Interview with Jake NeedhamSo how did you come to start writing crime fiction set in Asia? I started out in life as a criminal lawyer and somehow ended up in the movie business through a series of accidents so bizarre that honestly I’d rather forget them. Then I spent more than a decade writing and producing cable television movies in the US. In the early 90′s, I wrote and produced a film for HBO that we shot in Bangkok. On the set, I met the woman who later became my wife — she was the editor of the Thai edition of a popular UK magazine called Tatler and was there to do an article about us — and we’ve lived in Bangkok ever since.
To tell the truth, I’ve never been all that fond of movies and I had gotten pretty sick of writing screenplays, so after a few more years of doing it I sat down at our place in Bangkok and wrote a sort of comic caper novel set in Thailand just to see if I could do it. I called it The Big Mango because that was how some expats referred to Bangkok and it was the first title that came to mind. I was a screenwriter and had absolutely no idea how to write a novel, but I didn’t much care. It was just something I did for the hell of it and I didn’t give a thought to what would become of The Big Mango after I had written it.
But THE BIG MANGO became a bestseller in Europe and Asia, didn’t it? I didn’t even bother to try and place it with a major publisher in the US or the UK. I just wasn’t that interested in getting on that treadmill. It was published by a small Asian press and sold extremely well in Asia and Europe right from the beginning and made a lot of friends for me. I guess it would be fair to say that surprised me, but then I really hadn’t thought much about it one way or another. Anyway, an awful lot of people appeared to enjoy the book so I decided maybe I ought to take this novel writing stuff seriously and try to write some novels set in Asia that were perhaps a little more sophisticated than THE BIG MANGO. The crime novel genre seemed particularly suited to Asia settings, so that was the direction I decided to go in. I’m glad I did.
I understand that the film rights to THE BIG MANGO attracted a lot of interest. Is that right? The film rights have been optioned five separate times over twelve years, but it hasn’t gotten made yet. That isn’t as big a disappointment as you might think. There are hundreds of movie deals made for movies that are never actually made. Honestly, almost all film deals turn to crap. It’s the nature of the business, not a reflection on the material. I made movies for HBO and Showtime for a decade and let me tell you this: it’s a stupid business. Almost everything you do is a waste of time.
How close did THE BIG MANGO get to becoming a movie? Pretty darned close. Somebody gave Jim Gandolfini a copy of The Big Mango and he wanted HBO to buy the rights for him to star in it as soon as ‘The Sopranos’ ended. It almost happened that way.
I actually went to New York and spent some time on ‘The Sopranos’ set with Jim right at the end of ‘The Sopranos’ final season and we talked a lot about how to get a filmable script out of the book. But then Canal+, the big French production house, made an offer to buy the rights and HBO wasn’t ready yet to step up and write a check, so I took the deal Canal+ was offering, which included their promise that they would include Jim as the star. Of course, about three months later Canal+ decided that Jim wasn’t a big enough star and they could get someone bigger. So they dropped Jim and he decided I was responsible. Right after that I started getting threatening emails from Tony Soprano. Let me tell you, it concentrates your attention wonderfully when you get emails from Tony Soprano with subject lines like: “Start looking over your shoulder, you mother…”
Canal+ pitched ‘The Big Mango’ to Tom Cruise, and for a while there it looked like Cruise might actually do it. But then he didn’t, so the whole deal died and everybody moved on to other projects. That’s the way almost every film deal ends. And so it goes.
Is THE BIG MANGO your best book? No, I don’t think so. It was my first book so really I hope it wasn’t my best. I’ve published five more books since then and it would be awfully sad if the first thing I wrote was the best I can do. Some reviewers say my books keep getting better and more complex, and I think that’s true. I hope that’s true. If you don’t keep learning and getting better at whatever it is you’re doing, then I figure you probably ought to stop doing it.
The first book in my Jack Shepherd series, LAUNDRY MAN, and the third, A WORLD OF TROUBLE, have been big sellers, so I suppose a fair number of people probably think one of those is my best. But from a purely personal standpoint, I have to say that in some ways KILLING PLATO, the second book in the Jack Shepherd series, might be the best book I’ve published up to now. My wife certainly thinks so. On the other hand, KILLING PLATO got the least distribution of any book I have ever published so it’s sold the fewest copies, at least so far, and it’s probably my least well-known book. That’s just how the cards come down sometimes.
Are all your books set in Thailand? No, THE AMBASSADOR’S WIFE introduced Inspector Samuel Tay of Singapore CID and was set largely in Singapore. The second Inspector Tay novel will be out any day now. It’s called THE UMBRELLA MAN and of course it’s set in Singapore as well.
I don’t see myself as a novelist of Thailand. I write crime novels. I set them in Asia because I can think of no better place in the world to set crime novels. I happen to live in Thailand most of the year, but once upon a time I also lived in Hong Kong and in Singapore and in Sydney and in New York and in Los Angeles. I try to make all my books, no matter where they’re set, feel real. I guess the value to having had a pretty international life. It’s left me with an awful lot of material.
So what’s Jake Needham’s future as a writer? Sometimes I think about chucking Asia altogether as the background for the books I write and doing something completely different. My friend Steve Leather certainly thinks I should and Steve is one of the UK’s bestselling novelists so sometimes I wonder if he’s not right about that. I agree with Steve that there’s a lot of negative baggage that comes with being an American writing novels set in Asia, and novels set in Asia clearly don’t have the worldwide appeal that novels set in other places have. All of us who have written Asian novels have learned the same thing: they just don’t sell all that well. Still, there are just so damned many great stories here that I haven’t been about to bring myself to break away yet, at least not altogether.
I know a guy who was an intelligence office in Asia for most of his career and he asked me once where I get some of the stuff I write about. I told him I make most of it up, and he thought that was hugely funny. “You can’t really make up anything about Asia,” he said. “Whatever you think you make up, eventually somebody will come up to you and say it really happened, or worse, that it’s about to happen.”
He’s right, of course. And the plain fact is that wouldn’t be true if I wrote novels set in Minneapolis. So I probably won’t.