Eight Years an Editor: A Farewell Interview with James Austin Farrell

 | Tue 10 Jun 2014 23:24 ICT

Writer, journalist, and novelist James Austin Farrell has been with this company for eight years.  His first six were spent as Deputy Editor for Citylife Magazine, followed by two years as Editor of Chiang Mai CityNews. He has officially left us now, but will continue his passion for writing in other endeavours. Recently aware of his departure, I requested an interview with him, propositioning that it would be an opportunity to share some final words with readers of the publication. He agreed and so we met over few beers at the liquor store on Nimmanhaemin to chat, and piece together the story of James’ life and work.

James (left) and a friend

Starting Out

Everyone has a story, and if you’re fortunate enough you might have a passion in life that makes your story all the more interesting. For James Austin Farrell, that passion is writing. To get to the origins of his affinity with writing I asked him if there was a moment he could recall when he knew he would be a writer. He recollects that he was 11 or 12 years old when he wrote his first poem.

“I wrote a poem, I don’t know why. I hardly knew what a poem was,” he recalls. “I was kind of sensitive as a kid, I was affected by news. It’s ironic I ended up writing it, because as child, I hated it…and I suffered through it with my quietly frantic parents almost every day: nuclear war, missing children, AIDS, catastrophes, miner’s strikes; these things were pervasive. I was a virtual missing kid; my mother would belt me if I came home late at night, screaming at me, telling me she was going out of her mind with worry…bad people were everywhere, I learned through TV and its many victims: the paranoid mums, the muted, distraught dads… my world was unpredictable and forever on the edge, and it got to me I guess, so I wrote a poem and gave it the merry title ‘The World Is At an End.’”

Now there is a thing called AIDS, lovers balance on razor blades…

You get the picture,” says James.

He gauges my reaction and follows up with, “Really serious for a twelve-year-old, I know. I was serious, I guess. ” He laughs self-consciously.

I ask if he showed this poem to anyone. He tells me about his English teacher, Mr. Smith (a teacher in James’s first novel, Angry Birds, has the same name). “Mr. Smith, I liked him a lot. He was very emotional. I liked that. He was the only real teacher I remember. He would talk about his disabled child in class, and sometimes it made him sad, but I respected him for that. He was vulnerable, kind-hearted. Most other teachers always seemed to be pretending to be human.” He pauses, sighs and continues: “Mr. Smith told me then that I should carry on writing. And I think it was the only nice, or encouraging thing a teacher ever said to me.”

James admits that as a youth he was a troublesome boy, though he could study well and make grades in middle school, he was never allowed into the top groups or classes because of his behaviour. 

“I was maybe even one of the most troublesome boys in my school. I was the kind of kid that gets moved on the first day to a special place in the class. I refused to wear uniform most days. I’ve never liked uniforms. I was even banned from school parties after stealing Henry the Cat marker pens!”

But Mr. Smith saw past this. “He didn’t see just a bad kid, he saw a troubled kid,” James recalls, noting that when he entered high school, Mr. Smith made sure that he was enrolled into the top English classes despite his troublesome reputation. “But unfortunately, in high school, the troubled kid got more troubled…I read some Sylvia Plath, but gave her up for weed and women.”

It is often the great works of literature we read that further perpetuate our own desire to be writers. I ask if and when there was something he read early on in his life that further fueled his passion for writing.

“I was 16 when I read Catcher in the Rye,” James replies. “I could empathise with Holden Caulfield. I understood then how important writing was, because I had met a best friend who was fictional. I became intimate with that book. It’s such a brilliant, simple novel. And it gave me encouragement.”

It was after reading J.D. Salinger that James continued writing even more; short stories, and poems mostly. Eventually he had one of his poems, “Dystopia”, published in an anthology of poems when he was 18. Asking about how it felt to get one of his works published, I did not expect his melancholy response. “It was nice to get something I wrote published, but no, I didn’t feel too good about it. There is a strange decomposition that occurs when you succeed as a writer, even a crap poem that gets published. For everything published you die a little, you lose some of yourself. And there’s always uncertainty; everything written stinks of ineptitude. ‘Cos you can’t get a hold on the world, or your feelings. You feel bad for trying.”

