Interview: John Burdett on his new crime novel The Bangkok Asset
Writer talks about the origin and evolution of his fictional detective character Sonchai Jitpleecheep, his inspiration, and his writing routine
British crime writer John Burdett's half-Thai, half-American Buddhist detective, Sonchai Jitpleecheep, who first appeared in 2003, is back in the sixth novel of the bestselling series, The Bangkok Asset, to be published on August 4. "I think the latest book is the best thing I have ever written," he says. The series, set largely in Bangkok's seedy red-light district, delves into the philosophical musings of the detective as he battles his personal demons while investigating often gruesome crimes. "I have a lurid side to my imagination, but a lot of people seem to have that in common," he says. "A little old grandmother in the US asked me if there were to be more murder victims with worms crawling out of their mouths. When I said I didn't think so, she said, 'Oh, that's a shame'." Burdett always wanted to be a writer, but after studying English and American literature, writer's block forced him to take up law, a profession which took him to Hong Kong for 12 years where he worked in government and private practice. As soon as he could afford to he reverted to his original ambition to be a full-time writer. His first novel was based in 1970s London and the second, The Last Six Million Seconds, was set in Hong Kong in the last days before the handover to China in 1997. He now divides his time with his Thai partner between his homes in France and Thailand. He talks to Guy Haydon
What inspired you to create the character of Sonchai?
My starting point was Bangkok, a city that continues to intrigue me, and it had to be some kind of police thriller. I needed a vehicle and was drawn to the first-person narrative. I find it far more vivid than the third person. I knew I could not do an indigenous Thai voice, on the other hand the "Western investigator in an Asian city" had already been done. I had to take a deep breath before daring to create a Eurasian cop [there are no Eurasian police officers in Thailand] because I knew I would be accused of arrogance. Nevertheless, as soon as I began to write with that voice I knew it was the only way to achieve the tone and perspective I needed.
How has Sonchai evolved over the course of the books?
I spend a lot of time with Thais from every walk of life and I continue to study the language. Learning about another country is a journey without end and the map is constantly amended. The main thing is to rid one's mind of stereotypes by absorbing as much street-real detail as possible. The novels are a kind of learning in progress.
What problems does he face in the latest book?
It's much more geopolitical than the others. He and his boss are confronted by the outside world in the form of superpowers that need to be finessed. I'm not giving any more away.
Who were the writers that inspired you to become a writer and which among your contemporaries do you most admire and enjoy reading?
I studied literature at university, so there are literally hundreds of narrative voices in my memory bank. The one that gave me the courage to create a cop from an entirely different society than my own was Martin Cruz Smith, whose Gorky Park remains a landmark in the genre.
What was the catalyst that made you switch careers?
Law for me was always supposed to be a stepping stone to a more creative life. One day I woke up and realised I finally had enough money to take the plunge and dedicate my time to writing. The beginning, like all true beginnings, is a leap of faith. What I took from law, though, was the realisation that most people these days are in a different mode of consciousness compared to the book lovers of the past. People are so stressed, you really do have to find ways of nailing them to their chairs with a compelling story. The only way I could do that was by recalling my own state of mind as a lawyer and working out what kind of narrative compelled me to keep reading.
What is your typical routine when working on a book?
When I'm working on a novel I get up ridiculously early, have coffee, then start. I have only the vaguest outline of a plan and develop the project with dramatic situations that seem to emerge one out of the other. This is only for the first draft. When I have enough material I take a break - never less than a month, sometimes three months - to let my mind absorb and arrange the story so far. Then I return to the job. This process is repeated a few more times. It's a bit like painting by layers to achieve texture. It is never easy and this latest book was particularly difficult. It took twice as long as the others to finish.
Do you think there might ever be a film adaptation of your stories featuring Sonchai?
Many production companies have bought options to adapt the books for the screen. In that way I have been lucky. There are a number of difficulties, though. There are perhaps no more than three or four Eurasian stars in Hollywood who would be suitable for the lead role. So, they have to be available and interested. Then there is uncertainty as to how well a movie about a Eurasian detective in Bangkok will sell in the US and elsewhere.