Question 1: Your new novel Waiting for the Lady
has just been released in hardback by Heaven Lake Press.
The book is set in Burma and the Lady in the title is
Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi. The
book is not part of your Calvino detective novel series but a new and I
can say very enjoyable read. Can you tell
us a little about how the book came about?
for the Lady is part of the larger writing project (and the Calvino
Series is part of this as well) to chronicle the important events,
personalities and changes in Southeast Asia
through fiction. Every book I’ve written is the product of serendipity.
Some random happening that I could never have invented or anticipated.
A couple of years ago I was at the departure desk at the airport in Rangoon.
been booked on a morning flight. I remember at the check-in counter
that it was hot and the woman behind the counter had sweat on her brow.
I had my ticket and passport ready and slid them across the counter.
Somehow in the process my passport disappeared. The woman behind the
counter said she didn’t have it. I didn’t have it. Where had it gone?
This airport is from another era. It hasn’t changed much in nearly
fifty years. I noticed that the counter had a crack and wondered if it
might have fallen inside. An attendant came up and he helped pull back
counter. This obviously hadn’t been done since the time of George
Among the cobwebs and dusts were sunglasses, key chains, tickets,
holders and on top was my passport. Right below the passport was a
camera. What does an honest person do in this situation? If I handed
camera over, I rather suspect it wouldn’t have had much chance of
finding its owner. I pulled the camera and passport out in one
movement. Meanwhile, the attendant and others were pulling out the
spoils of years of travelers lost items. The digital read out gave a
date almost five years before: 1996. There were 19 exposures on the
camera. As a novelist, I had been given the gift of a book. Why?
Because in my mind the images on those
unexposed photographs were linked to the current and past history of Burma,
and the owner of that camera had captured images that showed a
linkage. All I needed was a narrator to track down the owner of the
camera, and to tell the story of those images.
Question 2: In researching this book, how many times did
you visit Myanmar
and for how long each time were you in the country working
to research the book?
Answer: I have been to Burma
more than a half dozen times since 1995. The first time was at the time
of the first release of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest. Each
time I made new contacts and as time grew, I felt I had the basis of
understanding to think of starting a novel. Most of my trips were
between one and two weeks.
Question 3: What was
your impression of Burma
and its people? Obviously from
your portrayal of life there, it is hard for most.
Were there things that you can mention that really
surprised you about the country and would you recommend
that others visit?
Answer: I found the Burmese people
living in the most difficult of times. Though this didn’t
make them desperate. They have adapted to hardship and deprivation in a
way that I doubt most of us could begin to understand. In the outer
townships of Rangoon, many
do not have electricity or water. There are no jobs. There is little
these difficulties, the people I met – and this is from all walks of
– were curious, resourceful, patient, and absolutely determined to
their dignity in circumstances that would rob most people of dignity.
day when Burma
opens to the wider world again, people are going to find one of
the last vast wildnesses untouched by globalization. Outside of Rangoon,
the rivers and forests and mountains are unlike anywhere in the
Question 4: In the book
you have very accurately depicted the current security situation
of police and military involvement in many aspects of Burmese life. Did the Burmese government in anyway inhibit
your research or did you observe any of the repression that many other
sources have reported?
writing about the lives of ordinary people others may well draw
political and social conclusions about the government they live under.
As you know, I have set novels in Cambodia
during a volatile time (UNTAC 1993) and in Vietnam
before the Americans lifted the embargo. An author who is talking to
ordinary people about their daily lives would rarely appear on
the radar screen of the authorities. Part of the irony of writing
book length fiction, is that by and large the authorities are not
of literary fiction, and as a result one has the liberty in a novel
to examine the reality of life under a regime that results in
powerful, enduring, and thought-provoking prose. The intense reaction
of an op-ed piece that appears (and soon disappears) from the New York Times or FEER is rarely the
result. Dictators are mainly newspaper and magazine readers. Eight
hundred words are the average dictators attention span (unless, of
they are his words). Novels take too much time to read and digest.
Question 5: The Lady in
the title as I mentioned earlier, Aung San Suu Kyi, has in some ways
seemed to be a master of oriental martial arts in which she quietly
turns her opponents attacks back against them. First
have you met the Nobel Peace Prize winner? Also,
having obviously more than a passing
familiarity now with Burma,
how do you feel the situation between her and the current
government will ultimately play itself out?
That could happen in Burma.
And it could have happened over the past four decades. But it hasn’t
happened so far. The Lady appears once again to have been isolated by
the regime. Authorities have been (at least on the surface to an
outside observer) effective in preventing her from going the next stage
from creating hope to actually realizing her specific proposals and
plans. People believe in what she has to offer. But the power resides
Aung San Suu Kyi 1995 Rangoon with
Christopher G. Moore and Australian member of Parliament Julie bishop
met Aung San Suu Kyi in 1995. I was at a press conferences held during
that time at her house in Rangoon.
