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Blog Archive May 2008

BANGKOK/LA CONNECTION

Crime fiction, film and art connect both City of Angels.
At the hip.
And at areas above the hip.
In August, the crime thriller starring Nicholas Cage, Bangkok Dangerous will open worldwide.

Set designer Jim Newport (who did a brilliant job on Bangkok Dangerous) and has been nominated in the past for an Emmy, recently launched in Bangkok his novel “Chasing Jimi” and I attended the launch party, where Jim read from his book.

Chasing Jimi combines fact and fiction about one year – 1967 – in the life of Jimi Hendrix, taking readers into a world of double-dealing music producers (was there ever any other kind?) and Hendrix’s relationship with other artists of the time. The novel follows Newport’s own interest in 60s music. After his reading, Jim put on the sunglasses and switched to his alter-ego, Jimmy Fame and entertained the audience with a number of Blues songs. Newport is currently in Los Angeles, but upon his return he will be taking his Jimmy Fame act, with Dr. Blues and the Mercy Street Blues Band on a tour in Thailand to promote Chasing Jimi.

Another LA/Bangkok connection is Chris Coles, artist and filmmaker, who has painted a series of unforgettable images of Bangkok nightlife. You can check out Chris Coles’ website for hundreds of provocative images of Bangkok scenes. No other artist has devoted a career to capturing the mood, atmosphere, and feeling of Bangkok. Here’s a painting of a patron at Bangkok’s nightspot the Q-bar.

Posted: 5/29/2008 11:51:25 PM 

 

THE BRITISH EDITION OF RISK

The British edition of The Risk of Infidelity Index is now out in Great Britain. You can buy it at Amazon for £7.79.
Or better yet do go your bookstore and pay £12.99. Bookstore owners deserve to make a living like anyone else. And God knows that Amazon is rich enough.

I am pleased with the cover design. The designer captured the noir spirit I seek to create in the Calvino series. Great cover, compelling story, an internationally published crime fiction series, so what happens next should be easy, right?

Not really. What if nothing happens next? It is a sinking feeling to be 6 time zones away from the book that has been published. You want to be there doing something. But what can be done at a distance?

A lot of Cambridge boats have sunk in the annual race on the Cherwell since I was a student in England. Assuming that with global warming, there still is a Cherwell River deep enough to race boats.

The question I face, is no different than any other new authors to a marketplace, is whether readers in Great Britain will buy my book. Few people would have heard of the Vincent Calvino series. British travelers to Thailand might have run across my books in Bangkok. But even they wouldn’t know the book is out in England. Unless, of course, someone told them. But my dream of a flashing arrow sign over the stack of RISK nicely laid out on the new arrivals table at Blackwell’s isn’t likely to happen any time soon.

Where to start? What to do? A photograph of Tony Blair strolling along the tarmac with a copy of RISK in hand might help bring attention of the media. But he’d have to explain that book to Cherie. He’s probably the wrong choice. There is Boris. He’s safely elected as Mayor of London. From what I’ve read about him, he’s the kind of lad that would like Vincent Calvino’s adventures. Though I suspect he’s getting a cartload of books dumped on his doorstep every day. I didn’t say the idea was original. All it requires is a bit of luck.

Gordon Brown, is, I understand, and avid reader. He should be on the shortlist. But, then his popularity collapse might be bad for the book. One should always choose a winner in this business. Brown’s star isn’t looking all that bright. There must be some backbencher, someone if the House of Lords who would suit.

While I am waiting for my piece of luck to appear and lift RISK to the attention of British reader, I have a couple of thoughts.

In publishing a precondition to a bit of luck happening requires potential readers need to know that RISK is available. That is a modern challenge as getting reviewed is only slightly less difficult than getting published in the first place. If any reader would care to share an idea on how to get the word out in Britain, please email me. Maybe the name of the right member of the House of Lords would do the trick.

I am not bothered if the person makes a living in TV or sports. These public figures have millions of people who follow their every move, what they wear, drive, eat, and read. I’ve been assured at least a few of them actually read books. But there are dangers here as well. Like Brown, they may be on their way out and at this distance, I’d be the last to know I’d backed someone who was just cut from squad at Manchester City. Just send along the names of the up and comers. I need all the help finding that spot of luck somewhere on that emerald island I once called home.

