Sunday, July 21, 2013

Interview: Tom Vater (author of THE CAMBODIAN BOOK OF THE DEAD)

(Josh) Your love of Cambodia and its history are evident throughout the novel. Was it a conscious decision to make Cambodia as much a central character as Maier?
CambodianBookOfTheDead-72dpi(Tom) The recent history of Cambodia is as turbulent and tragic as one can imagine. Colonialism, international geopolitics, US bombing, four decades of war, revolution, genocide, famine, liberation by the Vietnamese, a failed UN sponsored kleptocracy and a new descent into lawlessness and impunity make the country an extreme microcosm for our collective failures. It was absolutely a conscious decision to make the country a character, taking note of the way Raymond Chandler used LA in his stories. Of course most readers are more familiar with LA than with Cambodia, so I decided to go deeper and tried to illuminate the sorrow and loss that comes about in the wake of the destruction of an entire society. Hopefully readers will be able to draw parallels to their own worlds. We live in a hugely volatile age. Open the newspapers and you will read about endless war, legally enshrined injustice, wholesale theft by the rich of the poor, destruction of the environment and state oppression/terror almost anywhere in the world. Modern Cambodia is a great if extreme representative of much that is wrong with our political affairs. That’s why I used Jerry Redfern’s quote at the start of the text. Cambodia, where the appalling is common place.

The importance of violence amidst a soiled and confronting history can’t be overlooked. You went to great lengths to detail the histories of General Tep and The White Spider who in themselves are quite violent and provocative characters, how important is the past for the present day setting of the novel?

The past is always crucial to the present, not just in Cambodia but anywhere in the world. History does not occur in neat box-shaped segments, the way it is often taught in schools or presented in museums. History is messy and continuous. Nazi Germany didn’t simply disappear in 1945, aspects of it carried on within the new democratic Germany. European colonialism did not disappear with the independence of the colonies in the 1940s and 1950s. It’s called globalization these days. America’s foreign policy didn’t become more egalitarian in the wake of killing four million Vietnamese, it just took a breather and then resumed its violent export of democracy around the world. 

Carissa and Meier had a certain element of chemistry between them. Can we expect to read more into their past and potential future relationship in later installments?

Carissa is an independent woman. Clearly she loves Maier who in turn is fond of her. But Detective Maier is a rather dysfunctional character when it comes to relationships and Carissa quite obviously sensed this and did what was best for her. That’s not to say she might not reappear in another Maier novel. In the next Detective Maier Mystery, The Man with the Golden Mind, one of the characters from The Cambodian Book of the Dead does make another appearance. It’s not Carissa though.

There is a religious and almost unearthly quality to Kaley, what was your inspiration for her and the perception of her being a symbol for something almost supernatural?

Kaley represents Cambodia, its tragedy, beauty, resilience and finally, its collapse. She is as real as she is mythical. The story of the Kangaok Meas, which provides much of Kaley’s character is an old Cambodian folk tale.

There are multiple threads by which certain events pave the way for character demise that I didn’t see coming. How difficult was it to write off some of these characters?

I think the conclusion of the book vis a vis its players is pretty conventional. The bad guys die, the hopeless are put out of their misery and the cynics survive.

I would liken THE CAMBODIAN BOOK OF THE DEAD in substance and style to novels by David Corbett (Blood of Paradise) and Andrew Nette (Ghost Money), are you familiar with either authors work?

I have read Ghost Money, reviewed it here and enjoyed it hugely. Andrew Nette also delves into Cambodia’s history but his book is more focused on Phnom Penh in a slightly earlier period. I am not familiar with David Corbett’s title.

Lastly, what can readers expect from Maier and his future endeavors in the next book THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN MIND?

In The Man with the Golden Mind, Maier is back in Asia investigating the 25 year old murder of an East German diplomat. His journey leads him deep into the Laotian jungles and into the heart of America’s Secret War in Laos, the CIA’s largest covert operation to date.

Maier soon realizes that different parties, including his client, are searching for a man codenamed Weltmeister, a US and Vietnamese spy no one has seen for a quarter century. With the Vietnamese, Laotian and American secret services on his tail and a feisty Thai journalist in tow, Maier uncovers a sordid story of politics, secret assassinations, betrayal and revenge that stretches back into the 1970s.
Follow Tom Vater on twitter: @tomvater
Follow me on twitter: @OzNoir

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