Angela Savage on The Dying Beach
Angela Savage talks to Nick Temelkovski about the themes and research in her novel The Dying Beach.
Your third crime fiction novel, The Dying Beach, about Jayne Keeney, an Australian ex-pat PI, and her misadventures in Thailand, has just landed. Can you tell us a bit about it?
The Dying Beach is set in Thailand in the mid 1990’s where Jayne Keeney, an ex-pat Australian, has been living for five years. She had stumbled into a career as a private investigator but now operates a successful business with her business partner and lover Rajiv Patel. The couple are on holiday in Krabi on Thailand’s exquisite Andaman coast as the book opens, but their trip turns sour when they learn that Miss Pla, the tour guide who they’d enjoyed so much a couple days earlier, has been found dead, her body floating in a cave. Knowing Pla – whose nickname means ‘Fish’ – to be a strong swimmer, Jayne doesn’t buy the official finding of accidental drowning and sets out to investigate. The story that emerges involves environmental outrages in the face of competing interests and official indifference, the case placing Jayne and Rajiv and their relationship in danger.
Fairfield Books described the series as “Satisfying crime for the politically hungry,” and Jayne herself as "smart-arsey and wily, trashy and clever, [with] an astute sense of her role as a white foreigner in a Third World country.” Would you say parts of Jayne are loosely, or perhaps closely, based on yourself and your time in Thailand?
Jayne is intrigued by Thai culture, while being expatriate has taught her just how much she is shaped by her own culture as an Australian. She is familiar with the tension, humour and precious moments of shared humanity that occur when cultures collide.
She is grateful for the way Thai people make allowances for us farangs. As she puts it in The Dying Beach,
"As a farang, she wasn’t subject to the usual rules. So long as she was also polite, Jayne was more or less left to her own devices. Certainly there was no pressure to fit in. She was allowed to be an outsider in Thailand in a way she never was in Australia" (p.292).
This much we have in common.
But Jayne has chosen self-imposed exile in Thailand as an alternative to the ‘marriage-mortgage-multiply treadmill’ as she calls it.’ And here we differ. I have a partner, a young child and a mortgage, and while I always feel drawn to Southeast Asia, the life of the permanent expatriate holds little appeal for me.
Politically speaking, unlike me, Jayne is no bleeding heart with a drive to change the world. She is content for the most part to just get by – unless her sense of justice is offended. In a recent review of The Dying Beach, Graeme Blundell suggests Jayne is ‘driven by that repressed compassion fuelling her need to see justice done.’
I sometimes think of Jayne as the person I might have been had I made different choices. Reviewers Jeff Glorfeld described Jayne, ‘as an appealing character, emotional and yet capable of cold-eyed action. She smokes too much, speaks Thai fluently and likes a drink and a shag. She has a well-developed moral compass.’ I think there’s some degree to which all writers use aspects of their characters for wish fulfilment.
She can be infuriating – readers see this largely through the eyes of her partner, Rajiv, who plays Dr Watson to her Holmes.
What did the initial research on Thailand and its political scene entail when you were over there?
When I was over there I never knew I was going to be writing books set in Thailand and it’s been a kind of interesting journey to equip myself to do that. I kept journals when I was away, and as originally I’d gone over to study anthropology, I had all kinds of field notes and photos. The photos became quite a good aide memoir for recreating the environment.
But it was only since I’ve started writing that I’ve taken the specific kinds of field notes that you would take when you’re needing nuances about setting. And I had to rely on secondary material and research when I was recreating Thailand. A couple of excellent resources by Thai academics Pasuk Phongpaichit and Sungsidh Piriyarangsan, Corruption and Democracy in Thailand (1994) and Guns, Girls, Gambling, Ganja – Thailand’s Illegal Economy and Public Policy (1998, with Nualnoi Treerat), are essential reading for anyone wanting to understand Thailand’s labyrinthine political and economic systems.
What detail made the story crystallize?
With The Dying Beach, I actually chose the setting first. When my husband and I were on our way back from a year in Cambodia in 2008, we came home via Krabi, and I couldn’t believe that I had lived in Thailand as long as I had and never visited this beautiful part of the country.
Once I’d decided on the stunning Krabi province as the setting for The Dying Beach, I figured one of the most criminal things anyone could do would be to mess with that beautiful environment. I read up on the environmental issues in the 1990s for the province and came across a large thermal power plant project. I actually managed to find an Environmental Impact Assessment study in English for the project. The story is set in 1997, when a new Constitution was being drafted and progressive groups in Thailand were agitating for action in response to issues like environmental degradation. Among their targets was the EIA process, which in practice merely served to rubber stamp large-scale infrastructure projects: no project had ever not gone ahead on the basis of an EIA. I read the power plant EIA looking for flaws, but in fact, the process wasn’t too bad. Then I started thinking about a volunteer from Australia wanting to find something wrong with the power plant project and not being able to and, strangely enough, the story crystallized from there.
