John Wisniewski interviews Tom Vater

1.When and how did you become interested in writing, Tom?

Several different experiences pushed me to become a writer, starting years before I considered writing a serious career option.

In school in Germany, I edited the students’ paper. At some point the magazine got together with a bunch of other school magazines to produce an issue on political issues that teenagers were interested in in the early 80s – the US presence on German soil, nuclear power and weapons, a new runway at Frankfurt Airport. My school reacted very badly to this. They stopped us selling on the school grounds and then impounded a pile of magazines. One of my teachers made us burn those copies. He took us into the forest and we set all those magazines on fire. To this day, I don’t understand how a school could have done something like this in 80s Germany. I was a powerless teenager, but I did learn something about the power of the written word which informs my professional writing life years later

Around the same time, I did an internship with the Weinheimer Nachrichten, my local paper. It was a family paper and none of the staff wanted to go and write about RocknRoll shows in the area. One of my first assignments and first mega rock shows was AC/DC in 1984 in Karlsruhe on their Monsters of Rock festival tour. I very briefly met Motley Crue, talking to them through a backstage fence, proudly waving my press pass. The band looked more wasted and closer to death than a 17 year old from a small German town could possibly fathom. These young men in their glitter rags, wearing too much make-up, looked temptingly subversive and unsound. Subversive wasn’t hard to do in Karlsruhe, mind you. Ozzie Osbourne slunk past like a drunken king, in a blue cape I think, and, being an older guy wearing eye-liner and tattoos, he looked even more gloriously debilitated and out there than his younger RocknRoll compatriots. I didn’t understand ‘letting go of oneself’ then or what it took to work in the ‘arts’, but I was definitely contaminated. It was a RocknRoll circus and I was so happy to be there.

By the mid-90s, I had debunked to Asia and living in a cheap guest house in Kathmandu. I had a small grant from the British Library to record and document indigenous music. My neighbors had cycled from Switzerland to Nepal and were selling their stories from the road along the way. I helped them edit some of their work at the offices of a local paper and asked the editor if he’d accept a story on Nepali music. A month later I had two pages in the weekend supplement, with photos. I knew that day exactly what I was going to do. I became a traveling writer (and at times a travel writer). I took my own RocknRoll circus on the road. I have managed to make a living from writing non fiction and fiction since then.

2. Any favorite authors?

The list is sheer endless of course. At the beginning of time there was Joseph Conrad (and Poe, Verne, H.G. Wells, Wilkie Collins and…). Haha. I just reread ‘Youth’. I first read it in my 20s. I took to Nostromo, Under Western Eyes and Heart of Darkness of course, but I could not relate to Youth. Now, in my 50s, the journey of a 20-year old first time sailor from London to Bangkok on a sinking boat in hellish conditions portrayed as a victory makes perfect sense.

The Master and Margerita by Mikhail Bulgakov and Geek Love by Kathryn Dunn are other eternal, inspiring favorites. Having lived in Asia for more than 20 years, many of the characters in Graham Greene’s novels seem to have crossed my path in real life. He knew how to conjure up compromised losers. My favorite novels with Asian settings are The Quiet American and Burmese Days by George Orwell, a brilliant indictment of colonialism.

Killing Mr. Watson by Peter Matthiessen, a murder story told from the point of view of an entire community of perpetrators, every chapter a different character, is a killer book. Mattthiessen was a really fascinating guy who co-founded the Paris Literary Review with CIA seed money and went on to write fascinating non-fiction (The Snow Leopard) and intriguing fiction set in far away places with an environmental angle (At Play in the Fields of the Lord, Far Tortuga) are also close to my heart. I am partial to the Beats, particularly Burroughs for  his sheer insane ability to handle language, Paul Bowles for his foreign settings and Bukowski, for keeping it real, dirty and romantic at the same time.

Some of these writers focused on the trials and sins of white people in far flung corners of the world, an issue that I also covered in my four novels.

My favorite book on the city I have lived in longest, Bangkok, is The Windup Girl, a biopunk (apparently) novel by Paolo Bacigalupi.

3.What makes a good mystery story or crime thriller?

