Writing a Chiang Mai Novel: Interview with Novelist Dick Holzhaus

 | Tue 22 Apr 2014 08:53 ICT

Dutchman Dick Holzhaus started as an advertising creative in the mid-seventies. His millennium project Car of the Century then landed him in Los Angeles for two years. After the realisation of this global event it was time for a dream that had been in the backseat for too long. He moved to Thailand and wrote his debut novel Dirty Laundry when he was living here in Chiang Mai. It was during his nine years here when he became friends with many people working, and owning, this publication. Holzhaus has been back in Holland for some years, but he hasn’t forgotten Chiang Mai, a place in which he hopes to hang up his boots one day. We asked him a few questions about his new novel Metaphors of Death, soon to be published with Spanking Pulp Press.

Your inspiration for Metaphors of Death was Chiang Mai, Citylife, CityNews, and the staff that work(ed) here: Pim Kemasingki, James Austin Farrell, and Cindy Tilney. Can you explain when you first decided to write a novel loosely based on this office, and why you chose our staff to base your characters on?

It all started with a clash between Pim and me after we were introduced to each other by Lucas Villiger (now deceased founder of Darling Wine Bar). In the following conversation I dismissed Citylife as a rag tourist magazine. Pim defended her magazine passionately, leaving me feeling like a judgmental ass.

To make up for my bad start and to express my respect for her I asked Pim to do my website, that’s how I got to meet other people at Citylife. I liked the atmosphere there and felt a bit jealous of the expats co-working with Thais and diving into Thai society.

I seemed to be stuck inside the expat bubble and didn’t get any further than being a circus bear for my Thai family, and collecting shopkeeper smiles for my attempts at speaking Thai. At that time I made notes for a novel that played in Thailand. But felt it needed a lot of research I didn’t have time for as I was writing my novel Dirty Laundry.

I met James Austin Farrell at an Open Mic evening in the Irish Pub and instantly liked his writing and personality. Occasionally we ran into each other and discussed how to save humanity, or art, or science, or philosophy… or how to get home. Cindy Tilney arrived years later.

How close is your fiction to fact in terms of characterisation? You know the people the characters are based on, were you afraid you might get something wrong, or upset one of them? I guess you didn’t have photos of the staff posted on your wall above your writing desk?

No pictures above my desk, the characters live inside my head. They’re not replicas; they have taken their own shapes.

James and Cindy inspired the main characters, the word ‘inspire’ makes all the difference. If I would suggest this story actually happened, both of them would be offended. But it’s only fiction based on extraordinary characters.

Protagonist Tom Terrence’s characteristics are based on single incidents. Like meeting James at a party in Pim’s house and him confiding to me; “Dick, I’m becoming like you.” I asked how so, he replied; “Today, I got my first refrigerator.” That remark sparked the idea of a protagonist who only wants to possess the absolute minimum.

Cindy always impressed me with her honesty and the relaxed way she socialises with men. She even laughed out loud after she offered to safeguard a severely intoxicated James to his home and he declined the offer by looking her up and down and saying; “Nah, I think I’ll take my chances walking.”

I can imagine Cindy felt upset about the Crissy character in the novel, but she’s a writer herself. To make absolutely sure I gave her the manuscript almost one year ago. Everything is okay.  As far as James goes, I think I’ve nailed the essence, but he strongly denies that.

When did you decide, and why did you decide to write the book?

I got the idea when still living in Chiang Mai. We left for Holland to do a three year project and then return. Fate decided different and the extension of our stay in Holland made me feel homesick for Chiang Mai.

So I picked up the notes I had named ‘Masquerade’ and wrote a story that brought my mind back to Thailand but didn’t go anywhere itself. Then CityNews did a series of articles about the 2000 Kirsty Jones murder. Pim wrote how she was hired by the BBC and how excited she was about that. The series of articles also oozed how powerless farang and khon jon are in the face of Thai authorities.

These articles brought all the pieces together and created a door to backstage Thailand.

Can you tell us more about the title you chose?

The original title Masquerade suggests choreographed actions by disguised persons. People with an objective, but for people without hope, daily life has no choreography.

The cliché says that anyone can make dreams come true if they want it strongly enough. My protagonist betrays his dream, denies his emotions, and makes no discernible progress in taking on a ruthless and invisible enemy.