Why worry about the environmental and political factors in a country that is not the character’s own?
I think there’s place for writers to explore all facets of human life, and I guess one of the things that interest me and one of the issues I tackle in this book is the way that our actions in the West inadvertently impact on communities, even villagers, in a country like Thailand. I have a very strong sense of us being a global community and am concerned about all the ripple effects that happen as a result of political decisions and tourism in Thailand, and the bigger economic picture.
The impact of these can be extraordinary and that’s one of the themes explored in The Dying Beach. A big part of the incentive to tell the story is to make people a little bit aware of some of that stuff they may not have thought of.
Have you had much feedback about the environmental aspect of the story?
I have had some very funny comments. Unfortunately, I can’t share them because it would be a spoiler for the plot. This is the hard thing about talking about crime fiction! But a couple people have commented that there are certain behaviours they won’t do as a result of having read this book, realizing that some systems actually do have these kinds of negative environmental impacts. So that’s quite satisfying when that happens.
What’s your ideal solution to the broader problem in The Dying Beach of the environmental degradation of Thailand?
I have enormous respect for Thai activists. Thailand like any culture is not static and it’s not monolithic. Just as we have a vast spectrum of political differences in Australia, they do in Thailand as well.
So I was partly taking a leaf out of their book in terms of work they have been trying to achieve in Thailand. I think that part of my solution, as such, is to entrust and empower and work with those local groups that are fighting these battles. But, as I say, it’s good to be able to make people aware of how our own actions, as distant as they seem, can actually impact on peoples’ lives in the developing world.
When you were over there as an outsider, as a farang, how did you position yourself within that community?
I learned very quickly. I was very fortunate when I went to Laos at the tender age of twenty-five to work on HIV. A couple of things happened that were really important. One was that all my plans for research fell through before I even left Australia, and so this kind of great plan I had where everyone would do what I needed them to do in order for me to achieve what I needed to achieve just fell in a heap. And I had to make a decision at that point about whether I’d even go to Laos, but in the chaos I had actually been issued with a visa. So, I thought, to hell with it, I’d go. It’s a month long visa, I’d know within a month if there’s any point in being there.
So, I think that was a really good thing to have happened because it meant I went in with zero expectations and, in fact, a sense that the best laid plans of mice and men could go horribly asunder. The other thing was that I had met a couple of people early on who had been in the country for a while - a couple of expatriates - I just learned from them very quickly how little I knew. One of them in particular really put me in my place, and I was very grateful for that because I think that ever since it served me in good stead to be very humble, to never lose sight of the fact that I am the guest and the outsider, and there needs to be a degree of gratitude to local people for letting me even be there in the first place.
At the same time it’s not about being a push over either, and I felt like I had something to offer in terms of bringing a different perspective. Most of the time I was throwing out questions to people, you know, in a way for them to stop and question why they do things in a certain way, or to figure out what they might do, and in this case it was to communicate the risk of HIV and all the kind of stuff that went against the grain in terms of someone’s cultural standards at the time. And it wasn’t that I had the answers to any of those things, but I had questions that I could ask that would help people on the ground figure out what those answers might be.
Really, I’ve always positioned myself in relation to that kind of difference. As I say, I’m very grateful to the people who taught me early on about pulling my head in. It’s not that I think that everything about Thai society is wonderful and everything about Australia is not. I think that one of the reasons why the Australian Red Cross HIV program had such leverage in that part of the world was that we had runs on the board in Australia. We were the first country to turn the epidemic around and to see it plateau and then see a decrease in new infections. So that gave me as an Australian a lot of credibility.
For better or worse, AIDS was seen as a young person’s disease. I was pretty young, so I was seen as someone that had a license to talk about this stuff. I had to be honest and pretty candid. I had to pretend to be more married than I was in order for it to be acceptable for me to engage in discussions about sex and sexual behaviour. It just would have been too hard otherwise.
But the creation of solutions was always a collaborative thing, and something I would have taken a back seat on.
Where does the writing happen?