Posted: 5/27/2008 11:08:06 PM 

 

NEW SOCIAL COMMUNITIES: A LOOK INTO THE FUTURE

I have finished reading Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody. Here Comes Everybody and would like to my comments on the book.

Shirky examines the dynamic of social communities that have arisen as a result of the Internet and assesses the possible long-term consequences they represent to corporations and governments. The usual way of doing business or governing a country is about to change in significant ways. I’ll start with two examples used by the author: Wikipedia and Linxus. The conventional way of producing an encyclopedia or software is for a company to find the resources to fund the highly skilled employees who are assigned specific tasks. That means allocating capital to pay for the office space, equipment, salaries, benefits and other cost of doing business, on the basis the product or service sold by the corporation will return sufficient revenues to pay all of the overheads and still return a profit.

In the world of Wikipedia, for example, no one is assigned a subject or topic. There is no overhead. But there are thousands upon thousands of people who volunteer their time. That’s a core point of these (often unstable and temporary) new social communities. These communities are voluntary associations of like minded individuals. No one pays them. Some like Wikipedia are more stable than others, which appear overnight and disappear as quickly. No one expects the members of these communities to turn up for work. Most members have only a slight contribution to make, but since there are so many of these volunteers, the cumulative effect of even slight individual contributions, when combined, is substantial.

Another central point of Shirky’s social communities is that failure incurs no institutional cost. No overhead, no salaries, no company cars, computers, office equipment or benefits. That is a hugely salient as we are accustomed to a world where corporations and other institutions are conservative in their choices, and it is assumed the management’s role is to avoid failure. Departments have internal risks analysis that makes certain what choices are made have a good chance of success. Microsoft Corporation, with its legions of highly paid software engineers, can only tolerate so much failure before it would implode. Wikipedia and Linxus, on the other hand, thrive because any mistake or failure by one can be quickly correct by one of the thousands of others.

Part of the secret of how these communities’ works is assessing the contribution of those who volunteer. From the view point of the participants, the new social communities are governed not be a bell curve or the average workload, talent or expertise of the employees. Remember employees aren’t volunteers. They sell their time to the company in return for an implicit promise to assist in the success of the employer. Wikipedia, and Linxus, on the other hand, are governed by a Power Law. You may scratch your head and ask, what is a Power Law? Shirky provides a good example. Bill Gates walks into a bar in Seattle frequented by ordinary office workers and orders a drink. If you interviewed everyone in the bar and wrote down their net worth and added in Bill’s, the average person in the bar would be a multi-millionaire. Of course, we know that is because of the huge weight of Bill Gates’ wealth and his wealth makes the idea of “average” wealth in the bar meaningless.

In the context of Wikipedia and Linxus this means a very few people (out of thousands or even hundreds of thousands) who have the equivalent of intellectual wealth that matches Bill Gates’ financial wealth, volunteer to do most of the work. They do this not for a corporation which will enrich its management and shareholders; they do it for the community of which they are part of, a large collective that is a shared enterprise.

The question is whether any of these matters apply when talking about members of the crime fiction community? The answer is there is more than one such community. Publishers and agents, for example, have their own interests, ones that surely overlap, but nonetheless would be cohesive enough to form a community. The publishing community, like the Microsoft Corporation example, is based on the system where failure carries a penalty. A book that fails will cost the publisher money. Publishing a book carries a risk. In the new online social communities, books can be “published” and downloaded. There isn’t any financial penalty attached to the failure of such a book. One would expect to find more fiction and non-fiction in the marketplace, and, at the same time, applying the power law formula, only a tiny fraction of those books would be widely read.

Other social communities have formed online which focus on crime fiction. I am a member of Crime Space which has over a thousand members, including authors and readers, who share information, provide advice, and create a forum for discussion. It is a gathering place for people around the world to find others who share their interest. As one would expect, something like a Power Law applies to this community as well. Not everyone makes the same contribution (I am a good example of a laggard). Some members are pitching their books. Some are looking for an agent. Others are talking about problems in the publishing industry, or their own difficulty to getting published. But Crime Space doesn’t have a fixed agenda, there is no real way to judge whether it is successful, and as with any self-contained community, there are a few high-energy leaders and a lot of followers with the odd bit of information to offer.

