Debbi Mack interviews crime writer Tom Vater on the Crime Cafe podcast.
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We did it again! This week, there’s a transcription of the show notes. Click here to download a copy in PDF.
I originally ran this interview on my own YouTube channel. My apologies for any variations in the sound quality.
Debbi (01:55): I’m interviewing another crime fiction author. His name is Tom Vater and he’s a journalist and author. So he is located in Bangkok and writes about that place and writes some very interesting stuff. So I would like to welcome you on, on the channel Tom. Hi.
Tom (02:21):Thanks, Debbi. Thanks very much for having me on the show. It’s wonderful to meet you on this amazing technology we’re using, and it’s great to talk to you. You’re about six, 7,000 miles away or even more so it’s amazing that we can actually do this. You at the beginning of your day and me at the end of it.
Debbi (02:42): Yeah, I know. I think I’ve always been amazed at this sort of thing. So my assumption is that you started with journalism and went into crime writing? Would that be correct?
Tom (02:56): Well, actually it sort of happened hand in hand, because the first article I ever wrote for a newspaper was in 1997, for a paper in Nepal. And while I was there, I started thinking about writing my first novel, The Devil’s Road to Kathmandu, which then eventually came out in 2004. So it, it kind of happened at the same time. But but I, I would say that, you know, between the pieces of fiction, I write, there are long gaps for professional reasons. And so mostly most of the time I have a day job, I do journalism. And when I have some months off, then I can sit down and write a novel.
Debbi (03:43): So you’re primarily a journalist who also does crime writing.
Tom (03:48): Yeah. You could say that. I also own a a small publishing house Crime Wave Press, which is a crime fiction imprint based in Hong Kong, which does mostly books. And we’ve published about 32 titles by all sorts of authors, many of them from the U.S. So that’s, that’s my other gig. So I kind of do three different things. I’m a crime fiction writer. I, I’m a very small press publisher with just one partner and I’ve written four crime fiction novels and a bunch of short stories.
Debbi (04:22): I’m interested in the fact that you do so much stuff. I’m also interested in, in the notion of, of, of, of a journalist going into this sort of thing, because the tradition of journalists going into fiction writing is historically something I’ve always been kind of intrigued by, which is why I majored in journalism actually, because of my interest in writing and in fiction in general. What made you choose crime fiction in particular as a genre?
[G]enre fiction kind of makes it easy to, because it’s got many established rules and tropes and conventions, and, and so in that sense, it’s quite conservative. So you, as a writer, there’s a lot of things to hold onto when you’re writing your first novel, because it has to go a certain way, if you’re gonna follow crime fiction conventions.
Tom (05:01): I think there’s probably several things. One is genre fiction kind of makes it easy to, because it’s got many established rules and tropes and conventions, and, and so in that sense, it’s quite conservative. So you, as a writer, there’s a lot of things to hold onto when you’re writing your first novel, because it has to go a certain way, if you’re gonna follow crime fiction conventions. If you write literary fiction, it seems at least to me, when I was in my twenties, it seemed much more disorienting and I didn’t know really how I would do that character development and stuff, but in crime fiction, you know, you have certain stock characters and certain ways the plots develop and end in the end. So, so I felt certainly with my first novel, The Devil’s Road to Kathmandu, that I wanted to just write a sort of conventional adventure story, you know, it’s the story of four young guys who in 1975 hit the hippie trail between between London and Kathmandu and drive a van from London to Kathmandu. And on the way they make a drug deal that goes horribly wrong. And ice disappears with the money [indecipherable] mail saying, come back to Kathmandu and get your share of the money. So that it’s like a classic kind of adventure story that I wanted to create. And I just felt that sort of crime fiction travel genre which would be the easiest way of turning that into a reality.
Debbi (06:41): Yeah. which novel is this?
Tom (06:45): I’m sorry. It’s my first novel. The Devil’s Road to Kathmandu, which was originally published by a Hong Kong publishing house in 2004. And it’s still in print, it’s out in English and in Spanish and yeah, it’s still, after all these years, it’s, it’s actually still ships some copies, so that’s quite nice.
Debbi (07:05): That’s interesting. That’s great. Sounds like fun. I’ve been reading your latest novel, The Monsoon Ghost Image. The main character in that is very intriguing. Maier [MY-er]. Is that how you pronounce his name?
Tom (07:20): Yeah, that’s how you pronounce his name. And I should say it’s a very German name. It’s like one of the, the standards, very common German names, but incidentally it’s also the name of the sidekick in the John D. MacDonald novels.
Debbi (07:43): Oh yeah. That’s right.
Tom (07:45): It’s spelled in a different way, but I was kind of inspired by that guy as well.
Debbi (07:51): Wow. Yeah, I had totally forgotten about that. It’s been so long since I’ve read John D. MacDonald, who I love.
Tom (07:58): Right. But there’s always that sidekick in all those novels and he’s called Meyer. It’s spelled a little bit differently. He’s an accountant, I think. And so, in kind of an homage to John D. MacDonald, I called my detective Maier as well, but it is also a very, very common German name, you know.
Debbi (08:19): Well, tell us a little bit more about the character and the series in general.
