Christopher G. Moore is a Canadian writer who has been based in Thailand for 25 years. He is best known for his behind-the-smiles trilogy “A Killing Smile”, “A Bewitching Smile” and “A Haunting Smile”, and for his Vincent Calvino Private Eye series. His latest book is “Crackdown” which is set in post-coup Thailand. I sat down with Christopher recently to ask him about Vincent Calvino, the private eye in his successful series of books.
>> Scroll down for two chances to win a copy of “Crackdown”
Can you briefly tell us who Vincent Calvino is and what initially brought him to Bangkok?
Here’s the short version: “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.” Vinny’s story can be read on the website www.vincentcalvino.com
What compelled him to stay in Bangkok?
Karma. Some people are meant to walk the mean streets of a foreign land and Calvino is one of them. After nearly a quarter of a century in Bangkok, the super glue of time fixes a man to the masonry of a culture and place. Like another brick in the wall as the old Pink Floyd song reminds us. The novels in Calvino series have a psychological, political edge and the characters, including Vinny evolves over the course of the series. Part of the attraction the Calvino series has for readers is they keep track of the lives of the central characters, watch them change and watch the culture change around them. Novels when we can connect on a personal level with the mental condition of the character. How they cope, doubt, suffer, bleed, and struggle, sometimes failing, testing friendship and patience.
So, why did Calvino stick around?
Because the place never lost the ability to surprise him. And every time you are surprised, you learn something about yourself. We read novels for those moments of surprise even though in real life almost no one likes to be surprised.
How much of Bangkok/Thailand and events in the country have been covered in the series of books?
Chad A. Evan’s “Vincent Calvino’s World” will be published in a couple of months by Heaven Lake Press, and the author has tied the 15 books in the Calvino series to the main historical events covered in the books. The series has covered the gradual cultural and social transformation and the upheavals in Thai society in the past quarter century, including the technological revolution, the coups in 1992, 2006, and 2014, terrorism, smuggling, human and drug trafficking, racism, prostitution, tourism, surveillance, secret prisons, as well as the major political and economic shifts in Burma, Vietnam and Cambodia. A great deal of change has happened over the last 25 years when I started the series. In many ways, the Calvino series is a chronicle of how these events have affected the lives of those living in Southeast Asia.
Are all the locations in the books real?
At the end of 1988 I arrived in Bangkok with a carryon suitcase and a laptop with the idea of staying on a 90-day visa to research a book. I extended the visa. Then again. It became a habit. In the first couple of years I’d written A Killing Smile, a Bewitching Smile, Spirit House and Heart Talk. God knows where that burst of energy came from. Obviously I’d connected with the place and time that inspired me. My writing has always been based on reality—real people, locations, and events. For many years I ran a blog called International Crime Authors Reality Check.
How did you go about finding/researching these locations?
For me authenticity is an important component in fiction. In many ways fiction must have hooks to the real world. It must be plausible. While in the real world the most improbable events happen. Readers want creativity anchored to the real world. Places they’ve seen and a novel can allow them to see them from a different perspective. I spend a lot of time doing field research, closely examining the details of a street, buildings, entrances, exists, the flow of people, how they inter-react. Locations have a dynamic fluidity and capturing that movement and rhythm is the essence of good story-telling. I look for locations where I can blend into the community of people who occupy that space, and try to understand what emotional commitment they have to meeting others in that space. All good stories are about character and a character’s inner thoughts and feelings are influenced by his/her location. When those people gather inside a crime zone, the anxiety and fear brings out the worst and the best. Crime fiction is the space where these emotions play out.
I write about the forces that transform culture, society and people—locals, strangers, illegals, and expats—the full landscape of those who occupy Thailand. Most people don’t realize they live in a crime zone. It’s there but they don’t see it. Crime zones are like the sewers and electric wires under thestreets, we don’t notice what we don’t see. But one day it happens. Something turns sour. And the victims appear in plain sight. Writing crime novels, you want to be present in the crime zone when suddenly things go pear shape.
Are any of the characters based on real people you have met in the expat community in Thailand?
Any writer of fiction who tells you that none of his characters are drawn from real life is lying. At the same time, novels that succeed aren’t a series of mini-biographies of personal friends or acquaintances. How well do you know your friends? This is the first question you should ask yourself. If you’re honest, you only know a part of who they are, the part they are willing to reveal. A novelist must go much deeper than the surface. Even if you think of a friend, you must invent emotional and intellectual content that makes the fictional character unique. The reader should know that character vastly better than they know any of their friends, or the author knows his friends. Real life friendship is more toward the shallow end of the pool we swim in daily, it has less depth than we wish to admit; the friendship found in novels ideally is a submarine descend into the realm we rarely experience in real life with our friends. This is a good question. It is one many readers ask, because they are curious about the process of character creation. The reality is character formation transcends the experience you have lodged in your memory about personal friends. Our memories are a source of great creativity.
