ALFIE GOES TO THAILAND: An Interview with Writer James King

My guest today is English writer and expat, James King, who lived for many years in South Africa then emigrated to Thailand in 2011. His writing runs the gamut from nonfiction to poetry and more recently, novels. I “met” James online as a fellow blogger on jamoroki.com and Displaced Nation. He is also a  photographer and thus the source for the beautiful landscape photos accompanying this post.

You grew up in England and now live in Thailand. Tell us a bit about that.
I’m a West Country lad, born and bred in Bristol where I grew up in the suburbs and later moved to the surrounding countryside, then ended up back in the City, until I emigrated in 1995 to South Africa.

What life is like for an ex-pat in Thailand?
You notice the difference immediately, because the Asian culture requires Westerners to re-evaluate their views and leave the West behind. If you don’t, you’ll have a hard time. I have to admit it wasn’t easy, and it took me nearly five years to acclimatize to the Thai ways, and accept I couldn’t and shouldn’t even try to change the things that irked me. Once I did I was OK, although I still have my moments.

Your new trilogy series is described as a “drama and psychological romance with damaged characters in a tropical sauna.”  (I love that.) Tell us about “ Alfie Goes to Thailand.”

due for release Oct-Nov 2019

In the first novel, Post-It Notes, Alfie pieces his life together after an acrimonious divorce. He finds a place where no-one knows him, and works out why he is so depressed, after being set free by his third wife.  Alfie’s adventures hot up, as a conniving Mother and her wicked daughters, plot his downfall. The dangers are exacerbated by crooked builders, and rogue property traders, exposing him to a hair-raising ride through Thailand.

What was your inspiration for these stories?                                                       When I published my Thailand Diaries in 2011, I did it as an experiment, knowing nothing about self-publishing at the time. The books were raw, and so was I from a bad experience, and I left a lot of sensitive stuff out. As a result, they ended up as a sort of rambling, tongue-in-cheek travel guide that Lonely Planet wouldn’t have given the time of day to. I knew all along that I would have to do something. Either re-write them, ditch them or, I wasn’t sure what. Then one day, in a dream or drunken stupor, it dawned on me. If I took the best material from the diaries and the material in my dump file, that was too sensitive to include, I had all I needed for three psychological, dramatic ,romantic novels, full of seriously damaged characters, and extraordinary happenings. So, I had the story, I had the characters and I had the inspiration. But could I do it justice and sell it. Time will tell.                                                                                                  Your reply only piques our curiosity about “ the sensitive stuff.” Maybe we can glean some of this from your writing! (BTW I enjoyed the Dairies!)

What books, writers and other artists have influenced you?                 Music, film, art and literature, have had a great influence on my life. Who could fail to be moved by Shakespeare, Dickens, Hesse, Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan, among others. They have all had a profound effect on me one way or another.

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Workers in a rice field photo by J King

Describe your writing environment

Most of the time I sit at a glass-topped teak desk peering at an ultra-wide 34 inch monitor, in our open-plan modern Thai bungalow. I built the home in 2016 in the rice fields of the Chiang Mai valley in North Thailand. We have no fences, walls or gates, and are surrounded by rice, fruit and vegetable farms, mountains, forest and jungle. It’s the biggest garden I have ever known, tended by hundreds of farmers and mother nature, and it’s all free. It’s either inspiring or distracting depending on my mood.

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New rice field at sunset by J King

When and how did you discover your passion for fiction writing?        That’s kind of loaded question because until I publish my two series, this year and next, I won’t be sure if becoming a fiction writer was a good decision or not. I wanted to write for years before I started. It’s been a gradual and transitional process, starting way back with poetry. Then, when I first went to Thailand, I diarized my trips. After that I started blogging, which was when it started in earnest. To be honest it was a bit of a mish-mash for some time. Blog posts about anything that interested me, more poems, short stories, a photo-interview series for The Displaced Nation and South Africa Diaries, a series of articles for Expat Focus, and finally novels. I got there in the end and I’m sure the unstructured process has added benefit with each step.    

 

Tell us about your main character. Which is your favorite secondary character and why?

Alfie Mynn, the main character, cuts a sad figure as he wades through the trilogy. He is a moderately successful businessman from Cape Town, but an enigma when it comes to women. He is a genuine person who continually builds obstacles in his own path and then expends enormous energy overcoming them. It’s as though he can’t live without having problems to solve. And because he can’t resist a challenge he has plenty of them.                                     My favourite secondary character is the mother of Alfie’s partner, Nin. Known as Mother throughout the story, she is a matriarch who rules her family with an iron fist, no love and no normal motherly traits.

