The last white elephant


King Sihanouk in his Cadillac, white elephants at the palace gates, 1952.

White elephants are only theologically white. To the average eye they look like any other elephant. They get their whiteness from their resemblance to the white elephant which impregnated Maya, the mother of the Buddha, when the Buddha wished to assume human form at the beginning of the present age.

In Theravada Buddhism the possession of white elephant is a mark of divine favour given only to kings, and a sign that a wise and just ruler reigns over the kingdom. In other words, if you’re a king, you just gotta have one.


One of the King of Thailand’s royal white elephants

The King of Thailand has six males and four females, which he keeps in considerable comfort at the Royal Elephant Stable, but segregated, because white elephants are not allowed to breed. The generals who ruled Burma had five and were always looking for more. (They kept them in a compound near Mingaladon airport – I saw them a few years ago but I don’t know if they’re still there). The king of Laos had some, and although the communists starved him to death in a re-education camp there they now keep their own in a special enclosure in Vientiane zoo, where visitors can stroke his trunk to gain gifts of power and strength. So what about Cambodia?

First, you have to know that white elephants are a very delicate subject. Only kings are allowed to own them. When the king of Cambodia was subordinate to the king of Siam, having a white elephant would have been very close to treason. No Cambodian white elephant before King Norodom switched from being a Thai puppet to a French puppet. The French wouldn’t have cared or even understood.


Joachim Schliesinger, in volume 3 of hisElephants in Thailand” (surely the last word on the subject) says that the last time a white elephant was seen in Cambodia was during Jackie Kennedy’s visit in November 1967.  Schliesinger also mentions, and dismisses, a story that Spiro Agnew, Richard Nixon’s vice-president, presented the doomed Lon Nol with a baby white elephant during a visit to Phnom Penh in 1970. Jon Swain mentions the same story in his River of Time  and seems to accept it (“In the circumstances, it was an absurd gesture“), but it seems to be untrue. Agnew showed no sensitivity to Asian cultures (indeed, his Secret Service bodyguards trained their guns on Cheng Heng, the titular Head of State, when he tried to welcome them to the royal palace), and it seems improbable that he would have had any notion of the significance of elephants in Asian diplomacy. So, take it as read that the last royal Cambodian white elephant disappeared sometime between Jackie Kennedy’s visit in 1967 and the Khmer Rouge takeover in 1975. And now there are none.


Royal (but not necessarily white) elephants outside the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, date unknown. From the excellent blog called PhnomPenhPlaces (click on the image for the link).

But there is one interesting factoid that deserves a mention, and it might be the origin of the Spiro Agnew story. In 1951 Sihanouk, to show his appreciation of America’s strong stance on decolonisation in general and Cambodia’s bid for freedom from the last vestiges of French rule in particular, presented a white elephant to US President Harry Truman. Ok, so Truman was a Democrat and Sihanouk was sending him a Republican icon, but it’s the thought that counts. The elephant was named Harry, a home was prepared for him at Washington zoo, and all seemed to be going well until …  Harry died in Cape Town and was buried at sea. High hopes laid low. It could have been an augury for the future of Cambodian-American relations.

(P.s.: it seems Harry wasn’t a white elephant at all. The original intention was to send a white, but then some pedant pointed out that a white elephant could only be given to a supreme ruler, which a US president was not, and Harry was downgraded).



Ancestral voices: Sacred Cow and Sacred Gem


Preah Koh and his brother Preah Keo, Ta Prohm temple at Tonle Bati south of Phnom Penh (not to be confused with the more famous Ta Prohm at Angkor). From the blogspot Cultural Guide for Cambodia, photo Sowanna Yun.

In the period between the sack of Angkor by the Thais in 1431 and the arrival of the French in the mid-19th century the Khmer kings were largely ineffectual, the capital shifted between Phnom Penh, Lovek and Oudong, and the kingdom was nibbled away by Siam and Vietnam, losing provinces and population to both. The architecture, in contrast to the stone temples of Angkor, was largely perishable, inscriptions were few and have been comparatively little studied, and although palace and monastic chronicles exist, they are unreliable and largely made up of legends. Those legends, while a poor introduction to history, are nevertheless an instructive guide to the Cambodian soul.

