An Interview with Christopher G. Moore

Canadian novelist and former law professor 
once described by the Toronto Globe and Mail as 
the Hemingway of Bangkok

Q.1 Christopher, I must say it is a pleasure having an opportunity to talk with you. If Bangkok ever had a renaissance man you are it - you were a law professor and the author of a highly successful detective series, a non-fiction writer on Thai language and culture and I'm sure if you'll tell us more about yourself that I will find even more new facets to your life here in Bangkok. First, what ever brought you to Bangkok in the first place and why have you decided to base yourself in a city which can oftentimes choke you with its pollution, bad traffic and general chaos?

I first came to Bangkok in 1983. At that time was a law professor and had travelled to Asia for the first time. NHK had bought my radio play View from Cambie Bridge, a story about the relocation of Canadian-Japanese to camps in Alberta during World War II. I had a friend who had been studying and living in Bangkok. The first trip was only for a couple of weeks but the introduction into Buddhism and the unique culture of Thailand made a lasting impression. My writer’s sensibilities told me that Thailand had many untold stories. And this judgment has proved accurate as I have finished by fourteenth work of fiction last November.

Q. 2 Your Vincent Calvino detective series serves as a keen observer of the Expatriate scene in Thailand. What led you to start writing the series and how many Calvino novels are there at this point?

A good friend of mine from Toronto, Ronald Lieberman, was on holiday to Thailand in 1991 and we were having one of those "what if" discussions about books. It was Ron who said, "Why had there ever been a private eye series set in Thailand?" I had no answer other than to try and see if such a series would work. So I wrote Spirit House which came out in 1992. Crime fiction was, in part, born out of hard-boiled made popular in the States by Raymond Chandler. The question was whether such a style could be transplanted from Los Angeles to Bangkok. No one knew the answer to whether it would work. I wanted to take that risk. So I created the Vincent Calvino character, a working class guy with a law degree from New York City, and set in a quasi-slum apartment, and paired him with a smart, well-educated and honest Thai cop nicknamed Pratt. They’ve remained partners through six novels.

Q. 2   Is there a new Calvino novel on the way and if so can you tell us when it will be out and what will be its focus?

I am about to start a new Calvino novel but it is too early in the cycle to say very much about the story. I can say this, I have had readers and distributors encourage me to send Vinee and Pratt back on the road. In Cut Out, they were in Cambodia, and in Comfort Zone, they were solving crimes in Vietnam. I like the idea of a series where the main characters who have certain Thai style and sensibilities travel to other Asian countries and experience the cultural shock of that place. There are so many great locations from Singapore, Hong Kong, Tokyo to Jakarta to choose from.

Q. 3 Didn't I also hear that one or more of the Calvino books were being converted into scripts for conversion to films? Which titles are involved and when will we see Vincent Calvino on the big screen?

I have been approached over the years by a number of producers. Contracts were exchanged but ultimately no agreement was reached. So far this year I have had two producers approach me with deals for film and TV based on the Calvino series. My sense is the timing for such a project is right in Hollywood. If the deal goes through, then Calvino will be a movie or a TV series sometime in late 2002.

Meanwhile the foreign translations of Calvino continue. A few months ago the second Calvino novel appeared in Japanese ("Spirit House") and the German edition of Cold Hit comes out in German sometime in the spring of 2001. Also the Chinese editions of Spirit House and Cold Hit will be published in 2001. Without your hard work the Chinese editions would not have sold. The deal you put together with the Beijing based publisher, I believe, something of a first in publishing. 

Q. 4 Although you are probably best known in Asia for your Calvino detective series, you also wrote a book that I find personally quite useful titled "Heart Talk" published by Heaven Lake Press that analyzes the use of the word "jai" or "heart" in the Thai language and explains the many words and feelings that words with jai in them contain. How did you become interested in this subject and how do you think the book can help non-Thais to better understand the people and the Culture of Thailand?

A culture is defined by its language as the way we think and reflect is language specific. Thai is a wonderfully rich, playful language full of metaphors and word play. When I came to study Thai nearly 12 years ago, I found that "jai" or heart was a recurring term appearing over and over again in many different combinations. No one had ever attempted to collect all of the phrases in a single book. Heart Talk brings together hundreds of such phrases and the idea of the book was to create a cultural bridge between Thai and non-Thai speakers. Once you can understand the way a person feels deeply about life, it becomes easier to understand the way they perceive the world. Much of the life is perceived through the filter of the heart in Thailand. My goal in writing Heart Talk was to make this core language feature of Thai accessible to non-Thai speakers. There is now a CD pronunciation guide that is free with Heart Talk, and on the CD a native Thai speaker carefully pronounces each of the heart phrases so the non-Thai speaker can more easily pick up the right tone.

Q. 5 To follow-up on the above, just how good is your Thai? Do you read and write the language and do you feel that learning and speaking the language has opened doors for you in understanding this country and its people?

There are levels of fluency in any language. If the conversation turns to hard science or abstract concepts in say political or economic life, then I would become lost in Thai. On the other hand, I sometimes get lost with such concepts in English. So perhaps it is more me than language. It would be difficult to write (unless one wished to stay just on the surface) about the human condition unless you can understand the language who occupied the environment you live in. I choose to live in Thailand and write about Thais and expat communities, and without a foundation in the language, my books would have not had much impact.

Q. 6 As a former law professor, you also have some experience of the Thai legal system. Isn't this correct? Can you tell us a little about this? Is this fulltime and how would you compare the Thai legal system to that of Canada where you were from or say the U.S.?