Shirky suggests that in the future Amazon may become the dominant force in publishing through its BookSurge unit. Under this model, there is no cost for Amazon to offer a book that doesn’t sell. And when a book does sell, a copy of the ordered book can be printed on demand. In this brave new world, there is no filtering system to guarantee that publishing industry workers found that it was worthy of publication. What is offered is an unfiltered book. No agent, no editor, no editorial board meeting intervened to lend support. BookSurge is a publish and then filter system. It leaves to the readers to become their own filter in much the same way that music has been heading, publishing books in the new social setting will be gauged to match the interests and taste of a specific community at which the book is aimed. Crime fiction authors won’t look to a community devoted to quantum theory analysis as their audience (of course, someone is bound to try).

If Amazon gets it right –and that remains an open question – any community will find the chance to embrace a book that appeals to them, can get a copy printed, and sent directly to their house or office with a few keystrokes and a credit card. If the Amazon offers tens of thousands of titles, but 99% sell only five copies each, it won’t matter. Remember? There is no cost for failure in this model. And there is a profit even on five copies of a title being sold. And the 1% that sells in massive quantities brings in massive profits – as there is little or no overhead (at least in comparison with the existing publishing model). The competition to find, create and capture a community will be the new publishing battle ground. As many of these communities are inherently unstable it may be like trying to catch a falling star. 99% of authors will be spending as much time trolling for and talking to members inside such communities. Writing for communities will mean books become narrowly, tightly designed to appeal to a niche audience. The other 1% of authors who are celebrities will have communities forming around them. The fan sites for Hollywood stars, musicians and authors are already well-developed machines, often without much direct attention or assistance from the celebrity.

I would recommend Here Comes Everybody who want a thought provoking discussion of what the future of these new social communities represent to the future of way of doing business and running of government institutions, such as police forces.

Posted: 5/27/2008 6:18:53 AM 

 

DETECTIVE FICTION AND THE FOREIGN CRIMINAL MILIEU

W.H. Auden wrote in The Guilty Vicarage, Notes on the detective story by an Addict, which appeared Harper’s in May 1948: “Actually, whatever he may say, I think Mr. Chandler is interested in writing, not detective stories, but serious studies of a criminal milieu, the Great Wrong Place, and his powerful but extremely depressing hooks should be read and judged, not as escape literature, but as works of art.”

The murder, for Auden, should take place in the Great Good Place, and, his view, that meant the countryside. Preferably the English countryside. Should the author intend to write a detective story rather than aspire to something closer to art, and then his murder victim should ideally turn up in the local vicar’s garden.

I recently read Matt Beynon Rees’ The Collaborator of Bethlehem, an Omar Yussef Mystery, which, on Auden’s terms isn’t a detective story but a novel that seeks to break open a window into the realm of political and social reality of the modern West Bank. In recent years, it has become more common to find “detectives” working foreign landscapes. Rees’ novels are an addition to this growing trend. There two basic templates for this crime fiction penned by authors who are from different backgrounds that the one they’ve chosen to set their books. Rees is English and writes about the Middle East where he was former Jerusalem Bureau Chief for Time. Working on the ground as a journalist opens many worlds, especially for a foreigner who is less bound by the traditional protocols that restrain or otherwise limit access.

International private eye literature has two main branches. In the first, the detective is a foreigner from the outside (such as an America P.I. in Vincent Calvino series) or he is a local working in his home milieu. In Rees’ books the investigator is a schoolteacher who is also a sleuth. The one minor foreign character in The Collaborator is an American school administrator, is something of a stereotype for the gullible, insensitive and innocent American abroad. He comes to pieces in the end. The bargain with the reader in such fiction is that the author is able to create what Auden rightly calls the “criminal milieu.”