And so we come to Sacred Cow and Sacred Gem, Preah Koh and Preah Keo. They were twin brothers. While their mother was pregnant with them she developed a craving for green mango; in the manner of legends she was warned not to climb the mango tree to get to the forbidden fruit, and of course she did. She fell to her death. As she died the twins were born, but while one was human, the other was a calf. The villagers, horrified at this unnatural birth, chased them into the forest, where Preah Koh, the Sacred Cow, fed and clothed his brother by belching up feasts from his belly.


Princess Neang Pov bathing in the forest pool. Or something. Arin, singer and model, demonstrating Longvek-era costume.

Preah Keo grew up to be a handsome young man. One day, clothed in a royal costume belched up for him by Preah Koh, he was loitering by a forest pool when the king’s youngest daughter, Neang Pov (‘Youngest Princess’) came to bathe. Preah Keo drew near and spoke charming words to the princess, and she allowed him to kiss her. When her father the king heard of this he was furious and had Neang Pov beheaded, but Preah Koh magically restored her head to her shoulders and belched out a palace, where Indra, the king of the gods, presided over her wedding to Preah Keo.

At this time the king of Siam was trying to conquer Cambodia. Unsuccessful in battle, he challenged the king of Cambodia to a cockfight, knowing there was no fighting cock in Cambodia that could hope to defeat the Thai king’s cock. (I was strongly tempted to allow my inner 14 year old to exercise his sense of humour here, but resisted). The Khmer court was in despair, but Preah Koh took pity and changed himself into an invincible fighting cock, in which form he defeated the King of Siam.

The furious Thai king challenged the Cambodians to a fight between elephants. Once again the Khmer were despondent, and once again Preah Koh saved them, transforming himself into an invincible fighting elephant.


The Emerald Buddha, Bangkok – I haven’t followed this up in detail, but the story seems to be that the statue was created in India by the gods Vishnu and Indra, came to Cambodia via Sri Lanka, then went to Laos, then northern Thailand, and finally Bangkok; that’s one story; another is that it came from India to Sri Lanka to Cambodia and was captured by the Thais at Angkor. Either way, it’s now the central religious symbol of the Thai nation. It’s not emerald, by the way, it’s jade.

The king of Siam consulted his astrologers: why was he always defeated by the Khmers, even though he was far more powerful? The astrologers consulted their charts and discovered the secret of Sacred Cow. The power of Preah Koh, they advised the king, could not be defeated by normal means nor even by magic, but if the king should construct a mechanical bull, the Khmer champion could be vanquished.

Once more the Thai king challenged the Khmers to a duel. When Preah Koh saw the mechanical bull he knew at once that he would be defeated, but he accepted the challenge. As he had foreseen, his magic blows had no effect on the Thai bull, which managed to knock off one of his magic horns. Deciding to escape and fight another day, Preah Koh called Preah Keo and Neang Pov to cling to him and flew off.

And of course there’s an Emerald Buddha in the Silver Pagoda in Phnom Penh

As they flew through the skies Neang Pov lost her grip and fell to her death, where Indra turned her into a sacred mountain which you, dear reader, may visit to this very day, but the brothers flew on and landed at Lovek, the Khmer capital. There they hid in a bamboo forest, thinking they would be safe, but the devious Thais loaded their cannons with silver coins and fired them into the forest, and the greedy local villagers cut down the bamboo to find the coins. And so Preah Koh and Preah Keo were captured and the king of Siam took them to his capital, where they remain to this day, imprisoned in a beautiful palace, weeping as they look eastward towards Cambodia.

