I’ve read Matt Carrell, and I have reviewed him, right here on this blog. So I thought it would be a novel idea to get the storyteller’s story. Anyone who can write with such an intricate knowledge of Thailand’s dark side, a deep understanding of Thai culture, and be able to invent and mould truly authentic Thai characters must have been there and done that, right?
The plots of my favorite Matt Carrell books unfold right here in Pattaya. Let’s just say I’m a little intrigued and curious. Matt Carrell is a respectable author and an upstanding citizen.
Like most good novelists he successfully adds the essential elements of suspense, drama, and emotion to his stories. But how, where, and when did Matt Carrell gain such in-depth knowledge of Pattaya?
During this question and answer session, I asked Matt about his relationship with Pattaya and Thailand. About where and how he finds ideas and inspiration for his Thailand-themed books about his experiences in Thailand, his favorite places, and what advice would he offer to a first-time visitor to Pattaya.
Question 1. After reading one of your Thailand based novels such as Thai Lottery or Thai Kiss, it’s easy to assume you live in Thailand. And that you have spent a lot of time hanging around bars of a dubious nature in Pattaya. Is that true?
I’ll take that as a compliment. I’m based in the UK but spend about two months of each year in Thailand. I used to work in the investment industry and still have a client base in Bangkok and Hong Kong. That’s what pays my airfare but I get plenty of time to hang around the bars (and the temples of course).
Many readers of my books assume I have immersed myself fully in the darker side of Thai nightlife and I’m delighted. It means that the books are an authentic portrayal of what goes on.
All I can say is that I’ve also written a short story about a high school shooting, but no one thinks I’ve ever killed anyone, and there’s also a novel about stealing a billion dollars from an investment company. Regrettably, I never managed to pull that one off either.
Question 2. Are any of the characters in your books based on people you have met in Pattaya?
Absolutely. And not just Pattaya. Thai Lottery is a collection of short stories and I had someone I know in mind for each of the main characters. To be on the safe side, I usually mix the characteristics of a couple of people each time as I am allergic to lawsuits. Being totally honest, there’s also a bit of me in a number of the characters I’ve written (the good guys obviously!).
Vortex is a novel set in Thailand (not the bar scene) and one of its main characters is a slightly demented businessman with some pretty strong views about how to put the world right. I intended that he came across as a bit of a nutter. One friend commented that he sounded like me when I’d had a drink or two.
I also know that some friends trawl my books to see if they can see themselves in the characters. They’re usually disappointed if they can’t.
Question 3. Are any of the scenarios in your books based on your own experiences in Thailand?
Part of my attraction to Thailand is that most days bring a moment that, in modern parlance, is either a WOW or a WTF.
I have friends whose idea of a holiday is to tick off as many destinations as possible. I like to immerse myself in the places I visit, get to understand as much as I can of the culture and even learn a little of the language. I have many friends in Thailand now who are keen to share stories and an hour spent watching the world go by from an open-air bar in Walking Street will normally give me a few pages of good material.
Thai Lottery is loosely based on a true story I was told. It’s the tale of a young woman who gets involved in the illegal lottery that runs alongside the one drawn on TV twice a month. She thinks she’s only a sales agent but when she sells a winning ticket, her boss walks away leaving her to settle the debt. The story examines the lengths a young woman will go to, to provide for her family and stay alive when she crosses the more dangerous elements of Thai society.
Question 4. If you had to play the role of a character from one of your novels, which one would it be, and why?
My books don’t really have heroes so that’s a tough one. The characters all tend to be flawed but to a different degree. My travels in Thailand have given me a profound affection and respect for the women of the country. I wince when I hear people describe bar girls as prostitutes. Most are dealt a tough hand in life and deal with it the only way they can.
I don’t see much difference between a Thai girl looking for a westerner to take care of them in the bars of Pattaya and a western woman hanging around the nightclubs of Britain hoping to bag a professional footballer. If there is a difference it’s that the westerner has more alternative options.
As a result I tend to write the female characters with a little more empathy and they tend to be strong and driven. My favourite character is Pom from Thai Lottery, but if I explained why it might just spoil the plot.
If I had to play a character, it would be Prem, who appears in both Thai Lottery and the two Vortex novels. He is tough and cool, neither word has ever been used to describe me. He also gets to sleep with Pom!.
Question 5. Is there one single place in Thailand, be it a bar, hotel, highway or other, which has provided more writing material than any other?