The series is now a trilogy. Basically, they’re historical novels in a way. They deal with a particular aspect of history, but they’re also just detective novels about a German detective who lives in Hamburg, works for a detective agency there. He’s a former conflict journalist and, and he’s from the former communist East Germany as well.
Tom (08:24): Yeah. The series is now a trilogy. It’s, it’s basically they’re historical novels in a way. They deal with a particular aspect of history, but they’re also just detective novels about a German detective who lives in Hamburg, works for a detective agency there. He’s a former conflict journalist and, and he’s from the former communist East Germany as well. And he does jobs in Asia. When, when German citizens get, go on off the rails in Asia or they get on the wrong tracks or something tragic happens to them, he’s the guy who’s sent by his agency to go and resolve the situations and clean up. So in the first book, The Cambodian Book of the Dead, he goes to Cambodia as the title suggests and tries to find the heir to a Hamburg coffee empire, who’s gone AWOL in Cambodia.
Tom (09:24): In the second book, he tries to resolve the 25-year-old murder of a communist cultural attache from East Germany and in Laos, which to this day is communist. And in the third book, he’s in Thailand, The Monsoon Ghost Image, which is just out, where he’s investigating the disappearance of a celebrity photographer. The alleged disappearance who is also alleged to have taken photographs of the CIA’s extraordinary renditions program that ran in the early two thousands in the wake of 9/11. So all those books are kind of based in a historical framework, but they are also, you know, action, adventure, detective stories that play in particular locations that I’m familiar with from my journalistic work because I’ve been in Asia for 20 years. And I know that Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand quite well because I’ve worked in those countries a great deal.
Debbi (10:29): Well I was intrigued by an interview that I read with you where you said sometimes it’s easier writing about larger truths in genre fiction than it is in journalism and nonfiction. And I’ve always thought that fiction is a great way to explore truth. What sort of larger truths have you taken on in your fiction?
Tom (10:57): Huh. Yeah, I mean, in terms of the historical angle the things I discuss in those three novels there, they all are heavy-duty historical themes. In the first one, I talk about the genocide of the communists in Cambodia and the Western involvement in that. In the second book, I talk about the CIA’s secret war in Laos in the 1960s, which at that point was the American intelligence community’s largest campaign to date. And in the third book, again, I look at American foreign policy. So that’s kind of … it’s as a journalist, it’s very difficult to write about those subjects and, and take a step back from the hard news from what happens from day to day to day to day. And the crime fiction gives me a platform to talk about these subjects in a, in a more kind of detached, and, you know, you kind of having a bird’s eye view of the situation because of course, first of all, it’s already passed some years ago. It is our history now. And so I can, I can look at many, many different sources in order to get the material that I want for the books. Plus I have this added advantage that I live in this, in the world where those, where those stories happened, even if they happened partly before my time, of course.
And the crime fiction gives me a platform to talk about these subjects in a more kind of detached, and … kind of having a bird’s eye view of the situation because of course, first of all, it’s already passed some years ago. It is our history now. And so I can, I can look at many, many different sources in order to get the material that I want for the books.
Debbi (12:31): I was going to say the fact that you’re located in Southeast Asia plays very much into your writing, correct?
Tom (12:43): It does. But interestingly enough, I’ve just finished a short story which is called “To Kill an Arab”. And that will be out in an anthology in February in the U.S. And it’s set in Morocco and has nothing to do with Southeast Asia. So I’m, I mean, yes, I live here. I’ve worked on hundreds of stories here in the region, and of course, many are to do with crime and conflicts, so I’m sitting on a bed of very, very rich material. And that has flown into those particular three novels while The Devil’s Road to Kathmandu is, is about as I said, it’s about these three guys who drive a van from, from London to Kathmandu. And in, in the nineties, I took a bus from Kathmandu back to London. So I’ve kind of done the same journey in reverse. So I’m feeding on these experiences that I either had when I was younger or that I’m having in a professional context. But I also I’m also keen not just to write about what’s happening in front of my front door. That’s what I’m saying. My recent, my recent story is set in Morocco, which is a completely different kettle of fish from Southeast Asia.
I’ve worked on hundreds of stories here in the region, and of course, many are to do with crime and conflicts, so I’m sitting on a bed of very, very rich material. … But I’m also keen not just to write about what’s happening in front of my front door. That’s what I’m saying. My recent, my recent story is set in Morocco, which is a completely different kettle of fish from Southeast Asia.
Debbi (14:04): Yeah. I mean, somebody else was saying the concept of write what you know can go a little too far sometimes. Sometimes you want to write about what you don’t know.
Tom (14:19): Yeah. And there’s, I mean, there’s quite a few very successful crime writers—I don’t know about now, but in the past—who wrote crime novels about places that they’d never ever been to. I think Carter Brown wrote a lot of novels about places he’d never been to. And there’s also a famous, very famous German writer who wrote Westerns without ever having been to the U.S. So you can be successful with that too, if you’re clever and I guess a good writer and still, you know, put people in the context of the story, even without having any firsthand experience of it. For me, it’s simply, I also, I hear you regarding that you can put too much in of what you see around you, but, you know, it’s where I live and what I see. And I feel like why shouldn’t I feed on this rich bedrock of culture and experience that I have in this very peculiar life that I live? You know?
