Ever since the Romantic age, artists have been told that everything should be subordinate to the work. Hate your mother? Use it, it's material. A lifetime of simmering resentment? Express it, it'll tow your story along. Present your friends, thinly disguised, as idiots? Well, there's the truth of daily life on the one hand and the Truth of Art on the other. Get it all out there. Let the Work arise triumphant from the Wreckage.
Despite the snarky tone of the paragraph above, I more or less agree with the Romantic premise. That puts me in a delicate position because I generally write about people who are much worse off than I, people who can't defend themselves. The poor and oppressed of Thailand, while they'll probably never read a word I write, deserve to be presented carefully and with some conscience.
I wrote about the abandonment of street children in three books and the methodical exploitation of the poor by the rich in one, Breathing Water (although it's sort of background music for all the books). In the new one, The Queen of Patpong, the subject – wrapped inside a thriller – is the Thai sex industry and what it does to the women who enter it, either through coercion or plain old poverty. These women have very few choices in life, and while their stories are temptingly dense with drama, the last thing they need is to be exploited literarily as well as physically and emotionally.
So. In writing the new book, I found myself being much more than ordinarily sensitive to its fairness, for want of a better word, toward its characters. But that didn't mean I could romanticize them or present them as a chorus of cherubim: there are bar workers who cheat, steal, abuse drugs, assault their co-workers, abandon their families, even exploit their children by offering them as sexual merchandise. My goal, to the extent that I had a coherent goal, was to present them as fully as possible, as individuals, most of whom were doing the best they could with the bad hand they'd been dealt.
And every time I thought it was working, a quotation from David Sedaris would come to mind: Writing gives you the illusion of control, and then you realize it's just an illusion, that people are going to bring their own stuff into it. To me, that meant that I had to be doubly sure that my intention was clear and to use that intention as a sort of measuring stick to try to gauge the reaction readers might have to the story -- to make sure (for example) that if they wanted to read it for titillation, they were going to have to work pretty hard to get there.
It seems to me that a lot of mystery and thriller writers have to deal with this issue, especially since we've long emerged from the so-called Golden Age of British (and faux-British) upper-crust mysteries in which, as Raymond Chandler put it, the suspects sit sipping Singapore slings and sneering at each other while the detective crawls over the carpet with a magnifying glass. Thrillers and mysteries these days often explore the lives of those on whom the rest of society steps. I know, for example, that Leighton's Brazil and Michael and Stanley's South Africa have institutionalized inequality to a degree that at least equals Thailand.
So I'm asking everyone, how do you work with this material? Is there any special responsibility? If so, how do you see it? And to readers, what (if anything) do you think our responsibility should be?