The legend of Sacred Cow and Sacred Gem operates on many levels. For scholars interested in the history of religious traditions, Sacred Cow is the modern descendant of the bull Nandi, the vehicle of the god Shiva, and Preah Keo rides on his back with Neang Pov like Shiva riding on Nandi with his wife Parvati, goddess of the mountains, of love and of devotion.

At another level Preah Koh with his magic stomach and invincibility in battle represents the lost power of ancient Angkor, as well as, in his defeat and captivity, Cambodia’s post-Angkorean humiliation and powerlessness. And Sacred Gem is a real gem, the Emerald Buddha, once held by Cambodia, at least according to Cambodian legend, and now in the Royal Palace in Bangkok.

Longvek (or Lovek, or many other spellings - this one seems to be Eauwek) in its heyday.

Longvek, the capital of Cambodia from 1553, when it first became known to Western visitors, until its capture by the Thais in 1593.

And finally, there’s real history, or what might be real history. In the 15th century the Siamese king, finding the Khmer too powerful to defeat in battle, consulted his astrologers and learned that Lovek was protected by a powerful four-faced Buddha statue. The city would never fall so long as this statue remained in the city. The king sent a fraudulent holy man to Lovek, who convinced King Preah Prattha that the statue was unlucky and he should give it to the Thais. And so Lovek was captured and Cambodia’s greatness passed away, not because of the power of her enemies, but because of the gullible foolishness of the Cambodians themselves.


Modern four-faced Buddha at Wat Tralaeng, Lovek – the idea is not actually that a single Buddha has four faces, but four Buddha images are placed back to back around a central pillar, representing the four Buddhas who have existed so far in the world’s history; a fifth Buddha is still to come, and kings like to identify themselves with him.

At Lovek today, visitors to the monastery of Wat Tralaeng Kaeng  can see the feet of the four-faced Buddha statue still in place – the statue itself is at the bottom of the river, not far away, having sunk the boat onto which the Siamese loaded it. (And at this point, I must confess, I’m getting quite confused as to what is legend and what is history – the statue really was real, but did King Prattha really give it to the Thais, and is it really still at the bottom of the river?) Also to be seen nearby is a statue of Sacred Cow and Sacred Gem under a Bodhi tree, and sprouting from the Bodhi is a single mango branch, which is all that remains of the tree from which the mother of the fabulous twins fell.

A little beyond the Bodhi tree is the entrance to one of the underground passageways of the nagas, revealed when the naga king drank up the ocean and exposed Srok Khmer, the land of Cambodia, which had previously been under the sea. There are many such tunnels and caves around Cambodia, and this one extends from Lovek to Oudong, just north of Phnom Penh, where the naga’s tail brushes against the sacred funeral urns of the Khmer kings.

Koan kroh (roasted baby)

2014111683335555734_20In May 2012 Chow Hok Kuen, a British national of Taiwanese origin, was arrested in Bangkok after Thai police found six roasted human fetuses covered in gold leaf in his luggage. The police were acting on a tip-off that these things were being offered to wealthy clients via a black magic services website. “It is thought the corpses were bought from a Taiwanese national for 200,000 baht ($6,40) but could have been sold for six times that amount in Taiwan.”

The $US amount is wrong – 200k baht is close to $6k, so the resale value was about $36k. That’s not nearly enough to get me to carry gold-plated embryos around in my luggage, but a CNN report suggests that each fetus was worth that amount, so that Chow was looking at something over $200,000. As it panned out he was looking at a year in jail. Presumably the year is now long over and he’s a free man again, but I can’t find any record on google of his subsequent career.