Well, each to their own. My favorite crime writing is of the Noirish type, in which the protagonist knows right from the start that he can’t win, because the system, capitalism, society, greed, his background, or whatever will stop him in his tracks – Shoot the Piano Player by David Goodis springs to mind, some Jim Thompson novels like Savage Night.

The other kind of crime writing I like is more recent and politically conscious. Philipp Kerr’s Bernie Gunther novels, set in Nazi Germany, and Massimo Carlotto’s work on (criminal) society in northern Italy, such as Death’s Dark Abyss, are favorite examples.

I also love Patricia Highsmith, Chandler and Hammet of course, Ross MacDonald, John D. MacDonald and Charles Willeford. I very much enjoyed recent novels My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite and Before the Fall by Noah Hawley. And I have read every Jack Reacher, so there.

As I co-own a small crime fiction imprint – Crime Wave Press – and as I commissioned most of the 35 titles we have published, I’d like to add Elka Ray’s Saigon Dark, a masterful study of an unreliable character. Andy Rausch’s Tarantino-eque novella collection Riding Shotgun and other American Cruelties is another favorite. Andy juggles popular American culture and genre tropes like a literary demon.  Several titles have been translated or had movie rights optioned. We even made a movie…. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q9qb7iYIW8g).

4. How did you become interested in Asia, Tom, to set your stories there?

I first came to Asia in 1993. My then decided to visit friends of ours in India who’d been teaching English in South Korea. Landing in Delhi was a life changing moment, one of life’s great epiphanies. Walking from immigration into the arrivals’ hall, the first thing I noticed was the smell – cigarettes, bidis, sweat, marijuana, petrol, fried food, spices, bovines, coffee, urine, triumph and desperation had formed a thick, permanent cloud that followed us all the way onto a rickety bus driven by an ancient Sikh with a long white beard who looked like he’d escaped The Lord of The Rings.

I knew in an instant that I would not return to live in Europe, that my life would be here. I was totally absorbed. After six weeks in India, we returned to London, sold our belongings and jumped back on a plane east. With my tiny grant from the British Library to record indigenous music we traveled across India, Nepal, Thailand, the Philippines, Pakistan and Iran over the following years and eventually returned to Europe overland in 1998. By that time I’d written countless articles about the region, recorded 100s of hours of music, and completed my first novel, The Devil’s Road to Kathmandu. I started writing documentary screenplays with my brother, director Marc Eberle, and we shot a film at the Maha Khumb Mela, the world’s largest gathering of human beings in 2001, in India. Since then I have completed some 20 books, countless articles and several more doc screenplays. Asia proved to be my salvation, both in a spiritual and as well as a professional sense and I am still here, almost thirty years later. India remains my favorite destination. I spent two months at the Goethe Institute in Kolkata last year, having been selected to participate in the annual Indo-European Artist Residency. I wrote a cycle of novellas there – Kolkata Noir – which is yet to be published, hopefully in 2021. For me, writing and Asia are connected like mother and child. It’s my life and I could not have asked for a better, more interesting, more exciting one.

5. Tom, could you tell us about your book “Burmese Light”.

I first worked with photographer and publisher Hans Kemp on Sacred Skin – Thailand’s Spirit Tattoos, the first English language book on Sak Yant. That was a fine co-production between photographer Aroon Thaewchatturat, myself and Hans and the book which came out in 2011 with Hans’ publishing house Visionary World, remains in print in its second edition and garnered tons of reviews, including three pages in TIME Magazine as well as two TV docs.

When Hans decided to produce a photo book on Burma, which had just opened to the world with Hillary Clinton’s visit, he asked me to produce a text. Rather than going for a standard coffee table book write-up, we decided that I should take my time traveling through Burma (I had only done short trips across the border beforehand) and discover the country, the same way a 19th century explorer might have done, and produce a first person narrative.

It was a mesmerizing and sobering trip. The capital Yangon was alive with hope and enthusiasm for a new openness, with elections on the horizon. Inle Lake retained much of its ethnic minority charm (at least very early in the mornings when I visited local markets by boat). The vast temple-scape of Bagan was as yet half-deserted, and a river boat journey down the Irrawaddy River from bustling Mandalay was as romantic as one could imagine.