 

Please share a few favorite lines or a paragraph:  Taken from the first novel – POST-IT NOTES.

“I found myself in a dismal place, a rough dirty market area, farther from nature than I had ever been, and I was lost. There wasn’t a paint shortage in Thailand, but where I was, it looked like nothing had been painted in a hundred years. Paint was big business, but there was very little left on the buildings I was looking at. So, where was I? There didn’t seem to be many tables with more than three legs in the food place I just passed. The few bricks and the hole in the wall which made up for the missing legs was ingenious. So well disguised nobody who was eating noticed or, if they did, they didn’t care. Why should they? Even if the surroundings were squalid, the food filled them up, and it only cost a few baht.

I picked my way between the dilapidated tables and pots of boiling food, that smelled like pork but could well have been a cocker spaniel. I must have looked out of place. Rats, as big as cats, and probably scared of farangs like me, scurried into any hole they could find… There were few windows, and the ones that still had glass in hadn’t been cleaned in a few lifetimes. So, there was either a business opportunity gone missing, unless people had concluded there was no market for window-cleaners. Copying the Thai smile, using some inventive sign language, and a ten-baht coin, I got general directions back to Silom Road, from a ragged old man who was sitting, hunched up, on a plastic crate. I think it was the coin that swung it. I’d just seen the dystopian side of Bangkok, another side of life, and a side I was pleased I didn’t live on.”

 

Let’s talk a bit about the Writing Process. When you first begin writing a new book, is your main focus on the characters or the plot?                    I’d say they go hand in glove. But in the main it’s what happens to the characters who already exist in my imagination or are drawn from life but aren’t developed as the story unfolds. Sometimes I have a story idea and then have to find the characters. Sometimes it’s the other way round.

What would you call your genre – why did you choose it?                           I didn’t set out to write in a specific genre, and never expected to write in the romance genre. But I was surprised to find I was writing a story about the overpowering need for most people to partner with another human being. Even the vilest horror stories usually contain an element of romance or love. And I can’t leave romance out of the Alfie goes to Thailand genre. It has elements of mystery, suspense, drama, psychological romance, and humour. I can’t pigeon-hole it, so I’ll get Amazon to put in as many categories as I can.

I agree.  I think most appealing books have a least a hint of romance. Do you write a book sequentially, from beginning to end? Or do you sometimes write scenes out of order?

So far I have done the latter. I’d prefer not to, but I’ve found when I’m in the middle of writing a novel all sorts of things come to me. I have to get them on paper or PC as quick as possible, then I’m often dragged out of the sequence for days.

I’ve found that too. Tell us about your process for naming your characters. How much importance do you put on names?                                    So far it has been rather disjointed and random, not scientific at all. I go a lot on gut feeling and have found that I often change a name many times till it feels right. So the answer to the last part is that names are very important.

Do you edit as your write? Or do you write an entire rough draft before doing any edits?

They say, even though it may be rubbish you should get it all out before doing any editing. They may be right, and I have tried, but I just can’t do it. Every chapter I write has to feel right in essence before I move on, even though I will rewrite chunks of it later.

The Only Witness cover -JPGTo get a taste of his writing, James is offering a FREE short story – THE ONLY WITNESS – which introduces the main character, style and humour of the trilogy.  I reviewed it, but I like what this reviewer had to say: ” the true mystery isn’t the crime committed, but the difficulty the protagonist has in grasping how the Thai people respond to the crime. A wonderful portrayal of one culture struggling to understand the other and a great read!”    I read and enjoyed it in an evening…. let us know what you think!

James is happy to respond to questions here about this post or his books. You can also connect with him here:  Website: https://www.jameskingbooks.com/about; Twitter: https://twitter.com/JimKing28265666;      Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/jamoroki/;   Pinterest: https://www.pinterest.com/jimking9406417/

My Year in Books 2018 (Part II)

Last week I reviewed four entertaining novels: The Hummingbird’s Daughter, Secrets of a Charmed Life, Honolulu and A Dog’s Purpose. Below I include some more worthy books with brief descriptions.

I’m not a big reader of nonfiction and have been disappointed in some of those with high reviews (but that’s just me). One worth mentioning however is Thailand in Perspective by James King. King is an entertaining writer who lives in Thailand and has written a trilogy of these books including: 15 weeks (Vol. 1 – free on Kindle) and Driving Thailand (Vol.2). I’ve never been there, but his writing makes me want to go. Even if you are not planning a visit this is good travel-armchair reading.

