The Interview: Bookbag Talks To Matt Carrell

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The Interview: Bookbag Talks To Matt Carrell

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Summary: Sue was impressed by Vortex by Matt Carrell and the opportunity to ask the author a few questions when he popped into Bookbag Towers was simply too good to miss.
Date: #
Interviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee

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Sue was impressed by Vortex by Matt Carrell and the opportunity to ask the author a few questions when he popped into Bookbag Towers was simply too good to miss.

  • Bookbag: When you close your eyes and imagine your readers, who do you see?

Matt Carrell: All three of my books are set in Thailand, a country that has negative connotations for many westerners. I fear that some might expect my stories to be salacious and titillating and if so they'll be disappointed. I imagine my readers to be sitting on an aeroplane on the way to Asia. They're going not just for the beaches and the sunshine, they're keen to experience first hand, a culture that is vibrant, complex and fascinating. They'll want to be entertained, amused and, if it's their first visit, they'll be looking for some insights that go beneath the stereotypical sex, drugs and poverty labelling that is so popular in the western media. If they've been before they'll want something that reminds them why they were so eager to return. I hope that both a first time visitor and a returning traveller would be satisfied if they picked up one of my books.

  • BB: Deputy CEO of two major investment businesses to author is quite a step. What prompted the move and have you any regrets about leaving the financial world behind?

MC: I spent nearly thirty years in the financial world and it was definitely time for a change. In truth I always preferred working with words to numbers. After all, I hushed it up initially but it took me two attempts to pass my Maths O Level exam! As my career progressed, I realised that technical skills are taken for granted; the most important thing is the ability to communicate. Whether it's talking to shareholders, suppliers, customers or colleagues you have to be able to find the words to win people over. The transition was not, therefore, from business to authorship, it was from fact; most of the time at least, to fiction. I'm still involved on a part-time basis with a couple of financial enterprises, but I spend far more of my time travelling and writing, I have no regrets at all about making that change.

  • BB: You're on record as saying that human beings struggle with the concept of enough. Do you have enough? Or could we adapt Samuel Johnson's thoughts on London and say that a man who has enough has had enough of life?

MC: I believe that people often get trapped into believing they can never have enough material wealth. The pursuit of money and status symbols becomes an end in itself and that can distort a person's judgement, or even the morals and ethics by which they have previously lived. I walked away from my city career because I believe money is only a means to an end. I was anxious to do things that I never had the time to do before and five years on, I wish I'd taken the step sooner.

Whilst I'm in no doubt that the pursuit of wealth can be self-defeating, I don't believe one can ever have enough experiences. I quit my full time role in the investment industry when it became routine. Writing has opened up a new world and introduced me to people I would never have met had I stayed in business. It has been incredibly invigorating. I'd say if you've had enough of London, as I certainly had, go out and do something completely different.

  • BB: Vortex will provoke thought in a lot of people. Asset managers can mismanage, but it's not their money they put at risk or lose. It could be argued that investors should be aware of the risks they take, but as with the banking crisis of 2008 there's a lot of collateral damage. Can - or should - anything be done about this?

MC: Financial markets are becoming more and more complex, and it's hard to see that trend reversing. Regulators throughout the world are constantly playing catch up with what's going on in the banking world. The problem is that their approach is to build a crossing where the last pedestrian got run over so, whilst they've stopped the recurrence of one problem, they're not anticipating the next one. While the financial institutions continue to attract the brightest and the best talent, I can't really see the authorities who supervise them ever getting ahead of the game. The tragedy of 2008 was that it was foreseeable. Politicians were aware that unsustainable levels of debt were fuelling the world economy. Any measure they took to deal with that would have put the brakes on what appeared to be an economic boom. With their standing in the polls at stake, that was something they were simply not willing to do. This is the central theme that I wanted to explore in Vortex. However successful a person is, however much they get paid and regardless of their responsibilities, the temptation to pursue their own interests at the expense of others is often irresistible.

  • BB: You divide your time between England and the French Alps but it seems to have been Thailand which has touched a literary nerve. Why? And would you want to live in Thailand?

MC: Tell your friends you're going to Thailand and, if you're a man, you are likely to be greeted with a knowing smile and a broad wink. There is after all, many believe, only one reason to make the trip. I had the same preconception before my work took me there in around 2003. Fortunately it's now my wife's favourite holiday destination and I still have a consultancy client in the region. I've visited regularly for over a decade and every trip is a voyage of discovery. I had Thailand down as a hazelnut, crack the shell and there it is. It's actually an onion and I'm still peeling the layers. The highest compliment I have received as an author is that many readers think I live in Thailand; even expats credit me with an in depth understanding of Thai society and the foreigners who have chosen to live there permanently. I hope that my books will entertain whilst simultaneously offering readers an authentic insight into a truly extraordinary country.

