Journalist, Crime Fiction writer and screenwriter Tom Vater lives a life most of us only daydream about. It has been my pleasure to interview him.
- How did you come up with your book idea?
Vater: I co-wrote the screenplay to a documentary called The Most Secret Place on Earth (video link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NNwi90uUNDA), about the CIA’s covert war in Laos in the 1960s. I spent some years researching the film and once it was done and broadcast, I felt that I wanted to do something else with the material. The Man with the Golden Mind is the result.
- What are your publishing credits?
Vater: I have authored or co-authored some twenty plus books (non-fiction, fiction and guidebooks), several hundred articles, three screenplays that have been made into feature docs, and I have published 32 crime novels of other writers with Hans Kemp at Crime Wave Press.
- What are your plans for the future?
Vater: I will continue to do what I have been doing for the past 25 years – write about the subjects I love – Asia, politics, history, youth culture, counterculture.
- What is your day job?
Vater: I have been making a living from writing since 1998. I am currently a correspondent for a German travel publishing company in SE Asia and I freelance for many clients including at present The Daily Telegraph, The Nikkei Asian Review etc. I have written for The Times, The Guardian, Marie Claire, Penthouse, Geographical, The South China Morning Post, the Far Eastern Economic Review, the Asia Wall Street Journal and many more publications. I write mostly in English and I am usually overworked. But I can’t make a living from just writing in any one industry. I earn my money from writing long feature stories, travel journalism, fiction, non-fiction books on history and culture, and screenplays.
- What is your preferred genre to write?
Vater: Crime fiction.
- How did you become a writer?
Vater: I studied publishing and literature but after graduating I pursued a brief and half-assed career playing in RocknRoll bands. After some years of touring round Europe I drifted to Asia - I was lucky to receive a modest British Library grant at the time to record and research traditional music in Asia which gave me focus and helped me discover that I had some talent putting words in a row.
I was living in a cheap guest house in Kathmandu in the mid 90s when I met a couple from Europe who had cycled to Nepal. They were trying to write about their experiences but their English was not great so I helped them edit their work. I accompanied them to the local newspaper where they sold their stories. I asked the editor, if I give you an interesting story, will you give me money?
He asked me what I was thinking about. I told him I could write about Nepali music. He said ok. A month later I was back with text and photos and the editor gave me a double spread in the weekend edition. And some money. I never looked back. Six months after that I was working for Rough Guides in Thailand and had started my first novel, The Devil’s Road to Kathmandu.
- Are you a planner, complete with detailed outlines, or do you fly by the seat of your pants when writing?
Vater: Both when it comes to writing fiction. My first novel I write with lots of prep, the second started off the top of my head, but even on that project I did create detailed outlines, character studies, time lines etc at some point, because the text became too unwieldy to keep in mind all the time.
- What is the best writing advice that you have ever been given?
Vater: I have never had a writer-mentor. But I have read a lot about how other writers work, especially Graham Greene, Peter Matthiessen, William Burroughs, etc., etc. My editors, both at magazines/papers and publishing houses have helped me enormously over the years by tightening up my work and opening my mind to new possibilities.
- What advice would you give a new writer?
Vater: One becomes a writer over time, I suppose. Burroughs said, write a million words and then you are a writer. Fiction is a craft, like any craft, you need to work at it for years and go through endless repetitions and mistakes until you have something others want to read. Journalism is quite a different craft that I partly learned at college and partly from editors I worked with.
The publishing industry is in an awful state at present, partly because most books that are being promoted in a meaningful way are published by one of the five big publishing conglomerates who expect instant sales and are risk averse, and smaller imprints who either sell out or die, and partly because Amazon has such a terrible monopoly on ebooks and books in general.
But I would leave all that to one side. I certainly didn’t care when I started writing. Do something creative with your life. Don’t work for a boss in an office all your life. Don’t fall into consumerist trappings. Don’t get a mortgage if it means having to earn money day and night to make payments. Stay free enough so you have time to write. Once you have to make time, it all gets very difficult. Contribute something to the community. Don’t expect to be financially secure. If that is a priority for you, do something else. Oh, and it’s a pretty solitary activity.
- What other projects do you have in the works at the moment?
Vater: I am just finishing a series of articles creating a history of India seen through the prism of tattoos with writer Laure Siegel for a French magazine. I also am involved in http://thedevilsroad.com/, a photo-blog that published a photo a day to keep the fuckers at bay.
- What surprises can we expect from you in the future?
Vater: Survival, revolution.
- If you could journey into any of your books, interacting with the characters, which would it be and why?
Vater: I have lived so much of what is in my books, both the three published crime novels and some of my non-fiction titles. As I mentioned, I spent a long time researching the CIA in Laos. I travelled to America to talk to former agents, pilots, rebel proxies and whistleblowers. I travelled around SE Asia to talk to other players in the covert war.
I spent a year in the sacred tattoo scene in Thailand to be able to co-author Sacred Skin –Thailand’s Spirit Tattoos (www.sacredskinthailand.com), which remains my non-fiction bestseller to date.
My first novel The Devil’s Road to Kathmandu was about the 70s hippy trail between London and South Asia. I spent a lot of time with people who did that journey at the time and I also travelled from Asia to Europe overland in 1998. Especially at the beginning of my fiction career, I was very careful to draw as much as possible on real life experiences. Strangely that has not made my fiction necessarily more believable.
I have been on the road for more than twenty years. I live in hotels for months every year, researching books and stories, doing editorial assignments. My work as a journalist, fiction writer and publisher in South and Southeast Asia has opened countless doors that I stepped through to get a story. So the journey and the writing have been and are inseparable.
- What public appearances do you have planned in the future?
Vater: I do readings and literary festivals from time to time, but right now I am working on new material. Here’s a recent radio show, Noir on the Radio (http://www.blogtalkradio.com/authorsontheair/2017/01/15/crime-fiction-author-tom-vater-on-noir-on-the-radio).
- Is there anything else you’d like to share with your fans?
Vater: Keep reading books, switch off your phones, do your own thing. The deck is stacked against you, but to my mind a life well lived and reflected upon, if you are privileged or determined enough to pull it off, is what it is all about.
Thank you very much for your interest in my work and for having me on your blog, Liz.
And here is the link for Crime Wave Press: http://www.crimewavepress.com/