SOME MAKE IT…
… In One’s Unique Field
Roy Howard started publishing Sawasdee, Thai Airways’ in-flight magazine. The magazine’s editorial offices were in Hong Kong and Roy hired a bright young writer, Dean Barrett, to edit the magazine. As a contributor to Sawasdee I got to know Dean quite well and we became friends. Dean stuck with the magazine for more than a dozen years and then decided to devote his full time to writing books and plays. His writing output is phenomenal. Even before I met him, before he published my stories, I enjoyed reading his articles in Orientations magazine, a glossy Asian arts magazine that was very popular at the time. He wrote on Asian history and I was particularity fond of his articles on Chinese trade routes.
Anyone who reads Dean Barrett’s books will gather than he is an authority on Asia, and rightfully so. He was trained as a Chinese linguist at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California and, at graduation, he was certain he would be sent to China or Taiwan. But the Army assigned him to more studies at the Army Security Agency that included graduate work in Chinese Area Studies at San Francisco State College. Dean also received his Masters Degree in Asian Studies from the University of Hawaii. He was set for big things. The Army sent him to Thailand where they speak Thai and not Chinese.
As a writer, editor, photographer and publisher, Dean had lived for twenty-five years in Asia, fifteen of those years as managing director of Hong Kong Publishing Company. He wrote and photographed several non-fiction books on Asia and edited several cultural and travel magazines. He also wrote hundreds of articles on Asia and was the winner of several writing and editing awards including the PATA Grand Prize for Excellence for writing on Asia, particularly on Thailand and on Chinese culture. He wrote a weekly satire column for the Hong Kong Standard for five years under the pseudonym, Uncle Yum Cha (“Uncle Drink Tea”).
Dean left Hong Kong in 1986 and moved to New York City, to pursue a career in playwriting and to find a composer for a musical he wrote.
Dean found New York very conducive to writing, especially living in the East Village atmosphere where he had an apartment. It was here he spent two years researching the Ch’ing Dynasty at the 5th Avenue library. He began writing Murder In China Red, a novel in which the protagonist is Chinese from Beijing who lives in New York.
Dean left New York after completing the musical and returned to Asia, this time taking up residence in Bangkok. Why Bangkok? He felt he was closer to the action in Bangkok. Soon to hit the bookstands was Skytrain to Murder followed by Don Quixote in China: The Search for Peach Blossom Spring.
Dean loves writing plays and he receives letters from students and actors around the world asking permission to stage his plays. “The musical, unfortunately, is a Broadway style and needs lots of money to get it staged properly,” he said. He travels to New York twice a year to meet with his composer. He continues to seek ways to market musicals in today’s tight money market. “The text of the musical and most of my one-act and full-length plays are up on-line which is how people read them and ask permission to put them on.”
Dean Barrett is a prolific writer and he writes what he please without concern about the critics. He has written extensively on Hong Kong’s traditional fishing community that includes a fairytale: The Boat Girl and the Magic Fish. His novels on Thailand are Memoirs of a Bangkok Warrior and Skytrain to Murder. His novel t in China are Hangman s Point and Mistress of the East.
Does Academic Background Count?
While Dean Barrett has an academic background, Robert Davis has a background of hard knocks. The results are the same. Both are determined writers.
Robert was a professional tennis coach, and a very successful one. He had a high salary and traveled all over the world. He had a very beautiful wife. You might say Robert Davis had everything. But he wasn’t happy. He wanted to be a writer.
It was several year ago that l first met Robert, before he began writing. It happened one afternoon while I was sitting at my desk, trying to concentrate on a script that was giving me trouble, and there came a knock at my door. At the time my wife and I were living in a small two-bedroom apartment in Bangkok, on the fourth floor, a walk-up without elevator. Like writers who work at home, my place was cluttered with stacks of books, journals and research material. My wife answered the door. “Someone is here to see you,” she said.
Another disturbance! We had rented the apartment as a place for me to get away so I could complete a ten-hour TV television script I was commissioned to write on King Narai of Siam and his Greek Foreign minister. I had given instructions to my publisher and others that I did not want to be disturbed unless it was important.
I went to the door, dressed in shorts and T-shirt, unshaven, and I found standing there a neatly dressed young man with a bottle of wine in hand, and on his arm was a very lovely Latin woman. “Hope I’m not disturbing you,” he said and handed me the wine. The accent was American. “It’s Chilean wine,” he added.
