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...Jamie felt his heart beating faster as they entered the house and moved into the cavernous hallway, the walls reverberating with a heavy bass beat. Pete knowingly led the way as large, sumptuously decorated rooms flashed by, the music getting louder. They finally came to a set of ornate double doors almost bursting with sound. The record executive flung them open for the boy to take in the decadent scene under subdued lighting. It was as though every detail had been carefully considered and taken care of, he thought. The grand, smoky room was filled primarily by a white middle-aged male gathering who were sipping flutes of champagne, frantically refilled by scantily clad young waiters... Vacuum-Packed is available as a paperback or downloadable e-book.
Vacuum Packed is the most successful and best known novel from the exciting gay writer Robin Newbold. Though Robin was brought up in London, he's spent most of the past few years as a freelance journalist based in Bangkok.
Set in both cities, the novel focuses on two gay teenagers, HIV+ Craig who goes on holiday to Bangkok, after his boyfriend Jamie abandons him on hearing about his positive test result. Jamie starts shagging his away through the London gay scene and appearing in porn movies to feed his drug habit. OutUK's Mike Gray has been talking to Robin about the book, which is now also available as a download, and how Vacuum-Packed came to be written.
Robin Newbold.
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 and dying.

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.


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