Robin: I've always been a big reader but I think a lot of gay fiction is very dated
and conventional and my motivation to write Vacuum-Packed was to create something more
relevant to my own experiences. I mean I enjoy the work of best-selling gay authors
like Alan Hollinghurst and Edmund White but I wanted to write something more gritty, more
sleazy and more now. I'm a big admirer of writers like PP Hartnett and Queer As Folk creator
Russell T. Davies, who get down and dirty and write about contemporary issues rather
than harbouring great literary pretensions. I've always had ambitions of writing a
book really. I'm a journalist by profession and have written numerous features and reports,
so I think, for me, a novel was the next step. Though travelling - in 1997 I backpacked
around Southeast Asia and Australia - provided me with the final kick I needed to put
pen to paper since it was a pretty overwhelming experience.
OutUK: You live in Bangkok and you paint a fascinating picture of gay life
there and the sex tourism which it thrives on … you don't pass any comment … so what
do you want readers to think about it?
Robin: One review of the novel said I neither preach nor condemn and that's
right. I didn't want to set out to judge but I do think some of the characters stand
and fall by their actions and in that way they are held up to ridicule - it's a more
subtle form of disapproval, which I'm sure the reader gets. For instance, the
obnoxious American banker who has a penchant for underage boys and overdoses, I
did meet someone like that and even though he didn't overdose I could imagine
that happening and I think he probably deserves what he gets! I also think the
white men in the novel come out a lot worse than the Thais and in some ways it's
justified because sex tourists often treat these guys like commodities. I've met
boys here who've been earning about 50 pounds, yes 50 pounds, a month working in
Burger King flipping burgers six days a week and then they've turned to prostitution and
can make five or six times that. Who are we to judge? And I do acknowledge sex tourism
is an abuse of power and exploitation but I also think Vacuum-Packed shows it can
sometimes work both ways ie Craig, the main character in the book, is robbed one night
by someone he brings back to his hotel room. I hope it gives the reader the impression
that everything is not always black and white and sex tourism is not necessarily a bad
thing - I know some foreigners who pay for these local boys to go through college and
university so they can have a better life.
OutUK: Is it a true picture do you think, or have recent crackdowns we’ve
read about changed it much?
Robin: Although it certainly wasn't my intention, I'm aware that Vacuum-Packed
adds to the stereotype of Thailand as a sex destination. But I think for a lot of
people that come here, it's just that. Of course there are fashionable bars you can
go with Mercedes and BMWs parked outside and you wouldn't even be aware of prostitution
or money boys or whatever but I was focusing on one particular aspect so I suppose it's
magnified. But there are people who come here specifically to sleep their way around the country.
As for the recent crackdowns, prostitution in Thailand, like anywhere I suppose, is ingrained
in the culture and apparently 90 per cent of the business is reserved for local men - not
tourists - and I don't think the government's so-called "social order" campaign will have any
effect other than cosmetic. There's a lot of powerful men involved in these rackets too and
I don't think the authorities can afford to upset the applecart too much - I mean bars pay
protection money to the police here.
OutUK: You make the gay scene both here and in Bangkok seem pretty shallow, and
suburban family life here in the UK is just as unsatisfying … it's a pretty depressing picture …
Robin: A local reviewer compared my writing to Bret Easton Ellis' The Rules
Of Attraction. He has perfected the art of writing
about the vacuousness of American youth and I suppose I'm getting at the same themes
but from an English perspective, of course. I don't hate the gay scene but there are
some aspects of it that are just ripe to be satirised. The club scene, in particular,
be it London or Bangkok, is a style over substance world, a place where you're judged
on whether you have the right haircut, whether you have "disco tits" and whether you know
where to shop for the right drugs. It's actually hilarious to look at it from the outside
and see people taking it all so seriously and I think it comes across in the black comedy
of the book, so far from being a depressing picture it's a refreshingly cynical one. As
for the sketches on suburban family life in Vacuum-Packed, I just wanted to get across
the banal but sometimes brutal experience of people living behind net curtains. There's
something about suburbia with its manicured lawns and middle class aspirations that's
just so sinister, particularly for a gay teenager - there are just no role models, no
outlets for them there and these places, despite the respectable façades, are often
rampant with homophobia.
