An Interview with Ron McMillan, Author of Bangkok Belle

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I love travel and found Bangkok a fascinating city so when I discovered Bangkok Belle by Ron McMillan I had to invite him on to Linda’s Book Bag to find out more about it. Bangkok Belle is the second in the Mason and Dixon Thrillers series after Bangkok Cowboy and is available for purchase in e-book here.

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Bangkok Belle

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Bangkok private eye duo Mason and Dixie are hired to provide protection to Australian soap opera star Belle Cooper, who came under vicious attack from the moment she announced her participation in a Bangkok pageant.

British Army veteran Mason and his transgender business partner Dixie already have their hands full with the disappearance of their colleague. Aom went missing while keeping watch on a night club owner called Chocolate, who is suspected of murdering her British husband, Robert Collingwood.

Mason and Dixie have to keep Belle safe while juggling threats posed by the corrupt police colonel who swept the Collingwood investigation under the carpet, the psychotic ex-IRA hit man who is Chocolate’s new boyfriend, and an ageing New Jersey mobster working for the Macau mafia.

Showdowns at an exclusive inner city resort and an abandoned fruit farm on the outskirts of the Thai capital take this fast-moving thriller to an explosive conclusion.

An Interview with Ron McMillan

Hi Ron. Thank you so much for agreeing to answer some questions on my blog about your writing. Firstly, please could you tell me a little about yourself?

I was brought up in Central Scotland in the 60’s and 70s, and after wasting three years studying accountancy at college, I bailed out. I wanted to travel, and starting in 1979, that’s pretty much what I did. I lived and worked in different parts of Europe for two years before spending six months on the backpacker trail from Sri Lanka to Australia. After two-and-a-half years in Australia and New Zealand, I returned to Asia and ended up living in Seoul, South Korea from 1983 to late 1988. Apart from a few years back in Scotland in the noughties, I’ve been in Asia ever since.

And tell us a little bit about your latest novel in the Mason and Dixie thriller series, Bangkok Belle.

Bangkok Belle is the second in the series, which is set mostly in the Thai capital, and features a private eye duo. Mason is an ex-British Army Afghan War veteran who suffers the effects of PTSD. Partnering him in his Private Investigations/Personal Protection firm is his Thai friend Dixie, who is a transgender woman. In Bangkok Belle they are hired by an Australian soap opera star who comes under attack when she announces her participation in a minor pageant in Bangkok. Belle Cooper arrives in Bangkok with troubles to spare, at a time when Mason and Dixie are already preoccupied with the disappearance of a junior colleague who was keeping an eye on a Thai woman, a night-club owner they suspect of murdering a young Englishman. Among others, the tale manages to involve a TV crew who arrive to film Belle’s involvement in the pageant, a Korean martial arts instructor with an obsession for transgender women, a corrupt Thai Police Colonel, a psychotic ex-IRA hitman and a diminutive New Jersey mobster in the employ of the Macau gambling mafia.

Crikey – this sounds fast paced and interesting!

When did you first realise you were going to be a writer?

When I was in Australia in 1982, I recall surprising myself when I told my then girlfriend’s mother that I wanted to be a writer. Until that point, the idea had barely entered my consciousness. It was another few years before I started to do freelance writing for business magazines in Asia, but I’ve now been writing in one medium or another for thirty years. Scary.

You studied accountancy and hated it. Have you got your revenge on that period of your life in your writing?

I don’t think I’ll ever not regret the years I wasted on a world that I would never set foot in again. If I could turn the clock back, I would have studied languages or geography or geology or all three. Commercial photography assignments in Hong Kong often took me to big accounting firms’ offices. I was always so glad that when I walked out at the end of a day’s photography, the only reason I would need to return would be to pick up a fat cheque.

I know that you spent some years as a professional photographer. How did that come about, and how, if at all, has that helped you develop the skills needed for writing fiction?

I broke into news magazine photography in Seoul in the mid-80s. The 1988 Seoul Olympics were coming up, Korea was riven with spectacular demonstrations against the military government, and there wasn’t a single western freelance photographer in the entire country. I went to Hong Kong with an expensive camera on my shoulder and talked my way into the offices of picture editors. At that point I had never sold a photo in my life, but with a bit of brass neck I managed to score photography assignments from decent magazines which normally would not have considered using me. Soon, as well as spending long days in the middle of huge, tear-gas-soaked student demonstrations, I was writing stories for travel and business magazines, stories that I illustrated with my photographs. So it’s fair to say that cockiness, self-confidence, even arrogance were always in my make-up. I think those characteristics help anyone take the leap into writing fiction. An over-developed sense of self-belief certainly helped me.

How do you go about researching detail and ensuring your books are realistic?

There is some truth in the old saw that urges us to write about what we know. My first published crime novel, Yin Yang Tattoo (Sandstone Press, 2010), was about a Scottish photographer who had lived in Korea in the 80s and studied Tae Kwon Do there. That was me. The rest of the book, which is of course wholly fictitious, came out of things I saw and heard during my five years in Korea, and aren’t to be confused with what I actually got up to in Seoul in my twenties. One prominent reviewer was disgusted by the book; she clearly assumed that the drunken Scottish protagonist who spent a lot of time in the arms of prostitutes was the author. Not so.

