Journalist and author Robin Newbold’s latest novel, Bangkok Burning, is about Graham, a closeted 40 year old gay man, who leaves a loveless marriage in the UK to set up home with Natasha, a ladyboy in Bangkok. He buys Natasha a cabaret bar and a strange love affair blooms. We asked Robin to tell us more about his story of one man’s struggle to find himself and love in the shadows of the go-go bars, the excitement of living in Bangkok and about the darker side of the city.
Hi Robin, can you tell us the story of Bangkok Burning?
The book took shape over a few years but it’s basically about a closeted 40-year-old man, Graham, trapped in a loveless, abusive marriage. He’s at this crossroads in his life when he literally bumps into a ladyboy, Natasha, at a Bangkok cabaret show on his fortieth birthday. Graham’s actually with his wife that night, so it’s only a brief encounter, a steamy kiss. On returning home to England, he can’t stop thinking about Natasha and that other life he could be having and gambles everything on that snatched moment, running away back to Bangkok. He tracks Natasha down and buys a cabaret bar for her and a strange love affair blooms. But she introduces him to a rogues’ gallery of the city’s characters, ones that inhabit the darkest of shadows and he finds himself in another country entirely, far from the cosy tourist havens of his first visit. Bangkok Burning explores the dark side of desire, one that Thailand seems to specialise in, glittery on the outside, rotten within. Graham’s goes on a journey to the very brink, forced to fight for his life for what’s his but even sinking to the very lows, he realises he’s at last living a life that’s true to himself on his own terms. As well as falling in love with Natasha, he becomes addicted to Bangkok, for the book is also a warped love letter to a city of angels and demons.
What is the magic of Bangkok city for you?
Someone once said it’s like Disneyland, a gay Disneyland. It’s rather a glib comment but I first went there in my twenties and it was just great fun – it’s nicknamed Fun City for a reason. It’s hot, exotic, erotic, dynamic and it really does attack all the senses. Having lived there for five years, however, you come to realise a lot of the so-called Land of Smile schtick is all surface. And I think, for me, that’s what made living there so exciting, it really is such an enigmatic place. It’s a cliché about the mystique of the East but Bangkok really does have that aura. There’s also the juxtaposition of the old and new, you could be standing in some ancient temple, though round the corner it’s like being on the set of Bladerunner. Even the gay scene is not all it seems. For foreigners coming for a two-week holiday, they see it as one of the freest places on Earth but I think for a lot of locals they are merely tolerated not so much accepted. It’s a kind of paradise lost and everything about it is bittersweet but never dull.
You have drawn on your years living in the city as a foreign correspondent for the South China Morning Post. Can you tell us about your time working there as a journalist and how the people you met influenced the story for Bangkok Burning?
I worked for a local newspaper for a little while and the first question one of the senior journalists asked me was, “So what sexual predilection brings you to Thailand?” This was in front of a whole desk of Bangkok veterans, so quite an induction. One of his Aussie colleagues then regaled me with the tales of how he got the scar on his temple, having been shot in Koh Samui after some dispute in a bar. So, yes, quite a lot of characters. I think the place tends to attract Westerners running away from something or wanting to create a completely new persona – or a bit of both. One of the main characters in Bangkok Burning is based on an old boss at a lifestyle website I used to edit. He was a very wealthy American but he just fired me without warning one day when he decided he didn’t want to invest any more money in the project. I’d been to his palatial apartment with my partner at the time just prior to that for a party. I thought we were good friends. It’s the kind of place Bangkok is and what it breeds. It can be very cutthroat and unsentimental. Someone once told me that you could have someone shot for 2,000 baht, which is about £50.
A lot of the book features ladyboys? Can you tell us more about them and what their lives are like?
I first came across the ladyboy scene when I was backpacking around Thailand in 1997 in Koh Samui. There was a cabaret show in the middle of Chaweng – one of the main beaches in Samui and now quite developed – which was a rundown and dusty little town full of rubbish, with these power cables hanging everywhere. It was weird seeing these often beautiful ladyboys in the middle of all this Third World dirt. I’d often take a seat at the bar and watch the show unfold, since the only other option were go-go bars in those days. I was fascinated by the Westerners who came to watch, since most of the men seemed to be dragged along by their wives, yet it was the men – wide-eyed – who didn’t want to leave by the end of the show. I’m not saying all of the girls were beautiful but some are very attractive and they know it. I used to hang out with one backpacker, an electrician from Luton – who said he was straight – but had, in his words, gone “native” and was living with a ladyboy. I think for the ladyboys themselves, while the Thai word kathoey means third sex and indicates some acceptance, life is still hard. They can’t really do “serious” jobs, i.e. they are not taken seriously by society and often end up in prostitution unfortunately. I met one, Noi, in Koh Samui and she told me she had turned to prostitution in order to pay for the operation to fully transition. She seemed resigned to what she was doing.
Sex and prostitution is a big part of Bangkok Burning. Why did you want to shed light on this and what is your thoughts about this darker world?