I had an invitation to return for a private meeting and had a chance to
give her a copy of Heart Talk. We talked about
language, and the role of heart phrases in the Thai language. It
was a quite lively exchange. I saw her
again in May 2002 at the press conference held the day of her release
and reminded her of our earlier meeting. In the West we tend
to believe that good triumphs over evil and that persistence and
win out at the end of the day. I would hope that would be the case with
My own sense is that change will come gradually rather than in
a grand Berlin Wall type of conclusion. At the same time, every
repressive regime appears solid and impregnable until the last ten
seconds before it collapses under its own weight.
Question 6: One of the
tools used to try to force a suitable settlement in Burma
is sanctions that have prevented or at least tried to limit
all business with Burma
and investment in the country. Do you have
a view on embargoes as a political instrument and on how
they have worked or have not worked in Burma?
Answer: I have a view on
embargoes. Do they work? This very much depends on what is meant by
“work”. Indeed they have worked in Burma.
But not in the way I suspect the supporters of embargoes would
have liked. Embargoes simply isolate a country and this is all to
the advantage of a repressive regime. What better way to terrorize
a population than to do so into isolation, outside of the lights and
cameras of CNN and the BBC. Embargoes are a gift to dictators. No one
is asking awkward question about whether the light of day ever filters
into the prison cells, or opposition members are being unlawfully
Who in the West now knows anything about the universities, schools,
hospitals, courts, and business of Burma?
Very few. Because embargoes have an implicit message: stay away
– don’t go to that place. Travelling to Burma
can cause others to say you are politically incorrect. But the way to
change such a regime isn’t to encircle it with such restrictions. Does
anyone really think that not having McDonalds and Starbucks located in Rangoon
cause the regime to fall apart? Like in the case of Iraq, where
sanctions also failed and likely caused suffering and the deaths of
of thousands of innocent civilians, no one in the government in Burma
is suffering. What embargoes create are misery and want and a system of
fixers who are able to find ways around the embargo. Rather than
encouraging rule of law, you create corruption and rule of influence,
and what happens to the merchant class? To survive they learn the
art of bending the rules and the ways of corruption. How else can
they do business. That is the legacy of embargoes. What you want are
tens of thousands of tourists going to Burma
and incentives for businesses to open in Burma.
You turn the floodlights on the government from the inside. Not
even a candle is lit with an embargo and everyone (except the
privileged elite) lives in darkness.
Question 7: Prior to
World War II, people living in Thailand
actually went to Burma
for rest and recreation and Burma
was actually a much more prosperous country than Thailand. Obviously the roles are now greatly reversed,
how will Burma
in your view develop and is there really any hope for development of
business in Burma?
Answer: At the moment, I
see very little hope for any substantial development in the political,
social or economic circumstances in Burma.
It is still 1953 in Burma
and will be for a very long time. Most of the country remains with
primitive means of transportation, little electricity, and little
real contact outside of the district level. A fair amount of Burma
is accessible only by river or overland on foot. In the urban areas,
the people suffer. Repression is such an abstract and intellectual
term for the terror and fear that ordinary people feel. No one has
any idea of the degree of helplessness and frustration that must come
from living in a society where you can’t go to university, there are
no jobs, and dissent will guarantee you time with no real trial before
being sent to prison. The West has largely forgotten Burma.
All attention is on the Middle East. The
great tragedy of Burma
was the absence of large oil reserves.
Question 8: You have
set books now in Cambodia
with your earlier Calvino novel Zero Hour and now Rangoon. How do you compare the two countries and how
do you see both developing over say the next ten years?
Out, the Calvino novel set in Cambodia
during the UNTAC period, which was recently translated by Unionsverlag,
a Swiss publisher, into Stunde Null Phnom Penh, or Zero Hour in Phnom Penh, captured the feeling of
a time and place of great instability and change. The main difference
was that the UN had a mandate to see that the warring political
factions held fair elections. The UNTAC force brought international
attention to Cambodia.
Once the world is focused on local politicians it is surprising
how quickly the rack is dismantled and thumbscrews are put in the
back of the drawer. In the case of Burma,
world attention is focussed elsewhere and will continue to be
preoccupied with Middle Eastern concerns for sometime into the future.