For an author who arrives well into adulthood in a foreign culture, the ability to accomplish that literary mission is, to say the least, difficult and filled with pratfalls (and pitfalls). I found that Rees in The Collaborator has done a good job of recreating the sounds, smells, and atmosphere of Gaza. The basic story is George Saba, an old student of Omar Yussef returns to Bethlehem after a long absence of living in Latin America. He finds his former teacher, who is mentally and physically far beyond his 56 years, happy to welcome him back. George had returned, along with his family, to be with his aged father. Not long after his arrival, he has a run in with organized gunman, who are alternatively enriching themselves at the expense of beaten down Arab population and running suicide or ambush mission targeting the Israelis. George Saba pulled an old gun on the two gangsters on the roof of his building and ordered them down. They went; but they remembered. When one of the terrorists in the armed gang is killed in an Israeli ambush, the ex-student is accused of collaboration and imprisoned. There is a kangaroo court that will go along. Omar Yussef, despite huge personal risk to himself and his family, takes it upon himself to find the real collaborator. His old university friend, the head of the police, Khamis Zeydan, is a finely drawn character, conflicted, and caught between forces he can only barely balance, his idealism shattered, and finding refuge into the bottle.

I can recommend The Collaborator of Bethlehem, an Omar Yussef Mystery,. It is richly textured, evocative noir fiction.

My reservation, again takes me back to Auden and the detective writers search for criminal milieu. While Rees does an admirable job in portraying the relationships in Arab culture, there was a slight gap that appeared as I read the book. It would be impossible to set a detective story in the Middle East without a fundamental understanding of the relationship between an individual, his family, his clan, his section of the tribe, and the tribe. This is like a Russia doll that all fits together. I found, at times, that Omar Yussef, was less concerned about the effect of his actions on his clan. By putting himself in conflict with the terrorists, who risked not only himself and his family, but also expanding the zone of danger to his clan. It is a one for all kind of culture. And the injury to one is an injury to the group, and revenge can be taken against any other member of the clan even though that person wasn’t personally responsible for the harm. In fairness to Rees, he makes the main villains men without very strong affiliations. In a way, this is an easy out. It may have made a more insightful (and perhaps more realistic) view into the milieu had of the villains been a member of a rival clan. That would have made Omar Yussef immensely more complicated.

Posted: 5/23/2008 6:45:08 AM 

 

IMAGINE THE CYCLONE DEAD OF BURMA

Try and imagine the numbers involved in a mass death. What does 80,000 dead in Burma mean? Can anyone imagine the magnitude of the loss?

Here is Chris Carlson’s photograph taken at an Obama rally held in Portland, Oregon. There are about 75,000 people in that crowd and looking around the edges of the photo, others may have been cropped out.


Photo: Chris Carlson/Associated Press

Now imagine those 80,000 Burmese, if you had gathered them the day before the cyclone took their lives at a final rally, and the picture would have looked something like this one. Such a scale of death is hard to comprehend. None of us is wired to think in such large numbers before falling off into abstraction. For a moment, think about the two million more Burmese who are without shelter and food. The people who attended the Obama rally weren’t not abstractions; neither are the Burmese people. These are people just like you.

Find a way to help.

Posted: 5/19/2008 10:41:53 PM 

 

On the Road in Yunnan


Dali, Yunnan Province, May 2008

Dali and Lijiang have two things in common. They are in a physically beautiful part of China and both were destroyed by earthquakes in 1996 and subsequently rebuilt. Resident foreigners are less frequent than in Southeast Asia. Foreign tourists are also something of rarity in this part of China. English is not widely spoken, and communication can be a challenge. In Thailand, language can be an issue for non-Thai speakers, especially outside of Bangkok. Kunming is about the same size and I found very few people at hotels, restaurants, tourists destinations that could speak any English.


Lijiang, Yunnan Province, May 2008


The expats I talked to were young Canadian, American, Irish and British, often with a Chinese girlfriend or wife. All of them were undergoing the anxiety over renewing their visas. The Chinese government cracked down on the issuance of visas. To renew a visa to China requires the foreigner to return to his or her own country and apply at the Chinese Embassy for a new visa. But the embassy will only grant a 30-day visa. For people living on a limited budget it isn’t practical to flight back to London, Vancouver, or New York to apply for a Chinese visa. Their alternative plan was to head for somewhere in Southeast Asia until after the Olympics. The feeling is the Chinese will resume liberal visa granting policy once the Olympics have ended.

