I begin my writing routine to music but often end it in silence.

The music is not there for listening. Listening requires concentration. I do enjoy listening to music, but when I’m writing its purpose is more akin to whatever it is that white noise does to our brains.

Therefore I prefer to start with music that I know very well. The better I know it, the more easily it will slip out of consciousness.

Music that is repetitive and predictable is better to write to than music that is quirky and surprising. Classical music is often difficult to write to because of its contrasts. So too Led Zeppelin’s first album.

I also happen to like writing to loud rock music. I like an empty apartment and loud crashing repetitive rock.

My wife may not always like it when I write. SoundtrackContinue reading

Prince of Ayodhya

abcd7febefedfb5c60193b1676fdb56eMy friend Kamni once lent me a paperback copy of Prince of Ayodhya, the first of an eight-book series by Ashok Banker recreating India’s ancient epic, the Ramayana. This is a few years ago, when I was researching for The Story of Angkor and trying to get my head around the basics of Hinduism; I was also becoming a regular at yoga. Kamni seemed pleased that I was gettin’ my Indian thang on. Hence the book.

The idea of tackling a gigantic epic written millennia ago is daunting, to say the least. The Ramayana emerged in its orthodox format sometime in the 300s BC. It’s not like cracking open an Elmore Leonard for your next flight.

But Banker has transformed the epic into plain, modern English – the kind that Elmore Leonard fans can enjoy. More, he has reinterpreted it for our generation. (This is in keeping with centuries of Indian tradition; the epics have always been reworked in a variety of languages to appeal to the readers of the time.)

The result reads like a cross between J.R.R. Tolkein and “Star Wars”. Any fantasy, sci-fi, mythology or adventure reader would dig this. No knowledge of Hinduism or Indian culture is necessary. Banker lets the story do all the teaching. Prince of AyodhyaContinue reading

Jade Lady Burning

UnknownMartin Limón published this, his first in a series of crime novels featuring American military detectives in 1970s Seoul, in 1991. So George Sueño and sidekick Ernie Bascom have been populating bookshelves for a long time. I only found them recently, though. Now that I know Limón exists, I find traces of him in lots of places (like crime fiction blogs) but lurking back in the shadows – a cult favorite, I guess.

Selling Asia-based crime novels is tough. There isn’t much of an audience for it (or at least, US and UK publishers don’t think there is…stick an umlaut on it and tell them it’s set in Copenhagen, they go batshit). Korea is about the least understood, least touristed major country in Asia. So I’m not surprised that Martin Limón is obscure relative to his body of work.

But Korea’s also been home to the US military for nearly 70 years. Limón’s investigators love army life there because it’s a steady paycheck, they enjoy a lot of freedom (drinking and whoring on the job), and George Sueño has a Marlowe-like sense of honor that compels him to obsess on cases that everyone else wish would just go away. Jade Lady BurningContinue reading

Val, con’t

I’m excited to have completed the manuscript to the next Val Benson novel. This isn’t the finished product. It needs a little ‘walkaround time’. And the publisher, Crime Wave Press, will give it their edit. But finishing the draft is the hardest part of the creative process.

In some ways this was easier than the debut novel, Gaijin Cowgirl. This is now my third completed novel and fourth book overall. I knew my main character very well. Confidence helped with keeping the writing on schedule, too. Each work of mine has engendered doubts, this one included. But readers seem to really like Gaijin Cowgirl, and that’s a great feeling.

This story has a few things in common with the debut. I think there are some things that make it a Val Benson thriller: multiple locations, a treasure hunt, a dollop of historical narrative, and of course plenty of action. Val, con’tContinue reading

Writer on location: Three Pagodas Pass

photo-3Thailand figures prominently in my fiction. The second half of Gaijin Cowgirl followed Val Benson from Bangkok to the Burmese border. The as-yet unpublished Bloody Paradise is set entirely in Koh Samui. And the new Val Benson adventure sees her revisit Bangkok.

At the time of writing Gaijin Cowgirl, I was spending a lot of time in Thailand. Work led me frequently to Bangkok, so I got to poke my nose around the city. I tried to infuse the story with the real sense of mystery, fun and seediness you find there. In fact, Gaijin Cowgirl required a few chapters that flashed back to Bangkok in the late 1960s, when it was the heart of the US air war against Ho Chi Minh. Those are still among my favorite passages of anything I’ve written. Writer on location: Three Pagodas PassContinue reading

The Golden Lands

9780789211941Peter Gordon of the Asian Review of Books kindly asked me to write something about a newly published tome on Buddhist architecture (click here to read it).