What was I to say? I asked him to come in. He introduced himself, Robert Davis, and the woman who with him was his wife, Irina. She spoke very little English. Before I could ask him what he wanted he spoke out-“You publisher told me where you lived. He didn’t want to tell me until I explained that I was in Bangkok. I thought maybe you lived in America, but when he said Bangkok I was thrilled. I live here too, that is when I am not on the road.”
“So you want to meet an author,” I said.
“Yes, but it’s more than that,” he began. “You see I read your book Who Needs a Road, and the book had an effect on me.”
“You want to get a four-wheel drive and drive around the world,” I said, a bit sarcastically. I didn’t mind answering his questions but he was intruding. He could have phoned first.
“No, it’s more than that,” he said. I was really puzzled now. What did he want? All the while we were talking his wife Irina was looking around the apartment. She was elegantly dressed, in a long Thai silk dress and sporting some fine expensive jewelry. She seemed out of place in a writer’s flat. Robert continued, “I want to be a writer. I want to learn to write like you do.”
Not again, I thought to myself. How was I going to get rid of this guy? But I hesitated. There was something different about him. I didn’t quite know what it was but I was about to find out. He had a career, and a very lucrative one. He was a successful tennis coach, with players under his wing on professional tennis tours. He had the ideal, envious profession that had taken him all over the world, not only to places like Paris and London but also to places such as Reunion Island in the Seychelles and Santiago, Chile. Plus he had a high salary, and his expenses were paid. He lived first class in the best hotels in the world. In Thailand he had been contracted by the Tennis Association of Thailand to serve as National Coach, a post he bad held in countries such as Peru and Panama.
Robert and Irina lived in a large house with gardens and servants in the suburbs of Bangkok, and with his lovely wife be traveled the world over. His wife was happy, his tennis players were happy, everyone was happy, everyone except Robert. He had long had this insane desire to be a writer. I had no indication of the depth of his desire that first time we met. Nor did I know then what motivated his desire. Perhaps because, as I later discovered, he was an avid reader. Not a desultory, haphazard reader but an earnest one. He read everything he could, and this included many of the classic writers. Later, when we became friends, we talked about writing and writers, and I found conversations with him invigorating. He would come charging to my apartment and expound about an obscure passage in Tolstoy that he found. I could no longer get angry with him. Robert knew what good writing is, and he had no time for the mediocre. “If you are going to read,” he said, “you might as well read good writing.”
I am getting away from my story. At that first meeting I felt I had to paint the picture as it was, and if that meant dissuading Robert, so be it. I told him what writing really entailed. Only a handful of writers ever make it big. The blockbusters control the successful writing market, and they are commercial. “I don’t care about money,” Robert said. “I just want to write.”
This guy wasn’t going to be easy. I told him one story after another about would-be writers who when they learned how tough it was gave up. I explained what motivated dream writers. They imagine the life of a writer to be full of glamorous nights and million-dollar advances. Little do they know of the reality of the life of a writer. The rejection letters, financial struggles and matrimonial difficulties. A writer’s life is a lonely one.
Most women, wives and sweethearts, don’t understand that. I myself went through a couple of divorces until I found a woman who believed in what I was doing. “A writer’s life can be a lonely life,” I said, looking at Irina. She didn’t understand English but I think she knew what I was saying.
Robert still said he wanted to be a writer. “There’s only one way to be a writer,” I said. What I was about to tell him was certain to make him think twice. “If you are serious, you have to give it your full energy, let nothing else stand in your way.” I then gave the example about all the newspaper writers, each with a book festering inside them. The only way they ever wrote that book was to quit the newspaper work.
That was my first meeting with Robert. A month passed and there was a knock at my door. It was Robert. “I followed your advice,” he said, beaming.
“And what was that?” I asked. Robert had seemed like a sensible guy, with a beautiful jet-setting wife, so I knew what the answer would be. He gave up the idea of writing. I was wrong.
“I quit coaching,” he replied.
“You what!” I shouted. “What about the players you are coaching? Your house in Nonburi, and your wife? Does he want to be married to a writer?”
“I gave up the house, and we are looking for a small flat,” he said. He explained that his wife was not happy. She would have to give up the beautiful life, Paris and London and all the romance and glitter for a small pad in Bangkok or wherever it might be. He tried to make her understand that it would be all right in the end.