120518071553-chow-hok-kuen-horizontal-large-galleryIn Thailand the embryos are called kuman thong, meaning golden boy, and in Cambodia the name is koan kroh, meaning smoked baby. From the Taiwanese connection, and also from a Singaporean link that I know of, they seem to be Asia’s answer to eye of newt (the link is to an article in the Huffington Post).

khun-chang-khun-phaenThe classic Thai tale Khun Chang Khun Phaen – Khun Phaen acquires a powerful spirit-protector by removing the fetus of his stillborn son from his wife’s womb

Koan kroh or kuman thong is a human embryo that has not come to term. In the Cambodian case, it’s ideally in the first trimester, although Chow Hok Kuen’s examples were mostly older. The person who wishes to benefit from it should first get his wife or girlfriend pregnant (I gather that it can’t be a random pregnant woman, though that’s a little obscure to me). When the time is ripe he should ask her if she agrees to give him the unborn baby. Ideally she agrees and he then cuts her open, removes the fetus, smokes it (like making smoked fish), and wears it as an amulet round his neck or waist.The smoked or golden fetus becomes the guide and protector of its owner, speaking to him in dreams to give guidance and warn of danger.

9843903In Thailand, kuman thong are very often figurines, not fetuses

The power of the amulet is derived from the spirit, not the fetus (meaning that the fetus is, ultimately, material, just a home for the spirit of the child). The spirit needs to be raised like any child, although its food requirements are a little bizarre. Like children, they hang out with their peers, enjoy practical jokes, and are totally loyal and faithful.

6_inches_clay_kuman_thong_statue_thai_amulet_lp_tre_sam_nam_charm_rich_yellow_1_lgwSix inches long and made of clay it says

In 2006 Bronwyn Sloan wrote an article about Cambodian magic in which she mentions koan kroh (which she spells cohen kroh):

One of [Cambodia’s] most infamous modern bandits, Rasmei, was rumored to have been protected by a pair of these mummified fetuses. A pair, and especially twins, is believed to be the ultimate in power. Legend had it that Rasmei could outrun police and pull off his daring robberies without fear because the Cohen Kroh warned him in advance if he would be successful and told him when the police were getting close. They can even help the bearer become invisible, according to believers.

Rasmei was eventually shot dead resisting arrest, but the reason why his grisly accomplices failed to help him on this occasion remain unclear. Some say one of his men had stolen them the night before and left him vulnerable and bereft of his powers. Others say he had angered them and they were sulking and silent when police closed in.

Not surprisingly, the mother is not always cooperative:

Recently [recently in 2006, that is] a smalltime young criminal was arrested after trying to cut his pregnant girlfriend’s fetus out of her womb. She struggled and escaped, probably saving both her own and her unborn child’s life. To local police investigating the crime afterwards, his motive was obvious. The man had not wanted a child. He wanted a talisman to help him improve his criminal skills, and he had deliberately impregnated a young woman claiming he loved her to achieve that.

IMG-20130128-WA0010Visit my online store…” – seems to be based in Singapore, and I found it very disturbing (the list of ingredients for making his kuman thong includes bones of children and “nam man prai oil of a girl spirit” – nam man prai being the oil exuded by a corpse)

Trudy Jacobsen in her book “The Lost Goddess” has an interesting discussion of koan kroh in pre-modern Cambodia which implies that the smoked baby had to be a first child:

Prapuon thom [main wife] seem to have been virgins upon their marriage. This characteristic put them at risk in their first pregnancy if their husbands happened to be evil men. … The father of the child might trick his wife into saying the words, “This is your child, do with it what you will…”


“From what information has been gathered from ancient Thai manuscripts about how to make a Kuman thong, it appears that the correct method is to remove the dead baby surgically from the mothers womb.” Oh no it’s not.

The thinking behind the magic appears to be that the motherless  fetus becomes a single child, beholden only to its father. This in turn implies that the holder of the koan kroh has to be its real father, but presumably it’s possible to adopt one – if not, Chow Hok Kuen wouldn’t be able to sell Thai fetuses to end-users in Taiwan.

Chow Hok Kuen, incidentally, told police he was working for a syndicate. If Thailand cracks down on the trade, they might well move operations to Cambodia. On the upside, I can’t see that smuggling fetuses through airports is ever going to be easy.