Wherever I can squeeze it in. My partner and I share a study; we have desks that face each other. We even shared a table in Cambodia when we were writing in Phnom Penh. I try to write four or five nights and one day a week,; which is the day I’m not working in the day job. I used to write on the tram and train when I was commuting, but because I’ve been reading about how dangerous it is to be sitting down all day, and I have a desk job, I’ve been standing on public transport on the way home, reading rather than writing. I’m a long hand note taker, so I tend to write very first draft stuff in long form and then put it on the computer and then elaborate as I’m going on the computer. So, I’ll write wherever and whenever the mood strikes, really.
I’ve been known to scrawl things with a lip liner on a receipt if I’ve got a really good bit of inspiration.
I do use the computer as a safe for drafting, but I don’t tend to use my devices for taking notes. I think there’s something about the physical act of longhand writing that helps with my imagination, and I’ve always enjoyed writing.
One of the reasons I learned Lao was that I was so attracted to the aesthetics of the Lao alphabet. It’s a beautiful looking alphabet, and it’s phonetic, so once you can read it you can actually speak it. It was invented at a time when the material for writing on was a kind of reed and the material for writing with was a stick, and if you drew any straight lines the stick would break. So, the entire written language doesn’t have any straight lines [in] it, they’re all curled and curlicues, so it’s really beautiful.
How do you maintain your creativity for the Jayne Keeney books when you’ve been out of Thailand for so long now?
That is a really good question. To highlight that I need to go back [to] Behind the Night Bazaar, my first Jayne Keeney novel. In early drafts that I had submitted to publishers, one of the bits of feedback I received was that there’s not enough sights, smells, sounds of Thailand. For people who have read my books and have read the reviews, people always say, ‘this is an incredible evocation of place.’ So a lot of people kind of laugh when I say, “oh, there wasn’t enough sights, smells, and sounds in the first draft”. And I think it was because I was so close to Thailand, and it was my home for eighteen months, I just sort of took things for granted about the place.
I remember having some friends come and visit in Bangkok for a weekend and I thought where am I going to take them? Right, we’ll go to these markets and we’ll go to these temples and then I’ll take them to this restaurant for dinner which is a really kooky soy, you know, lots of weird clubs, they’d like that. Oh my god, it’s going to be peak hour. How are we going to get from there to there, ok, we’ll go by ferry. I had it all mapped out.
Afterwards they told me the highlight of their time in Bangkok was the journey walking from the temple to the ferry stop through this very pongy but very atmospheric market and then catching the ferry along the Chao Prior river, with all the monks and the school kids and everyone else on board. Yet I’d thought of it purely as the best means of getting from A to B!
In a way, the distance almost helps because I have to recreate what it is in my mind that makes Thailand unique. Distance can actually work to enhance the textual detail. But the other things that I use are a couple of key resources. There’s a wonderful book called Very Thai: Everyday Popular Culture by Philip Cornwell-Smith with these wonderful photographs. It’s just gorgeous because it really is about things that are very much everyday in Thailand.
Thai people would probably be horrified to think that they featured in a book. But they’re exotic and they have these tiny little quirks that make Thailand unique: the tattoos, the amulets, the tiny squares of pink serviettes on the table, the menthol nasal inhalers. Tiny little things like that. All of which are germane to what makes Thailand Thai.
There are also a couple of really great books. One written by a Canadian ex-pat crime writer, Christopher G. Moore, and the other one written by a Thai woman who goes by the pen name Kaewmala. They’re about Thai language and emotion and intimate relationships, and they’re just brilliant for insight into how all that stuff works.
There’s a few blogs and forums that I’m a part of which are a mix of Thai and ex-pat bloggers, and they’re very generous, you can email or log questions about idioms and superstitions and fish breeds and whatever. They’re very, very helpful.
Then, I am great believer in fieldwork, because, you know, I’m prepared to suffer for my art.
Like any good writer…
That’s right. So, you know, I do travel to Thailand periodically with the express purpose of taking notes for novels.
Last time we were in Krabi in 2011, I hired a driver and went out for the day, and that’s where I came across the bull fight, the traditional Thai bullfight, which features in The Dying Beach. I’d read about them but never been to one, and, of course, as soon as I’d been to one, it was like, I gotta set a scene here – this is amazing! So, that’s quite deliberate that I go out and take the kind of notes I think will help.
In the case of The Half Child, my second novel, I sat at a bar on Walking Street in Pattaya one night and took notes on everything I could hear, smell, see that was going past me, and some of those notes appear almost verbatim in the final book. So, there’s also that type of element; always supplementing that research with site visits, I guess, and I think they do enhance each other.
Yeah, exactly, you have to be there to get those senses.
Yeah, because my books are set back in the 90s, I rely a lot on old travel guides, like travel guides from that period, because I can check whether a restaurant existed, or a hotel existed or whatever.