Other Novels I enjoyed last year are:

Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks –a compelling story about a missionary’s daughter and a Native American student at Harvard – one constrained by his skin the other by her sex. Moving and at times triumphant; set in mid 1600’s.

 

 

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

A charming and wise little fable. A shepherd boy travels through Spain and northern Africa in search of treasure and finds simple truths.

 

Winter Garden by Kristen Hannah – written in present tense, about a dysfunctional family, and in past tense is the haunting saga of WWII Leningrad. Two sisters come to understand their dynamics in a satisfying conclusion.

 

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The Marriage of Opposites by Alice Hoffman – Enjoy the plot and the writing, full of symbolism – look for the flowers, birds and all the “opposites.” The story, set in St. Thomas, is about artist Pissarro’s extraordinary family life.

 

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A Gentleman in Moscow – To be honest I had trouble getting through this highly acclaimed book. Amor Towles’ fans will be appalled I know, but here’s why: it is long with no page-turning plot. That said, Towles is a literary writer and I appreciated the fine writing about post-revolutionary Russia.

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Company of Liars by Karen Maitland. Unusual story about strangers who band together, to escape the Black Plague wreaking havoc in a bleak, muddy landscape. The pilgrims have been compared to the Canterbury Tales, also set in the14thcentury, each has a secret. Slow but worthwhile with a surprise ending.

 

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett is also good. A novel about two families and how each member’s life is changed by an affair between two of the parents. Bel Canto is still my favorite Patchett book.51Ix-oAS0zL._SX319_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg

 

 

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A Piece of the World
by Christina Baker Kline, based on the real story of Christina Olson and Andrew Wyeth . I think those interested in art will like it. Orphan Train is my favorite book by her, but many would disagree with me.

Have you read any of these books?  Do you have others to recommend?

The Classroom of Diversity: Expat File #19

My expat guest this week is Tanya Crossman an Australian who lives in Beijing, China. Tanya has written an interesting book about the impact, positive and negative, on children growing up overseas. Here she tells us a bit about her experiences as an expat.

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8 year-old Tanya holding a baby wombat in Australia.

I spent most of my childhood as a local in Australia, and most of my adulthood as an expatriate in China (with time in the US and Cambodia along the way). I recently spent three years in Australia, riding the insane wave that is repatriation after 11 years away. Then I married an American TCK* and moved back to Beijing.                                                                   (TCK = Third Culture Kid, a term applied to children raised outside their passport countries. First Culture refers to countries in which a child has legal standing (passport country); Second Culture refers to any culture the child meaningfully interacts with through residence or heritage; the Third Culture refers to their shared childhood experiences of growing up in between countries and cultures.)

Now I’m experiencing life as a strange mixture of foreign and familiar, while rediscovering what I love about this city.   Somewhere in the middle, I began mentoring teenage and young adult TCKs. Ten years later I wrote a book explaining the impact of an international childhood, and how TCKs feel about their lives. My main focus now is equipping carers of TCKs (parents and teachers, in particular) to better support the young people they work with.

That is the short explanation of my expatriate experience. The long story is, well, much longer. Today I’m meditating on my first year in China, and how that set me up for all that was to come. Living overseas during my twenties had a huge impact on my life’s direction – sending me places I could never have imagined.

At the Great Wall of China

This happened in large part because of the incredible diversity of people I met and befriended. I had a reasonably multi-cultural group of friends growing up in Australia, and I spent two years attending high school in the US. Yet I had never spent time with such varied groups of people – people from different countries, cultures, languages, current socio-economic positions and backgrounds, and separate assumptions about the world.

Living in Beijing I met people from literally all over the world. Even my Chinese friends came from all over the country. My friends included exchange students, post-grads, teachers, business people, musicians, diplomats, doctors, asylum seekers, pastors, and more. They came from a vast range of social and educational backgrounds and incomes. Some were barely scraping by, others had money to burn.

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A diverse group of friends, from six continents: Australia, Cameroon, Costa Rica, Guyana, Indonesia, Italy, Kenya, Nigeria, Portugal, Romania, Sierra Leone, Singapore, UK, and USA.

 

Sometimes I was the odd one out – the only one of a different nationality, the only one who didn’t speak the main language around the table, the only one without disposable income, the only one with any income, the one with either the most liberal or the most conservative views. Other times I was in the majority – whether of ethnicity, language, values, or income. The extraordinary diversity among the people I met and shared life with affected me in many ways. The ethnic nuances and contrasts challenged my ideas about the world – what is right, desirable, and permissible.

