Ron McMillan, author of Bangkok Cowboy, has lived a life out of a Kerouac novel. A Scotsman who for more than ten years traveled all over Asia on photography assignments for some of the biggest magazines in the world, he now lives in Thailand where his Mason & Dixie Crime series is set. Ron talked with the Rogue Reader about his colorful past, his photography career, and his writing process. To read more about Ron, check out his full bio here.
COURT: With all your travels, how did you wind up choosing Thailand to finally settle down?
RON: Thailand was the first Southeast Asian country I ever visited, in April 1981, while on the trans-Asian backpacker trail. That was a six-month trip that took me from Sri Lanka, up through India (where I got arrested two minutes after I stepped off the bus from Madras airport; it took a bit of persuasion to talk myself out of police custody for selling my duty free whiskey and cigarettes to a black market dealer), to Nepal and on to Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia before landing in Australia. Following the pressures of traveling in South Asia, Thailand was a relaxed new world, and I never forgot that feeling. After a couple of years in Australia and New Zealand I spent fifteen years based in the Far East, first in Korea and then in Hong Kong. During that time I visited Thailand on vacation, and then frequently on photography assignments, and I never got tired of it. The country has its problems at the moment, but I’m hoping the Thais come out of them with a decent deal. I’ve lived in a lot of countries, and none of them compare to Thailand for that magic mix of people, weather and—very, very importantly—food.
COURT: Did Thailand spark anything for you creatively or do you think you would be writing crime fiction no matter where you settled down?
RON: I’ve been in love with crime fiction since my Dad pointed me to John D. MacDonald when I was still too young to be reading Travis McGee novels. Bangkok Cowboy‘s Mason is an unashamed attempt to craft a central character with some of the mainstream appeal of Travis McGee. Bangkok isn’t Fort Lauderdale, but it is replete with dodgy characters, the likes of whom Travis might have relished facing. There is a lot of competition in the Thailand-based crime fiction market, but I think I’ve found a home, at least for now.
COURT: You seem like someone who has put a lot of thought into the type of books you want to write. Was there a lot of trial and error in your process or was it clear to you from the start?
RON: My first love was travel writing. I wanted to emulate some of my travel author heroes; inspirational adventurers like Eric Newby, Redmond O’Hanlon and a relatively unknown and now almost forgotten sailor/author called Tristan Jones.
My first published book was Between Weathers, Travels in 21st Century Shetland, a travel narrative. About 2004 I came SO close to a major breakthrough with a giant London publisher. One of England’s top non-fiction editors wanted a travel book I proposed (about a trip I hadn’t yet done). He was so keen on it that he took it to the publisher’s editorial meeting twice, pitching it on a plan to print ten thousand hardbacks followed by a paperback run in the low six-figures. The bean counters rejected it both times, and I went from potential life-changing breakthrough to crushing disappointment. I decided to do a different trip and write a book about it, purely on spec, so I took myself to the Shetland Islands for five weeks. Shetland is the most northerly group of islands in Britain, and a fascinating place – and it hadn’t been the subject of a travel book since Victorian times. I wrote a manuscript, pitched it to a half-dozen independent Scottish publishers, and got lucky when Sandstone Press took it on, and published Between Weathers in 2008.
Between Weathers has been a modest success (it inspired my involvement in a feature film by the same name that I wrote the first story outline for, and that remains in development by B4Films in Scotland), and I used it as a stepping stone to chase long-running crime fiction dreams. Sandstone Press published Yin Yang Tattoo, after which I set about doing something different, and settled on a Thailand-based series that is introduced by Bangkok Cowboy.
COURT: Has your work as a photographer informed your writing process or are they two different art forms?