Walking Street in Pattaya, without a doubt. I spent four days there last month and came back with a host of new ideas for story lines.
One night on that street and you will see the full range of human emotions from desolation to joy, you’ll observe how a dozen different cultures (Chinese, Russian, Indian, Arab, European etc.) interact with the bizarre contradictions of Thai culture ( Buddhist modesty meets raw sex and the way the country embraces its three genders), you’ll see how the hand nature deals you, impacts your life and the incredible gift we have of simply being born in the West.
There’s a tiny handicapped woman who has been selling chewing gum in Walking Street for as long as I can remember. There’s no welfare state in Thailand, if she doesn’t work, she doesn’t survive. She plies her trade alongside women who are far luckier physically, but still struggle to look after their families.
Most of all, you will see the sheer power of money. Those who have it in Thailand call the shots. It’s no different in other cultures but in Pattaya, it hits you right in the face.
Question 6. While researching facts and subject matter for your novels did you find any information which shocked or surprised you?
The full list would take too long to type. Hardly a day goes by that I don’t see something that makes me reach for my notebook. I guess the main thing is the extraordinary grace and resilience of the people I’ve met, who deal with a tough existence in the most remarkable way. Maybe it’s the Buddhist faith that tells them if this life sucks the next one might be better.
I have a favourite massage shop in Bangkok where the girls have done more for my long-standing back problem than a host of visits to a fifty pounds an hour London chiropractor.
They do twelve-hour shifts and get paid a hundred baht for each massage they do. No customers – no pay. If they want more than one day off in seven and one week off every three months they pay the shop five hundred baht per day. At the end of the hour, they close their eyes and pray that the customer is a decent tipper. Whether they get twenty baht or three hundred they smile and bow.
Thais seem to have mastered the art of living for today and not worrying too much about what tomorrow might hold. It might be a lesson for all of us.
Question 7. In one paragraph, how would you describe Pattaya?
Pattaya is whatever you want it to be. There are excellent hotels and some superb restaurants and, despite its reputation, retains more of an authentic Thai flavour than somewhere like Phuket, where Bangla Road is awash with westerners hawking timeshares. It’s a golfer’s paradise and there are endless tours and activities for those who are that way inclined. You probably need to cross to Koh Larn for a decent beach but there’s plenty to do if you love the sea. And that’s not even touching what it’s best known for. For men, and now women too apparently, who are willing to pay for company, it has to be on the itinerary. The influx of Russian tourists and younger people from Europe has also made it more of a conventional party town for twenty-somethings. You want it – Pattaya has got it.
Question 8. What’s your favourite place in Pattaya?
The miles of golden sand? OK, only kidding. It has to be Walking Street. I am an avid people watcher and there is no better place for someone trying to create interesting characters for their next story. I now prefer to be there for only a few days at a time as there is a major risk of sensory overload.
The go-go bars were a serious novelty when I first visited, I now favour the beer bars/pool bars where the girls are happy to chat and tell me about the town and what is going on in their lives. It’s also been an accurate bellwether, as a short walk down that infamous street tells you who is prospering in the world and who is not.
For a while, it was mainly European voices, then came the influx of Russians which now seems to be ebbing a little. The new trend is for the Chinese tours. These visitors seem to be ticking off a list, as most seem to just follow their umbrella-wielding guide on a single lap of the street, without pausing for a breath of refreshment. They don’t know what they are missing.
Question 9. What has been your own most enjoyable experience in Thailand?
I look forward to every trip and I always come away with at least one great memory. Overall, I’d say my best experiences have come from the fact that I’ve done my best to understand and respect the culture of the local people and I’ve been repaid for that a thousand times over. I scratch my head when I see the number of people talking about being ripped off in Thailand. I’m more worried about that on an average day out in London.
I’ve had people chase me down the street with the mobile phone I left in a bar, waiters returning the extra cash when I unwittingly left three thousand for a bill instead of two and then there’s my favourite. I was using an ATM next to a market stall on Sukhumvit one night. I’d keyed in my pin and the screen went black.
I waited for five minutes and nothing happened. I resolved to return in the morning when the bank reopened. As I turned away, the stallholder grabbed my arm and told me to wait, “it’s old and slow like me,” he said. Seconds later the machine delivered my money and card. If he’d let me walk away he could have had twenty thousand baht and an ATM card. That’s the Thailand I know and love.
