Recently, I had a chance to catch up with Melbourne-based crime writer Andrew Nette and asked him a series of tough questions about his debut novel, Ghost Money. Ghost Money is set in Cambodia, in the late 1990s, and Andrew’s answers shine a light on a world that is very different to my own (and possibly, even a little bit scary).
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David: For those unfamiliar with the term, what is Ghost Money?
Andrew: Ghost Money (or sometimes known as Hell Money) is essentially fake paper money that in some cultures, such as Cambodia, Vietnam, and Thailand, people will burn when somebody dies as an offering to usher them into the underworld, ensuring that the person has money on the other side.
In many places in Asia you will see shops that not only sell ghost money, but they also have paper maché cars, paper maché flats, paper maché Cartier watch sets – a full range of thing that you need to be burnt as an offering to make sure you are comfortable in the afterlife.
The shops are quite incredible. There’s paper Mercedes Benz, plane tickets… at home I have a wad of Hell thousand dollar notes, a Hell passport, and a first class plane ticket to Hell [laughs].
That’s Excellent [laughs]. How does ghost money relate to the main protagonist in the story, Max Quinlan?
Ghost money sent to someone living is a threat. It’s a way of saying you’re for the afterlife if you keep on doing what you’re doing. Or you’re already dead. There are instances of gangsters sending each other ghost money to warn each other off. It’s a way of saying you’re marked for death.
In Quinlan, you have created a western/Anglo Saxon character, but placed him in an Asian body. What do you think that duality brings to the story?
I didn’t want the lead character to be fully Asian, because I wasn’t confident of my ability to portray him accurately. Which is why I made him Australian – a dyed-in-the-wool Anglo Australian in the body of someone who looks Vietnamese.
In terms of the book, in Cambodia, for various historical reasons, the Vietnamese are extremely unpopular in large parts of the country. This is essentially due to the incorporation of significant parts of Southern Cambodia into what is now South Vietnam.
Also it was the Vietnamese who, invaded is one word; liberated is another, Cambodia in late 1978 / 79 and overthrew the Khmer Rouge. They’ve got to get points for that. But then, they stayed in Cambodia for far too long. They did try and turn Cambodia into a satellite state of Vietnam.
But it is very complicated. There are people who will tell you that the Vietnamese just wanted to create a buffer zone around their borders with Cambodia, because the Khmer Rouge were carrying out incursions into Vietnam and killing villagers and bombarding towns. However, the Khmer Rouge fell so quickly, they thought they’d take the whole country over.
I have talked to Vietnamese, who were soldiers back then, stating that when they got to Phnom Penh, the extent of the damage the Khmer Rouge had done, they thought ‘what the Hell have we got ourselves into!’
So, while the Cambodians had the view that the Vietnamese were essentially acting as imperial overlords, the view in Hanoi was that being in Cambodia was an enormous economic bleed on them, and also got them into a particularly nasty war with China in 1979.
But back to the story, I wanted to make Quinlan half Vietnamese as it ups the tension in the story. The Vietnamese are not liked, and one of the things Quinlan has to deal with, is not only being a stranger in Cambodia, he has to deal with being a Yuon, which marks him out as being further of an interloper.
Quinlan does not drink, make wisecracks, and doesn’t appear to be too much in a scrap either. Was that a deliberate attempt to break away from traditional Private Eye/Detective stereotypes?
Yes [Laughs]. Yes, I think it was. You’re always looking for some way to distinguish your character. If being a Vietnamese/Australian was not enough, I wanted to make him a teetotaler, I also wanted to make him a bloody humourless bastard [laughs].
One of the key elements in the story, is how Quinlan refuses to quit, despite being in over his head, and in an environment he is unfamiliar with. What makes him so dogged, and gives him this drive to see things through?
One one level – and this will always be a complicated thing for me to say as an Anglo – Asia and how Asians are received in Australia has changed an enormous amount in the last twenty years. I can remember how Asian people were treated at the school I went to. I can remember to some degree, the invisibility and racism they suffered in the ’80s.
That’s very different now. I lived in Asia for six and a half years, in ’90s, I left in 1992 and I remember coming back in late 1996, and all of a sudden, and this maybe says more about me, but I noticed Asians were everywhere. There were more Asian students, and whole parts of the city had accommodated that change. Essentially, they were far more visible. But then, of course, we had Hanson, and then there was a whole outcry about that, and the Asian community had to get vocal in response.
The point is, Quinlan grew up in the ’70s and early ’80s, when being Asian was difficult, and you had to take a lot of shit. Then he joined the police force, in the mid ’80s, where he would have been one of a minority. So he has had to deal with a lot of racism, and he has had to push really hard to get where he got – which, he subsequently lost when he quit – but it has just turned him into a really determined bastard, who will not back down in the face of anything.
On top of that, I think he sees this missing person case – without giving away much of the plot – as a chance to redeem himself. It’s an atonement for an incident involving his Thai police partner in Bangkok, which forms the backstory to Ghost Money.
Cambodia is almost a character in the novel. It is obviously a place you have a lot of affection for. What is your connection to the country?
