chris moore
book cover

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?

Answer:  Waiting 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. I had 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 the counter. This obviously hadn’t been done since the time of George Orwell. Among the cobwebs and dusts were sunglasses, key chains, tickets, plastic holders and on top was my passport. Right below the passport was a Nikon camera. What does an honest person do in this situation? If I handed the 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 or Burma 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 money. Despite these difficulties, the people I met – and this is from all walks of life – were curious, resourceful, patient, and absolutely determined to preserve their dignity in circumstances that would rob most people of dignity. One 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 world.
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?

Answer: By 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 consumers 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 (hopefully) 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 course, 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?

Ung Suu Kyi

Aung San Suu Kyi 1995 Rangoon with Christopher G. Moore and Australian member of Parliament Julie bishop

Answer: I 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 determination win out at the end of the day. I would hope that would be the case with Burma. 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.
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 elsewhere.
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 detained. 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 will cause the regime to fall apart? Like in the case of Iraq, where sanctions also failed and likely caused suffering and the deaths of hundreds 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?

Answer: Cut 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 been reached.
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 Scorpion?

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 Corp, 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 insignificant 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 understanding 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 others.
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.

Answer: Waiting 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 enormous 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 a 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?

Answer: Heart 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…


About the Author:   Christopher  G. Moore has lived in Bangkok for the past 14 tears.  He is the author of 14 previous novels and one collection of interlocked short stories, books widely praised by reviewers in Asia, Europe and North America.  

For more information, visit Mr. Moore's website:
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. Mr. Runckel is the principal and founder of Runckel & Associates, a Portland, Oregon based consulting company that assists businesses expand business opportunities in Asia. (

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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