I didn’t want to add to the cliché of Bangkok as a destination for sex but somehow it’s inescapable. For one, the Thais are nowhere near as hung up about sex as we are. And in a non-judgemental way, I think prostitution is ingrained in the culture. Apparently 90 per cent of the business is reserved for local men and not tourists. I think Westerners come off worse than Thais do in Bangkok Burning. It’s a thin line between who’s doing the exploiting and who’s being exploited but I also think this grey area makes ripe material for a novel. There are obviously some foreigners who want to sleep there way round the scene and treat the locals like commodities because they can but on the flip side I know some Thais have been put through university by their foreign boyfriends. I also met a lad who said he earned about £50 a month, yes £50 a month, flipping burgers in McDonald’s six days a week. He turned to prostitution and earned six times that. Who are we to judge? The only thing that sickened me was the underage prostitution and there are places in Thailand, Pattaya particularly, where I believe this still goes on.
But Bangkok Burning is also a story of someone coming to terms with who they are. Can you explain more about Graham’s personal journey, reflecting the fact he is a closeted, married man with a family?
I suppose all gay men have to come out, so I hope people can relate to Graham’s story. He’s a kind of flawed hero and Bangkok Burning is ultimately about his journey from downtrodden, abused husband to someone making their own way in the world, living a life. His daughter, Emma, is killed in a car crash when she’s 17 but before she dies she admonishes her dad to leave abusive wife Sheila. The trip to Bangkok spurs him on to do just that when he bumps into Natasha. He can’t stop thinking about her when he returns to London because she stirred up all those feelings about him living in a lifeless, loveless marriage. I think it’s common in all people of middle-age to think “Do I want to be doing this for another 20 years?”. Graham finds the balls from somewhere, something he’s been lacking all his life, and finally does something about it. That’s heroic. I think a lot of people, me included, probably stay put longer than they should.
You’ve published two other novels: Vacuum-Packed and Bloody Summer which also explore complex and sometimes troubled aspects of gay life. Can you tell us more about the stories for each of them?
Vacuum-Packed I wrote in the early 1990s and it was kind of influenced by the writing of Bret Easton Ellis and Russell T Davies. I wanted to write something contemporary about the gay scene, about it being quite vacuous, certainly some aspects of it. I love authors like Alan Hollinghurst and Edmund White but they’re quite literary. I wanted to get down and dirty, write something that satirised the scene, which I feel a lot of the time is style over substance i.e. the way people are judged by their haircut, what they wear. Bloody Summer is more of a straightforward thriller about the sometimes murderous consequences of unrequited love. It’s about a gay university student falling in love with his straight mate, which I’m sure a lot of us can relate to.
Are your novels, partly autobiographical?
My mum asked me this once and I didn’t want to shock her but kind of. It’s more of the observations I have about other people. And the characters in my books are often amalgams, i.e. they are not one particular person but several people thrown into one. That said, some of the protagonists are often walking in my shoes. It certainly makes it easier to write. As they say, write what you know.
Are you working on a fourth book?
Yes, I am. Working title Hunted. It’s going to be set in the mid-1980s. The main character is a policeman trying to come to terms with his sexuality – sound familiar – in the period of Thatcher and AIDS. He’s also bogged down in an investigation that takes him to the very brink and right into London’s seedy underbelly, searching for a missing teenage boy that he knows in his gut has been abducted. His superiors don’t want to know but PC Hanwell won’t give up.
How has lockdown been for you? Is it just more time to write?
Lockdown’s been a struggle, as for everyone I suppose. The last few months I’ve been busy liaising with my publisher and getting Bangkok Burning ready for publication, involving the dreaded proof reads.
Can you tell Boyz readers more about your personal life and interests?
Unfortunately I decided to return to England. On these cold, dark winter days I sometimes wonder, why? I now live back in south London. I’m a financial journalist by day so that keeps me busy. Luckily I’m a keen runner, which has been a real boon during the lockdown, as that’s all there is to do. I also play, or did until lockdown, a lot of tennis and I’m a Crystal Palace fan for my sins. I’ve recently been enjoying, if that’s the right word, The Serpent on BBC One, about Bangkok-based serial killer Charles Sobrhaj. It feels really evocative of a time – the mid-1970s – and place. I’m also looking forward to It’s A Sin, soon on Channel 4, by Russell T Davies – I think it’s a kind of Queer As Folk but set in 1980s London. I also recently proposed to my boyfriend, so there’s a happy ending in there somewhere…
If a Boyz reader thinks he’s got a book in him, what is your advice to a novice writer?
Just keep at it if you’ve got an idea and don’t let go. Be disciplined and commit yourself to maybe an hour a day and just get the words down on paper. If it’s not great, you can always rewrite.
What other places and people in the world do you most enjoy visiting?
When we’re not locked down! Luckily we got away to Greece this summer, the island of Hydra, which is stunning. It features in Lawrence Osborne’s novel Beautiful Animals. The sky’s incredibly blue and the sea’s even bluer. I also still love Asia. My partner’s from Borneo, so we often visit and recently climbed Mount Kinabalu. Our new favourite place is Lombok, the lesser known Indonesian island off Bali.
Finally back to Bangkok, what is your favourite place in the city?
Despite the dark side, there are world class restaurants and bars but my favourite place is probably neighbourhood eatery Just One on Sathorn Soi One, which is a stone’s thrown from Silom, the main gay area. It’s a garden restaurant, very Thai, homely with excellent food and friendly, mostly Burmese waiters, plus they bring the rice shaped like a teddy bear. What’s not to like?