But north-western Rakhine state was a different proposition. I flew into the capital Sitwe and managed to hitch a ride on a boat to Mrauk U, the former capital of the Arakanese kingdom. Formed in 1431, Mrauk U at one point controlled half of Bangladesh, modern day Rakhine State (Arakan) and the western part of Lower Burma. The remnants of this mythical, forgotten empire near the Bangladeshi border – large temple structures made of black volcanic stone – were devoid of tourists and utterly fascinating.

But Rakhine was also the home of the Rohingya people. The genocide of this Muslim minority at the hands of the Burmese government had already started. Hence Sitwe was awash with military and secret police, many Muslim homes had already been torched and the Rohingya and other Muslims I interviewed in the market were scared for their lives. I had my photos deleted by the cops. It was utterly appalling.

In Mrauk U, the military was running training sessions into local villages where they warned against Muslim terror, which did not exist at the time. Soldiers were heavily armed, I’d never seen guns that size before, and they were none too friendly.

The chauvinism, racism and open violence of the Bamar people against all the other ethnic minorities in Burma but particularly against the Muslims, really turned me off.

Burmese Light gave me the opportunity to experience and learn all this first-hand. Kipling, who got a lot of mileage out of Burma despite only ever having spent three days of his life there, said, “This is Burma, and it is quite unlike any land you know about.”

I guess he could have said that about any place, but he was right – its cultural diversity, natural beauty and continuous conflict (the world’s longest running civil war) make the country both a sublimely beautiful place to travel through as well as a failed state with a terrible legacy.

Burmese Light is not a political book, but Hans Kemp’s iconic images celebrate cultural and ethnic diversity and the country’s suppressed Muslim minority is featured.

Hans and I launched Burmese Light at the International Literary Festival in Mandalay and met human rights icon Aung San Suu Kyi who was utterly charming in a very British way, but has since fallen from grace for her involvement in the mass murder of the Rohingya.

Burmese Light, the book, and the idea will shine on. The Burmese have another election coming up in November. All Muslim candidates have been banned and almost a million Rohingya linger in dirty, desperate refugee camps in Bangladesh. Hans and I went for the light in Burma, even as the government, the military and one of the world’s best known human rights icons went for the darkness.

6. Movies

I watch a lot of movies. All kinds of movies. James Bond and Werner Herzog in the same night. All time favorites include classic bog standards like Apocalypse Now (I co-wrote my own version of that as a documentary with director Marc Eberle – The Most Secret Place on Earth, https://vimeo.com/44509836), Chinatown and The Third Man, and total weirdos like Gummo.

Among recent offerings, I adored Bacurau, a Brazilian film about community and corruption, with Acid and Nazis thrown in. I thought the Burnt Orange Heresy, with Mick Jagger playing a version of himself, was pretty entertaining. I loved the two latest flicks by Harmony Korine – Spring Breakers and The Beach Bum. Low Life (2017), a crummy movie about ICE agents trafficking organs was also fantastic.

I watch a lot of classic old films (so much time with Covid). Recently plowed through several Hitchcocks – North by Northwest and To Catch a Thief are favorites, but I was really gripped re-watching Psycho. I am a big fan of spaghetti westerns, particularly Once upon a Time in the West, A Bullet for the General, Duck you Sucker, Django (1966), The Great Silence etc. Many of the Italian action flicks of the 60s were directed by leftists, so you got sex, violence and revolution all rolled into one. Dated now for sure, but so grandiose.

I guess I am in love with populist/popular cinema with a counter cultural bent.

I do think that we should stop making big budget films that cost 100 million US$ or more. Covid put a stop to that for the time being and I think that’s great. Those films (Marvel etc), profoundly reactionary, are generally designed to make people stupid and spend money. That includes 007 of course. All this money could be used to support better artists with something to say. Or maybe build schools with it. I particularly dislike Chris Nolan’s films, above all the Batman flicks. His vision of the world is as depressing as Clint Eastwood’s (is he dead yet?) might have been a decade or two ago, troubling, reactionary, intolerant, brutal, capitalist, border-line fascist. And often boring too. Fast forwarding was invented for films like Dunkirk.