Coup in Cambodia, 2015

Screen Shot 2015-01-25 at 11.46.40 AM

From Dart-Throwing Chimp

There’s a blog called Dart-Throwing Chimp, run by an expert in probability theory and the art of predicting the unpredictable. In other words he gives probability rankings, not predictions as such.

Every year he brings out his forecasts of coups around the round. Probablility of coups, that is. As you’d expect, North America, Western Europe and Australasia are pretty cool. So also, and less expected by me at least, is Saudi Arabia.

At the other end are the hot risks. Thailand, for example. Cambodia ranks below Thailand.

He also uses crowd-sourcing as an  alternative to modelling – Thailand comes out quite different (it drops from number 17 in the at-risk rankings to something so far down that I don’t care to count).

Interview with thriller writer Tim Hallinan

It’s my pleasure to be carrying this interview simultaneously with Angela Savage, who writes the excellent Jayne Keeney mysteries starring a female PI in Thailand, Margot Kinberg, who blogs at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist, and Kevin Cummings, who runs one of the most comprehensive Thailand blogs I know of. As Kevin says, if you haven’t read Tim Hallinan yet you should; but I’d add that you should also dip into these blogs.

  HallinanPicTim Hallinan (his excellent Blog Cabin here) began his career as a writer in the 1990s with the distinctly noir Simeon Grist series. In 2007 he began a second series, set in Bangkok and featuring “rough-travel” writer Philip (“Poke”) Rafferty and his attempts to cobble together a family comprising a former go-go dancer and a precocious street urchin named Miaow. In 2011 he returned to the Los Angeles setting for his third series starring Junior Bender, the best private detective a mobster could have. The second Junior, “Little Elvises”, has just been nominated for the Shamus Award as Best Private Eye Novel of 2013, while the next Junior Bender, “Herbie’s Game”, has been chosen as one of the coming summer’s top ten thrillers by ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY magazine and as one of the ten best thrillers for July by Amazon. It’s also been selected as an IndieNext book of the month by the U.S. association of Independent booksellers, and a great review just appeared in BOOKPAGE (with the title These Boots Are Made For Kicking Butt – I wish I’d thought of that!)

“Herbie’s Game”, the fourth in the Junior Bender series, will be appearing in mid-July, to be followed in November by the sixth Poke Rafftery.

  1. Tim, can you tell us a little about “Herbie’s Game”?

HerbieHERBIE’S GAME is the fourth in my series of books about Junior Bender, a first-rate Los Angeles burglar who moonlights (when forced to) as a private eye for crooks.  He’s been the smartest guy in the room for most of his life, and that hasn’t gone unnoticed by the thugs in his (anti)social circle, and when one of them becomes the victim of a crime or a threat, they know they’re not going to get a sympathetic, gee-we’d-better-solve-this-tout-suite reaction from the cops, so they turn instead to Junior. What this usually means that he’s in danger of being killed by the culprit if it looks like he might succeed, on one hand, and–on the other hand–in danger of being killed by his client if he fails.  So in addition to solving the crime, Junior has to pay a lot of attention to staying alive.

In HERBIE’S GAME, a continuing character, a sort of executive crook named Wattles, finds his office burglarized one fine morning, and the only thing missing is a piece of paper on which he unwisely wrote the names of the crooks in a chain he was using to pass along to a hitman the name of the victim and the payment.  The chain guarantees that the hitman has no idea who hired him and it also builds an ideal defence case for Wattles because if things go awry, all the prosecution witnesses will be convicted felons, and as one character says, defence lawyers have a word for such trials: they call them acquittals.  Wattles thinks Junior might have committed the burglary, but Junior knows immediately that the thief was his mentor, the legendary Herbie Mott, who took Junior under his wing when Junior was only seventeen and became a surrogate father to the budding burglar.  And then Herbie shows up dead, with no stolen piece of paper in sight, and Junior knows that he has to follow the names in the chain to get to Herbie’s murderer.  As he does, he begins to find that Herbie may have been a very different kind of man that Junior thought he was, and Junior has to ask himself how much of the life he’s living — a life that frequently leaves him feeling unsatisfied and adrift — is his own invention, and how much of it is just Herbie’s game.  Sorry to rattle on at such length.