Perhaps things will become so intolerable that ordinary citizens will
charge armed soldiers because being dead and being alive no longer has
any significant difference. But as far as I can see that point hasn’t
Question 9: One of the
central themes in your new book is the issue of Japanese comfort women. In fact, in many ways the book is as much
about this issue as it is Burma. How did you research this issue and how
authentic is the system of comfort houses you describe in the book? Was Moulmein
actually a Japanese military base and was there such a club as the Blue
Answer: The World War II
part of Waiting for the Lady involved a fair amount
of research. An earlier novel about to be reprinted as Tokyo
Joe (September 2003),
and two radio dramas – View from Cambie Bridge for
NHK (in Tokyo 1983) and The Bamboo
Pillar (CBC 1984) – are part of my interest in World War II in
Asia. Tokyo Joe is set around the event of the 731
the biological warfare unit of the Japanese Imperial Army during World
War II. The radio plays are dramas about Canadian-Japanese living in
relocation camps in Alberta
during the war. For the past twenty years I have done a fair amount of
research into various aspects of the war. Indeed there were comfort
women in Burma
and in Moulmein. The
details are authentic to that time. The Japanese also maintained
a naval base in Moulmein
during the war. And the Japanese did house the cremated remains of
their fallen soldiers in Rangoon.
As far as I know there was no private club called the Blue Scorpion nor
was there a young Japanese naval officer ordered to Rangoon
to remove the cremated remains and transport them to Japan.
Having lived in Asia for many years, the
fictional events fit well into what we actually know happened during
that period. It is quite possible that a underground private club
offering women to Japanese officers has gone unrecorded as an
detail lost in the fog of war. And it is also possible that Japanese
officer was ordered to transport the remains of the dead to Japan.
As a novelists, it is finding these very real possibilities and
giving them a human face that makes writing (and hopefully reading)
a novel a compelling, worthwhile activity.
Question 10: Your character development of the Burmese, Japanese
and the three main expatriates in the new book is at least
in my opinion much more complex than your previous books.
The character of Dr. Khin Aung was in my view
particularly masterful. Were there models
for each of these characters and how much of what you write jumps
straight out of your pen and how much of it is
a product of replotting, rewriting, etc.?
Answer: A novelist must
love to observe and listen to people. Because a novel is dead without
the right characters. No story, no matter how original or exciting can
survive without the right cast of characters around whom the story
unfolds. On my trips to Burma
I made a point of meeting many local people. Any writer who says
he simply makes up characters in his dreams or waking mind is lying.
We live in a character rich world. Not everyone one meets is a
potential character for a novel. But there are such people. Finding
them is difficult and of course no writer can take any actual personal
and wholesale fling them into a book and expect that to work. Its more
like cooking. The
right combination of oil, spices, powder, and sauce. It is
the fundamental nature of someone and then finding a way to bring their
desires, fears, wants, hopes and dreams into a story that will interest
Question 11: This is now
your 15th novel in 14 years in Bangkok
by my count. How do you keep up this
prodigious output and what about Bangkok
obviously has given you this creative surge to produce so much in such
a relatively short period.
for the Lady is my 16th published novel. I was published
in New York before I
arrived in Thailand
at the end of 1988. I had also written drafts of Tokyo Joe
and Saint Anne before my arrival. So much
of success in life is persistence, not giving up, not looking back,
making certain that your life is organized to bring meaning to
your dream. There is an element of luck and timing as well. I have been
fortunate to live in Asia during a time of
social, economic and political change. A novelist is (or should be)
a witness to the changes of his or her time, chronicling how those
changes rippled through the society, and to give a human face to those
living in time of upheaval. My dream and passion was always to write
novels. There are many other ways to make a much better living. There
are better working conditions and more predictability and certainty in
regular employment. What keeps me going from one novel to the next?
When you are living your dream, you never want to wake up; and as long
as I keep writing, I keep living the dream.
Question 12: Although
you are best known as a novelist, your book Heart Talk, on
the Thai language is still what in my view sets you apart as it
is the book that I believe really shows your fascination with
understanding the complexities of your surroundings.
Is there any other project like
Heart Talk in the works and are there any plans to bring Heart
Talk and/or your other books to a wider audience?
Talk is a book I take some small measure of pride in. I said
earlier that I had passion for writing. Part of that comes from a
understanding very early that the real power is in words and
language. Every child realizes this about four or five years of age
when they ask their parent awkward questions about sex. If I was going
to write about life in Southeast Asia I needed
to master at least one language. And Heart talk is a
testament to my long-term love affair with Thailand
and the Thai language. A dozen years after the first edition was
published, I still remain amazed that a language as ancient as Thai
had to wait until a not particularly gifted language student from Canada
arrived to produce for the first time a written record of the core
element of the language. My wife (Dr. Busakorn) and I are working
on a web site that will bring Heart Talk to the web.
The idea is a develop a study course that will be interactive, allowing
students of Thai a unique way to study and learn Thai. We received
great guidance from Soraya Runckel who shared our passion with this
aspect of the Thai language. As for other books, the German version
of Cut Out appears in April 2003, the Thai edition of Minor Wife (Mia Noi) will be published in
June 2003, Tokyo Joe will be published in September
2003, and a Canadian edition of Waiting for the Lady
comes out in late 2003. We have several other foreign language rights
deals in the works as well. With some luck, one day there may even be
US editions of my books. Meanwhile, I am already planning my next novel…