Bangkok-based author Stephen Leather is one of Britain’s most prodigious and successful writers, with almost 50 books and six screen plays to his credit.
He is also a top selling Amazon Kindle author, and the second bestselling UK author worldwide on Kindle in 2011.
Leather, 61, enjoys considerable fame locally for his books on Thailand, especially Private Dancer and Confessions of a Bangkok Private Eye.
When did you first realise you enjoyed writing?
I began writing when I was in college, but never managed to get beyond a few pages
I was employed as a biochemist for ICI, shovelled limestone in a quarry, worked as a baker, a petrol pump attendant, a barman, and worked for the Inland Revenue. I began my writing career as a journalist, working for newspapers such the Glasgow Herald, Daily Mirror, The Times, Daily Mail, and the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong
Yeah, that is all true!
I was working on the South China Morning Post and flew over for short holidays. That was back in the late Eighties and Thailand was very different then from the way it is now. Working on the SCMP was great fun, back then Hong Kong was a British colony and with the handover to China approaching, there was plenty to write about.
How much time do you spend here?
Most of the year, these days.
Most of what I write about is based on fact, though obviously my plots are fictional. The Jack Nightingale supernatural books are different, obviously, and that world I have to make up. But the Spider Shepherd books are very much based in the real world. My thriller plotlines are plucked from the newspapers and also the result of chats I have with people from that world. Research is relatively easy these days – the internet answers most factual questions. Twenty years ago researching the simplest facts took time and effort, these days Google does all the hard work.
You’ve created hero figures like Dan Shepherd and Jack Nightingale who appear in several of your books. Is this a useful or essential literary device? Who do you base their characters on?
Continuing characters tend to sell better than one-off thrillers. It’s also fun writing about the same character over several books as you get time to develop them. I have written sixteen novels featuring SAS trooper turned undercover cop turned MI5 officer Dan “Spider” Shepherd and he has aged in real time, as his son and friends.
I tend not to base characters on real people, though I do tend to use names of people who have been nice to me on Facebook or posted reviews about my books.
For many people your book Private Dancer about a doomed relationship between a writer and a Soi Nana bar girl is essential reading for newcomers to Thailand. Is it in any way autobiographical?
I think anyone who lives in Thailand for any length of time will experience much of what happens in Private Dancer. It’s a work of fiction, but as lot of what happens is autobiographical, or based on stories that I heard sitting at the bar in Jool’s many years ago. Jool’s on Soi 4 is now a 7-11, but twenty years ago it was a hub for expats and one of the few restaurants where you could get good English food. I would sit at the bar until late just listening to the stories the regulars told.
Can you tell us a bit about your other books on Thailand?
I wrote Confessions of a Bangkok Private Eye with Kiwi Warren Olsen, basically describing the cases he worked on during his time in Thailand. It was good fun and as it’s all based on fact it gives a good description of the problems people can run in to in Thailand.
Bangkok Bob and the Missing Mormon is a detective story set in Thailand. I wrote it for fun but it never sold well so I’m not sure if I’ll write another.’
The problem is that books set in Thailand just don’t sell as well as the books set in the UK or the US. I’m not the only author who has discovered that! It’s very hard to make a living writing books set in South East Asia. I’m not sure why that is, but it is a fact.
Do you have a personal favorite of the books you’ve written?
Nah. There are a few that I think I could have written better, but there’s no clear favourite. Though Pay Off was my first, so that means a lot, and The Chinaman was my first real bestseller, so that one is close to my heart.
Any chance of Hollywood movie based on your books?
The Chinaman has already been made into a Hollywood movie, directed by Martin Campbell and staring Jackie Chan and Pierce Brosnan. It made a cool $140 million, which isn’t shabby. I’ve had two books – The Stretch and The Bombmaker - made into TV movies in the UK, and have a number of projects in the pipeline, or development hell as it’s called.
How successful has Amazon Kindle been for your book sales?
Most of my income comes from eBooks these days, both from my self-published work and those books that are published by Hodder and Stoughton. Amazon has been a huge supporter of mine over the years and they have done wonders selling my backlist, as eBooks and as paperbacks, which is something traditional publishers have always struggled with. In the old days if someone wanted a copy of one of my earlier books they would have to place an order with a book store and wait a week or so before going to collect it.