OutUK: In spite of the serious themes, you write with tremendous life and
the book moves at a cracking pace … is this how you intended the book to end up?
Robin: One reviewer compared some scenes to a Quentin Tarantino movie and
I suppose Vacuum Packed does have that decadence and hedonism, spiced with an unhealthy
dose of violence! I've got to be happy with that. It's a first novel and you never
quite know how it's going to turn out but I'm absolutely over the moon at the feedback
I've had from people so far. My main aim was to get it published but to get genuine
praise as well is a pleasant bonus. As I said earlier, I didn't set out to write
a great literary novel, I wanted to write something contemporary but also something
that touches on some big themes and I hope I've achieved this. I'm glad people get the humour
too because I remember a friend reading the outline and worrying it would be too bleak
but once he'd read the book, he said he actually found a lot of it funny.
OutUK: You make Jamie a pretty self-centred, selfish character who gets his
come-uppance … do you have any sympathy for him?
Robin: Jamie is one of two main characters in the book, a twentysomething gay man
and I actually think there's a bit of him on all of us, so yes I do have sympathy.
I wanted him to be hateful in some ways but I also wanted people to identify with
him too, which is why I gave him an abusive father and a mother devoid of the
ability to love. He's a product of his circumstances and even his horribly vain
character is motivated by his need to belong to the gay scene. I think a lot of
gay men are under that kind of pressure, to conform to a certain stereotype - be it
what music they buy, what clothes they wear etc. A lot of us can get trapped in that
loop of clubbing, pubbing and shagging and it can be fun for a time but Jamie is
about what happens when you can't find a way out.
OutUK: ...and what about Craig?
Robin: Craig is the other main character, a twentysomething gay man who has
HIV. He's definitely the more sympathetic of the two and one I hope people warm to.
He travels to Thailand and his part of the story is really about the liberation of
travel but also the temptation to live to total excess. It's this battle that makes
his story interesting. I also wanted to portray a character with HIV as being full
of life and hope as I've read so many novels where the disease is all about death
OutUK: HIV, drugs, casual and under-age encounters … do you think yourself that
it's possible to have a happy gay relationship?
Robin Yes, I do think it's actually possible to have a happy gay relationship
but it's not easy! But I don't think this only relates to gay men. There are a
lot of temptations out there but since I've come out, I've been in a relationship
for eight years and three years and it's just something you have to work at.
Vacuum-Packed is about guys in their early twenties, hence the excessive amount of bed hopping.
OutUK: How long did it take you to write?
Robin: Well the idea of Vacuum-Packed was knocking around for five years
or so, after my first round-the-world trip in 1997. But to actually sit down and
write it, I suppose it took me about six months and a lot longer editing.
OutUK: Do you live in Bangkok permanently … and what about coming back to the UK?
Robin: Yes, I've lived in Bangkok for over four years now and absolutely
love it. Aesthetically the city is far from pleasing but it's the people that make
the place. There's an irrepressible buzz and often a surprise around every corner. What with
the food, heat, noise, smells and smiles, it's a city that attacks all the senses! But I
think a five-year tour of duty will probably be enough and I plan to return to London
permanently at the end of this year.
OutUK: How did you end up there?
Robin:I was fascinated by Southeast Asia, Thailand in particular, on my first
trip and came over a couple more times on extended holidays. On my last trip I saw an
ad in a local English-language lifestyle magazine for an editor. I applied, had the
interview and went back to London after my holiday and thought nothing of it. A few days
later I got an email from the managing editor asking me if I'd be free to start in one
month's time! I quit my graduate job at the Financial Times and the rest is history …
OutUK: What next in terms of writing?
Robin: My next novel, which I'm already halfway into writing, is set on an
English university campus and is about the power of unrequited love and the destructiveness
of closeted sexuality. There's a three-way love triangle involving a boyfriend and girlfriend
and another male housemate and it's going to end very messily indeed.
Vacuum-Packed is available from Amazon.