BiB019: Sukhumvit Noir With Jake Needham

Back before the TripAdvisor was around, people experienced Thailand in different ways. Jake Needham got his first idea of the country while a CIA agent drove him around the poppy fields surrounding Chiang Mai in the early 1970s. It was a trip that was quickly followed by his first job offer to work as a lawyer in Bangkok in 1974. He turned it down. But as it turned out, it was a sign of things to come.

More than 40 years later, Jake Needham can look back on a career in law, movie production and writing that often brought him back to the land of smiles and former poppy fields time and time again. His best-selling book ‘The Big Mango‘ counted several hundred thousand readers, among them James Gandolfini, star of the HBO show The Sopranos who was working on a movie adaption featuring no one less than himself in the lead role.

Sometimes things go different as planned. It’s also a theme in Jake’s other books: Two very distinct crime fiction series of his take readers on a trip around the region. Following either American expatriate Jack Shepherd or Singaporean police officer Samuel Tay, they immerse readers in the world of Asian metropoles rarely featured so well.

In this interview Jake gives an insight not only on how he perceives writing itself but shares his criticism of an over-romantic description of the profession. It is safe to say that his down to earth attitude about the process and how he manages to put a degree of separation between himself and his completed work might not be what a great many fans expect. That might not be the only thing his fans don’t expect though.

Jake’s relationship with Thailand’s inhabitants – both the local and the foreign kind – hasn’t always been an easy one to describe. He himself feels there is a changing attitude that he can sense during his stays in Thailand. It’s change he even sees in the shifting type of hate mail he has been receiving over his active years as a novelist. In this interview he voices his sometimes very polarizing thoughts on the culture and education of his host country, but also expresses a strong admiration for the hard work displayed by many of its inhabitants.

It’s not just Thailand that Jake reflects on. He shares what he believes was essential to his success as a writer. It’s probably not what you expect to hear, and for many aspiring novelists it may certainly not be what they want to hear.

It is one of the more controversial podcast episodes I’ve done so far and I’d love to hear your thoughts about it in the comments!

Mentioned in this Episode

  • JakeNeedham.com – the official website of Jake Needham
  • The Big Mango – Jake’s very first novel that became an international best-seller
  • Laundry Man – the book from which Jake is reading in this episode of Brewed in Bangkok.
  • The Ambassador’s Wife – the book Karsten mentions featuring a somewhat NSFW description of Singapore’s Marriott
  • A World of Trouble – Jake’s novel set to the background of turbulent politics in Thailand in years prior
  • Stephen Leather – another best-selling writer who used to set his novels in Asia and is a  friend of Jake’s
  • James Gandolfini – star of The Sopranos who was going to bring Jake’s book The Big Mango to screen
  • Natural Causes – the maybe not exactly pride-inducing film that brought Jake to Bangkok
  • Al Chandler – the lawyer who first offered Jake a job in Thailand in the 70s
  • ISB (International School of Bangkok) – the school where one of Jake’s kids went
  • Letters from Asia – Jake’s monthly updates

Want More?

Check out the complete collection of Brewed in Bangkok episodes, law firms in Bangkok, international schools in Bangkok, and moving to Thailand guide.

If you want to get another writer’s perspective on Bangkok, I recommend listening to Jody Houton on Episode 10 of this podcast.

5 comments
  1. Thanks Karsten. That was a really interesting interview with a couple of fresh takes on Bangkok for me.

    The “Love it or leave” attitude still seems to be strong among expats in Thailand, even if they don’t write hate letters anymore 😉

  2. Incoherent rambling from the interviewer tacked on at the end. Seems Jakes’s opinions were not the same as his. I for one don’t give a rat’s ass about a former “gamer”s outlook on life.

  3. Great interesting interview. I’ve been in Bangkok since ’94 and agree with Jake and am confused /curious what Karsten’s monolog at end was about?!? It adds nothing and almost ruins a good interview.

    1. Jake was indeed a great interviewee and I enjoyed listening to the recounting of his experiences. I agree with him on there being major issues with the education system in Thailand as well as a number of other critical thoughts he has about the country. Where I found myself disagreeing a lot was when it comes to ‘Thais not liking anybody’. I thought that’s a statement that’s so broad that I felt it was inaccurate.

      As for the ‘monologue’: I’m not a journalist and this podcast is mostly a hobby. It’s a lot of work and in many cases I receive very limited feedback. One area I tend to think about is whether I make interviews ‘too soft’. I wanted to share my thoughts about the interview and encourage people to comment – mostly so I have a better idea on how to handle this in the future. On the other hand I figured it may be interesting to some regular listeners to get a bit more of a look at the thoughts that go into making an episode.

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