I was doing a lot of research into the place in The Dying Beach where Pla’s body is found floating in the cave in Princess beach, which is just exquisite. I could recreate it in my mind, I could remember what the sand felt like; I could remember the colour of the water; I could remember the monkey, the wonderful spectacled languor with its white goggles around its eyes. But I had forgotten about the din of the insects, and when you get there it’s really striking! If you’re there in the hot season, it’s almost a deafening din. It almost drowns out the sounds of the motorboats – and that’s a really kind of important nuance.
Yeah, crickets and cicadas. Rrrn-rrrn, you know, that really, really droning noise. You have to be there!
What do you hope for Australian Crime Fiction?
I’m going to speak from a purely self-interested point of view and that it becomes less parochial and more outward looking. Look, I actually love Australian crime fiction; I read a hell of a lot of it; especially by women, but not exclusively. I think there’s some absolutely stunning writing happening in the crime field, and that to me is very exciting.
We were one of the first countries to award our top literary prize ([the] Miles Franklin) to a crime writer – Peter Temple. I love that there’s a little bit of space opening up. It still divides between genre and non-genre writing, but I think that there’s a growing tendency to recognise really good writing.
Temple is an obvious one. Garry Disher is a wonderful writer. Honey Brown, Wendy James are both doing really interesting stuff. PM Newton’s second book came out recently. Chris Womersley. They’re really interesting stories as well as good writing, and that’s stuff that I really enjoyed. David Whish Wilson is another one; he’s a Perth based writer. I’d like to see that momentum continue.
The Australian crime-writing scene is very healthy at the moment; you see enormous depth to it in terms of historical crime fiction, a lot of stuff Geoffrey McGeachin is writing and Felicity Young, people like that.
There’s still a bit of that kind of slasher [fiction]. And it fascinates me how popular crime fiction is where the women are victims and often the victims of quite horrific kind of crime, and how popular that writing is with women. I’m intrigued, if not disturbed by that, and probably I would like to see less of that and more that kind of crime that sheds a light on contemporary society and politics and power relations. That’s for me, personally, the stuff I find really interesting.
Finally, what are you up to nowadays and can you tell us about anything you have coming up?
Sure! I have thirty thousand words of the next Jayne Keeney/Rajiv Patel novel, because I actually wrote thirty thousand words of this book and got thirty thousand words in and thought ohh, no, I don’t think this is the third book, I think it’s the fourth book. So, I set it aside and wrote The Dying Beach instead, so now I’ve got something to go back to and I have gone back to it.
This one is set in Bangkok. Funnily enough, Jayne lives in Bangkok, I lived in Bangkok, but I haven’t written novel purely set in Bangkok. And I love that city. It’s a very different city, in this novel, in 1997, than it is now. This is before the sky train was built and before the metro was built underground. So, I sort of, I have this fanciful notion of writing a love letter to that city as it was.
However, I have just enrolled in a PhD in creative writing, and that project is to look at commercial surrogacy between Australia and Thailand in the form of a novel. I’m really excited about it. I think the area is really interesting, if not a fraught one. The beauty of writing about the issues in a novel is I can explore multiple points of view without having to come down on one side of an argument.
Now, I’m not setting out to write that as a crime novel, however, almost every time I sit down to write, someone turns up dead in the first chapter. So, we’d just have to see how that pans out.
Angela’s essential reference materials:
Heart Talk, by Bangkok-based Canadian expatriate Christopher G Moore, best known for his Vincent Calvino crime fiction series. Heart Talk (Heaven Lake Press, 3rd ed. 2006) and its companion Sex Talk by a Thai woman who writes under the pen name Kaewmala (Heaven Lake Press, 2009) are brilliant guides to Thai language and culture that focus on emotions and relationships.
Very Thai: Everyday Popular Culture by Philip Cornwell-Smith and John Goss (River Books, Bangkok, 2005) is a wonderful guide to exotic and everyday quirks that make Thailand unique.
Thai Blogs www.thai-blogs.com where bloggers from both Thai and expat post about Thai life and culture.
Paknam Web Forums www.thailandqa.com/forum/forum.php where people always seem willing to answer my questions about idioms, superstitions and fish.
Nick Temelkovski is a Melbourne-based writer who likes writing crime and science fiction, is currently enjoying the crime fiction of Warren Ellis, and is completing his Master of Arts in Writing. His focus is screenwriting. firstname.lastname@example.org
The Australian Journal of Crime Fiction
Vol 1 No 2 2015
Editors: Rachel Franks and Wendy J. Dunn