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Interview with author Jake Needham

A photo of author Jake Needham
Photo Courtesy of Jake Needham, Photographer: Paul Owen

Prolific and imaginative author Jake Needham has gained a following with popular crime thrillers set in Asia such as his breakout novel The Big Mango. In my Interview with Jake March 24, 2014, he discussed his writing process and provided insight for many of his books including the highly praised series The Jack Shepherd International Crime Novels.

Interview with Jake Needham

Q: You have written a number of crime thrillers. What appeals to you the most about that particular genre?

A: Have you ever heard it said that a writer is someone who, when he goes looking for something he wants to read and is unable to find it, sits down and writes it instead? I read mostly crime and spy fiction so that’s what I write. I read crime and spy fiction, I suppose, for the same reason most people read whatever sort of books they do. In some way, those kind of stories connect to my personal view of the world. Perhaps, now that I think about it, that doesn’t speak so well for me, does it?

Q: Which of your series did you enjoy working on the most The Jack Shepherd International Crime Novels or The Inspector Samuel Tay Crime Novels?

A: After THE BIG MANGO became a sort of cult novel among expatriates in Asia, I came up with the Jack Shepherd character because I wanted to try telling a story in the first person and figured you had to have a strong central character to pull that off. That book was LAUNDRY MAN and I wrote it without the slightest thought that it would become a series. Jack Shepherd just sort of grew from there, and LAUNDRY MAN seemed to lead naturally to KILLING PLATO, A WORLD OF TROUBLE, and THE KING OF MACAU.

The Inspector Tay character came about because I wanted to do a series set in Singapore. Singapore is a wonderful urban setting with a secretive, often repressive, and sometimes downright scary government, an ideal place to set great crime novels, and Shepherd just isn’t the right character for those stories since he’s an American. Those books needed a Singaporean at their core so I came up with Inspector Samuel Tay, a Singaporean CID cop who isn’t all that wild about being either a cop or a Singaporean. The first Sam Tay book was THE AMBASSADOR’S WIFE, and that one made Sam so many fans that THE UMBRELLA MAN soon followed. The third Sam Tay book, THE DEAD AMERICAN, will be out in September.

Over the years, I’ve discovered that the two series have different fans. The Tay series seems to attract a larger proportion of female readers, where the Shepherd series attracts a larger proportion of male readers. The interesting thing is that more and more people who like one series have decided to read the other series as well. That’s one really nice result of writing two different series, although it certainly wasn’t something that was at all studied on my part.

But which series do I like writing more? Whichever one I’m working on at the moment…

Q: Who are some of the authors who have inspired you the most?

A: I've always thought I really ought to come up with some sort of uplifting answer to give whenever I’m asked that, something that makes me sound appropriately thoughtful and intellectual, but I’ve never gotten around to it. I suppose the simple truth is every author I’ve ever read has influenced me to some degree. I see ways others tell stories that I like and I think about doing something similar myself, and I see ways others have told stories that I don’t like and I swear never to do it that way.

Q: Do you usually identify with your protagonists to a large extent?

A: Why is it readers always ask writers if the heroes of their books aren’t really based on them? Nobody ever asks us if our villains aren’t really extensions of ourselves. I’ve been waiting for twenty years for someone to ask me that.

Q: Do you struggle with making your work commercially viable and expressing yourself artistically at the same time?

A: I do what I do, and I do it as well as I can. I’ve never spent a single moment of my life wondering what the marketplace will think of it. Please understand that’s not bravado. It’s just the only way I know how to write.

Q: Crime thrillers are very popular. What sets your books apart from the pack?

A: My books are well known for being drawn from real events, some of which I was involved in personally and some of which I’ve just watched. CNN said my books have a "ripped from the headlines" feel, and The Wall Street Journal said that "much of the fun in reading Needham's books is trying to decide how much of what is in them is based on fact and how much is the product of the author's imagination."

THE BIG MANGO was based on the disappearance of huge amounts of money and gold when Saigon fell to the invading North Vietnamese in 1975. LAUNDRY MAN drew on the collapse of the Bank of Credit and Commerce in the 90's, a bizarre Middle Eastern bank that was also known as the Bank of Crooks and Criminals. A WORLD OF TROUBLE grew out of a military coup in Thailand that drove a popular prime minister into exile in Dubai and led to upheaval in the streets there. And so on.

I tell a story in the foreword to A WORLD OF TROUBLE about a retired intelligence officer who tried to get me to admit to him how I had found out about a secret operation that turned up in one of my books. I told him that I hadn't found out about anything. I had simply made up the events that he was talking about. I don't think he believed me.

That's the thing about writing crime and spy thrillers set in Asia. You can't make anything up. Whatever you think you made up, one of these days someone will come up to you and tell you it really happened. Or maybe that it's about to happen.

Q: What is the single most important thing you would like potential readers to know about your books?

A: A WORLD OF TROUBLE tracked so close to some events about which there is considerable sensitivity in Thailand that I was publicly accused of trying to get around Thailand’s sometimes draconian censorship by claiming that real events were only fiction.

I make this stuff up, folks. I really do. It’s fiction, even if real people, places, and things appear in it.

Q: How structured are you in your writing regime? Do you follow a strict schedule or do you just write when inspiration strikes?

A: I’m an office-hours kind of guy. I go to work in the morning, break for a quick lunch, and then knock off around dinner. I don’t work at night or on Sundays. To be honest, with you, I think that’s pretty much the way all professional writers work. You don’t sit around waiting for inspiration. You show up every single day and you do your job.

Q: What do you hope to accomplish as an author?

A: I’ve accomplished it.

Over the years, I’ve built up a very substantial and incredibly loyal readership. I constantly get emails and tweets and Facebook messages from people telling me how much they are looking forward to my next book and nudging me to get it out a little sooner than announced.

I think having an audience and knowing you are valued by that audience is the highest accomplishment any writer can achieve. If knowing that people are out there waiting for your next book isn’t success for a writer, I haven’t a clue what is.

Q: If The Jack Shepherd series made it to the big screen, who you would like to see in the leading role?

A: Honestly? I don’t care. If somebody buys the film rights to one of my books, I’ll cash the check and then I’ll show up to see the movie should it ever actually get made. But that’s the extent of my interest.

THE BIG MANGO was under option to three different production houses for eight or nine years. It was almost Jim Gandolfini’s first film after ‘The Sopranos’ ended, then it was almost Tom Cruise’s next film after the first (or was it the second?) ‘Mission Impossible.’ And then it was nothing and I got the rights back. That’s the way almost every book deal ever made in Hollywood has gone. Unless you really need the money, no real novelist ever gives much thought to whether his books will get turned into movies by someone else.

Q: Your plotlines are very imaginative and often complex. Does it take long for you to develop these scenarios or is it a relatively easy process?

A: That’s a nice compliment, but I really have no idea how to respond to your question. I just start writing, usually with a specific scene in mind, and keep going from there until I come to the end of the story. I’ve tried to outline books before I write them, honest, but it never works out for me. I suppose I still have the soul of a screenwriter, which is how I earned my living for a decade or so. I think up what I figure is a good scene to open with, then I think up a scene to follow that, and another scene to follow that, and so on and so forth. That’s the only way it works for me.

Q: What are your future writing plans?

A: The fourth book in the Jack Shepherd series, THE KING OF MACAU, was just published this month and now I’m working on the third book in the Inspector Tay series. It’s called THE DEAD AMERICAN, and it’s scheduled for publication in late summer 2014.

And after that? I haven’t a clue…

For More information on Jake Needham and his books please visit

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