A glimpse inside the life and works of crime novelist Jake Needham

Jake Needham, author of THE BIG MANGO, THE AMBASSADOR'S WIFE, LAUNDRY MAN, A WORLD OF TROUBLE and KILLING PLATO, talks to Pencils and What-not's Christina Cummings about his experience as a successful writer and best-selling crime novelist...


Jake Needham is an American novelist who resides in the Far East. As well as writing five novels, with two in the pipelines, he has practised international law, wriiten screenplays for US Cable TV and writes a blog called Letters from Asia.

Jake's website can be found here: www.jakeneedham.com


Here he talks to Christina Cummings:


Interview with novelist Jake Needham

“It started the way a spy story should start.

On a misty night in Phuket.

In a little bar.”

J. Needham, Killing Plato


Hi Jake and thank you for agreeing to answer some questions for us. As writers we’re eternally curious not just about the words that create a piece of writing, but also about the wordsmith who created them...


Christina:    I’m interested to know where you do most of your writing - that perfect place where your inner-muse flows. (Try as I might I can’t seem to sit at my lovely desk and write - I tend to curl up in a comfy chair and make frequent pots of tea!) I picture you sitting outside a street café, blue cigar smoke carried along on a jasmine scented slipstream, perhaps a bowl of noodles before you and maybe a beer, your pen in hand, sketching out the next scene in your latest book. Am I far off?

Jake:   Sadly, your question is far more romantic than my answer is going to be. This will probably trash my image, but I've never been able to figure out how to write in public. Or for that matter, how other people do it. David Mamet wrote a wonderful little essay called 'Writing in Restaurants' which I combed through with the greatest of care looking for useful suggestions. I found none. My own guess is David Mamet doesn't write in restaurants either. He just thought that was a cool title for an essay and that the idea of it made his life as a writer seem exciting. Good luck with that.

What I need in a writing environment is absolute quiet and a sense of peace. When I'm in Bangkok, I write in my study, which is my favorite room on earth. Beamed ceiling, floor-to-ceiling bookcases on three walls, and a three hundred year old rectory table that I use for a desk. If you can't feel at peace in a place like that, you're lost. When I'm in New York, I work at the Writer's Room in Greenwich Village. It's a sort of private library for working writers. We each have our own carrel, cell phones are forbidden, and nobody speaks a single word to anyone all day. Perfect.


Christina:    I read that your first novel, The Big Mango, may soon be made into a film. As the author it must be an exciting prospect to one day view the world you created, acted out on the big screen. Regarding production, how involved would you like to be? And would you consider an indie film company?

Jake:   A wise old novelist told me that the proper relationship of a novelist to Hollywood is this: grab the bloody money when they offer it to you and then run like hell. I think he was onto something there.
I wrote screenplays for cable TV movies for quite a few years so I know something about the industry and, trust me on this, it's a stupid business. Film people are always making pious pronouncements about how much they respect writers, but that's horse pucky. I have yet to meet anyone in Hollywood who thought the material from which a film was made mattered in the slightest. Except of course whether Tom Cruise liked it enough to want to star in the movie. That matters.

THE BIG MANGO is in it's fourth option cycle and has been in development twice. I spent some time with [the late] James Gandolfini (see photogrpah above), on the set of 'The Sopranos', trying to get the script out of THE BIG MANGO that he wanted to do for HBO right after 'The Sopranos' ended. See what a great time we're having? Yeah, right. You should have been there the next day.

As far as I know, THE BIG MANGO is as far away from being made into a film as it's always been. On the other hand, maybe it's not. Maybe it's opening next week. I'd be the last to know. I'm just the writer.


Christina:   As a successful novelist, having sold over 100,000 books, in four different languages you have a strong following, mostly in the Asian market. Are there still literal and figurative borders and boundaries that confine the distribution of your books and if so how is the quest for world recognition going using the various portals that now connect the global market?

Jake:   Up until recently, the problem of physical distribution has always constrained the extent to which any writer could hope to grow his audience. If -- for whatever reason -- your publisher shipped 1000 copies of your book to every place on the planet that sold English-language books, you too would sell like 'The Da Vinci Code' and reach hundreds of thousands of readers. On the other hand, if -- for whatever reason -- your publisher only shipped a total of 1000 copies of your book to the entire world in total, that's all the readers you were going to reach. Period.
Happily, the global availability of e-books has changed all that. Where publishers once controlled your access to readers, they no longer do. Readers now control your access themselves. If people want to read your stuff, they can since virtually every book published anywhere in the world is available worldwide as an e-book anytime a reader wants it. For writers like me in particular -- writers with a readership which is global  -- it's a wonderful new world out there.


Christina:    These are some press-related blurbs that have been said of you: -

a) “Needham exudes the confidence of a man who has seen it all.”

b) “Needham certainly knows where a few bodies are buried.”

c) “Mr. Needham seems to know rather more than one ought about these things!” (ref: brazen corruption!)

Which one of these, a), b) or c), is ‘fact’ and why?!! : )

Jake:   I suppose all three blurbs are true enough. I've lived and worked for nearly thirty years in places like Hong Kong, Singapore, and Bangkok. I've seen a lot of strange stuff and, yes, I know where some bodies are buried. Heck, I guess the whole truth is that I helped to bury some of them.


Christina:   When self-editing one’s own work, it’s not uncommon to find, for example repetition of words and then have to totally re-write it or reach for the thesaurus to make alterations. For instance when I first started writing, I’d look back and find the words, ‘as though’ about eight times in one paragraph - then I’d restructure the whole thing and apply vigilance to avoid it happening again. Even now I have to watch out for sloppy mistakes. Do you have any ‘First Draft Demons’?

Jake:   The whole first draft is a demon for me. I hate first drafts. They're just pure drudgery that I have to go through before I can have the fun of editing something worthwhile out of whatever ridiculous mess I've stirred up. Sometimes I feel like a sculptor who needs a hundred  pounds of concrete to make whatever it is that he intends to make. So he spends days mixing water and stand and stirring and breaking his back to get the hundred pounds of bloody concrete he has to have before he can start sculpting. The whole first draft is exactly like that for me. It's just pure drudgery.


Christina:   Can you tell us what are you working on at the moment?

Jake:   The next cab off the rank will be my second Inspector Tay novel, one which follows on after THE AMBASSADOR'S WIFE. It will be another Singapore-set book of course -- Inspector Tay is far too much of a Singaporean to work anyplace else -- and I expect it to be out in the fall of this year. Then, after that, there will be a fourth Jack Shepherd novel which follows on after A WORLD OF TROUBLE. This one will be set in Macau and it will be out in early 2013.


Christina:   And, finally…is there one thing you’d like your readers to walk away with having read a Jake Needham novel?

Jake:   My favorite emails from readers are the ones that say, "I felt like I was there!" or "I could almost smell the place!" And happily, I get a fair number of emails saying exactly that kind of thing.

I like to read novels that can transport me to a different place, so I work very hard to do that for my readers. I want readers to feel like they could go to any one of the Asian cities I've written about and walk the streets and everything would feel familiar to them. I want the places I write about to be that real for them.


Christina:   Thank you so much for agreeing to be interviewed and for giving us such interesting, illuminating responses!

Jake:   Thanks again for asking me to participate.


PHOTOGRAPHS: © Jake Needham

Portrait of Jake Needham

Jake Needham with James Gandolfini

Cover art for all three Jack Shepherd novels

Jake's Novels

Christina Cummings