I am waiting on movie versions of Geek Love and the Travis McGee novels.

7. How did you develop the Detective Maier character, Tom?

Southeast Asia is a fascinating part of the world to live in and write about. The region is full of contrasts and extremes. It’s usually hot, the cities are crazy and crowded, the countryside is sublime. The politics are turbulent and often murky, sometimes violent. The pollution can be apocalyptic. In Laos, Thailand and Cambodia, the three countries I set the Detective Maier novels in, Buddhism, capitalism and cronyism all thrive. The poor see little justice and in recent years autocratic governments have really stepped up to head off civic attempts to create more equal and open societies. Last but not least, foreign meddling has been common for centuries and the white man has done his fair share of damage, from colonial enterprises in the 19th and early 20th century to the USA’s destruction of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos in the 60s and 70s.

In comes Detective Maier, a former war correspondent turned private eye. Having worked in Asia as a conflict journalist in the 1990s, Maier, single, in his late 40s and based in Hamburg, is regularly sent east to look into crimes involving Germans.

Why would anyone write a series of detective novels in English, featuring a German protagonist in Asia? Well, why the hell not, I thought. Anything goes in fiction. There are zombie PIs out there. I know the region and have met more than enough edgy, creepy characters, both local and foreign, on my travels, to provide rich material for gripping crime fiction. And for a while, time was on my and Maier’s side.

I called my detective Maier, a very ordinary German name for an extraordinary man. The name is a nod to John D. Macdonald’s Travis McGee series, whose sidekick is called Meyer.
Maier is a former East German journalist who, following the fall of the Berlin Wall, becomes a war correspondent in the new Germany. After a near death experience in Cambodia – the opening scene in The Cambodian Book of the Dead – he turns detective. I send him to Cambodia in search of the wayward heir to a Hamburg coffee empire who had killed a local girl in a traffic accident. Maier’s search leads back in time, through the communist revolution to the White Spider, a Nazi war criminal who hides amongst the detritus of another nation’s collapse and reigns over an ancient Khmer temple deep in the jungle.

In 2012, publisher Hans Kemp and I founded Crime Wave Press (www.crimewavepress.com), a Hong Kong based English language crime fiction imprint.

The Cambodian Book of the Dead, our second title, was snapped up by crime fiction imprint Exhibit A in 2013. The novel sold well in the US. I signed a contract for a second Maier title – The Man with the Golden Mind – with Exhibit A.

A few years earlier I had co-written the screenplay for The Most Secret Place on Earth (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9fLE6LqXNOg), a feature length documentary by Marc Eberle on the CIA’s secret war in Laos the 1960s and 1970s. The Americans built 400 airstrips across Laos and trained 30.000 Hmong, an ethnic minority, to fight the Laotian communists. Supported by a huge bombing campaign – more bombs were dropped on Laos than on Germany and Japan combined in WWII – CIA handlers pushed their local mercenaries into battle until most had died. As in Vietnam, the US lost its war in Laos.

In 2001, Maier is sent to Vientiane, the Laotian capital, to investigate the unsolved murder of an East German cultural attaché in 1976, and to track down a list of Vietnam war era double agents and its author whom no one has seen in twenty-five years. Said agent, code-named Weltmeister, a man who carries secrets that could upset the global balance of power, turns out to be intimately connected to Maier’s past. Henry Kissinger has a cameo appearance.

Exhibit A folded shortly after The Man with the Golden Mind was published in 2014. I was gutted. But I felt that I wasn’t finished with Maier. It took me a long while to return with another, final story – The Monsoon Ghost Image, published by Crime Wave Press in 2018.

In the wake of 9/11, Maier travels to Thailand to investigate the re-appearance of a famous German conflict photographer who had supposedly died months earlier in a boating accident off the Thai coast. Maier stumbles on a photograph shot by said photographer, of a violent interrogation conducted by the CIA at a black site in Thailand. As soon as he takes possession of the image file, Maier is hunted, by the US secret service, a shady German tycoon who owns an island populated by animals from Africa, and by the Wicked Witch of the East, a mysterious woman who directs Maier deep into the US’ War on Terror.

The Detective Maier trilogy is now available with Crime Wave Press.