Thailand’s answer to Graham Greene Christopher G. Moore has a caffeinated conversation with Chris Mitchell
Recently I met up with Christopher G. Moore, a Canadian novelist who’s been living in Bangkok for almost 20 years and writing pretty much a book a year ever since he got here. Previously a tenured professor of law, Chris gave up the prestige and security of his position to come and live in Thailand and pursue his dream of writing once his first book was published. This is obviously not the sanest of ideas if you value financial stability, but as Moore points out with a grin, “Bangkok is the Far East Village. It’s a place with cheap rent that lets you create”. There’s still very much a professional sensibility behind Moore’s work though, not least in the ferocious discipline that has led him to write 19 books since 1985. He alternates between writing literary fiction and crime thrillers centering around his private investigator character Vincent Calvino, the latest of which, Zero Hour In Phnom Penh, won the 2004 German Critics Award for Crime Fiction. While you’ll find Moore’s books prominently stocked in any English-language bookstore in Thailand, Moore’s readership is international, in part thanks to his savvy use of the Internet to promote his work and find new readers through his own site cgmoore.com and his publisher heavenlakepress.com. His books are now managed by 6 different agents, and Moore isn’t dazzled by the supposed legitimacy of mainstream publishers. “I just sold the Norwegian rights to a book for more than what New York publishers offered,” he notes, indicating that the big markets are not necessarily the most lucrative. Moore appears to have found his niche and to be living a fulfilled life from it.
I was at a bit of a disadvantage during our caffienated conversation as I have yet to read any of Moore’s books. He kindly gave me copies of the aforementioned Zero Hour, along with the Burma-set Waiting For The Lady and Tokyo Joe, two of his literary novels. I recently complained on my travel blog scattered that most fiction about Thailand is the stuff of caricature, obsessed with the Thai girly bars and the whole sexpat scene and little else – and are, unsurprisingly, brain-numbingly badly written. There’s clearly a market for this stuff, but reading the equivalent of Jim Davidson jokes transplanted to Bangkok is not my idea of fun. Moore reckons it’s the wide eyed shock of encountering Thailand’s bar scene that continues to inspire these accounts: “The bar scene is the easiest way for foreigners to actually meet and get talking to Thai people, and wherever you come from, there will be nothing like this, so you think you should tell the world about it. Except, of course, the world already knows”.
Chris Moore, however, seems to be writing the books that go some way to try and convey some of the real joy, fascination and complexity of Thai life, culture and history. If that sounds a bit worthy, don’t worry – there’s still plenty of sex, guns and violence in his work, but tethered to bigger themes. The Land Of Smiles trilogy, for example, weaves a suicide mystery around recent historical events in Thailand, culminating in the Black May massacre of 1992, when students and workers were killed by the military on the streets of Bangkok. Reading through the press blurbs, comparisons to Graham Greene come up again and again, both with Greene’s method of writing “entertainments” and “serious books” just like Moore, and also the possibly over-used epithet “Our Man In Bangkok”. In short, Moore provides an easy and engrossing way into the whole smorgasbord of Thai life by using it as the backdrop for many of his books. Or at least, that how it seems to be before I’ve actually read any of his books…
Moore’s prestigious output is in part due to the same lifeview that prompted him to pack in his career as a professor of law. He realised he wanted to be a writer and nothing else – and so simply decided to do it. “You take risks, and you start with yourself. Don’t wait to write. Life will pass you by.” Moore says these things in a completely matter-of-fact tone, which belies the sense of risk he himself must have felt when he first to Thailand nearly two decades ago. Thailand now is considered “too Westernised” by some travel snobs, and certainly life for tourists has become very easy, while the country is enjoying a newfound, if controversial, political stability. I imagine 20 years ago when Moore first arrived it would have been a lot different. But, as he says, “there is so much material here. But If you don’t learn Thai within the first 18 months of getting here, then you’ll probably stay in an English-speaking bubble”. It’s Moore’s immersion into Thai language and culture, and the sheer length of time he’s been here, that help inform his books. Moore has also spent time travelling and note-taking in Burma, Laos and Cambodia too. He spends six months researching and six months writing for each of his titles: “You have to be disciplined, otherwise it never gets done”. Currently he’s researching the human trafficking trade that still flows from Burma through Thailand, which should emerge in one of his future books, while there is another, Gambling On Magic, scheduled for publication later this year.
During our conversation, Moore asked me almost as many questions as I asked him, wanting to know more about spikemagazine.com and what I’m up to. It’s obviously flattering when your interviewee turns the meeting into a proper conversation, but it’s also indicative of Moore’s natural curiosity, applying a lawyer’s mind to taking in huge amounts of information and stashing it away for later use. For me, I came away wanting to sit down and plough through as much of Moore’s back catalogue as I can manage to help me fathom out the country in which I live now. More importantly, I came away with a sense of exhilaration at meeting someone who lived wholly on their own terms, who had eschewed all the trappings of success, money and so on that his law tenure could have provided and simply realised what he wanted and decided to do it without thought of what others might think of him. As he said to me before he left, “You have to live life without regrets. And wishing, ‘Oh, I wish I’d had that kind of microwave’ is the wrong kind of regret.”
Epilogue: A pre-emptive mea culpa: this piece is from memory as I jotted down a few notes after our conversation but didn’t record it. Therefore I may have made some minor factual errors. Hopefully nothing so bad that Chris Moore will sue… We’ll be doing a “proper” interview once I’ve read some of his books and come up with some vaguely intelligent questions, plus I hope to ask him for more tips on using the Net to promote your books.