As a Bank Holiday treat for you all I interviewed Jake Needham, a specialist in writing crime fiction set in Asia whose two major series are the Jack Shepard and Inspector Tay novels. He talks me through his background, his writing technique and why he’ll never collaborate with another writer.
Tell me about how you came to define your writing style. What drew you towards crime fiction?
Honestly, I’ve never spent a minute thinking about my writing style, and I didn’t even set out specifically to write crime fiction. I started writing novels back when I was earning a pretty decent living writing screenplays for American cable television, and I did it simply because I was getting sick of writing screenplays. The screenplays I got paid for were mostly crap because American cable television wanted was crap, so one day I started fiddling with a novel just so I could have something in front of me that I thought might actually be worth a damn.
I had no clue how to write a novel, so I just typed ‘Chapter One’ and started writing. Certainly I gave no thought to what kind of style I wanted to write, nor about what genre the book would turn out to be. I didn’t even know what the book was or how it would end. I just started.
Anyway, that book turned out to be The Big Mango and it sold well over a hundred thousand copies in half a dozen countries where almost no one speaks English. That was when I decided maybe I’d better start taking this novel writing stuff seriously.
Please talk me through your work in law in Asia and how this inspired your work?
My speciality was international corporate finance, and I was best known for negotiating merger and acquisition deals. I ended up on the boards of a couple of clients in Australia in the 1980’s, the great age of Australian cowboy capitalism. Australian companies had the ability to raise significant amounts of capital, and by and large they used it in an aggressive push to expand internationally, and I was brought in to lead that effort for several well-known Aussie corporate groups. We primarily looked to Asia when we were scaring up acquisition deals, partly because of geography, but also partly because it was territory in which the major players in the US and Europe were less interested. The plain fact was that we had a better chance to do interesting things in Asia because we weren’t playing against any other country’s A teams.
The result of all that was that I got to know Asia pretty well. I worked with bankers and corporations and governments and I saw both the visible part of Asia and the part that lies beneath the surface. So when I started writing, I had a lot of good material to work with. A well-known Asian business magazine once wrote a piece about me that said, “Needham certainly knows where some bodies are buried.” I should hope so. I helped to bury enough of them.
What is your background in writing and how did you get in to writing crime fiction?
I have no background in writing. I became a screenwriter entirely by accident. It was all very, very weird.
I was involved in negotiating a complicated corporate merger at about the same time I was thinking I had been doing this sort of stuff for a while and probably ought to be looking for a chance to do something else. To get this particular deal closed, I ended up buying a company that was piece of the transaction myself because no one else wanted it. That piece was a very modest little Hollywood production company that was producing movies for American cable television.
Since I was stuck with the company, I did my best to tart it up a little and try to make it profitable, and I tried to focus it more tightly on what I thought it could do well. To accomplish that, I dashed off an outline of the kind of movies I thought the company ought to be making and a copy of that outline accidentally got sent to one of the cable TV networks the company worked with. Several weeks later, that network called up and asked me to make it for them.
Make what? I asked them. The movie you wrote that treatment for, they said. Write the full screenplay for us, they said. It’ll be fun, they said.
And that, girls and boys, is how I became a writer.
Having travelled extensively, why did you decide to set your novels in Asia?
I sold a screenplay set partly in Thailand to HBO, and they hired me to produce it for them since they decided that having somebody on the production who could actually locate Thailand on a map might be a pretty good idea. When we were filming in Bangkok, the editor of a prominent Thai magazine came out to the set to interview me. We got along well enough that about a year later she and I were married. Since she had a magazine to run and I could work anywhere, initially we set up housekeeping in Bangkok.
I continued cranking out screenplays from there, so that’s where I was when I started my first novel, The Big Mango. Since Bangkok was all around me, that’s eventually where the characters in the novel ended up too. The book was popular enough that naturally I drew on the same general background when I wrote my second novel and that one was pretty popular too. After that, I just kept doing it.
Where do you take your inspiration? Are there any rituals you do to get yourself in the mood for writing?
I am deeply suspicious of the word ‘inspiration.’ Writing isn’t inspiration; it’s hard, methodical, repetitious work. John Gregory Dunne said “Writing is manual labor of the mind. It’s like laying pipe.”
When I’m working on a book, I show up at the office (metaphorically speaking) every morning at nine, eat a sandwich at my desk for lunch, and work through to six. Then I knock off. That’s it. Forget ‘inspiration.’ Go to the office every single day, put your butt in a chair, work for eight hours or so, and in three or four months you’ll have a novel. Easy as that.
Tell me about the book that has had the greatest impact on your life?
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 Haliburton’s book: 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. Nearly fifty years after stumbling over it, now I am that book.
If you could collaborate with any person, living or dead, on a writing project, who would it be and why?
I’m completely baffled by the whole idea of collaboration with anyone in writing a novel. How is that even possible? Writing a novel is the most solitary pursuit I can think of. The novelist selects words to render externally a tale that he tells himself internally.
There’s an old joke about screenwriters that says we just sit in a corner somewhere all day, talk to ourselves, and write down what we say. I really don’t see how two or more people do that together.
The reason most movies are so lousy is that they are written by a committee. That’s why I got sick of working on them. A committee doesn’t write novels. The good ones at least are written by one person and come out one person’s vision. Writing novels may be one of the last stands of true creative individualism in contemporary life. That’s why I write novels now and wouldn’t even think of working on a screenplay again.
Have you got any projects coming up that you are particularly excited about?
The fourth title in my Inspector Tay series was just published a few weeks ago, and I’m working now on the fifth title in my Jack Shepherd series. It’s scheduled for early 2017.
I’m happy to have two separate series going because each series has quite a lot of fans. On the other hand, it’s also turned into a bit of a trap, too. I can hardly get a book out before the fans of that series start pressing me as to when the next book is coming. With two series, the best I can do is to add one book to each series roughly every year, and that doesn’t leave me enough time to tackle anything else.
Sometimes I think I ought to just dump both series and head off in another direction entirely. Maybe publish a completely different kind of novel from anything I’ve written before.
But that’s not actually going to happen. At least I don’t think it is…
Are there any new books or writers that you are looking forward to later in the year?
I’ve been a big fan of Michael Connelly ever since the Bangkok Post said in a review of one of my books, “Needham is Michael Connelly with steamed rice.” Actually, I’m only joking. I was a big fan of Connelly long before that, and Mike has a new Harry Bosch coming about November 1st. I think Lee Child has a new Jack Reacher coming out around the same time so early November is going to be a good time for reading.
Anything you’d like to add?
Nope. I gotta get back to work now…
Many thanks to Jake for taking the time to speak to me, it’s been a pleasure. Check out Jake’s website HERE to find out more about him and his work.