Southeast Asia would seem to be fertile ground for writers specializing in crime fiction, and indeed in recent years there has been a bounty of new books published that use a particular country in Southeast Asia — most commonly Thailand — as the setting for various crime escapades or tales of espionage. John Burdett has a thriving series that uses a Thai police officer as the protagonist, Christopher G. Moore has his Vincent Calvino Bangkok P.I. books, and Timothy Hallinan has also written a well-received series based in Thailand. Thailand-based writer Colin Cotterill has his excellent Dr. Seri novels, all based in 1970s Laos, but has recently started a new series with a female Thai protagonist. And that’s only the cream of the crop. There are dozens of other writers who have found Thailand to be a source of inspiration for their novels, yet too many of these tales revolve around a clichéd mix of bar girls and Thai gangsters.
Wanting to break away from the typical “Bangkok Fiction” syndrome, a new imprint, Crime Wave Press, was founded earlier this year by Hans Kemp, the publisher of Visionary World, and seasoned writer Tom Vater. According to their website, they plan to publish “a wide range of crime fiction, aiming to promote strong voices, exceptional talent, and unique points of view in the crime fiction genre.” Crime Wave Press has just published Vater’s new novel, The Cambodian Book of the Dead, Dead Sea by Sam Lopez, and a new edition of Nick Wilgus’ popular Mindfulness and Murder, a novel that was turned into a Thai language film a few years ago. Crime Wave Press is also looking for more authors of English language crime novels that are either based in Asia or contain “a strong Asian connection and focus point.” I talked to Tom Vater recently about his latest novel and his plans for Crime Wave Press.
If I’m not mistaken, you basically formed Crime Wave Press out of necessity. That is, you were looking for a publisher for the new novel you had finished writing, but found that to be a frustrating process, so you decided to start your own imprint. How has the experience of being a publisher been thus far?
It’s been great, much, much better than we could ever have expected. Crime Wave Press was thought up one afternoon by Hans Kemp (a Hong Kong-based publisher) and me. We had just collaborated on a successful title, Sacred Skin, which was published by Visionary World, Hans’ acclaimed publishing house for illustrated books. I was frustrated with not being able to find a publisher for The Cambodian Book of the Dead, and Hans said, “Why don’t we start an imprint that puts out crime fiction based in Asia?” I was instantly sold on the idea. Hans has connections and business savvy and I have yet more connections, two titles under my belt and have read crime fiction vociferously for many years. We felt we could really launch an imprint that would reach beyond much of the tepid crime fiction output in the region.
I got the rights back for my first novel The Devil’s Road to Kathmandu, and this was our first publication in June. The Cambodian Book of the Dead followed in July and Dead Sea by Sam Lopez came out in September. The reaction has been phenomenal. We sold the Spanish language rights for The Devil’s Road to Kathmandu which is coming out as both print and eBook in January 2013. We also sold The Cambodian Book of the Dead to Exhibit A, a British/US publisher, so that title will be re-launched worldwide in the middle of 2013, though we have retained the rights for Thailand and Cambodia. And I have been signed to write a sequel. So, all in all, modest expectations have been blown out of the water and Crime Wave Press seems to be really flying for now.
You are also looking for more writers to publish. What sort of books do you want to put out, and what are you looking for in a manuscript?
We plan to publish a range of crime fiction – from whodunits to Noir and Hardboiled, from historical mysteries to espionage thrillers, from literary crime to pulp fiction, from highly commercial page turners to marginal texts exploring Asia’s dark underbelly. We are looking for complete manuscripts by professional writers. But we are of course also looking for stuff that we personally like. Much of crime fiction is political – from Chester Himes to James Ellroy – and we decided right from the outset that we would not publish books that do not fit into our own social, cultural and political framework. That’s to say we will not publish novels with an overtly conservative agenda.
What are your goals for the first year? Do you have a specific number of books you want to publish, for example?
We would like to publish ten novels by autumn 2013. We are hoping to get our titles into regional book chains, once our back catalogue is a little more extensive. And we continue working on selling foreign rights of our titles. But all this depends on the type of submissions we receive. So far it’s been a decidedly mixed bag – from hugely competent thrillers to complete nonsense: someone recently sent us a 120,000-word treatise on conspiracy theories. Most of the manuscripts we have received have originated in Southeast Asia and we are hoping to get some material from China, India and Japan as well.
Do you have confidence that there is still a good sales market for paperback books, or in a few more years will you be concentrating only on selling e-books?
