Friday, August 24, 2012

The Story Behind the Story: “The Devil’s Road
to Kathmandu,” by Tom Vater

(Editor’s note: This 36th entry in our “Story Behind the Story” series comes from Tom Vater, a journalist and author who operates principally in South and Southeast Asia. His stories have appeared in such publications as The Times of London, The Guardian, The Far Eastern Economic Review, Discovery, Marie Claire, The Asian Wall Street Journal, and Penthouse. He’s currently The Daily Telegraph’s Bangkok expert. Vater is the author most recently of a non-fiction book, Sacred Skin: Thailand’s Spirit Tattoos. Below, though, he looks back on the roots of an earlier work, which--after being unavailable for some while--can now be enjoyed as an e-book.)

My first novel, The Devil’s Road to Kathmandu, recently received a second lease on life. First published to favorable reviews by Dragon’s Mouth/Orchid Press, a very short-lived Hong Kong-based imprint, in 2006, The Devil’s Road has now been reissued as a Kindle e-book with up-and-coming crime-fiction publisher Crime Wave Press, also based in Hong Kong.

The Devil’s Road to Kathmandu was and is a long work. In 1976, four friends--Dan, Fred, Tim, and Thierry--drive a bus along the hippie trail from London, England, to Kathmandu. En route in Pakistan, a drug deal goes badly wrong, yet the boys escape with their lives and the narcotics. Thousands of kilometers, numerous acid trips, accidents, nightclubs, and a pair of beautiful Siamese twins later, as they finally reach the counter-culture capital of the world, Kathmandu, Fred disappears with the drug money.

A quarter-century later, after receiving mysterious e-mail messages inviting them to pick up their share of the money, Dan, Tim, and Thierry go back to Kathmandu. The Nepalese capital is not the blissful mountain backwater they remember. Soon a trail of kidnapping and murder leads across the Roof of the World. With the help of Dan’s backpacking son, a tattooed lady, and a Buddhist angel, the aging hippies try to solve a 25-year-old mystery that leads them amongst Himalayan peaks for a dramatic showdown with their past.

I first started thinking about writing a novel/thriller about the overland hippie trail between London and Kathmandu in the late 1990s, when I did the journey myself, albeit in the opposite direction. In 1998, with barely an inkling that I would soon be a writer making a living from my craft, I set off from Kathmandu in Nepal, traveled through India, Pakistan, Iran, and finally Turkey, where I ran out of money and used the last few dollars I had to fly to Switzerland to work in a factory.

In Pakistan I met a drug dealer, in the now notorious Swat Valley, who would later become the template for Harun Rashid, one of the drug dealers in The Devil’s Road. In Peshawar, a hotbed of smuggling and then one of the centers of Taliban activity, I met a Mr. Khan, who ran a tourist hotel in which numerous junkies, most of them Japanese, were lying in a dormitory, consuming and clocking time.

Back in Europe, I attended a party at which four old friends, all of them significantly older than me, celebrated an odd reunion--they had driven a bus from the UK to Nepal in the mid-’70s, had lost track of each other, and finally met up again. It was the spark that I needed for my story. But the characters in my novel were not based on those men. At the time I was just starting out to write fiction and made a living from travel journalism. I adopted friends, acquaintances, lovers, and enemies and combined them to come up with the exotic individuals who populate my story.

I did not get into writing the text properly until 2001. Then living in London, but already with many thousands of miles of travel in Asia under my belt, I composed the first draft in an old tower block council flat just as the planes slammed into the World Trade Center in New York City. But by that time, the story was already standing and I chose to ignore 9/11 in the context of my tale, some of which was of course set in 2001, though it did provide constant--and in a perverse way, welcome--distraction from the writing process.

I was very close friends with a tattooed lady at the time, which provided significant inspiration for a long tattoo episode in Kathmandu. I also remember very much enjoying the writing of a long nightclub scene. The Grey Parrot, as I called it, was the funkiest place in Esfahan, Iran, prior to the Islamic revolution and it was a truly wild place. The club, with its allusions to drugs and sex, was more than a figment of my imagination; I knew someone who had spent considerable time in 1970s Iran, and who conveyed to me stories of Tehran’s eclectic nightlife. The true template, though, was a club in Luxor, Egypt, I hung out in during the mid-’90s, which had similar music and a clientele like the eccentrics described in my novel. I passed through Iran in 1998, during the football world cup. The United States played its eternal foe, and I ended up playing a match against Iranian security forces in Esfahan. This formed part of my impressions of the city, and the story can still be read on my blog today.

I think William Burroughs once wrote that writers are like people who sail ships, and the less experience they have, the closer they should stay to the shore. I took this advice to heart, so almost everything in The Devil’s Road to Kathmandu is in some way based on an experience that I had, or that a close acquaintance of mine had. I needed to be able to relate to everything I was writing about, directly. I needed to be able to feel the very fibers of my narrative to make the story ring true. As unlikely as this tale of high adventure may seem today, I lived it more than my next novel, The Cambodian Book of the Dead (now available as an e-book, but with a paperback release due in October), which is far more of a classic genre enterprise.

To me, The Devil’s Road to Kathmandu is a part of my life in the same way a relative I occasionally bump into might be. The second, new edition is actually quite different from the original version. Given the opportunity to republish, I cut a lot of flab (about 3,000 words worth), straightened out the style a little, and lost a sub-level narrative that appeared stilted and awkward. A meaner and leaner tale of derring-do and high crime (and that’s a pun folks, as the protagonists in the 1970s segments are completely stoned almost all of the time) has emerged, a more focused text with more entertainment and less writer’s ego. It’s been an incredible and long journey on The Devil’s Road from those early thoughts about writing a novel based on my experiences in the ’90s to its current reissue.

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