He reveals another aspect to the reasons behind his writing, one in which writing almost became a necessity.

“Because of the adversity I grew up in, I was always told I would fail, so I created my own world in which I would become a famous published author.  That fantasy world I lived in was sometimes mistaken as me having a big ego, which is untrue, I was actually very insecure.  Narcissism is a kind of spiritual poverty. But I had to live in this fantasy world to survive the ordeals of the real world. I guess it just took some time to realise that a lot of hard work must be done in order to make the fantasy a reality. The problem is, with writing, when you’ve been motivated to do it because of hardships, instead of being motivated by the fortune of your education, let’s say, is, in my case anyway, this nagging feeling that I’m an imposter, that I don’t deserve to be here… The British education system really did a number on me.”

Thailand, by the Flip of a Coin

At 26 years old, James had recently spent time teaching EFL in Mexico. After a recent break-up in Canada, and a move back to London, he was motivated and determined to travel again. Without any clear destination in mind, he opened a map of the world. He scanned over the various countries. Just two countries on that map beckoned to him: Honduras and Thailand.  Knowing that he could teach EFL in either of these countries, he had made up his mind. Only one thing remained, to let fate, or gravity, choose which country he would leave home for, and with the flip of a coin, chance favoured Thailand.

Before he left London, he worked at what he calls possibly one of world’s worst jobs.  Seven days a week, 12 hours a day in demolition. 

“We would demolish homes, and often I would find personal belongings and relics of the deceased; sometimes a photo album.  I would look at these things, these photos, and though it was our job to demolish these places, I couldn’t help but feel touched, but melancholy as well, as if we were destroying personal histories, erasing people’s pasts, memories, their lives. We were throwing history into cold rusted skips. But in a way too, I was already throwing a metaphorical wrecking ball at England, and that felt good.”

After that stint, James quit his last job ever in England and, at 26 years old, set off for Thailand.  The year was 1999.

James arrived in Thailand knowing nothing about it, which is exactly how he wanted it.  No travel books, no guide books, no Lonely Planet, just travelling and following what chance and opportunity might bring. 

Finding Chiang Mai

“I spent most nights just wandering around, looking down soi, getting lost,” recalls James of his earliest days in Chiang Mai. “I loved the mountains, too, and would rent bikes and ride around for days. There’s something about the mountains; I guess I’m a Capricorn, I like climbing them.”

He began teaching EFL in private lessons. A lot of friends were made from these classes that James remains in touch with even today: Thai students from universities, and various Thai business people. They took English lessons with him, but they also introduced him to another side of Chiang Mai, a less touristic side.

“The friendliness I first encountered then was genuine; I fell in love with the people, and the place. Maybe I was lucky, but I met a lot of people who were good to me. I chose to stay and live in Chiang Mai almost immediately. I felt really happy here. I didn’t see any reason to return to England.” 

Fifteen years later, James is still living in Chiang Mai.

He divulges a bit about his character when he first came to Thailand in 15 years ago, saying that even though he was in his mid-20’s he was still somewhat an adolescent, prone to overreact to what he deemed unfavourable situations.  He says living in Thailand has changed that.

“I certainly never get angry in public anymore. I walk away from arguments. I don’t think public aggression does anyone any good. Conflict so often has no compromise, it’s internecine. I like the Thai way of holding it back, that anger and aggression, but it should be analysed later: take it out like a bug you’ve caught in a matchbox and contemplate it. And the added value of sanuk – Thailand has really taught me to take a lot of things less seriously. I’ve just got to work on myself a little more. There is still something very innocent about Thailand.”

Becoming the Editor

Years after settling into Chiang Mai, James began sharing some of his writing at local readings at the U.N. Irish Pub. The readings were anecdotes about his personal experiences.  He says the content of his stories varied, sometimes sexual, sometimes depraved. Despite the vulgar, yet real and human content of his readings, people seemed to enjoy it. There was a lot of encouragement, he says.

The Deputy Editor of Chiang Mai Citylife before James was a guy named Mike Atkins.  Atkins also organized the spoken word at the U.N. Irish Pub. When Atkins left the publication, Sandy Mullen, the owner of the Irish Pub, suggested to James that he go for the job as editor.