Debbi (15:24): Do you have any plans in terms of where the Maier series is going to go? Do you, do you think in terms of the story arc for the character over the course of the series?
Tom (15:41): Yeah, I think for now, because it takes me a long time to write these books. I’m not very fast. I, I put one out every few years, you know, so, so for now I’m because, because Southeast Asia is, is part of where I work and I also work in South Asia. So, so I feel that because I’ve written this Southeast Asian trilogy now that I should give it a rest. And as you just said as you just mentioned, somebody else’s quote, not write the fact that I live here to death and think of some other places. So I rather suspect that my next book will be set in the U.K., where I lived 15 years ago. I think so, but I’m not sure yet. I think the next thing I’m going to write is another short story, because the last two short stories I wrote, I’ve managed to publish both with a very good outlet. So I’m very happy about that. And so I think there’s, there’s a good platform for me now in short fiction at this point.
I rather suspect that my next book will be set in the U.K., where I lived 15 years ago. I think so, but I’m not sure yet. I think the next thing I’m going to write is another short story, because the last two short stories I wrote, I’ve managed to publish both with a very good outlet. So I’m very happy about that. And so I think there’s, there’s a good platform for me now in short fiction at this point.
Debbi (16:50): That’s good. Yeah. I think short fiction is something that’s kind of coming back into its own now, especially novellas.
Tom (16:59): Yeah, it does seem to be that way. I’ve just sold a 6,000 word story about a little Island. Here we go Debbi. I’ve just sold a story set on La Réunion, which is a small African Island, which is in a French territory off the coast of Africa that I’ve never been to. And, and the story is about, they have a problem there with sharks. Sharks attack local people, and the dive industry is suffering and the surfing industry there is suffering. But they suspect that the sharks have come to bite local people because they get used to effluence from the meat industry that flows through the rivers into the ocean. And me and a French journalist wrote a short story novella around this idea because my colleague had been to La Réunion, and had experienced this directly. So we, we wrote a story about a guy who, who commits a murder and pins it on a shark in order to make the sharks look bad. And that story came out with a German magazine project and it’s been serialized into four or five parts. And so we’re delighted. And as I said, I’ve written another story set in Morocco that will also come out in an anthology in the U.S., so I think for me also, it makes sense at the moment to write short fiction. Yes.
Debbi (18:37): Very cool. I like the idea of a shark being framed for murder. Let’s see. And you said right now you’re working on short stories.
Tom (18:51): Yes. so because, because me and the French journalist, I was working on the story about La Réunion, because we managed to sell that, we’re now in the process of trying to write a followup to that one, which will then hopefully also be serialized in the same magazine.
Debbi (19:08): Great. Seriously good. Yeah. Serials are in now.
Tom (19:14): Serial killings. [Laughter]
Debbi (19:20): Where can readers find you and your books online?
Tom (19:24): The easiest place to find me online is just under my name tomvater.com. And they can also look on Amazon. I have an author page there and all my books are available there. They’re also available on other platforms like Kobo. And so they’re around, I’m not hard to find at all.
Debbi (19:45): Excellent. And who are your favorite authors?
Tom (19:52): Oh, God. There’s so many I mean from times long past, I suppose Joseph Conrad is my favorite author. From times I mean, for me, I really like 1950s, 1960s, American crime fiction. So from the early hard-boiled guys, like Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler to the next generation of Ross Macdonald, Jim Thompson, David Goodis, and the aforementioned John D. MacDonald, of course. And, and you got to help me now, because I’ve got a complete blockage in my head. Who, who’s the character in that bloody series? I remember the sidekick’s called Meyer, but otherwise I have to go to my shelf and look.
Debbi: Um …
Tom: Ah! Travis McGee.
Debbi (20:44): Yes, exactly. All I could think of was boat and Florida.
Tom (20:58): Yeah, yeah, that’s right. He has a boat in Fort Lauderdale, right.
Debbi (21:00): And colors. He used colors in his titles.
Tom (21:01): Every title had a different color.
Debbi (21:06): He got very creative with that.
Tom (21:08): He was the most widely read author by American soldiers in Vietnam.
Debbi (21:18): Interesting. I didn’t know that.
Tom (21:21): They had special U.S. forces additions of his books out for the, for the troops in Vietnam.
Debbi (21:29): Huh. Very interesting. Is there anything else you’d like to add before we wrap up?
Tom (21:37): No, I’d really like to thank you for letting me speak, giving me a platform, asking interesting questions and being on your show. That’s been really, really kind, brilliant, and thanks for reading my book and yeah, people can find me easily. My books are all available on Amazon, both my crime novels and my nonfiction.
Debbi (22:02): Excellent. Well, I just want to recommend Monsoon Ghost Image to all of you. I’m not doing a review here, but I will say that I’m enjoying it. And so look for Tom Vater online and buy his books. Thanks for listening, and come back in two weeks when I’ll have my next guest. In the meantime, happy reading.
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