I first visited Cambodia in 1992, with my partner, we were living in Laos at the time. It’s hard now to recall just what a strange place I found it. Phnom Penh was full of U.N. Peacekeepers; half the city seemed to be armed. It was an incredibly dark place, the power was continually going out. There was this amazing old French Colonial architecture, but at the same time, the whole place seemed to be falling to bits. The men looked like they slept in their clothes most of the time. It was a broken city. It was a broken country. The Khmer Rouge had broken it in the ’70s, then the Vietnamese had invaded, overthrown the Khmer Rouge, and then because of Cold War politics, the Americans and the West had placed an embargo on Cambodia, until, I think it was 1989, when they signed the U.N. Peace Accord.
So, it was a intensely strange and bizarre broken place for a twenty-six year old from Melbourne. It was incredibly beautiful. The sun sets were amazing. The forest was incredible. It was a mysterious place but it was very dangerous.
I then went back many times, subsequently, to work there as a journalist over the next three or four years. I did a five month stint in 1996 covering the Khmer Rouge defection. I did a few more trips, and then we left Asia. We didn’t go back until 2008.
Many, many things had changed. It was now on the tourist trail. You could stay at your carbon neutral hotel, go out for tapas and mojitos or a dance party on a barge moored on the Masak River, listening to a DJ from the Ministry of Sound. But at the same time, people were being evicted from their land, journalists were still being killed, and lots of the country was still desperately poor. A lot had changed, but a lot hadn’t changed.
I am still trying to figure out Cambodia. And the book is also about somebody trying to figure out Cambodia.
You name check Jim Morrison, call in the choppers and have a trip down river at the climax of the story. Was that a deliberate attempt to place a piece of Pop Culture, already intrinsically associated with South East Asia – namely Apocalypse Now (and through a twisted osmosis, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness) – into the novel?
…or was it much more organic, and the romanticised ghosts of war are hard to ignore in a place like Cambodia?
I think on one level, certain pop culture signifiers are so hard wired to the Vietnam war, and the subsequent wars in Cambodia and Laos, it’s hard to ignore them to some degree. They are a part of it now. I remember in Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon as it is known now, back in the early ’90s, one of the bars we used to go to was called ‘Heart of Darkness’. It used to have a helicopter rotor blade always going in the main bar, and they used to play The Doors all the time. Ditto in Cambodia, when I was working there as a journalist, there was a bar called ‘The Heart’. It was the bar all the journalists and ex-patriots, and a bizarre Greek-chorus of Cambodians would congregate in till five in the morning, most nights. In itself, I guess it was a bit of a cliché.
… I suppose, in its way, to some people, Pop Culture had become reality.
Absolutely. Why did foreigners go to Cambodia in the ’90s? Some were sent there as peacekeepers, they liked it and they stayed for various reasons. Some went because they were NGO workers. There was also an incredible group of hustlers, sharks, bizarre Christian fundamentalists – who saw the territory as ripe pickings for conversion. Then there was a whole cohort of, and I must admit I was on the fringe of, young people who had heard about Cambodia and what had happened with the Khmer Rouge – were conscious of Cambodia’s roll in the Vietnam war – who wanted to see for themselves what was going on.
Their life experiences in Cambodia are, sort of, a continuation of that pop culture signifier, and also building upon it. It is actually fused with what was going on.
… It’s not about the film, or the book, anymore?
Not at all. Young journalists, particularly young American journalists, would turn up in Pnohm Pehn, get a press card, because they were easy to get, and before you know it, they were on the front line reporting the war with the Khmer Rouge, trying to sell a story.
Some of those people were my friends, trying to become journalists. I did that myself, a bit too. Some of them were bizarre freaks, who wanted to experience what it was like to be on the front line of a, albeit dysfunctional, war. They wanted the feeling that they were recreating the life of some of those famous war correspondents in Vietnam and Cambodia in the ’60s. The journalists of that war, were as much heroes as anybody else.
One of the journalists who went missing in Cambodia, was Sean Flynn. Errol Flynn’s son, who made a couple of crap films, and was a painter, a photographer, then as a journalist got captured by the Khmer Rouge – and by all accounts was executed, and his remains never found.
I thought they found him last year..?
When I was there in 2008, there was still a buzz about this. Hollywood wanted to make a film about Sean Flynn. Matt Dillon was wanting to play the role, but they felt he was too old. I think soon after I left, some one had mounted this expedition to try and find Flynn’s remains and there were all these international news stories claiming they had found them, but they really hadn’t.
He was just one of the many journalists, including many Khmer and Asian journalists, who were killed reporting the conflict, and their remains never found.
The point being, that Flynn, a larger than life figure, is a great example of how reality and pop culture have merged.
Will we meet Max Quinlan again? Is there a sequel in the works?
I have a Quinlan story coming up in an online journal called Noir Nation, that should be out in the next week or so. It features Max trying to find a Vietnamese woman caught up in the illegal sex industry in Melbourne. I have an idea for another novel featuring him in Cambodia, a year after the events in Ghost Money. I would also like to take him to Vietnam; take him to East Timor. There’s a lot of places I’d like to take him.
Thank you very much for your time, Andrew.
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Andrew Nette is a writer with a fascination for crime fiction and film, obscure pulp novels and Asia. His first book, Ghost Money, a gritty crime story set in Cambodia in the mid-nineties was published in 2012 by Snubnose Press.
He is one of the founders of Crime Factory Publications a small press specialising in crime fiction, and helps edit it’s on-line magazine Crime Factory. He is also one of the editors of Crime Factory Publication’s second book, Hard Labour, an anthology of short Australian crime fiction, due for release in October 2012.
His short fiction has appeared in a number of print and on-line anthologies.
You can find out more about Andrew at http://www.pulpcurry.com/