Corporate shenanigans kick start a writing career
Jake Needham has been a corporate lawyer for Alan Bond during what he describes as "the heyday of Australian cowboy capitalism", a frustrated HBO screenwriter on the receiving end of threatening e-mails from Tony Soprano and is now a successful novelist. His latest, The Umbrella Man, is a Samuel Tay novel and starts with explosions at three well-known hotels in Singapore. Based in Asia for more than 30 years, Needham likes to root his work in reality, but insists it's not just a fictionalised version of true events. After all, his novel-writing career started as a literary joke - his first work, The Big Mango, is a send-up of a genre he calls "the Bangkok bargirl and BS book". There are now three books in the Jack Shepherd series and two starring Singaporean cop Tay. Mischa Moselle met Needham in Macau, where he was researching his next book.
Your early career in corporate law seems to have provided you with lots of material as a writer.
I was on Alan Bond's board during the frontier days of capitalism. Alan [who was eventually jailed, after Needham had left the company] was not shady. Entrepreneurs from Perth could do outrageous things because they didn't intersect with the real world. Nobody told them it was impossible … [but] after the 1987 financial panic, there was a kind of Cultural Revolution in Australia. The have-nots took down those they thought responsible and Alan went down. I was just his American lawyer. Through observing his life, I found out I was a novelist. I was fortunate to have stumbled into it.
You had to discover that you didn't like writing screenplays before you became a novelist though?
Writing movies sounds glamorous and writers are paid obscene amounts of money, but it's never finished. You write a script and it gets rewritten and then the director rewrites it and then the actors come along and change it. That's OK - I've no patience with precious screenwriters because you still get paid. With writing a novel, when it's done it's done.
How did you make the switch from screenwriter to novelist?
There is an inglorious tradition of expats in Bangkok discovering the bargirls and nightlife and having the notion they are a novelist. The Big Mango is a send-up of that bargirl and BS novel. I sent it to a friend at Asia Books who published it and it sold 40,000 copies in a couple of months. Then I started to work on a new character called Jack Shepherd and it has just grown from there.
Your books revolve around crime but you don't call them crime novels. What are they?
People love to categorise fiction so I call them legal thrillers. All good books start with a conflict. With crime, conflicts start a narrative and plot that becomes a framework to hang intriguing tales on. I find setting matters most of all.
You find Asia a compelling setting. How do Hong Kong and Macau figure in your books?
The Big Mango and Laundry Man included substantial sections set in Hong Kong, but in A World of Trouble, Shepherd has left Thailand and moved to Hong Kong. He lives in a borrowed flat in Mid-Levels, works out of an office on Hollywood Road, and is enamoured by being able to ride the escalator back and forth from his apartment to his office. Shepherd does his running in Hong Kong Park, and the Man Mo Temple even plays a part. In Macau [the possible setting for Needham's next book], the gambling boom is on a strip of reclaimed land. Go down to the docks area and the 1950s still exist here.
Many of your books seem to be based on real-life situations.
All of my books take off from real-life situations. Laundry Man was based on the collapse of the Bank of Credit and Commerce International. In my book it became the ABC. Killing Plato was inspired by O.J. Simpson, oddly enough. Here was a famous fugitive and I wondered what would happen if he had gotten away. It's all rooted in reality but I make this stuff up. That's why it's called fiction.
Do you find that not all readers can separate fiction from reality?
In Singapore everything that is not unreserved praise is seen as a criticism. After the first book, The Ambassador's Wife, all my sources dried up. My publisher and I agreed that since they are owned by a Singaporean media group they wouldn't bring out a print edition of The Umbrella Man. And that's why this is my first e-book-only novel.
Have you ever been tempted to make a film out of one of your novels?
Jim Gandolfini [who played Tony Soprano] asked me to write a script based on The Big Mango. The French channel Canal+ had a piece of the deal with HBO and decided Jim was not a big enough star so they dropped him. Gandolfini decided I was responsible and two weeks later I'm getting threatening e-mails from Tony Soprano. Tom Cruise may have considered it but the deal fell through. Does it make a difference? No, I got paid.