Question 10. What was your worst experience in Thailand?
I once had a prawn that left me hugging the toilet for the rest of the night. Oh, and a hotel maid once assembled an elephant out of bath towels for me and the trunk fell off. Seriously that’s about it. I’ve had no real bad experiences directly but I occasionally feel queasy when I see something that challenges my otherwise very positive view of Thailand.
Thai friends tell me of low-level corruption by the police and how the law rarely applies to those who can pay to have the authorities look the other way.
I was dismayed to see the incident in Hua Hin on Songkran when it appeared that an innocent British family was set upon in an unprovoked attack.
I was actually relieved to see a second YouTube video that showed it was they who initiated the confrontation and threw the first punch. However, I still can’t come to terms with the tragedy in Koh Tao. There are far too many unanswered questions for anyone to be certain that they have convicted the right people.
There is a dark side to Thailand – but westerners who respect the culture and don’t go looking for trouble are no more likely to come to harm than anywhere else in the world. In this respect the Koh Tao murders are an anomaly, not the norm, the victims were completely innocent. Like many others though, I fear those who were convicted might be too.
Question 11. Which is your favourite place in Thailand?
I know I should say Pattaya, but I can’t. It’s a great place to visit and I’m sure I will be coming back for years to come, but I’ve got to the age where I like to chill out and Pattaya has so much going on. I am a huge fan of northern Thailand, particularly Chiang Mai, Pai, Chiang Rai, and the Myanmar border area.
I’ve also been lucky enough to spend a fair amount of time in the northeast, visiting places like Khon Kaen, Chaiyaphum, Korat, and Chiang Khan. As I write this, I’m thinking of a great trip to Petchabun and Sukothai and I’m also a fan of the laid-back seaside town of Hua Hin. Don’t make me choose, I love them all.
Question 12. What was your first impression of Thailand, and how does that compare to your current feelings about Thailand?
I was guilty of the same prejudice that I now abhor. An old colleague of mine moved to Thailand and I joined my friends in a knowing shake of the head. We all knew what he was going for. And then I had to visit Bangkok for work. It was the start of a serious love affair with the country.
Bent politicians, corrupt police, a shocking gap between rich and poor, drugs and prostitution. All of those things are a problem in Thailand and in every other country in the world. The UK is certainly no exception. They’re just a bit more open about it all in Thailand.
The UK press has finally woken up to the failings of our own police force and, almost daily, we see more stories of corruption and incompetence. At the same time, I’m expected to gasp in horror at a Thai policeman who is looking for a hundred baht for a minor or even an imagined offence. It’s no worse – just different.
Thailand has its problems but it remains my favourite place to visit. Those who dismiss it as a haven for sex tourists have no idea of what a fascinating, complex and beautiful country Thailand can be.
Question 13. Do you have a must go place in Thailand, a place which you would recommend anyone else to go?
I’ve been lucky enough to travel throughout Thailand and have put together itineraries for visiting friends on many occasions. They have to be tailored to the individual. Pattaya still wins hands down for the under-thirties and for golfers.
If you like history it has to be Ayuthaya or Kanchanaburi (Bridge on the River Kwai country), but if you want something that falls into the category of ‘little known gem,’ I’d take the road trip from Chiang Mai to Pai (as long as you don’t get car sick), or a visit to Chiang Khan in Leoi, one of the most beautiful riverside towns I’ve ever seen.
Question 14. If you had to recommend just 1 of your books to an ex-pat living in Thailand, which one would it be?
I’m going to claim a solid reason for dodging the question. If I could recommend just one that might suggest that all ex-pats have similar tastes and that’s not my experience. There are as many different types of westerner living in Thailand as there are in my hometown.
For those who want to read about the bar scene, it’s Thai Kiss (a novel) or Thai Lottery (short stories).
Vortex and Vortex the Endgame are financial thrillers set in Bangkok and Hong Kong.
Blood Brothers… Thai Style draws to some extent on the Koh Tao tragedy and looks at what can happen when a local cop gets too close to the village headman.
And if you want a break from Thailand but love football – A Matter of Life and Death is a thriller set in the world of the English Premier League.
Question 15. If you was elected Mayor of Pattaya what is the first thing you would change, remove, or introduce?
