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Tom Vater: “Do your own thing”

The biggest naysayer in my life has been myself. No doubt about it. I mean, there were/are others, jealous or small minded, petty and usually reactionary colleagues in the media, who get upset at the fact that I am still here making a living from what I love doing, that I write successfully in a […]

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The biggest naysayer in my life has been myself. No doubt about it. I mean, there were/are others, jealous or small minded, petty and usually reactionary colleagues in the media, who get upset at the fact that I am still here making a living from what I love doing, that I write successfully in a language that I adopted, the list is sheer endless but their distractive behavior only had a short term impact on me. In reality, it’s always me who says nay to my craziest schemes.


As a part of our series about “dreamers who ignored the naysayers and did what others said was impossible”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Tom Vater.

Tom Vater is a writer, publisher & editor working in Asia for 25 years. He’s the author of numerous books, including Sacred Skin, the first title on Thailand’s spirit tattoos, and The Cambodian Book of the Dead, the first in a series of acclaimed thrillers set in Southeast Asia. His features on the environment, tourism, youth culture etc. are published in a wide range of media.

Tom co-founded Asia’s only English language crime fiction imprint, Crime Wave Press (www.crimewavepress.com), and the book-coaching service Sand Scribes (www.sandscribes.com). Read more at www.tomvater.com or on Twitter at @tomvater.


Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to ‘get to know you’ a bit better. Can you tell us your ‘backstory’?

I was born and grew up in Germany, moved to the UK when I was 18, where I studied and then played punk rock in numerous long forgotten bands, touring round Europe until a short visit to India in 1993. I fell in love with Asia and returned the same year with a modest grant from the British Library to record indigenous music across the subcontinent. I did this for some years and wrote about my experiences. In 1997, I wrote my first article about Nepali music for a daily paper in Kathmandu. I’ve written more than a dozen books, several documentary screenplays and many articles for a wide variety of media. I’ve been on the road for more than 25 years. Prior to COVID19, I don’t think I stopped anywhere longer than 3 months in any one place. And I still occasionally pick up a guitar.

Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Together with writing coach Brian Gruber and publishing PR manager Henry Roi, I’ve recently started Sand Scribes,a unique, start-to-finish range of vital services that pave a first-time author’s way to a published book. This includes one-on-one coaching while the writer crafts her story, seasoned editing to make the work shine, advice on key writing issues during the literary journey, book cover design and formatting, publishing consulting and hands-on self-publishing support and, crucially, a set of proven programs for marketing the title.

In your opinion, what do you think makes your company or organization stand out from the crowd?

Sand Scribes know all about telling stories. Brian Gruber and I have spent our professional writing lives traveling the world, working in a myriad of creative industries and literary genres. Henry Roi has worked as a publicist for independent writers and fiction imprints for the past six years.

Brian has published a globetrotting romance novel, an oral history, and a book on jazz fusion, and runs a writing group on the island of Koh Phangan in Thailand.

I have published crime fiction as well as reportage for media in the United States, England, France, Germany and elsewhere for 25 years. I have edited more than 30 crime novels along with several non-fiction titles.

Check out a short interview with the Sand Scribes here.

Ok, thank you for that. I’d like to jump to the main focus of this interview. Has there ever been a time that someone told you something was impossible, but you did it anyway? Can you share the story with us? What was your idea? What was the reaction of the naysayers? And how did you overcome that?

The biggest naysayer in my life has been myself. No doubt about it. I mean, there were/are others, jealous or small minded, petty and usually reactionary colleagues in the media, who get upset at the fact that I am still here making a living from what I love doing, that I write successfully in a language that I adopted, the list is sheer endless but their distractive behavior only had a short term impact on me. In reality, it’s always me who says nay to my craziest schemes.

There’s a dialogue in my head — should I start this novel and invest six moths of my life into sitting alone at a table in a room, or should I instead write shorter pieces that will put me in a better place financially. This tussle sometimes goes on for months.

After I lost my publishing contract for my Detective Maier novels in 2014, I was so depressed I didn’t write any fiction for three years. But in the end I proved the naysayer in myself wrong and wrote another novel, 2018’s The Monsoon Ghost Image.

And ironically, Covid also helped put down the naysayer in me. There is less freelance work for writers. I can’t travel to research new stories. This has given me the time to tackle the next novel — an environmental thriller I am now a third through, keeping that naysayer in myself at bay, every day, every minute that I sit at my desk and write.

In the end, how were all the naysayers proven wrong? 🙂

The naysayers are proved wrong by yourself getting on with whatever you’re doing, irrespective of what others are thinking.

The people who complicated my life because of my success as a writer were proved wrong because I didn’t just become a successful journalist and continue to make a living at writing, I also became a successful publisher, the co-founder of Crime Wave Press, and I am part of a team that teaches novice writers the technical side of the craft with our new service, Sand Scribes. I think focusing on one’s critics is a waste of time. Just keep doing what you’re doing as well as you can.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I was really inspired by Fred Branfman, the whistleblower who exposed the secret US bombing of Laos in the 1960s. In 1969, at the height of the US war in neighboring Vietnam, Branfman encountered Laotian refugees in a temple in Vientiane, the country’s capital, who told him about the bombing of their villages by American planes. Officially, the US had no military involvement in Laos. For Branfman, it was a life changing experience. He recounted his discovery in the 2008 documentary The Most Secret Place on Earth, which I co-wrote. And during the making of which I became good friends with Fred.

