Lawrence Osborne: 'Acclaim. I don't notice it much'
Lawrence Osborne is a British travel writer and novelist. His books include The Forgiven, Bangkok Days and The Wet and the Dry, a travelogue about Islam and alcohol. His new novel, The Ballad of the Small Player, set in the casinos of Macau, has just been published to acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic. He lives in Bangkok.
The hero of your new novel, the shadowy Lord Doyle, is addicted to baccarat. What is it about gambling that speaks to you as a writer?
I'm not a gambler. But I went to Vegas a bit when I was living in California 20 years ago and always found the place strangely human, intense. Later, living in Bangkok, I used to go to Macau for my monthly visa run, and became addicted to the city itself. I still love it, though it is going the wrong way with all the oversized casinos being imposed on it. There is a fragile melancholy about the place. I immediately felt the Chinese casinos were far more interesting than the Vegas ones. I was struck by the atmosphere of the supernatural that hung over them. Living in this part of the world you get used to that feeling: the absolute belief in ghosts, in luck. The dead are always near. Around my apartment there are dozens of spirit-houses that are lit through the night: you feel them. It's that idea of the dead exerting power over the living that fascinated me, and of course the idea of karma, or fate. I dare say this theme is the principal one in my novels, however imperfectly I understand that complex Buddhist idea.
Do you believe in luck? It's often discounted in modern British life, especially by those politicians who believe in "hard work".
I'll wager there isn't a human being on earth who doesn't believe in luck, however rational they pretend to be in public life. In reality, most of human life is luck – and of course its darker, more prevalent opposite. One only has to live long enough to experience both.
Your hero becomes an odd celebrity when he has a winning streak. Is this a metaphor for our times, people becoming famous seemingly on the turn of a coin?
I've spent most of my adult life in the United States, and there the celebrity culture has been entrenched for a long time. It has made people almost literally insane, even those who make a great show of repudiating it. Those people, like novelists, who can no longer enjoy this status are condemned to despise it. As for gamblers, I don't know why they aren't yet celebrities. I think it's a residual moral distaste in the case of the United States, but in China it's surely just around the corner.
There's a distinct shift in the tone of the novel part way through, moving from dirty realism to something altogether more ethereal. Would you be able to say something about that?
The supernatural element in the story was always what I set out to do originally. But put the words "ghost story" in front of most English speakers and you're immediately kicked into the Stephen King category. I took my cue more from contemporary Asian film than from the western idea of the supernatural, which is usually gory, unconvincing and dated because we no longer believe in those things. Here in Asia, film-makers like Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Hideo Nakata have created subtle and chilling psychological explorations using the supernatural as their lever. These are narratives in which in which very little happens, in which the dead are present in a partially invisible way. Think, too, of such classics of Japanese film as Ugetsu and Kwaidan – among the most beautiful and tragic films ever made.
Your last novel, The Forgiven, is set in Morocco, at a decadent party held by westerners and in a desert village where people make their living from fossils. How did the idea come to you?
I had lived in Morocco, travelling across it by myself. One winter I went to Erfoud to research trilobites and got to know the quarries, the dealers and the remote mining villages. They are not easy places to visit, and this was a completely unknown corner of the world economy, children slaving away on desert cliffs to furnish wealthy collectors in San Francisco. I resolved not to moralise about it, but simply to show it as it is. Or as I saw it.
It has been compared to Paul Bowles's The Sheltering Sky. Where would you place it?
Firstly, there is the western literature of colonial north Africa. I read Gide's The Immoralist over and over as a teenager. I was obsessed with it. It's written with such simplicity and dread, and the desert, the shabby colonial world, is brought right into your consciousness without being over-explained. Gide understood that a white writer cannot go in and talk as if he knows the place; he can only make something out of his incomprehension. It's as honourable or dishonourable as that. Bowles was greatly influenced by Gide. That tradition died with the colonial world. Think, too, Tropic Moon by Simenon – a writer I adore. In some ways it's a French tradition. Secondly, there's the wider tradition to which Bowles belongs. In his stories, I see not only the obvious lineage of Poe but of the Romantic fabulists like Kleist and Hoffmann. But if it was ever a literary tradition, it's gone dead now. Bowles had no American heirs. He was too exotic. He didn't even live in the States – gasp! For years living in New York myself I never encountered any admirers of his who were actually novelists. The American novel went elsewhere. And yet he's one of the greatest American writers. The Spider's House should have been compulsory reading after 9/11.
It took a long time to find a publisher for The Forgiven. Why?