Diversity of Beauty
Diversity changed my understanding of beauty – and my self-perception. It became very clear to me that beauty standards are utterly arbitrary – there is no one way to be beautiful. It seems like a simple thing, but I had never seen it so clearly demonstrated in practice.

In Beijing I had girlfriends from literally six continents with all different skin colours, hair colours, body shapes, and attitudes. They also grew up absorbing beauty standards very dissimilar to my own. It was literally impossible for us all to be ‘right’ about what was truly beautiful. Hearing those unconsciously accepted ‘truths’ from their lips made me more conscious of the ‘truths’ I had learned to speak over myself. Not only that, but I looked at these women who I knew were truly beautiful and realized that there was no common pool of features they all had – beauty had to be something less concrete than that. Beauty had to be something far less exclusive than any of us inherently believed when we looked in the mirror.

Diversity of Values
Diversity challenged my values. It led me to consciously examine beliefs I’d taken for granted. I suspect this happens to many people in their twenties anyway – when you move outside your family, your local circles, you are bound to run into people with at least slightly different values. In Beijing, the divergence was amazing.

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At the ancient Temple of Heaven in Beijing

 Around almost every table were people with vastly different views and values on just about everything. I saw people discuss (and argue) their differences of opinion in disparate ways. Most importantly, I saw my own values critiqued. I began to see how my actions might appear from the outside. I began to recognize blind spots in Australian culture, and flaws in my personal approach to life.

There were also friends who lived out virtues I theoretically appreciated, but hadn’t seen so well practiced before. People who were relentlessly joyful, kind, or gracious. People who skillfully balanced both ambition and generosity, both achievement and humility. Watching and listening and considering differences in the way people chose to act and interact with each other was a valuable education.

Diversity of Lifestyles

I came to Beijing with a one year study program, fully intending that a year later I would return to Australia and find a graduate position in some sort of multinational company. My view of what was possible was quite narrow. Diversity changed my ideas about what I could do with my life – and how I could live it.

Surrounded by people who had chosen very different paths, I realized other directions were possible. They might not have seemed possible in Australia – perhaps they really would not have been possible to me there – but living somewhere else, other options seemed open to me.

I didn’t work out immediately what I wanted to do, but I found in myself a longing to see what else was out there. That feeling was enough to prompt me to extend my stay in Beijing and see what would happen.

     The rest, as they say, is history.

Tanya’s book is called “Misunderstood: The Impact of Growing Up Overseas in the 21st Century.”   It explores the impact international life has on the children  – while they live overseas, when they return, and as they mature into adults. This “Third Culture” is described through the personal stories of hundreds of individuals.  It is sold both as paperback and ebook by most online booksellers. (Misunderstood can be found on Amazon; see her website for other venues.) Tanya can often be found online, usually on facebookinstagram, or  twitter and occasionally at her website.

Many thanks to Tanya for sharing her adventures and insights. Don’t be shy – share your own in the comments below!

 

“Untranslatable” Words from other Cultures

The relationship between words and their meaning is a fascinating one, and linguists have spent countless years deconstructing it,  trying to figure out why there are so many feelings and ideas that we cannot even put words to, and that our languages cannot identify. This post is from Ella Frances Sanders, writer and illustrator.

Somehow narrowing it down to just a handful, we’ve illustrated some of these wonderful, elusive, words, which have no single word within the English language that could be considered a direct translation. We hope that you enjoy recognizing a feeling or two of your own among them.

1. German: Waldeinsamkeit

A feeling of solitude, being alone in the woods and a connection to nature. Ralph Waldo Emerson even wrote a whole poem about it.

2. Italian: Culaccino

The mark left on a table by a cold glass. Who knew condensation could sound so poetic.

3. Inuit: Iktsuarpok

The feeling of anticipation that leads you to go outside and check if anyone is coming, and probably also indicates an element of impatience.

4.Japanese: Komorebi

This is the word the Japanese have for when sunlight filters through the trees – the interplay between the light and the leaves.

5. Russian: Pochemuchka

                    Someone who asks a lot of questions. In fact, probably too many questions. We all know a few of these.

6. Spanish: Sobremesa

Spaniards tend to be a sociable bunch, and this word describes the period of time after a meal when you have food-induced conversations with the people you have shared the meal with.

9.French: Dépaysement

The feeling that comes from not being in one’s home country – of being a foreigner, or an immigrant, of being somewhat displaced from your origin.