Branfman interviewed more than 2000 refugees and began to work as a journalist to create awareness about his government’s secret war. Whilst in Laos, he met Noam Chomsky and persuaded him to listen to the refugees, the beginning of a lifelong friendship.

In 1971, Branfman presented the eye witness accounts he had amassed at the Edward Kennedy Senate Sub Committee on Refugees in Washington: “There is a good deal of evidence to suggest that the United States has been carrying out the most protracted bombing of civilians in history.”

It was Fred’s testimony and insights that not only contributed to the film but also shaped my own outlook on life. Fred was a dedicated pacifist and peace campaigner but he was also a wickedly funny, erudite and frivolous guy and a great writer with whom I spent many instructive hours at his home in Santa Barbara and my home in Bangkok. He passed away in 2014.

It must not have been easy to ignore all the naysayers. Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Can you share the story with us?

When I was in school, I edited the students’ paper. At some point the magazine got together with a bunch of other school magazines to produce an issue on political issues that teenagers were interested in in the early 80s — the US presence on German soil, nuclear power, a new runway at Frankfurt Airport. My school reacted very badly to this. They stopped us selling the issue on the school grounds and then impounded a huge pile of magazines. One of my teachers made us burn those copies. I was a powerless teenager, but I did learn something about the power of the written word which informs my professional writing life years later.

Based on your experience, can you share 5 strategies that people can use to harness the sense of tenacity and do what naysayers think is impossible? (Please share a story or an example for each)

Do your own thing.

After I finished college with a degree in publishing and English Lit, I joined several punk bands and spent months in the back of Transit vans touring around Europe. There was very little money, especially in the former communist countries, but the crowds there were often enthusiastic and eclectic and to be able to travel through Poland, East Germany, Slovakia, & Czech Republic in the early 90s was an eye-opening experience. We were robbed, fined and arrested by police, wrote off several vans, fought off Nazi skinheads, ate terrible food, traveled with many other musicians, drove to the far corners of Europe, often repeatedly. We had fights and made up. We started our own record label, we all got the label’s logo tattooed on us in Leipzig and got a distribution deal with Rough Trade, the UK’s then largest indie music distributor. We produced vinyl records with vinyl on one side and fake fur on the other. We loved every minute of it. I suppose some people around me didn’t understand how I could live like this. I realized eventually that I wasn’t able to sustain myself through rock music, so I bailed for Asia. But in retrospect, it was a hugely creative time that informs my life and work to this day.

Don’t do anything just for the money.

If you’re lucky and privileged enough not to have to work full time to make ends meet, then go for whatever you have a craving for. When I knew I wanted to be a writer, at age 27, in a moldy newspaper office in Kathmandu, I could not imagine a single obstacle to my ambition. Certainly not a lack of money. I’m very lucky that I can make a living from my craft now. But when I started off, I wrote a thousand words a day, every day. Some I sold, some I didn’t. It didn’t matter. If you’re bursting with creative energy and you have the discipline to get really good at whatever it is you’re doing, then you will perhaps make some sort of living out of your passion eventually. But it’s not really about that. That’s the bonus. The real thrill is the struggle itself.

Don’t work for free.

Every now and then a magazine, newspaper or TV station contacts me for an interview or quote on something I often write about — travel in Asia etc. I always ask how much my expertise, the 20+ years I have spent on the road accumulating knowledge is worth. Some media pay for interviews, others tell me that it’s good exposure. I can’t eat exposure. Exposure is great when you come out of college.

Find your passion and follow it to the end.

Once you found what you’re into, go after it. No compromises. If you love it, let it kill you. Once I knew, this was it, I was going to be a writer, I just wrote and wrote until I learned how to sell my work, a skill that was just as hard to learn as the writing. I knew I didn’t want to do anything else in life. Within a year I was working on a novel, The Devil’s Road to Kathmandu, and a non-fiction book, both of which were eventually published. If you start that book, painting, house design, garden lay-out, song cycle, what ever it maybe, finish it. You’ll feel better.

You’re only as good as your last story.

Everyone gets tired of that demon life that’s got us in its sway eventually. Some of us don’t manage to slow down, to step away from the madness, the daily drama. Some writing jobs I stuck with because they were easy, mindless and reasonably profitable. That’s reality. The trick is not to get disheartened and to be able to produce good work consistently. Every story I write, I try to write my best.

What is your favorite quote or personal philosophy that relates to the concept of resilience?

“If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” 
― Frederick Douglass

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

Slow climate change by curtailing the sins of capitalism, so that the next generations don’t fry.

Can our readers follow you on social media?

Find out more about my work at https://www.facebook.com/tomvater

& https://www.facebook.com/CrimeWavePress

& https://www.facebook.com/sandscribesbooks

or on Twitter at @tomvater, @crimewavepress & @SandScribes

Thank you for these great stories. We wish you only continued success!

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