How has Bangkok and Thailand changed since Vincent Calvino first landed in the country?
When I started writing the Vincent Calvino series, we were still firmly in the analogue age. I took photo of above in 1989 on Asoke/Sukhumvit Road. That is the world where Calvino started. There was no Internet. No cellphones. No Google, Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. You were required to have a permit to operate a fax machine and they were rare. Bangkok was much closer to the age of Joseph Conrad and George Orwell than the world of Steve Jobs and Elon Musk. Part of the satisfaction of writing the 15 book series has been to capture the acceleration of technological change and how these forces have disrupted the political, social and economic structures in Thailand as in the rest of the world. Our age is one of vast instability caused by constant change and our ability to adapt to each new jolt to the system has caused anger, fatigue, and resistance. Writing books set during the firestorm of such change has been the challenge I’ve set for myself in creating books in the Vincent Calvino series.
Has his own experiences and time in Bangkok changed him? If so, in which way?
Over the 25-year-period of the series, Calvino’s experiences have changed him. He started off in a slum apartment in Spirit House, and by the time of The Risk of Infidelity Index, he had come into a source of wealth that has made him independent. Despite the vast improvement in his personal circumstances, his burning passion for fairness and justice keeps in in the thick of things, taking cases because he believes someone is trapped or ambushed by the forces that crush ordinary people. Like Calvino, I trained as a lawyer. Unlike Calvino, I was a law professor who has taught in England, Canada and Australia. My legal background prepared me to seek a solution to hard problems and to resolve conflict. While experience may have shaped Calvino, his people reading skills have become good allies confronting those in the crime zone.
Could he, or would he, ever return to America?
L.P. Hartley’s words come to mind: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” Vincent Calvino will always be inside a foreign land trying to understand its values and customs. Like many long-term expats, he’s adjusted to his fate of the blind man explaining the anatomy of an elephant by touching the trunk.
Is it possible for foreigners to follow in the footsteps of Vincent and become a private eye in Thailand? Can you even get a visa and work permit for this?
Good question. There are foreign private eyes in Thailand and there have been for many years. They may go under different names or titles and may work for big international firms. We’ve discovered in recent times the gathering of information on a vast scale has transformed the way we live, shop, travel, and communicate. The larger question is whether the old-fashioned private eye in the tradition of Hammett and Chandler remains relevant in this Brave New World. Going forward, it will be the computer expert who knows the ropes who will inherit the mantle. There will always be cases and geographical pockets where having boots on the ground is essential to finding a missing link, person, or body. I am not worried that Vincent Calvino will run out of cases any time soon. Though in recent books like The Marriage Tree and Crackdown, you start to see how the technological revolution and big data have entered Calvino’s world.
Your latest book Crackdown, number 15 in the Calvino series, is set in a post-coup Thailand. How would you describe that book?
In Crackdown visual art becomes a powerful take down tool to push back against the oligarchs. Think Banksy, the English street artist. Some people fail to adjust to the surveillance state and its agents. Post-coup Thailand is the setting as high tech competes with traditional power in a battle for hearts and minds. It is a noir landscape where Calvino finds himself ambushed as casualties from this battle leave behind a mystery or two. Calvino enters a world of ancient maps, political graffiti, student protestors, foreign migrant workers, and murder. The finger points at Calvino as the killer. He searches for allies who will help him prove his innocence.
WIN A COPY OF CRACKDOWN BY CHRISTOPHER G. MOORE
You have two chances to win a copy of “Crackdown” by Christopher G. Moore. In the first competition, all you have to do is follow @cgmooreauthor on Twitter and then retweet the following tweet before midnight on Friday 19th June 2015:
[CLICK TO TWEET] Follow @cgmooreauthor & retweet this message to win a copy of his latest book “Crackdown” set in post-coup Thailand http://www.richardbarrow.com/2015/06/christopher-g-moore-on-vincent-calvino
For the second competition and a second chance to win “Crackdown”, all you have to do is answer the following question in the comments section below. “What brought you to Thailand the first time”. It’s that easy. The deadline for this second competition is midnight on Friday 19th June 2015.
Small print: The two competitions are open to anyone around the world. However, if you live outside of Thailand, you will be sent a Kindle version. For those inside Thailand, you will receive a signed printed version (unless of course you prefer an e-book).