Mostly, just that I was an outsider to the fiction world. Indeed, my American agent at the time urged me not to bother at all. In the end, I sent it myself to an editor I didn't know late on a Friday night after a bottle of good but despair-ridden and lonely Chablis. A push of a button. The manuscript had been rejected by dozens of houses, even by editors I'd published books with. This was a last-chance gamble. He took it with him on the train home to New Jersey that night and somewhere in the darkened satanic mills of Newark or wherever he sent me a message saying that he was 30 pages in and that was enough. He offered for the book on Monday morning.
It's a terrifying novel about guilt. In the world you create, it seems not to exist.
Yes. Guilt is the most mysterious of emotions. What intuition does it spring from? I was baptised a Catholic and always wondered what influence that has had on my feeling about it. That said, the guilt explored by Graham Greene has always felt slightly theatrical to me – and Greene is an immensely important writer for me. Is it possible for a writer to not quite believe in his own most identifiable theme?
You wrote your first novel in 1986, and then made a career as a travel writer and journalist. Did the novel leave you, or did you leave the novel?
It's a question that has no rational answer. In the first place I had to make a living without any means, without any support, and journalism was the only way to do it. For a while, I enjoyed journalism too, though it's a young man's game. I enjoyed walking across Papua or living with deaf children in Nicaragua. That sort of thing. Maybe I should have remembered Cyril Connolly's words of warning about journalism [Connolly warned: literature is the art of something that will be read twice; journalism what will be read once]. On the other, I had something I felt I had to say in that form.
The novel is an immensely difficult form. For years I wrote novels that I could not realise in a way that meant anything to me. I didn't want to climb up the literary-industrial complex, grinding out good-bad novels. Journalism seemed more honourable. Why waste a reader's time? So I failed to publish a second one for 27 years. The ones I did weren't good enough.
What I cherish in writers I admire is their authority. They know what they feel and think and they have found a sure and measured way to say it exactly. They have mastered not just language – because, surprisingly, many people master that in their way – but the equally great moral enigmas of structure and plot and tone. Again, this is curiously more obvious in film where story itself must resonate and penetrate the viewer. A film-maker's style will not carry the day by itself. Many writers will vehemently disagree with this. But to each his own. These things, in any case, are not conscious. In the end, we don't know why we tell certain stories and why they carry us along with them.
Is it surprising to have returned to it? Novels are supposedly the province of the young…
We live in a hysterical youth culture, for sure. It's ironic, given that most western societies are in fact anything but youthful. There's therefore something sinister and forced about it. As I found, the late starter is never forgiven or even tolerated. It's a curious hostility, but there's nothing to be done about it. You blossom when you blossom – or not at all.
Your biography is mysterious. What did you do before you were a writer? I've seen you described as "itinerant".
I have a strong nomadic tendency. I spent years in menial jobs, barely surviving in New York when I first moved to the US. One year I got a job as a small-town reporter on the Mexican border, in San Diego and Tijuana. It was a completely anonymous life, exploring migrant workers and eventually covering Mexico itself. I used to ride the illegal immigrants' buses from Mexico City to Sonoyta on the border. I saw how brutal and desperate the underbelly of even a wealthy country is, and I dare say the seeds of The Forgiven were probably sown on those agonising bus rides through the desert. I think, in retrospect, I just wanted to knock around the world for a while and see it from the bottom up. Immensely interesting, but not a career. I didn't want it to be. An obsession with career had always struck me as mildly psychotic. Eventually I began writing for the New York Times, and started coming through Bangkok on a regular basis. There are places one loves at first sight. It's the only great city apart from Beijing that was never part of a European colony. I could sense that underneath the western veneer it was a profoundly enigmatic, truly Asian city. It was chaotic, unbearable, immense, corrupt, yet shot through with a distinct grace and subtlety. The polychrome Hindu gods on the street corners were the sign that it was not a simple or intolerant place. It's a perfect city for a writer. In 2012 I moved here more permanently. I live in a quiet and jungly neighbourhood which is more like a village, and look out over skyscrapers and neon in the distance. A great city leaves you alone, offers you tranquillity and privacy and ease. Granted, it's not how most foreigners live here. For me, it's a way to be alone and be close to certain things in myself. It's a great city in which to be alone because Thai life is decidedly un-lonely. The intense street life, for one thing, ensures that you are not, in fact, alone at all. You can merge into a sea of humanity in five minutes. Friendly and relaxed humanity, at that. These new mega-cities in Asia are extremely interesting – this is where the 21st century will be played out. They are an entirely new form of city. Very few writers live here, of course. But that's quite all right with me.
How will the acclaim now coming your way affect what you do next?
I don't notice it much. Thais don't really care about books, and this is oddly liberating. Moreover, you get to a point in your life where it's much less important than it used to be. The next one is a novel set in Cambodia called Hunters in the Dark. It's finished and on its way.