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Which aspects of your writing do you find easiest and most difficult?

I do almost all my writing at home in the countryside of North Thailand. Getting into any kind or rhythm is the most difficult thing for me. I don’t have a set routine, and suffer intense envy of writers who do. Once I get into the groove, it all becomes so much simpler, and I forever wonder why it has to be so difficult for me to get to that point.

Which element of writing is most important to you? The initial research, the writing or the editing and why do you say that?

It has to be the editing. First drafts might have most of the story in a sequence that will mostly remain intact when the book is published, but so much of the material in any draft is extensively revised during the editing process.

The Mason and Dixie books are fast paced thrillers. What techniques do you use when writing to convey such action?

Almost thirty years ago a journalist friend impressed me with the amount of time and effort he put into what American journalists call the ‘lede’, or the opening few words of a story. I try to follow that policy with the start of every chapter. I am careful to avoid long periods of descriptive exposition and try to push the story forwards using dialogue as much as possible. At the end of every chapter I do my best to make the reader want to move on to read just one more chapter before turning out the light.

I know that travel features heavily in your life. Why have you chosen Thailand as the setting for your Mason and Dixie series?

There was a period of ten years when I was a freelance photographer based in Hong Kong, travelling around the region on assignment. I did almost fifty assignments in China, including a week in Tiananmen Square in 1989. (My biggest single regret is leaving Beijing a few days before June 4th). During that decade I made it to everywhere from Afghanistan to Japan, and I wouldn’t trade a single day of those trips for anything. They surely made me who I am now, and the experiences and the people I encountered routinely turn up in my fiction. An anecdotal event in a narrative may paint a picture of a thug waving a gun in Thailand today, but could have its origins in a real experience twenty years ago in China or Pakistan or either of the Koreas. Thailand is a wonderful setting for crime fiction, a bottomless source of exotic, colourful backdrops and potential storylines.

Why did you decide to make Dixie transgender in Bangkok Belle?

I have lived in Thailand since 2007. Here, the ‘third gender’ is infinitely more accepted than in the west. Transgender women are everyday sights, very often in prominent customer service roles behind the counters of banks or department stores. But while they have it easier here than in the west, their lives are certainly not free of prejudice or ill-treatment. I thought it would be interesting to embrace a transgender central character, not despite her sexuality, but because of it. Mason treats her like a lady, and he and Dixie are the closest of friends, but not lovers. At least for now….

The cover of Bangkok Belle makes me think of glamour, speed and a vibrant city. How did that image come about and what were you hoping to convey (without spoiling the plot please!)?

I’m glad to hear that, because the cover took a long time to put together. The feminine character on the cover is strikingly beautiful, and at second glance it might become apparent that she is transgender. Bangkok Belle is a crime novel that involves a beautiful transgender woman in the big exciting city that is Bangkok. The cover was put together by my daughter, who as well as being a qualified architect, is a very talented practitioner of Photoshop.

When you’re not writing, what do you like to read?

My Dad was a somewhat unorthodox secondary school English teacher. One day when I was about fourteen we were at the library together, and he pushed a book at me. John D. MacDonald’s ‘A Purple Place for Dying’ was adult, at times graphically violent crime fiction starring MacDonald’s wonderful Travis McGee, a character credited by many top writers today (Lee Child included) as a major inspiration. Not many parents would give a Travis McGee novel to a fourteen-year-old, but I am so glad my Dad did, because it inspired a deep appreciation of quality crime fiction that I still exercise, almost daily. I have read all the Travis McGee books, some of them many times over, and delight in discovering new – to me, at least – crime writers. Online, I read a lot of news, especially Thai news, because fiction has nothing on what’s going on every day in the news here.

If you had 15 words to persuade a reader that Bangkok Belle should be their next read, what would you say?

It aspires to be exactly the kind of suspenseful, atmospheric crime fiction that I enjoy reading.

And finally, Ron, what can we expect next for Mason and Dixie?

Book three is in the works. It takes place entirely in Bangkok, and involves a close friend of Mason, someone already known to readers of Bangkok Cowboy and Bangkok Belle, falling foul of American federal agencies and the Russian mob. I am also working on a screenplay about a Thai blues musician who gets stranded in Scotland after his Scottish girlfriend dumps him; I am involved in another film under development that was in part inspired by my Shetland Islands travel book (BETWEEN WEATHERS, Travels in 21st Century Shetland); and I am giving too much thought to embarking upon the ultimate literary conceit – writing something autobiographical.

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That all sounds very exciting. Good luck with it all and thanks for being on the blog.

 About Ron McMillan

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Ron McMillan is a writer and photographer who has been based for most of the last thirty years in Asia. He worked from a Hongkong base for ten years between 1988 and 1998, visiting most parts of the region on multiple occasions, on photo assignments for magazines in the USA and Europe including Time, Newsweek, Businessweek, Fortune and L’Express. He now spends a large part of the year in Thailand.

Ron is a hugely colourful character, who writes both fiction and non-fiction. The best way to find out more about him is to visit his website and follow him on Twitter.

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