Interview: Jake Needham

Was the decision not to publish yours, your publisher’s – or were you told not to?
Before I published my first Inspector Tay novel, The Ambassador’s Wife, I had accumulated some pretty good contacts in Singapore because another series of books I had written – the Jack Shepherd legal thrillers – had been popular there. The Straits Times had done two very big feature stories about the Shepherd books, and most of the other major publications in Singapore had written about them at one time or another as well. As a result, I had built up a decent list of acquaintances in Singapore throughout the press, government, and law enforcement and I worked with many of them to make sure The Ambassador’s Wife felt authentic.

When my publisher first announced The Ambassador’s Wife, the book got a lot of attention in Singapore. A series of contemporary crime novels written by a reasonably popular international crime novelist and featuring a Singapore CID cop? Sounds pretty cool, right?

Then The Ambassador’s Wife was published. All my contacts abruptly stopped returning my calls, and not another word about the book ever appeared in any publication in Singapore.

It wasn’t particularly incendiary. It revolved around Inspector Tay’s superiors pressuring him to allow the FBI to take over the investigation of an American woman whose dead body was found at the Singapore Marriott before the outcome of the investigation became an embarrassment to Singapore. Tay, of course, in the tradition of every good literary investigator, refuses to stand down until he uncovers the truth.

From my publisher’s point of view, the worst problem was that orders from local booksellers in Singapore quickly dried up and not many copies were sold locally. Outside of Singapore, happily, it was quite a different story. It became one of my all time best selling books. It even made it all the way to #1 on Amazon UK’s Kindle bestseller list last spring.

Now please don’t misunderstand me here. I’m not suggesting for a moment that orders went out from somewhere on high to give Needham the cold shoulder after The Ambassador’s Wife was published and not to buy his book. In my experience, in Asia the process of marginalizing writers whom the powerful don’t like is far subtler than that. Booksellers and people in the media know when a certain book isn’t popular with the local powers that be, so they simply ignore it.

Exactly the same thing happens, for example, in Thailand. Although, funnily enough, the Thais seem to like the books that I write about you just fine. They just don’t much like the ones I write about them.

Anyway, flash forward a couple of years….

I finished my second Inspector Tay novel, The Umbrella Man, in which Tay comes into serious conflict with the Internal Security Department, a government agency concerning which Tay harbors deep and abiding suspicions. Now I’m very much aware of how ISD operates in Singapore and of its sensitivity to any form of publicity, although perhaps I should also add that I know absolutely nothing about ISD except what I was able to learn from public sources. That’s the advantage of writing fiction. I make most of this stuff up, folks.

Given the reaction to The Ambassador’s Wife in some quarters there in Singapore, and given the possibility that those same people would see The Umbrella Man as even more objectionable, I had a bit of a talk with my publishers before sending them the manuscript. Marshall Cavendish Ltd, which is owned by a Singaporean media group, has most recently published my print editions and distributed them throughout Asia, Europe, and the UK. Another company publishes my e-book editions worldwide, one that has no connection with Singapore.

We subsequently agreed that Marshall Cavendish would not publish a print edition of The Umbrella Man this time. The e-book edition went ahead as usual and became available worldwide in early January. I have retained the print rights myself and it is always possible that another publisher somewhere will still eventually release a print edition after all.

Why do you think the Singapore government is so concerned about negative depictions of the country?
I certainly don’t consider either The Ambassador’s Wife or The Umbrella Man to be negative depictions of Singapore. Quite on the contrary, I think they are authentic and honest depictions. That’s always what I strive for, regardless of where I set my novels.

The greatest compliment I think a writer can receive is when people tell you how real your novels felt to them. I love it when people write me to say things like, “I haven’t been in Singapore in ten years, but then I read The Ambassador’s Wife and it was like being back there all over again. I could hear it, I could feel it, I could smell it.”

That’s what I always try to do, invoke a setting in such a way that it feels like a character in the novel. I want it to be real, both for people who already know something about the place where the book is set, and for people who don’t.

What made you want to set this – or any of your – stories in Singapore?
All of my novels so far have been set in Asia. The Jack Shepherd novels – Laundry Man, Killing Plato, and A World of Trouble – are set in Bangkok, Hong Kong, and Phuket. The Big Mango is set about half in San Francisco and half in Bangkok.

I wanted to do some novels set in Singapore, too, and that was why I came up with a Singaporean to help me tell those stories, Inspector Samuel Tay. Singapore is a major world city that remarkably few people outside of Asia seem to know much about. There’s almost no popular fiction published that draws on Singapore for its backgrounds. I just think Singapore is a great place for a series of contemporary crime novels.

What do you think Singaporean readers will enjoy about this book?
Most everyone enjoys reading fiction set in a place they know. That makes a book feel particularly real to them.

Then too, there are a lot of Singaporeans who think a bit now and then about their place in the world and what it means to be a citizen of Singapore, and I think they would enjoy walking along with Sam Tay while he goes through the same process. Tay’s mother was Singaporean and his father was American, but now that he’s reached middle age he’s not all that certain that he has gotten much of a sense of identity from either of them. And quite often he wonders where that leaves him…

Would you be sorry if you weren’t allowed back?
Look, I’m a novelist. I write fiction. I can’t imagine that any government, let alone one that considers itself as forward thinking as Singapore’s does, would actually see a foreign novelist as a threat to them. Or, even if they did, that they would do anything to risk the humiliation of admitting it.

Certainly I’m aware of the jailing of Alan Shadrake, and I have to tell you that I think jailing an elderly British writer for nothing more than expressing his opinion about Singapore’s judiciary did real violence to Singapore’s international reputation. I can’t think of any other place on earth that considers itself democratic that would have done something like that. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why the most recent press freedom index from Reporters Without Borders ranked Singapore at 149 out of 179 countries for freedom of expression, lower than Russia, Cambodia, or Afghanistan. I think, and I hope, your government is thoroughly embarrassed about that, but I doubt it.

Still, Mr. Shadrake and journalists who are struggling to find a way to tell the truth about the stories they cover are in far different positions than I am. These are serious people with important agendas.

I’m just a novelist. I write fiction. I’m not trying to convince anyone of anything. Except maybe to buy a few more of my books.

UPDATE – 7 March

With the Singapore police force currently in the news in connection with an American’s death in the city-state, we asked Jake about the somewhat spooky parallels with his first Inspector Tay novel.

Have you been following the Shane Todd case?

At least a dozen people sent me the initial story about Shane Todd’s death when it first appeared in the FT, and quite a few more since then have forwarded me copies of other stories that appeared in newspapers in the US and Europe. Almost everyone commented on the striking parallels between that case and the story line of The Ambassador’s Wife, particularly the appearance on the scene of the FBI and the way the authorities in Singapore have responded to the involvement of outsiders in an investigation that is highly charged with unhappy political implications, at least unhappy for Singapore. All of my novels are drawn to one degree or another from real events and occurrences, but it’s pretty spooky when those real events and occurrences happen after the book has been published.