Only one thing I’d abolish – closing time. Seriously there isn’t much that I’d change but the question just reminded me of my recent attempt to watch an English Premier League game that started at 2 a.m. I needed a bar that stayed open until 4 but was told that everywhere closed at 3 a.m. I found a very comfortable Sports Bar in LK Metro resigned to the fact that I would be heading home at half-time.
My waitress kept reassuring me that although they closed at 3 a.m. “no problem, can watch.” I was sure it was just a spirited attempt to get me to stay for that first hour. Then 3 a.m. came and all was explained. They closed the bar – but if you were already inside, you were welcome to stay. With that attention to detail and customer service, what could I possibly say needs changing? Maybe if they could have guaranteed three points for my team? That would have been nice.
Question 16. Writers are known to have some strange habits, such as retreating to a remote cabin while working on their latest novel. Do you have any such habits or routines?
I find that sometimes the words just pop into my head, sometimes they don’t and there’s no specific location or routine that is linked with either scenario. I wrote the first half of Vortex in a couple of months and then came to a shuddering halt, unable to decide where the storyline was going. I was so bereft of ideas that I started on another book and finished writing it before I returned to Vortex.
I re-read what I’d written and the second half of the story just came to me there and then. If I am in the mood to write then the story flows regardless of where I am at the time. The only real trigger as I’ve already mentioned is that a few days in Thailand will always spark of few good ideas and the desire to get them on paper.
Question 17. How many books have you published to date?
There are five novels, one collection of short stories, and three individual short stories. Most have some sort of Thai theme, although just three of the nine works are set in the bar scene.
Question 18. How long does it take to complete a novel?
The earlier ones took longer and I am fanatical about eradicating typos, so a lot of effort goes into editing and proofreading. I’ve just started a new novel and I reckon it will be ready for publication in about four months.
Question 19. On your website there was mention of a possible movie in the making, any update on the situation?
Vortex has sparked a huge amount of interest and I spent the second half of last year working with a producer who approached me with a plan to turn the book into a movie. We have a screenplay and a budget and got very close to landing a top director but that fell through. A number of people are still working on the project and we are hopeful that it will come to fruition later in the year.
A friend kindly told me recently that the book on which one of Scarlett Johansson’s movies was based, was originally optioned by a studio twenty-five years ago. The author died without ever seeing the film made. Luckily I am a patient man.
Question 20. Where is the best place to browse and purchase Matt Carrell books?
All my books are on Amazon both as e-books and paperbacks. Most are also available at Canterbury Tales Bookshop in Soi Bongkot in Pattaya. Even if you are not after one of my books, it’s well worth a visit. An incredible selection of books, an interesting cast of regular customers, and a remarkably good Kao Pad Moo.
Question 21. Which is your current best selling novel?
My best-selling book is certainly the first one, Thai Lottery… and Other Stories from Pattaya, Thailand, but it’s a collection of short stories rather than a novel. Thai Kiss and Vortex take equal billing as the best-selling novel since publication, but right now the most popular book is Blood Brothers… Thai Style. Echoing the Koh Tao tragedy, it’s probably the most topical.
Question 22. Last question. Your friend is visiting Pattaya alone for the first time, what advice would you give him?
My first piece of advice would be to buy me a ticket so I could join him. Failing that I’d send him copies of Thai Lottery and Thai Kiss, they both serve as a guide to the pitfalls for a first-time visitor but also paint a pretty clear picture of the fun side of the city.
I’d also tell him to take it slow and allow himself plenty of time to take in everything Pattaya has to offer. I’ve seen guys burn out within thirty-six hours of their arrival, having got a little over-excited on the first day.
The most important piece of advice is that old expression “what goes around comes around,” seems to apply more vividly in Thailand than anywhere else I’ve visited. I genuinely believe that the experience you have in Pattaya will be determined by the way you treat the people you meet.
It’s a bad place to get into an argument as the Brit family recently discovered in Hua Hin. Avoid disputes if at all possible, even if it means backing down when you think you are right. If you have to complain, do it with a smile on your face and make out like it’s a misunderstanding, not that you’re accusing the other party of wrong-doing. The same dynamic works in a positive way too.
Thais love a foreigner with jai dee… good heart. Be kind, be gentle, and be generous where you can. The favour will be returned many times over.
You can read the reviews, browse and purchase all Matt Carrell books on Amazon.
I’m not affiliated with Matt Carrell or Amazon. The above link is a token of my gratitude to Matt for being a good sport and answering my questions.