For the moment, I can't imagine making Thailand my home. Part of its allure is the contrast with England and France. I'd like to continue to enjoy that comparison.

  • BB: Thailand has a reputation for depravity, but people who know the country also recognise the poverty, exploitation and inequalities. How do you think that can be changed?

MC: My heart sinks when I read well-intentioned people saying that we should all boycott Thailand because of its sex industry. That would be counter productive in the extreme. The spectacular growth of tourism has given Thais choices they never had before. There was a time when prostitution was the default option for many of those struggling to make ends meet. As tourism grows, so will the opportunities to find work. Even in towns like Pattaya, which owed much of its growth to the sex industry, things are changing rapidly. It's now a popular destination for families and couples and the local authorities are doing all they can to accelerate that transition. Sex will always be on sale, as it is in very other country in the world, the difference is that poorer locals now have alternatives.

Having said that, I do fear for the country's future. At the heart of the current political crisis is the belief amongst some of the wealthiest and most powerful in Thailand, that democracy does not work. They believe that it gives the poor too much influence in running the country because there are so many of them. If this attitude prevails it is hard to see how the gap between rich and poor can be closed. We need two blades on the scissors, more tourism to ensure the people of Thailand have opportunities and choices as to how they make their living, but also for the democratic process to ensure more resources are applied to support the poorest people in the country.

  • BB: You're a football fan. Who would you like to win the World Cup - and who do you think will win?

MC: I know that I'm supposed to say England but I became disenchanted the last time they reached the finals of a major tournament. I didn't see any of the passion and pride the players routinely put into performances for their own clubs. Sportsmen are paid astronomical sums of money to do something most people can only dream of doing and I'm not convinced they recognise just how privileged they are. I hope the winner is a team that plays with flair, that entertains and gives the crowd its money's worth. If that team was England, I'd be delighted, I suspect it's more likely to come from South America.

  • BB: What are you reading at the moment? If you had one book on a desert island, what would it be?

MC: I recently finished The Amber Spyglass, the last in Philip Pullman's, His Dark Materials trilogy. I'm slightly embarrassed by the admission, as they are essentially children's books, but I found them mesmerising. It's tough enough to write something that resonates with one audience. Pullman's work delivers on two levels, it obviously speaks to a younger audience, but it is a superb critique of the power of religion and corruption amongst those in authority. It's a dimension I would dearly love to bring to my own writing.

If I were banished to a desert island, my practical side would come out. I'd have to opt for a survival guide. There are very few books that I think I could read over and over again, Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks would be a contender, Julian Barnes' Flaubert's Parrot another, but I suspect even they would lose their appeal over time. My favourite books are those that entertain but also educate. The survival guide would tick the second box and presumably would have been written by someone who made it back to civilisation. I'd like to cling to the hope that I could follow suit.

  • BB: You've got one wish. What's it to be?

MC: I know I'm supposed to say world peace, or an end to poverty or social inequality but anyone who reads my books will know I have a fairly pessimistic outlook regarding human nature. I fear that if we could deliver one of those objectives, mankind would find another way of screwing things up and we'd all be back to square one.

I'd be incredibly selfish and imbue myself with an impossible gift. Many people say they'd like to see into the future but I think that would take away one of the joys of being. Not knowing what's around the next corner is part of the essence of being human. I'd opt for the ability to see into the past. I'd love to be an observer at the court of Henry VIII, to see what Ancient Rome was really like or witness the early settlements by Europeans in North America. I could answer those great unknowns of history. Was there a gunman on the grassy knoll back in 1963 when was Kennedy was shot? What happened to the Mary Celeste? Who was Jack the Ripper? I could repay my fellow man for this incredible power by helping to alleviate what I think must be the most painful thing a human being can endure. Losing a loved one is horrendous, but loss without closure must border on the unbearable. For the families of missing children or for those with relatives or friends on flight MH370, I'd like to be able to give them the peace of mind of at least knowing what happened to their loved ones.

  • BB: What's next for Matt Carrell?

MC: I'll keep writing as long as I can think of stories that I believe are entertaining. I've had some wonderful feedback on what is already out there, if that stops then I will know it's time to pack up the laptop. This summer will see the publication of A Matter of Life and Death. It's set around a fictitious Premier League football club and explores just how far people will go to secure fame, fortune and glory. I've also completed about half of the sequel to Vortex. That should be out by the end of the year.

  • BB: There's plenty for us to look forward to there, Matt - and thank you for chatting to us.

You can read more about Matt Carrell here.

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