Archive April 2008
|TRAVELING FOR INSPIRATION
There have been a number of authors whose travels through Southeast Asia have
enriched their fiction and non-fiction. From the previous generation of English
writers such as Conrad, Maugham, Orwell and Burgess to the current generation of
Paul Theroux and Pico Iver, these writers have been mobile. These writers were
not the kind to stay at home worrying about how best to promote their books,
experiencing anxiety attacks over their writing career, obsessed at their Amazon
rankings or who received what award. None of that truly matters and at the end
of the day only gets in the way of writing. The heart of fiction is connected,
at least in part for these writers, with their wide-ranging travel experiences
gathered along the back streets of the big cities and dusty roads of rural Asia.
Writers often talk and write about the writing or publishing experience.
But there is far less about the experiences that a writer draws upon to fuel his
or her imagination. Like fossil fuel experiences can run out. New, fresh
experiences are the basis for feeding the imagination. Or one can recycle from
information in newspapers, TV, the Internet on the basis that the writer can
bring a new angle to old information. Sometimes that works. Travel is proactive.
You’re not reading about someone else having an adventure. It is happening to
you; it is in your face, not on screen. You must deal with it.
I don’t mean modern tourism. A packaged group experience is not the kind of
travel that is likely to provide insight in the life of people living in another
culture. Such travel is designed to shield the tourist from the locals. The
writers mentioned above mingled with the people they wrote about. Talk with
them, had lunch and dinner with them, drank and laughed and cried with them.
They entered inside their world and found a way to take these new experience,
ideas and ways of living as a basis for constructing a novel in which these
people came alive for the reader.
I am about to leave for Yunnan
Province. I will be on the road for a couple of weeks. I leave without a
preconception as to what I will find: the people and experiences that lay ahead
of me. One of the continuing characters in the Vincent Calvino series is
Thai-Chinese, and I have the feeling that somewhere along the way, a temple, a
house, a shop, a restaurant or on the street, I will meet people who will teach
me ways of thinking and living that will enrich my life and the characters I
write about in the series.
Writing about others and their culture
requires a large amount of humility. How close to the essence of any life can we
really know? If all we see are the shadows, then we must look deeper. Somewhere
along the road to Kunming, Dali, and Lijiang, I will enter another world. One that is strange to
meet. One that I wish to embrace. When I come out the other end, something will
have changed in me. The way I think about China, its history, people, and
culture. Two weeks is a very short time. When I think of how much someone coming
to Thailand for two-weeks would discover without speaking the language or
knowing the culture and history, I know that I shouldn’t expect to go away with
profound insights. But if there is one person, in one place that opens the
window to another world, one that I would otherwise have missed, then that will
have been enough.
I am back in mid-May. I have a book to finish and a
new one to start. I’ll let you know what crossed my path in Yunnan and whether
at the end of my exploration I came to know the place where I started.
|Interview about Vincent Calvino
I recently gave an interview to Radio Singapore International. I talk about the original idea
of a private eye series set in Southeast Asia, along with my research into the
culture and history of the settings.
They introduce the interview with a
quote from one of the Vincent Calvino novels, "I have no attachments. Next life
I will make a perfect Buddhist. But in this life I am paying off the karma of a
last life. I am an ex-lawyer from New York City. No one gets himself born in New
York City without having made some major mistake in the last life. Whatever that
mistake was it was bad enough to cause me to abandon New York City for Bangkok.
Flipped from the wok straight into the fire. For the past dozen years, I've been
solving crimes in Southeast Asia, keeping and trying not to get burnt."
You can listen to podcast of the interview on mp3.
|BARNEY ROSSETT AND PUBLISHING IN THE GOLDEN ERA
There was never any golden era in publishing. It’s always been tough. Let’s get
that straight. But once upon a time long ago there were a few publishers who
looked beyond the bottom line, who fought for authors, struggled to bring books
to light when the authorities would have put the publisher in jail. Barney
Rosset,* perhaps more than any other living person, represents the very best of
this kind of publisher in America. He is a legend and in any other country would
be given the designation of Living Artistic Treasure. But truly literary people
are rarely so honored in America in 2008.
We live in an era of the
bottom line and MBAs with sharp pencils whose vision is the next quarterly
earning report. Barney wasn’t that kind of publisher. He sought quality and
settled for nothing less. If the book sold fine, if it didn’t that was fine,
In a recent interview of
literary agent Nat Sobel in Poets and Writers, Sobel, who had worked from
Barney at Grove Press as a sales rep, said:
“I'll tell you about a
moment in my life with Barney that had a major influence on the things that
attract me as an agent, especially these last few years. At some point I noticed
that on the upcoming list was a book of poetry, a fairly substantially sized
book of poetry by a Mexican poet I had never heard of, and it was going to be in
a bilingual edition, Spanish and English. I went to Barney and said, "You know,
Barney, I don't think I can sell this book. I've never heard of this guy."
Barney said to me, "I didn't buy it because I thought you could sell it. I
bought it because I liked it and because I thought it was important." And the
book was the first publication in English of the poetry of Octavio Paz. It's
sold hundreds of thousands of copies, it's still in the Grove Press backlist,
and it was a book he wanted to publish because he loved it. You couldn't help
loving a guy who had that philosophy.”
Barney fought legal battles in
America against the censorship of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer. When
the heat got intense, Barney simply doubled up like a great poker player, and
bet he would win. And win he did. That win is something no one in publishing
should ever forget. He built Grove Press into the leading literary publishing
house in America, with a backlist that includes Pinter, Miller, Paz, Stoppard,
and Beckett. Barney’s love was fiction. Always has been. And film.