10. Urdu: Goya

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The suspension of disbelief that can comes when reading a good tale.

The idea that words cannot always express everything has been written about extensively. As Friedrich Nietzsche said, “Words are but symbols for the relations of things to one another and to us; nowhere do they touch upon the absolute truth.”

‘Through The Language Glass’ by Guy Deutscher, goes a long way to explaining and understanding these loopholes; the gaps which mean there are leftover words without translations, and concepts that cannot be properly explained across cultures. But wait! Ella Frances Sanders,  author of Lost in Translation (a New York Times bestseller)  has now published a charming illustrated collection of more than fifty expressions from around the globe that explore the nuances of language: The Illustrated Book of Sayings For more see: http://ellafrancessanders.com/the-illustrated-book-of-sayings

I love words don’t you?  One of my favorites is “callipygous” as in a callipygous young lady; Aphrodite was callipygian i.e. “had beautiful buttocks.”   😉  Do you have any to share?

ONE WILD AND PRECIOUS LIFE

What are you going to do with your one wild and precious life? After holding this lovely phrase in my head for a year or two I found out who wrote it: Pulitzer prize winner Mary Oliver in her poem The Summer Day.  Some mornings I woke up and there it was in my mind like a challenge.

Mary Oliver

Mary Oliver

Here are some of my favorites of her wonderful words:

“Instructions for living a life.
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.”
Mary Oliver

“To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go”
Mary Oliver

imagesHere’s another excerpt I relate to:

“Ordinarily, I go to the woods alone, with not a single friend, for they are all smilers and talkers and therefore unsuitable…

I don’t really want to be witnessed talking to the catbirds or hugging the old black oak tree. I have my way … as you no doubt have yours.

Besides, when I am alone I can become invisible. I can sit…motionless until the foxes run by unconcerned. I can hear the almost unhearable…”

wildgeeseHer most famous is perhaps WILD GEESE (excerpted):

“Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.”

For more go to: http://peacefulrivers.homestead.com/maryoliver.html#anchor_14792

Do you have a favorite poet, poem – or just a line that sticks in your head?

Two Writers I would Most Like to Meet

Rats! I just found out David Sedaris is coming to our town and the tickets are already sold out. I mostly read fiction, but my two favorite nonfiction writers are both humorists: David Sedaris and Bill Bryson. They make me howl – literally! These men are incredibly witty – if asked who I  would most like to meet over a cup of coffee, it would be these two writers, preferably together. That’s not likely to happen, but fortunately I still have a number of their books yet to read.

David Sedaris

David Sedaris

Bryson

 

Sedaris is the author of ” Me Talk Pretty One Day” and “Naked”  – among other funny bestsellers and essays.

 

Bill Bryson wrote (among many others) “In a Sunburned Country” and my all-time favorite of his, “I’m A Stranger Here Myself” (a funny take on coming home after living abroad for many years).images

I can hardly believe our small town can book the likes of David Sedaris, but then I remember  Rick Steves, of “Europe Through the Back Door” fame came as well as Lewis Zamperini, the World War II prisoner of war, Olympic runner and subject of the book “Unbroken” now a feature film.

 

The library runs this Distinguished Speaker Series and someone told me we’ve also had Joyce Maynard and David Eggers. Aren’t libraries wonderful? As a person who grew up an ex-pat, without the the fantastic libraries I have access to today, I am ever appreciative and grateful.

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Click to see my review of  “Me Talk Pretty One Day” –  Sedaris’ hilarious book about the difficulties of learning another language.     

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(Bill, I owe you one, but “The Mother Tongue” is at the top of my to read pile and I did post “I’m A Stranger Here Myself” as one of my top favorite books – see: Books I Have Known And Loved.)                

Expats note – there is (as often is the case with me) a multicultural thread to this post. Have you read Sedaris and Bryson? Who are your favorite nonfiction writers?

Poetry, prose and everything between

Hilary C. Green surprised and honored me with a review of A Place in the World, along with several other books, on her blog, Green Writing Room.  Hilary has a few books under her belt, including Unseen Unsung , which is on my to-read list; it is about an opera singer who meets a girl in a catastrophe and searches for her afterwards . Her book Border Line was recently reviewed on Rosie Amber’s book site and she is currently working on nonfiction about the POWs in WWII who labored on the infamous Thailand-Burma Railroad. (My own father was shot down in this area and managed to walk out and escape capture by the Japanese.)  Check out these sites – you’ll be glad you did!

Poetry, prose and everything between.