  1. “Herbie’s Game” is a very funny book, and the humour derives mostly from the characters. In fact I get the impression that you enjoy writing bad guys more than good guys. What is it about crooks that excites your imagination?

They have a special energy. They don’t have to be politically correct, or even polite.  They can say whatever they want. They can go from A to D without bothering with B and C. Best of all they have highly personal and idiosyncratic moral codes, which they frequently invent on the fly.  In my non-Junior books, I usually have to work to keep the bad guys and gals from taking over.  I decided to deal with that issue by writing a series that’s essentially all crooks, and writing them makes me very, very happy.

Another thing I like about writing the Juniors is that, for all of us, whatever we’re doing makes sense to us. I think much of what the characters in these books do, sometimes on a daily basis, skirts the fuzzy edge of insanity, and part of what makes their characters so much fun to write are the internal justifications and accommodations they’ve made in order to accept the things they do.  But when the tide goes out and they’re old, like Dressler or Burt the Gut, what’s left is just a normal person, usually not very happy.

  1. You also have an amazing rapport with female characters – I’m thinking Dolly’s adolescent beginnings in the movie game in “The Fame Thief”, Rose’s journey from village beauty to Bangkok bargirl, and the daughters of Junior and Poke. 

I have no explanation for that.  Until three Rafferty books ago — Breathing Water, I think — I’d never written two women alone in a room.  I was afraid to — how did I know what women talked about when no men were around?  But then, for QUEEN OF PATPONG, I was stuck writing huge section of the book — 40,000 words or something – that was all women, and women at a very intimate juncture in their lives.  Having been forced into the sex trade, they were trying to find a way to lead their new lives while keeping their hearts and spirits intact and learning to divorce sex from emotion and intimacy.  And the story and characters just came in huge bolts, like yardage.  Geraldine Page, who knew all there was to know about acting, said, “When the character uses you, that’s when you know you’re really cooking. You know you’re in complete control, yet you get the feeling that you’re not doing it.  You don’t completely understand it, and you don’t have to.”

It feels since QUEEN like I’m writing women all the time, and it’s great because it’s opened up a whole range of stories I couldn’t have written otherwise. And as for Miaow, she’s always been the easiest character in the series because she always, always has an agenda.  And I can’t say much of anything about THE FAME THIEF — that whole book arrived by air mail.  I just wrote as fast as I could to keep up.

  1. Your second book this year is “For The Dead”, the sixth in the Bangkok-based Poke Rafferty series. Can you tell us something about this?


Well, speaking of Miaow, FOR THE DEAD is largely Miaow’s book.  On the thriller side it’s a story about police corruption, power, and murder on a grand scale, but on the emotional side it’s about what happens to a 13-year-old girl who’s created a new identity to impress the snotty kids in her fancy school when every lie she’s told is suddenly exposed and she loses even the boy she was falling in love with and–she thinks–the security of the home Poke and Rose made for her.  It is, to put as benign a face on it as possible, a major growth experience.  Things also change forever, over the course of the book, for Poke and Rose. (I will say with some astonishment, since the book almost killed me, that it’s getting some of the best early reviews of my life.)

  1. It seems to me that each adventure in the Poke series centres around Poke’s attempts to create a family in the midst of a world which is essentially malignant. Poke wins every battle, though only just, and with each victory his private world of love and family is strengthened. What’s your own take on the world of the Poke series?

