Jake Needham has a most impressive back catalogue of crime novels, mostly set in Asia, where he has lived for the past 30 years. His latest novel, The Girl in the Window, the 4th in the Inspector Samuel Tay series, was published this month and is now available: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01HIPVMJM/
With a “colourful” past and a focussed future, Jake kindly agreed to an interview with One Stop Fiction.
Q: Are there any authors or books that you could say, stand out above all others in your personal reading list?
A: When I was about eight, I found a copy of Richard Haliburton’s Complete Book of Marvels at some relative’s house and I was instantly enthralled. Hardly anyone today knows the name Richard Haliburton, but in the 1930’s Haliburton’s adventures in exotic corners of the world were chronicled in a series of books that were best sellers in America.
The Complete Book of Marvels was made up of a series of separate adventure stories. Haliburton swam the Panama Canal from end to end, slipped into the city of Mecca disguised as a bedouin, crept into the Taj Mahal in the dead of night, climbed the Great Pyramid of Giza, and dived into the Mayan Well of Death in Mexico. He retraced the expedition of Hernando Cortez through the Aztec Empire, emulated Ulysses’ adventures in the Mediterranean, duplicated Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps by elephant, and climbed both the Matterhorn and Mt. Fuji. I read that book so many times I darn near wore it out.
I learned this from it: I could go anywhere in the world I really wanted to go and do anything, absolutely anything, I really wanted to do. It was a magical discovery, and it shaped the rest of my life. About ten years ago I tracked down a nearly mint copy of the same book I had held in my hands when I was a child and every single day since then it has been present on my writing desk while I work. As far as I’m concerned, that’s what influence really means.
Q: Having lived in Asia for many years, you seem to have fallen out of love with Bangkok. What has changed your perspective?
A: We still have our apartment in Bangkok and continue to spend three or four months there every year. Sadly, however, the gentle, mysterious, and exotic Bangkok I knew in the 80’s and 90’s is long gone, buried by a repressive military dictatorship, cheesy condos, and the Mercedes Benz. It lives on only in my novels and those of a couple of other people who wrote about Thailand at the right time. I’m glad I was one. I miss the city I used to know.
Q: What are your favourite memories of living there? Is it more conducive to writing? Is it the climate, the ease of lifestyle, the people?
May I quote from something Jack Shepherd said in Laundry Man?
Bangkok is an enigmatic city at the best of times, a place where the mystery of what you can’t see is surpassed only by the ambiguity of what you can. But it is also a place of sensual immediacy and lush, transporting power. Something magical always seemed to be dangling just out of reach.
A: Living in Bangkok, I sometimes feel like I’m playing out a scene from The Third Man — lurking warily in the shadows; picking my way through markets, temples, and bars; dodging gangsters, conmen, and terrorists; trolling the streets of the city like Holly Martins searching the back alleys of Vienna for Harry Lime in 1945. Holly Martins did have one thing on me, however. At least he knew what he was looking for…
Q: Your books are very popular in Asia. What do you think appeals most to people there? Are you looked upon as a local or as one of their own?
A: I’ve discovered that a lot of crime fiction readers take particular pleasure in reading books set in places with which they have some connection. I certainly do. Whether it’s an American city I know well or a country I have frequently visited, there is something special about becoming absorbed in a story when the setting has meaning for me. My books have done well in translation in several Asian languages, but I think most of the people who have bought them in their English-language editions are expats or business visitors or just casual tourists in Asia who both enjoy novels set in the region and find in them a source of cultural insight that is often superior to nonfiction. If you are interested in visiting a place, forget guidebooks and find a few decent novels set there. You’ll learn a hell of a lot more about it.
Q: You’ve had a varied professional background. You went from lawyer to screenwriter to novelist. Would you do it all again? Do you feel happier as a novelist, do you miss the screenwriting or the law environment? Which would you consider to be the hardest work?
A: I did each of those things at a particular point in my life and I certainly have no regrets concerning any of them. If you really want to know what was the most miserable work, however, I have to say that it was screenwriting. The upside of screenwriting is that you are paid obscene amounts of money for doing next to nothing. The downside is that you have to watch what work you do, disparaged and vandalized by people without the slightest talent for doing anything. “I can’t write,” a producer once bragged to me, “but I’m great at changing stories and making them better.” Yeah, right!
Q: Is there a part of you in any of your characters? Which character would you like to meet?
A: I am to some extent all my characters, villains and heroes alike, so I meet them every single day.
Jack Shepherd, the protagonist in your later series has a legal background like yourself. Is he your alter ego coming through?
Not in the way that most people seem to assume. I don’t know how it would be possible for any writer to develop a credible character without using a bit of himself in the mix. On the other hand, have you ever noticed that when people ask writers if their characters aren’t really reflections of themselves, they always ask us about our heroes and never about our villains? I wonder why that is …
Q: Mango was your first book. Is this one of your favorites?
A: I read somewhere that Woody Allen has never seen any of his movies again after they were released and never wants to. He finishes a film, hands it over to the distributors, and doesn’t think about it again. I am Woody Allen.
Q: What is your writing philosophy? Do you set personal goals, hours per day, words per week, when you write?
A: I never really spent any time reflecting on that. I show up at the office, metaphorically speaking, and I do my job. Sometimes it’s writing, sometimes it’s reading, and sometimes it’s marketing or administrative stuff. But I show up every damn day and put in a day’s work. Is that a philosophy? If so, I guess it’s mine.
Q: What advice would you give to a new author starting out on their writing career?
A: The only advice I’ll give to anyone who wants to be taken seriously as a novelist is to go back and read my previous answer. Stop talking about writing so much, show up, put your butt in a chair, and do the work. There’s no other way.