I think that mass paperbacks will continue to sell. E-books are clawing a larger and larger market share from month to month, but as I said, one of our aims is to get a whole range of our titles into bookshops in Asia and I certainly think there is a market for it here. Also, the fact that our first two titles have been licensed/sold to other publishers as print editions and e-books suggests that the paperback is anything but dead in the US and Europe. For now we are looking at three different formats: print, print on demand, and e-books.
As far as writing style, who are your influences? Or, who would you be flattered to be compared to?
I don’t want to be compared to my literary heroes. They seem to be out there in a kind of sacrosanct atmosphere of unattainable stylishness and substance. I just try to write the best I can. The crime writers I love are authors like Chester Himes, John D. MacDonald, Ross MacDonald, David Goodis, Jim Thompson, Patricia Highsmith and Charles Willeford. And Chandler and Hammett. All these writers are dead of course. Amongst currently active authors I am particularly fond of Massimo Carlotto (his Death’s Dark Abyss is probably my favorite crime novel of recent memory), Philipp Kerr, and Charlie Williams. I also read a lot of fiction that is not directly crime related, anything from Joseph Conrad to the beat writers. I just started Andrew Morton’s Silver.
The Cambodian Book of the Dead is not your first novel. You also wrote another mystery, The Devil’s Road to Kathmandu, a few years ago. Besides locale, what is the biggest difference between these two novels?
Both books are very similar in that they feed directly on my 20 years of travel and non-fiction writing in Asia. All the settings in these two titles are extremely familiar to me and many of the characters are amalgamations of people I met on the road. The biggest difference is that almost ten years lie between the two books and in the interim I wrote and published hundreds of articles, several screenplays and numerous non-fiction books, so by the time I started The Cambodian Book of the Dead my writing was quite assured and I knew much better what I was doing. Also, The Devil’s Road is primarily an adventurous romp while the Cambodian Book of the Dead is a sometimes painful, often brutal examination of history, while still being entertainment of course.
You’ve done a lot of travel writing in the past couple of decades, specifically research and writing for guidebooks, both in German and in English. Will you keep doing that, or shift most of your time and energy to Crime Wave Press?
I have found that in order to make a living from writing, I need to work in different genres. I am currently the author of several guidebooks covering Cambodia and Thailand. I was asked recently whether I might be interested in adding Burma to those titles and I declined. I am certainly not looking at expanding my guidebook catalogue. I used to write a lot more for print media but I see this type of work constantly declining. It’s increasingly badly paid and assignments are rarer than they used to be.
I really enjoy writing non-fiction books. I am currently in the process of editing my text for Kraig Lieb’s forthcoming Cambodia, a new illustrated book on the country by this well known Lonely Planet photographer and I have just been to Burma (Myanmar) to research Burmese Light, an illustrated book by Hans Kemp, due out in the spring of next year. Also, Sacred Skin, the book on Thailand’s sacred tattoos I published last year with my wife, photographer Aroon Thaewchatturat, was received really well – and we are developing several other ideas for illustrated books. I am very lucky that I work with good friends and that I am offered more work than I can handle. The time I no longer spend on print journalism and my decreasing involvement with guidebooks now belongs to Crime Wave Press and that is likely to increase in the coming year.
You’ve spent a lot of time in Cambodia over the years. Obviously, you go there for work purposes, but you also seem to like the country and the people. If you were going there just for personal enjoyment, what are some of your favorite places to go or things to do?
I love Cambodia, always have since first going there in 1995. Funky people, beautiful scenery, a venal government, and history to give any noir novel a run for its money. I do still go there for personal reasons. I have family in Phnom Penh. If I were to visit for a holiday, I would head for Kampot and Kep. The coastline towards the Vietnam border is sublime, infrastructure is improving but not exploding and it’s laid back. I also like Battambang. I was there recently on an assignment and the town has come a long way in recent years. The countryside in that part of Cambodia is gorgeous.
Besides writing, you are an avid reader and book collector. Where are your favorite places in Asia for book hunting?
Ah, now you are looking for arcane, secret information. Yes, I read all the time. Crime fiction, fiction, non-fiction with a bias towards Asia and Noir. I do also collect books and find it impossible to walk past a secondhand bookshop without looking inside. In Thailand the best two bookshops are Dasa Books in Bangkok and Backstreet Books in Chiang Mai. I was recently in Avignon, France and found first editions by William Irish and E.W. Hornung and an amazing shop called Lignes Noires, which specialized in crime fiction. Kathmandu used to be great place to pick up old books, but the street vendors have recently been closed down by the police. Kolkata (Calcutta) is another good city to find old titles, especially on India of course, and last time I was there I picked up three first editions by P.G. Wodehouse. Cairo has a fascinating secondhand book market. And someone told me recently Damascus is a great place to pick up old books, but perhaps now is not the time.