I learned a tremendous amount from Vikram Lall’s The Golden Lands, a big book with awesome photos, maps and computer-generated images. Meant to be the first volume in a series, The Golden Lands covers six countries in Southeast Asia. If you’re into temples, stupas and monasteries, this is for you.

Understanding a subject as big as Buddhism is hard, and I’m no expert. I’m not even a Buddhist! The Golden LandsContinue reading

Declare victory, retreat

Hong Kong’s protesters should use tonight’s rally to dismantle the road barriers. The campaign for a democratic Hong Kong must be seen as a long-term struggle. To think that this round of protests – which may enjoy broad sympathy but have not mobilized the middle class into taking to the streets – would by itself change the way Beijing runs Hong Kong is foolish.

The umbrella movement has achieved a lot. It has forged a new generation who must take their commitment forward into the uncertain, awkward arena of life. Beijing doesn’t know how to deal with them, and the creativity and discipline evinced this week by the protesters has to be channeled into new, diverse tactics. They must retain an essential unity of purpose but through decentralized cells that can pop up and frustrate the more anti-liberal activities the government may pursue.

If they persist in blocking thoroughfares in Central, Admiralty and elsewhere, they will certainly provoke chief executive Leung Chin-ying into ordering the police to clear the streets. The police, sometimes caught in the middle of this political tussle, will oblige. People may well get hurt. Declare victory, retreatContinue reading

Quit while you’re ahead

The people, mainly students, who have barricaded large swaths of downtown Hong Kong represent a new generation that has found its voice. They are conscientious, polite, determined, environmentally aware, peaceful, un-sexist, and wholesome. And it’s time for them to pack up and go home.

Wandering around the highways of Central and Admiralty yesterday, I felt glad that, in the end, the Occupy movement had taken place. It is naïve, but sometimes society needs its dreamers to have their moment. The economic damage and inconveniences caused are so far minor, and the affirmation of civic pride and activism, although invisible on a balance sheet, is an emotional and cultural asset.

But I also felt trepidation, particularly contrasting the quiet passion of the street-sitters, the girls spraying whiffs of water to cool you off, the young men collecting garbage, the people offering me water or biscuits, the lack of loudmouth demagogues (it’s a very quiet demonstration) – to another silence, the men in the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Headquarters building in Admiralty, staring down at us through binoculars, monitoring the demonstrators on their video cameras. They know how to play this game, too. Quit while you’re aheadContinue reading

The battle of Hong Kong

ByoLdNJCAAEm_SyLast night, following three days of student political protests and sit-ins, the pro-democracy Occupy Central movement closed down major roads and faced off a police assault. But to call this ‘Occupy Central’ is misleading. The markets and professional businesses in Central are operating normally, give or take some bad commutes. But the protest movement erupted not just in Central but in Admiralty, Causeway Bay, Tsim Sha Tsui and Mong Kok.

It’s ‘Occupy Hong Kong’.

Byn3bdFCEAAtax0The protesters are for the most part young and idealistic. I guess you have to be if you want to get tear gassed and maced by the cops. They are, according to people I know who have been involved, behaving with the utmost courtesy. They are armed with umbrellas, to shield them from gas and spray. Fears that some radical splinters in the movement would instigate vandalism or violence have so far not materialized. The battle of Hong KongContinue reading

Indonesia, Etc.

Travel writing at its best

Travel writing at its best

Travel books: dead or alive? In a previous post I said they are very much alive, and now I have another terrific example. Elizabeth Pisani’s Indonesia, Etc. is a great travel book for our age. While it may not be the sort of Stanley-and-Livingston tale that some people still associate with the genre, it is an exploration of a place understood by few, going through incredible change, and likely to be of more importance over time.

Although Pisani includes history, social commentary, economics, and other analyses that are interesting to businesspeople and diplomats, these are layered in what are basically tales of the bizarre. Not that Pisani is using the country as a backdrop for cheap thrills and eye-rolling dismissals. Quite the opposite: Pisani herself is the bizarre one, a middle-aged white woman from London whose main rule while traveling the archipelago is “just say yes” to whatever invitation or suggestion crops up.

In this way she suffers seven months of hardship (Indonesia is famous for its rotten infrastructure) and heartwarming hospitality. By avoiding Bali and Jakarta – the two places known to foreigners – she gets to explore just how diverse Indonesia is. That was the starting idea of her book. Yet toward the end, she has a new sense of Indonesia as a thing, ramshackle perhaps, that hangs together.

This is travel writing at its best: engaging, funny, very well written (Pisani’s metaphors are all bulls’ eyes), sympathetic but also clear-eyed. Very few people could have pulled this off. She’s done the reader as well as the country a service.