RON: My strongest characteristic is selfishness. While living in Korea in the 1980s I took a long-running photography hobby and cobbled a mini-career out of it. At the time I was making decent money as an English teacher at a good university in Seoul, but the desire to chase my own dreams was already taking over, and I jacked in the steady job, flew to Hong Kong, and walked into magazine photo editors’ offices with a camera on my shoulder. I had never sold a photo in my life, but because I was based in Seoul, which was under the spotlight due to huge internal political changes and the upcoming 1988 Seoul Olympics, the editors gave me breaks I hadn’t earned. Luckily for me, I didn’t screw up assignments from Hong Kong and New York and London – from editors who, if they knew how raw I was, would never have trusted me with assignments – and I began to get a decent portfolio behind me. Self-confidence to the point of arrogance, and a willingness to learn on the job, helped me scrape through.
Writing has been a similar path for me. I wanted to write, and chased ways to make that happen. Before I left Seoul for Hong Kong I had a few pieces written and photographed, mostly for business magazines. During ten, travel-intensive years based in Hong Kong, I managed to experience so many fascinating places and events that it would have been crazy not to write about them. Attempts at fiction came later, but I’m glad they did. So it has all been about selfish pipe dreams. Chasing them opened me up to experiences I would likely never have had, and since doggedness is often as much of an asset to a photojournalist as photographic talent, I grew a thick skin, and I still don’t concern myself with failure. Photojournalism is a lot to do with coming up with a good story and then succeeding in illustrating it, never mind who stands in your way, so it has things in common with writing fiction, and I’m sure I learned things that helped me pursue my writing dreams. None of which would have meant a thing without that selfish insistence on doing only what I wanted to do.
COURT: I always love to read about a writer’s process. What’s your average writing day like? Do you outline or are you a panster? How much research do you do?
RON: I wish I had more of a system! A lot of my writing goes on in my head, often when I lie awake at night. I know exactly where I am in the story and I set out plot lines in my head – and can usually remember them the next day. I don’t have a daily fiction writing routine, which is partly because I am always writing several things at once. I research and write for television documentaries made by B4Films in Scotland. A recent series of four episodes they made was for PBS in America, about great estates – landed country estates – in Scotland. This needs lots of research so that I can write with apparent authority on topics I know absolutely nothing about. I am now writing a pilot for a documentary series about the history – ancient and modern – of world-famous streets. It’s interesting, but time-consuming. I somehow fit fiction writing into the gaps in other activities, which means output can be a little sporadic.
COURT: Being a former travel writer, it’s interesting that you settled on a crime series set in a foreign country. For me, half the fun of reading international crime novels is to learn about different cultures.
RON: I suppose it comes down to the old cliché that says you should write about things you know. I certainly took that to the extreme with my first crime novel, Yin Yang Tattoo. Its protagonist is a Scottish photographer who spent five years in South Korea, who trained extensively in Tae Kwon-do, and who drinks far too much. But as he’s also an inveterate whoremonger, it is, of course, in no way autobiographical. I can’t claim to know Thailand as well as I once knew Korea, but having spent some years here, I hope I can paint a fairly convincing Thai backdrop.
COURT: You’ve mentioned John Burdett as an author you admire. Are there any other series set in Asia you can recommend to us?
RON: John Burdett’s books stand head and shoulders above the competition, certainly so far as Thailand-based crime fiction goes. I don’t read many other books set in Thailand because I don’t want to be accused (by myself or by anyone else) of being influenced by others. I do enjoy the Father Ananda mystery series by Nick Wilgus, whose main character is a middle-aged cop-turned-Buddhist monk who finds himself investigating murders in and around temples all over Thailand. They are a little like old-fashioned English village murder mysteries, and very nicely done. The series has been re-released as eBooks by CrimeWave Press.
COURT: Can you give us a peek into what Mason and Dixie up against in your next book, Bangkok Belle?
RON: Dixie’s friend Belle’s life is threatened when she enters a transgender beauty pageant. Belle refuses to be warned off, and the pageant is not all it seems, so of course things get down and dirty, and Mason and Dixie have to come to the rescue.
COURT: I’m looking forward to reading it. It was fun getting to know a little more about you and Bangkok Cowboy.
Check out Bangkok Cowboy, here.
Ron McMillan’s website. Ron McMillan on Twitter
Check out Court Haslett’s Tenderloin, here.