b) formula you developed yourself and stuck with?
To bring the reader into a different culture, different rules, expectations, language, and make it meaningful without overwhelming him/her with obscure references or incidents.
The goal is to make Asia accessible without losing the vitality and history of the place.
c) as close to complete originality as it’s possible to get each time?
I am fortunate to live in a place (Bangkok) and at a time (political chaos) that provides me with more than enough original material. A third of my fan mail is: Are you safe from the gunfire? Originality can’t be separated from the circumstances in which a writer finds himself/herself. Originality starts at home. If you lead an original life, then by the process of living the material unfolds. I suspect living in Jerusalem that you understand that authors who are living on the edge of where history is moving like tectonic plates, you understand the importance of location, and the challenges to authority, oppression, and inequality. Originality is giving a face to these concepts in real life drama played out where the stakes are high.
What’s your favorite sentence in all literature, and why?
“Is execution done on Cawdor?” Duncan, MacBeth, Act 1, Scene 4.
Treason, repentance, pardon and ability to die well all wrapped up nicely. So much of who we are is contained in the exchange between Duncan and Malcolm.
What’s the best descriptive image in all literature?
That’s a tall order to fill. Even within crime fiction there are so many compelling images. The opening of the Quiet American by Graham Greene is a wonderful description of French Colonial police and opium smoking in Saigon. But is it the best descriptive image in all literature? Doubtful. If put against the wall, the firing squad awaiting an order for me to answer or die, I’d opt for the opening of MacBeth. It is hard to beat three witches brewing up a storm when facing rifles.
How much research is involved in each of your books?
Research is the heart of any writing project. Research is part of the job. You push yourself into new situations. Meet new people. Take a different order of risk. You assess as you go along, taking notes, talking to people, strangers, friends, colleagues, locals, foreigners, to get a sense of what people are thinking, suffering, wanting, and scheming to get. Research is also the fun part of the process; you are out from behind a computer and mixing with real people. I am big fan of The Collaborator of Bethlehem: An Omar Yussef Mystery and figure you must have spent a lot of time in the back streets to get the atmosphere right. Novelists should have a journalistic instinct in the field, a poet’s instinct distilling the experience, and a surgeon’s instinct in crafting the words.
Where’d you get the idea for your main character?
Vincent Calvino emerged from my four years of living in New York
City. I spent time as a civilian observer with NYPD. Calvino is half Italian and half Jewish and narrative often draws upon this ethnic background. The Thai characters arose from various people that I’ve known in Thailand and elsewhere in Asia over the last 25 years.
What’s your experience with being translated?
It’s a bit like a heart transplant. You are unconscious when it happens and when you wake up (assuming that you do), you really only have a vague idea what was done. The main thing is someone else’s heart is pumping your blood. That said, I’ve become friends with my German, Japanese, and Italian translators. And from what I can see, they’ve successfully performed the transplant. I have a Hebrew edition coming out this summer. I understand the translator is an excellent surgeon.
Do you live entirely off your writing? How many books did you write before could make a living at it?
I am fortunate to make a living from my writing. It was about a dozen books into the game that I was able to have sufficient revenue to pay the rent and food bills. Remember, though, where I live (at least in the early years) the cost of living was very little. That is an important factor for any writer. You need to find a place that you can exist with little money. That means places like New York, London, and Paris which once provided such opportunities for artists with meager incomes, now require a law partner’s income to pay the rent.
How many books did you write before you were published?
Three. Lost, gone but not mourned.
What’s the strangest thing that happened to you on a book tour?
A Russian Mafia thug showed up at a book reading in Pattaya and asked if he could rent one of my books. Guess he didn’t want to lay out the cash investment for a outright sale. It was a public place. I figured he wouldn’t shoot me if I said no.
What’s your weirdest idea for a book you’ll never get to publish?
A katoey dressed in a Santa Claus outfit on Christmas Eve his small boat washed ashore at Muslim fishing village in Java.