The main difference is that the Thai system is based on a Civil Code. The American, Canadian and English systems are common law systems. The Thai system is more like a European legal system in other words. The role of precedents that was created by the common law does not operate in the same fashion in Civil Code systems. The selection of judges is quite different. There are no jury trials even for murder. The amount of administrative regulations and rulings are crucial to the Thai system, and there is more discretion on the administrative level. 

Q. 7  In the go-go 1990s and throughout the Asian Financial Crisis you were living in Bangkok. As an obviously keen observer of Thailand, did you see the crash coming and how do you think the country and the people have been changed by the crisis?

Around this time I would go on the roof of my apartment house and count the number of construction cranes. I live in the heart of Sukhumvit. In 1988 there were few high rise buildings. Suddenly the sky was filled with steel rods and concrete. In Vancouver, we had lived though cycles of real estate boom and bust. I remember saying to Thai friends, that real estate is like any other commodity and prices that go up quickly can fall just as rapidly. None wish to believe this. There was a collective sense of denial that economic cycles and principles that applied elsewhere applied in Thailand. It was only a matter of time. It is human nature to become carried away in a bull cycle. This happened to the Americans with the dotcoms. It certainly happened to the Thais with hundreds of thousands of empty offices and residential units. I wrote God of Darkness just as June 2, 1997 arrived, and tried to capture something of the effect of the bust on a rich Thai-Chinese family living in Bangkok.

Q. 8 Do you think these changes you've noted are really deep seated or only surface changes that will disappear as the economy improve? If so, why?

Over time the economy will improve in Thailand. It is a question of when things will turn around. The Chuan government tried to implement some medicine to correct the ills such a new law for debt restructuring and bankruptcy. For many wealthy Thais, this has been bitter medicine. No one likes to accept failure or defeat. The strength of a political system is the ability to force those who fail to accept the consequences of such failure. The easy alternative and often highly popular one is to bail them out. Let the creditors (read foreigners) holding the bag. The question is in the air as to whether the new government will roll back the Chuan Government legislation. If it does so, this may test the faith of foreign investors into the bona fides of the Government to come to terms current level of debt and non-performing loans. 

Q. 9 What is your current assesment of the economy here in Thailand and did the crisis lead to new laws and a different outlook which ultimately will put Thai business on a firmer footing?

The new legislation did place Thailand on an international footing. But the Chuan Government paid a price for doing so. All politics is ultimately local and about local interests. There was an inability of the last government to explain why the legislation was in the best interest of the country in the long run. Short term interest, planning and thinking often wins out in such situations and that is one explanation why the Democratic Party (Chuan is the party leader) failed at the recent elections. Political reform is a little like writing a novel; it takes a very long time come up with the right set of idea and a long time to finish putting them in place. The same applies to economic reform with so many vested interests at stake and so many of the people whose interest in stake running the show. Most people don’t have the patience to wait for something good to come out of long, tiring labor. They often lack faith anything good will happen down the road. They want something in their hand now. 

Q. 10 Thailand prior to 1998 was known to have little legal protections for lenders in the event a business became over extended. One of the achievements of the recent Chuan government was passage of a new bankruptcy law. How do you rate this new law and are companies actually being forced to close and seek reorganization by the new law?

The Bankruptcy Law was an achievement that built confidence for investors. Certainly there were defects such as the vague way that bankruptcy was defined. Still the legislation was a positive step in the right direction. There may be pressure on the new government, however, to amend the Bankruptcy Law to make it more "debtor" friendly. If that comes about, then one can expect a reaction from capital markets and foreign investors.

Q. 11 Thailand has recently elected a new government although it is questionable whether the Party leader Mr. Taksin Shinawatra will actually be able to head the new government because of recent legal decisions questioning his reporting of assets. Based on what you've seen and heard, does this new party and their majority in Parliment represent a real sea change in Thai politics or do you see the new party as more tied to the past?

There has been a lot of debate about whether the new government is old wine in new bottle or really something new. Certainly there will be some of the old faces long seen on the political front. Democratic institutions and traditions remain in the formation stage. There is evidence the Thai lak Thai party is trying to do keep in touch with the grassroots through thousands of local centres which will listen to locals’ complaints and views and these will be passed along to the MPs. If this comes about, this would be something new and important in Thai politics. Until Mr. Taksin’s cabinet has been selected it is difficult to know what direction things will go in the immediate future. The choice of the Finance Minister is, for example, an extremely important choice. And Mr. Taksin’s own political fate has yet to be resolved and this won’t happen until the Constitutional Court decides whether earlier findings about his failure to report his shareholdings violated disclosure laws that detail what MPs must disclose as to their assets.

Q. 12 After the years you've lived in Thailand and your obvious love of the people and the culture demonstrated in you book "Heart Talk" what do you see as the major problems facing the new government and how confident are you that the government will actually be able to solve these problems? 

It is too early to formulate any judgment about the success of the new government. There are too many unknown factors. What can be said, however, is that experienced observers will be looking for signs that political and economic reform are high on the agenda. 

About the Interviewer:   Christopher W. Runckel, a former senior US diplomat who served in many counties in Asia, is a graduate of the University of Oregon and Lewis and Clark Law School.  He served as Deputy General Counsel of President Gerald Ford’s Presidential Clemency Board.

Until April of 1999, Mr. Runckel was Minister-Counselor of the US Embassy in Beijing, China.  Mr. Runckel lived and worked in Thailand for over six years.  He was the first permanently assigned U.S. diplomat to return to Vietnam after the Vietnam War.  In 1997, he was awarded the U.S. Department of States highest award for service, the Distinguished Honor Award, for his contribution to improving U.S.-Vietnam relations.  Mr. Runckel is one of only two non-Ambassadors to receive this award in the 200-year history of the U.S. diplomatic service.

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