Expats play an important role in the Calvino series. Going to China allow me to tap into a new generation of young men and women who have left their countries behind, either for a temporary period or permanently. And with each new generation comes variations of stories one has heard for many years. The isolation from friends and family, the uncertainty of status, the inability to get work permits, but at the same time they celebrate a kind of free spirit and idealism. While their contemporaries are in shopping malls and offices back home, they are finding a way to learn a new language, culture and gaining in experience about life that would otherwise be missed. Or finding the right combination of exercise and spirituality.

It was on the road to Yunnan that I found a back story that will go into the new Calvino novel, PAYING BACK JACK.

In Dali, it was the Bad Monkey where expats gathered. A Montreal guitar player was at the bar talking about an audition at another restaurant on Foreigner’s Street, a street which by the way has now been largely taken over by Chinese merchants. The foreigners are one street over, having followed the Bad Monkey crowd a few years ago. Restaurants on Dali streets offered a wide variety of local vegetables.



In Lijiang Mama Naxi’ Guesthouse was a gathering point for travelers. Mama provided an information hub, a place to check email, and have a huge communal meal with fellow travelers for an inexpensive price. If one could choose one person to govern the world, Mama Naxi would be on the short list.

It was the Naxi (an ethnic minority group number about 250,000) that welcomed Kubla Khan in the 13th century and provided his army with scouts for the attack on Dali. I spent time out in the villages talking basically to old people. An old woman who was 82 and had lost 4 out of 5 children and a retired village leader who had two wives and talked about upcountry people buying wives with horses in the 1930s.

It is difficult to find English language books in China. The bookstores are few and mostly sell Chinese books. It is rare to find English language novels. I did find what appeared to be a pirated copy of a Chinese edition of Jerry Hopkin’s No Way Out of here Alive, the Jim Morrison biography. An unhappy bookstore employee was upset that I tried to take a photo of Jerry’s book.

Posted: 5/15/2008 10:35:20 PM 

 

NEW EDITION OF SPIRIT HOUSE

The Spanish Edition of Spirit House is titled Kickboxing en Nirvana.

Kickboxing en Nirvana will be released on Thursday 15th May. This is edition is 368 pages and is sold for EURO 18. Why the title change for this edition? The Spanish publishers,EDICIONES PAIDOS IBERICA, S.A.were concerned that Spirit House was too close to Isabel Allende’s House of Spirits

The cover art for the Atlantic Books edition ISBN 9781843547914 (UK edition) of Spirit House is provocative and moody. The UK release date is 1st July 2008. This edition is also available in Australia from Penguin on 29 September 2008.

The Grove Press edition (US edition) creates a template for the Calvino series in the trade paperback editions. Notice the amazon.com image is different from the final cover art. I am learning that it takes a considerable amount of effort and co-ordination for many people in the publishing house to get the right cover. I’ve had the good fortune of a publisher in both the USA and the UK to invite my opinion on both covers and to participate in decisions about the cover art. The US edition is available on 13 July 2008.

Posted: 5/12/2008 11:48:35 PM 

 

RETURN FROM CHINA

Over the next few days I’ll blog about my trip to Kunming, Dali and Lijiang –all in Yunnan Province. At the Kunming Airport on 12th May, I felt the strange sensation of the seats in the waiting room moving. Having awoken at 5.45 a.m., I put it down to the lack of sleep and the usual disorientation that goes with long-distance traveling. Only after arriving back in Bangkok, did I find out there had been a major earthquake (7.8) in Southwest China leaving (according to recent press reports) 8,500 dead.

Earthquakes were a topic of conversation in Dali and Lijiang with locals and the expats. Both had experienced major, destructive earthquakes in the past. The mud bricks held together with a bit of straw all baked under the sun were quick to collapse in a major quake in 1996, which destroyed most of Lijiang and surrounding Naxis (ethnic minority group) villages. Most of the old town had been rebuilt. Lijiang draws millions of Chinese domestic tourist. Snow Mountain is in the distance.

Posted: 5/12/2008 11:37:35 PM 

 

 

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