Sobel’s interview paints a bleak picture for fiction writers. With 90% of the
deal for non-fiction books, fiction, especially literary fiction, may have hit
an evolutionary dead end in America. There are a few writers who still have an
audience for literary works; but they’d likely fit in the first class section of
Thai International flights from New York to Bangkok with seats left over crew
members flying for free.
*I’ve known Barney and his wife Astrid for many
years. Barney’s was an early supporter of my novels and I’ve had the privilege
of being the Thailand correspondent for Evergreen Review.
|Death March on Bacon and Eggs
The Times Food Critic Giles Coren had an interesting piece on
how the British kill themselves by eating an English breakfast. Have a look at
the amusing attack on Coren following the article. All very
“I'll tell you what's holding us back from finally getting rid
of the fried English breakfast for ever: lack of education. You never see a
person with a degree eating a fry-up, do you? Certainly not someone with a 2:1
or better in a humanities subject from a university founded before the invention
of the iPod. That's because they are smart enough to know better.”
“Churchill himself might as well be playing
Elgar in his Union Jack underpants as we read that: “A good English breakfast
never lets you down.” No, it kills you. That's what an English breakfast does.”
|COPYRIGHT PROTECTION: THE BIG GRAB BY AUTHOR’S HEIRS
Copyright law is complex. That is a sentence that few would wish to contradict.
The current lawsuit involving Harry Potter author and a fan writing an lexicon
of Harry Potter terms is a good example of the struggle between those wishing to
expand copyright protection against those who wish to see limits placed on
As a general rule, a copyright extends for the length of
the author’s life and expires 70 years after his or her death. The difficulty
arises because each country has its own copyright laws and they are not always
consistent. Further, the length of copyright duration has been increasing over
time. The time expansion is no surprise in the United States where large vested
corporate industry (e.g., Disney) have successfully lobbied to extend the length
of copyright to the current 70-year period.
I came across a blog which
addressed the issue of Zane Grey’s heirs who apparently sought to expand
protection after the expiration of the copyright period by taking out a
trademark on the name “Zane Grey” on the assumption (so it seems) the
trademarked name would equip them with a legal basis to stop anyone from
publishing Zane Grey’s books that fell into the public domain.
public domain is that wide-open space where anyone can tread without fear of
paying a toll. Once a copyright ends, the book, article, or other written
expression is said to fall in the public domain. No one publishing Charles
Dickens needs to track down his heirs and pay a royalty for publishing and
profiting from a new edition of Great Expectations. Zane Grey’s books are
about to fall into public domain (if indeed some of them may already have done
In most cases, an author’s heirs may have inherited rights to the
copyrighted work of the deceased author, but in the vast majority of cases those
rights are like Monopoly Money. The rights have no more value than monopoly
money and can’t be used to purchase anything in the real world. The commercial
value of the overwhelming majority of books will have succumbed to market forces
long before the author’s death. The author is often at the graveside of his or
her book. It’s called a remainder bin. Many bookshops have them. Think of the
remainder bin as the publisher’s funeral for books that have died (in fact there
are many reason why books are remaindered and doesn’t necessarily mean it has
become extinct but most of the time that is a safe bet). Thus most author’s have
ample time during their lifetime to mourn the commercial death of their work.
They live to see their little Nell entombed. It is only the rare author whose
work will have commercial value after his or her death. Zane Grey is one such
His heirs now wish to continue the payments from publishers. No
one can blame them for trying. Who wouldn’t like receiving a nice cheque for a
publisher every six months for a substantial sum? Time to call in some creative
lawyers to see if they can keep the milk train running. One of these bright
bulbs must have said, “Let’s trademark the author’s name. That will give us the
stick to beat back publishers who bring out new editions of the work.”
So why doesn’t the trade marking of Zane Grey’s name work the magic of
extending legal protection to the underlining rights to his books?
reading about this case on a RichardsWheeler’s blog I asked my friend Professor David
Vaver, one of the world’s foremost legal authorities on intellectual property
(and the recently retired Oxford IT professor) about the Zane Grey case. He’s
replied at length. Here is Professor Vaver’s first reply. You can go to
RichardsWheeler’s blog to find additional (and enlightening) material on this
subject from Professor Vaver.
“This is an old wheeze and it doesn’t
work. I do not say that the heirs may not try to use it in the way you describe,
but the greatest expectations of the heirs of Charles Dickens could not stop
your publishing Great Expectations as “by Charles Dickens” even if they have
somehow managed to get the CD name registered (wrongly) for books by CD.
Britain’s highest court said in 2003 that, for example, you can (if that is your
thing) label a genuine record of songs by Bon Jovi as “by Bon Jovi” because it
truly describes the performer of the contents, even if Bon Jovi is registered as
a mark. A trade mark owner can stop only the use of the mark to refer to the
trade origin of the goods - i.e., if you use “Zane Grey” without the mark
owner’s authority to refer to the trade origin of books in the same way as one
uses Penguin or Random House to refer to the trade source of books that emanate
from those houses. See R v Johnstone, especially at paras. 35 ff. (www.bailii.org/uk/cases/UKHL/2003/28.html).”
The Nation’s Daily Xpress section ran a profile under the title: Hollywood beckons Moore today (Wednesday 9 April 2008). Jim
Pollard’s article focuses on the film option deal for the Calvino series and
background on the series set in Thailand.
I delivered the 10th novel in the Vincent Calvino series to my agent and
publisher on Sunday 6th April 2008. PAYING BACK JACK, which is set in Bangkok
(with some scenes in Pattaya) is scheduled for publication at the end of 2008.