It was a success; James was hired as deputy editor of Chiang Mai Citylife in 2006 at 32 years old.

Changes, or Lack Thereof

When asked about the most drastic changes he has witnessed in Chiang Mai over his 15 years here, the first thing James mentions is a difference in economy and the many consequences that it bore. He goes on to say that people have more money than they did before, although the wealth gap is widening. The emerging economy and the emerging middle class have been growing at an extreme rate over the last decade, he continues, which has had both positive and negative consequences. 

“Thai people have more money and Chiang Mai has been becoming more cosmopolitan, but don’t ask me if that’s a good thing, because I don’t know. Happiness is such a mystery to me. We sometimes tend to view it in relation to modernity, as a reflection of our desires, desires that have been advertised to us. But we are fooling ourselves so often. Money can be like heroin, releasing pleasure, and killing your soul at the same time. So all this modernisation has a darker side, but for sure it has its benefits, and it’s totally unavoidable. We just have to be careful how we develop, constantly holding a mirror up to the present. Also, the polarisation means that people don’t identify with each other as much anymore, the community is fractured the more cosmopolitan it gets. That’s class war. Again, unavoidable.”

James also takes a moment to share his opinions on what hasn’t changed.

“Modernisation without development – a phrase Ajarn Tanet Charoenmuang likes to use – is the slave master of Thailand. We’ve got the world’s best malls, fantastic technology as our fingertips, brilliant engineers…and a justice system from the Dark Ages. The more you know the more you’ll shit your pants if you ever fall victim to it. So you’ve got this modern society strapped to a pre-industrial agrarian society that still has a lot of ethical blind spots, and sometimes in terms of developing that can feel like children playing grown-ups…and some kids are sadistic, selfish. Even with the National Anti-Corruption Committee, emerging Human Rights Groups, some great journalists and academics, little has changed within the great governing bodies. The justice system is still disabled by corruption, and often totally unjust. It hasn’t changed at all, in spite of Thailand’s apparent development and economic progress. Not since I’ve been here. We must say, okay, now we have the money to build, educate, expand – let us concentrate on social progress, not just fucking self gain. Education, too, it’s a contradictory concept in Thailand at times. A lot of cleaning needs to be done in terms of infrastructure, and while most Thais I know realise this, there’s a fatalism that weighs us all down. There are plenty of passionate, intelligent administers of justice and education in Thailand, but how many of them feel disabled in the system?”

On reporting these issues, James says, “I didn’t just want to report, I wanted to ask why these situations we report exist. If there’s inequity, violence, extortion, rape, drug arrests, alcoholism, what are the causes of these things? Reportage without analysis can be quite perverse and depressing. Reportage alone is like revealing there’s a tumour in part of your body without diagnosing it. My regret is that I didn’t have enough time to diagnose more… Or that I was sometimes scared to. Thailand is hiding a lot of secrets. It has to hide them, because the world is a globally politically correct place. If you’re not developed, you must at least pretend to be. The pretence is destructive though, because it hides the wounds that need healing. Education then becomes wasted years of prevarication, learning how to paint polluted rivers. Analysis is shunned, because no one wants to be part of the past. We all want to be modern! But this turns us into apathetic fools knocking on the giant doors of shopping malls early in the morning looking for a fix. It’s a predicament that feeds on our insecurities. Before we can be modern, we must be wise, or we’re just like kids with guns.”

The Good Times and the Good People

I give James a moment to reflect on his memories of working with Chiang Mai Citylife and CityNews.

“It’s the simple things really,” he says with a sigh. “Hanging out with the staff, the interns, the Thai staff, becoming part of this family, but also all the people I’ve worked with. We’re in the communications gig, and so I’ve had the opportunity to meet so many good people in this job.  All of that will be my lasting memory, communication with others. What else is there?”

I ask him what advice he might have for young readers.

“Whatever your passion is, keep doing it, don’t give up. It’s better to live in a temporary fantasy world, to lift up your hopes and ambitions, than to condemn yourself to realistic failure. It’s good to have dreams.”

Peace out, James!