Sunday, November 29, 2009

Sunny Places For Shady People

What makes a good setting? If you were to shelve books by setting instead of by genre or author, some settings -- London or New York, for example -- would take up an entire wall, while others, such as Bliss, Arizona (where I'm thinking of setting a thriller) would be the width of a folded road map. What's that about?

Not much, I think. Ninety percent of the time, I've come to believe, a setting is just the neighborhood a writer knows best. Back in the 1930s, Robert Benchley wrote a piece called "Mind's Eye Trouble" or something like that in which he complained that his mind's eye was stunted -- limited to places he'd actually seen -- and that this failing affected his reading. So the vast armies in "War and Peace" marched through the residential back yards of Connecticut, where he'd grown up, and Madame Bovary threw herself beneath the wheels of the Hartford Express.

Benchley was exaggerating, but I think it makes sense for many writers to set their stories in, so to speak, one of their neighborhoods. More people have experienced London, over time, than any other English-speaking city in the world, so it follows that thousands and thousands of novels have been set there. "London" books embrace every possible literary genre: everything from Tristram Shandy to sci-fi. London serves them all well.

And that's because London has, from a fictional perspective, everything: teeming millions, history, beauty, ugliness, palaces, hovels, angels on the churches and shit in the street. Same goes for Los Angeles or New York, Rio de Janiero, any big city. Small towns worked for Faulkner and Trollope and work today for James Lee Burke and -- well, you supply a name.

Bangkok, where I've lived part of every year since 1981, works fine for me. I can't claim to know it exhaustively (not half as well as, say, Christopher G. Moore, who created the western-private-eye-in Bangkok and writes it better than just about anyone), but I don't have to be the guy who'd get chosen to write the Encyclopedia Britannica article on Bangkok. Why? Because my
Bangkok -- like Chandler's Los Angeles or Balzac's Paris or Murakami's Tokyo or -- well, you supply a name -- is imaginary.

All settings are imaginary. Ultimately, all settings exist only in the writer's mind. If you could map them, they would begin in the writer's mind and end in the reader's. Authenticity, actual familiarity with the emotional gestalt and physical geography of the place, are tools the writer uses to make sure that the reader's brain doesn't reject the setting as nonsense. You don't want to be like the French writer, raised in the fine-food atmosphere of Paris, who wrote a western in which a bunch of illiterate gunmen sit around a campfire arguing about cheeses.

What makes a setting work is that it resonates with that writer's imagination. Bangkok is endless, flat, built on water and sinking, choked with people who are unimaginably rich and desperately poor. It's simultaneously hideous and beautiful, sacred and profane, vulgar and spiritual. It has a terrible government and wonderful people. Once called the "Venice of the East," it was originally built around a leafy network of placid canals, but it became, in the
1960s and 70s, a dusty, swinging-door saloon town, sort of Dodge City with sex. Now it's morphing into one of the world's great cosmopolitan centers, with a skyline that dazzles even the most calloused traveler.

Bangkok is one of the cities that loose folks roll downhill into. It is, as Somerset Maugham said about Monaco, a sunny place for shady people. Sex of the saddest kind brings some of the West's most appalling ambassadors, tens of thousands of them, set loose in a place where they think they can behave without constraint. These people may be dull company (and are they ever), but they're great material. And the Thai people, who put up with all this and sometimes profit from it, are the best-hearted, most sympathetic people I know.

So there's lots to work with, if you're me. I could see myself writing about Bangkok for the rest of my life and never even scratching the depth of the possible. If I'm lucky and William Morrow keeps asking for books, I may.

And if, reading my Bangkok, you find the setting difficult to believe, you can comfort yourself with the knowledge that millions of visitors every year feel exactly the same way about the real city.

Tim - Sunday


  1. Tim:

    I was in Bangkok many years ago - 20 at least - and found it an amazing amalgam. Modern chaos side by side with the most serene temples; some of the most beautiful women in the world and so many women old before their time; and what seemed like happiness so widespread. I had a wonderful time.

  2. Hi Tim,

    Stories from Bangkok are new to me.

    I enjoyed reading your article and look forward to more.



  3. Thanks, Stan, thanks, Susie --

    Bangkok is changing so fast you can almost see it, but the constants remain -- poverty for many and riches for a very few, the smell of amazing food everywhere, and the Thai alchemy of turning miserable circumstances into beautiful smiles.

    Except the cops. You don't get a lot of smiles from the cops.

  4. Hi, Tim,

    Of course you don't get a lot of smiles from cops; a perpetual scowl seems to be a universal job requirement.

    You make Bangkok sound like the best and the worst of all possible worlds--something you also made abundantly redundantly clear in the photo presentation you gave on your Breathing Water book tour. It's enough to make me wish my Marine reserve unit had been mobilized during the Viet Nam conflict; at least it would have put me in the neighborhood.

    A thriller set in Bliss, Arizona? That piques my curiosity, so it might be a good call. How about a thriller in which Simeon Grist meets Poke Rafferty? Now that would be the best of all possible worlds. (Sigh)

  5. Hi, Phil --

    You really do get around, don't you? I was eating lunch in Bliss when an idea came to me about a young woman on the run across the big blister of the American desert, and by the time I'd driven 100 miles I had the first act, complete with secondary characters. I actually bought a hand-held digital recorder so I could dictate ideas as they came to me while driving.

    We shall see. So many possible stories, so little time. What I love about it is that I'd be writing from a woman's point of view, which I did for the first time ever in the middle section of THE ROCKS. It was exhilarating. So maybe . . .

  6. Oh, yeah, I do get around. Thanks to the miracles of Internet technology and Google maps, I can travel (virtually) virtually anywhere in the world. During a long career as a long-haul truck driver, I spent many years living out of a suitcase; now, the comforts of home are particularly appealing, and I don't have to endure the tedious horrors of airport security.

    Your desert thriller is a novel just begging to be written. Few male writers do a credible job of writing from the female POV, but I have complete confidence that you are one who can. I look forward to seeing how you handle it, both in The Rocks and in the story as yet unwritten.