You’re spot on. I think of it as a series about three people who have unexpectedly been given a second or third chance at a kind of life they thought they could never have.  It’s almost an accident that the family is so central.  When I wrote the very first book, I wanted to make it clear from the beginning that this was not a me-love-you-long-time book in which beautiful brown women fall helplessly and inexplicably in love with uninteresting white males. So in our first glance at Poke ever he’s holding his daughter’s hand and following his wife as they go grocery shopping.  And then Miaow takes off after Superman and the center of the book’s interest shifts to that apartment.  I had to fight to keep the thriller moving forward.  If I have my way I’ll write the series until Miaow moves out, at 19 or so, leaving Poke and Rose behind.  One of things I like best about the Pokes is that in the middle of the city of instant gratification you’ve got three people clinging for all they’re worth to the middle-class ideal of a functioning, loyal family.

  1.  Both the LA and the Bangkok series seem to me to be extremely visual and filmable. Who do you see playing Junior – Johnny Depp? How about Poke – give Owen Wilson a try on that?

Boy, you got me.  The Pokes were bought for cable although the experiment failed, and the Juniors have been optioned a couple of times.  I’m hampered in my attempt to answer this question by the fact that I watch almost nothing.  Poke is part Filipino, so someone with some Asian blood would seem to be called for.  Keanu Reeves looks interestingly battered in the fascinating documentary he directed about the transition from film to video.  There’s an actor attached to Junior right now, and while I can’t say who it is (in case it falls through) he’s no one who would come immediately to your mind.  I think he’s got to project intelligence; someone once suggested Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and when I saw him, I thought he’d be great.

  1. With two books out this year, what’s next? I understand you’re working on a return of the main character from your very first series, Simeon Grist, in what sounds like a very novel scenario. Any news on that?

The seventh Simeon, PULPED, has been finished for more than a year but so it’s far unsatisfactory to me, although I think about 80% of it works.  What happens is that Simeon has been banished to a kind of limbo that’s reserved for the heroes of unsuccessful crime series.  When the last unsold copy of the final book in the series is pulped to make paper for a new (and presumably better) book, pop, the character finds himself stranded, possibly forever, in the environment his/her author created as the primary setting, in a kind of gerrymandered neighborhood where everyone else is also the hero/heroine of discontinued crime series.  This is kind of a shock to begin with because fictional characters don’t know they’re not real until they’re suddenly in limbo, severed from the real world. The only connection with the world in which we live is when someone down here opens one of the books in the series, at which point Simeon (or the hero of whatever book it is) can look up, so to speak, through the page at the person who’s reading it.  He’s doing just that when someone kills the reader.  He doesn’t have enough readers to take this lightly, so he has to find a way down there and find out whodunnit.  That gives me a chance to write a lot of (to me) very funny and quite difficult scenes between a real person and a fictional one, including a love affair.  If I had a month I could (and eventually will) rewrite the first 25%, which is where the problems are.

So this July, HERBIE’S GAME comes out, and in November it’s FOR THE DEAD.  At the moment I’m writing the seventh Poke, THE HOT COUNTRIES, and the fifth Junior, KING MAYBE.  God willing, they’ll both be good.

  1. I think it was Dorothy Parker who said something to the effect that she hated writing but loved having written – meaning, I guess, that writing is hard work. P.G. Wodehouse in contrast brought out slightly more books than he had years in his life. Are you a Parker or a Wodehouse?

Writing is very hard work and enormous fun at the same time.  There are days when I’d rather be a lab rat than write, and there are days when writing is the only thing in the world that matters to me.  I hate to do it and I love to do it and I can’t imagine doing anything else.

  1. Every day we see articles about the demise of traditional bookstores and publishers in the face of Amazon and Kindle, and even warnings about the death of books. Joe Konrath, of course, feels that books and writers will get along very well without publishers and booksellers. You yourself brought out Junior as a self-published ebook series before switching back to traditional publishing. Where do you see the future heading?

I’m no prophet, although I think the growth of online commerce of all kinds is inevitable, barring some absolutely horrific systemic security breach that drives people back to the stores.  But where you buy the book or what format you buy it in–both those things are just delivery systems for the text.  And I think that text is alive and well and will continue to thrive as long as people want to tell and read (or hear) stories.