Should budding authors go straight to self-publishing? No. Far better to get an agent and then, hopefully, a traditional publishing deal. Self-publishing is a tough business and most writers make very little money from it.
How many authors out there are financially successful?
These days, not many. The big names – the likes of Lee Child and Stephen King – are still making vast sums but most writers have seen their incomes decline, partly because of price-cutting by retailers like Amazon, but mainly because people have so many more options now entertainment-wise. Twenty years ago if you got on a plane or a train, most travellers would be reading a book or a magazine. These days they are more likely to be looking at their phone or their iPad.
According to the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society, average earnings for professional writers have plummeted by 42% since 2005 to under £10,500 a year. That means the average writer is earning less than £6 an hour.
The writers who have suffered the most are the ones who are on what they call the mid-list, the mid-ranking authors who produce one book a year and who sell a few thousand copies. They are not profitable for publishers and so many of them are no longer being offered publishing contracts. As a result, the number of professional writers whose income comes solely from writing has plummeted to just 13% in the UK, down from 40% in 2005.
Don’t worry about me, though. I write three books a year to add to the sixty or so I have in print. My backlist sells well and I have a strong, supportive fan base. I’m doing fine.
Who's your favourite author?
I’m a huge fan of John Le Carre. Also love anything by Len Deighton and Gerald Seymour.
High and low points in your career:
There have been no real lows, so far, I have gone from strength to strength. The high point I guess would be going to the LA premiere of The Foreigner, based on my book The Chinaman. It featured Jackie Chan and Pierce Brosnan and was directed by Martin Campbell, who also directed Casino Royale and GoldenEye.
Most interesting people you’ve ever met?
I was hanging out at the SAS base in Hereford in the UK last year and met a lot of interesting folks there. I used to drink with one of the gangsters involved in the Brinks Mat robbery, and he was definitely interesting. And one of my drinking buddies has had a fascinating life but if I told you about it he wouldn’t kill me but he’d never talk to me again!
Where do you hang out in Bangkok?
My favourite drinking spot is outside the Shadow Bar in Soi Cowboy, watching the world go by. I love Check Inn 99 in Soi 33, there’s always great live music there, including a superb Beatles tribute band every Wednesday night. Great music and cocktails too at Zanzibar in Sukhumvit Soi 11.
Food-wise, the best breakfast in Bangkok is in the Robin Hood near Prom Prong BTS station. For Thai food I enjoy Love Scene in Soi 23. For steaks I go to El Gaucho in Asoke or Soi Thonglor, and for French food I love Le Bouchon in Patpong.
For exercise I play squash with Anantana Prasertratanakul (Nan) who is on the Thai national team and who is a great coach. I try to play with her twice a week and it’s awesome exercise.
Any favorite Thai dishes?
Hell yeah. Kana Moo Krob, Kung Chae Nampla, Khao Kha Moo, I could keep going but it’s making me hungry!
I do enjoy playing on Facebook. Twitter is quite mean and hurtful a lot of the time but most of the people I interact with on Facebook are fans. I tend to post a lot about my work but I do also put up photographs of my food and things like my rubber duck collection. I think readers like the fact that they can interact with their favourite authors and they appreciate the fact that I don’t just post about my books.
Can we see you playing your saxophone at Bangkok gigs?
Ha ha. I doubt it. I’ll never be good, but I do enjoy playing the sax.
Apart from Bangkok, where else do you like to spend time in Thailand?
I used to go all over and spent a lot of time in Phuket, Chiang Mai and Pattaya. These days I tend to confine myself to Bangkok. Mass tourism has been a big boost for Thailand’s economy but I preferred it when there weren’t so many tourists around. I prefer to lose myself in a big city rather than wandering around surrounded by tourists and touts.
Other than Thailand, where else could you live?
I could easily live in Marbella in Spain. I love the weather, the food and the wine. And London is the best city on the world. I could easily live there.
Any upcoming literary events here or elsewhere we should know about?
Nah, I tend not to festivals these days. Or book tours. I prefer to concentrate on writing.