At any moment Tom Terrence can be brutally murdered, choke on food, or jump off a building. Tom has no hope or objective so all of his actions become a metaphor of death.

In the book Tom, based on James, is kind of a lost soul whose life is given some more meaning, or perhaps stimulus, by being asked to be a fixer for the BBC, and to some extent, finding some amount of solace from Cindy and her support. Is this something you could imagine happening? I guess you wrote with some verisimilitude in mind?

Yes, I have experienced this myself. The most happy people are the ones that have the narrowest gap between their perception of themselves and the perception society has of them. I’m not talking personality, but perception of ability in social or professional matters.

Years of frustration about not getting done what you want, no matter how hard you work for it, can be solved in a matter of minutes. Just by the right insight that resets your mind. Often when people change jobs they suddenly do things they couldn’t do in their old job. This brings happiness and confidence but isn’t the result of some magic talent-boost. It’s a reset of the mind.

The novel features drug dealers, the drug trade, corrupt policemen, and other parts of Chiang Mai’s more ‘noir’ aspects. Is this something you know well?

No, I’ve lived in Thailand for about ten years and only heard rumors. The fogginess of Thai horror stories makes them particularly scary. Because in Thailand reality is foggy. There is not one Government Institution that doesn’t scare the shit out of me. Thai reality inspires dreams of gentle people that will kill you in a horrifying way just because local rumor has it you have gold hidden your belly.

I have researched Thai organisations that play a role in the novel and a Thai friend had shown me places like the hidden compound from where the dealers operate. In Thailand everybody knows that they don’t know how police and army relate. Where they co-operate and where they compete. But with corruption so open and so widespread it’s clear the baht rolls from the bottom to the top and drugs the other way around. The bad drug experience references come from James Austin Farrell’s brilliant short story: Made in Taiwan.

Dick Holzhaus (right) at the Darling Wine Pub on Huay Kaew Road

There are various landmarks in Chiang Mai you refer to, such as the old Darling Wine Bar. How closely do you still feel connected to the city? How did these places, and the city inspire you as a writer, as a person?

I have never left Chiang Mai, I socialize more with friends in Thailand than in Holland. My wife and I will return, it all depends on creating an income from Europe that I can manage from Thailand.

Chiang Mai city is my hometown, but now they’re turning the city into a ‘mall in the smog’ we start considering options. We like the Nam Nao district too. We really long for a mailbox that is in fact a quiet gecko house. You wouldn’t believe the amounts of government mail we get here.

Chiang Mai, as I remember, was an inspiring zoo because of the variation in species and the general lack of protocol. I’ve met some great talents, clever buggers, and regular assholes. Made some friends for life, too.

There are far fewer authors working in Chiang Mai than Bangkok. Did you feel when you were here that the city has some kind of burgeoning scene?

Back then Chiang Mai literary activity swayed. Any activity depended on motivated individuals finding ways to attract cheapskates. I visited the Open Mic sessions and later joined the Word Smiths. Both initiatives died and resurrected several times, but definitely no burgeoning took place.

Could be because one writer is a crowd. Persistent wannabes also chased away talented writers. It seems, just like believing you’ll be the only person not to die, the thought of making a living from writing in an exotic city comes natural to all people. I sure hope that girl from Oklahoma never recited again… she kept me away from Spoken Word for weeks.

Here in Amsterdam culture is like cherry picking. Still, it doesn’t beat a lazy afternoon with Greg at Huay Tueng Thao or James and me being kicked out of Darling Wine Bar by an equally pissed Lucas. Harmonious conflicts, fuel for writing.

One of the touching aspects of the book is the fact Tom’s ‘fall’ is kind of saved by a woman, or at least her devotion to his manuscript. And while the title suggests a very dark tale, there’s also a romantic element to the story. How does this work, or compare to say your ‘metaphor of life’?

Sensitive people are prone to silting up emotionally. Up to the point that hope dims and nothing has a meaning any more. Intelligent Crissy loves Tom enough to sift through his mess. She makes a genuine effort to understand his personality and help solve his problems. Crissy’s help unplugs the pipe. Tom accepts it because he can take over from that point.

Provided the cure really unplugs the pipe, these demonstrations of appreciation can change your life in five seconds. My personal career took off after; “Dicky, you have great ideas… now finish one.”

If you’re lucky, things work that way.