When I set about writing my second novel I realized I had to get deep into the hearts and minds of two very different men – one, a brash and bullish American millionaire with a formidable appetite for self-gratification and excess; the other, a wise and noble Thai Buddhist monk who lives a life of compassion and restraint – and that in order to do this I had to, quite literally, become them. Imagination, though a critical tool for the writer, has its limitations: it does not enable him to get inside the bellies of his characters. For this, actual experience is required. The writer must attempt to transform himself, to live his characters’ lives, in order to capture the labyrinth complexity of their innermost natures.
I began in New York, in a beat-up, grimy hotel, a throwback to the New York of old, when it was ruled by vice rather than virtue, when it possessed a brutal intensity rather than a superficial gentrification: Giuliani, for all his work on law and order, might have robbed the city of its soul. This is where my American millionaire, Don Holmes, was born and brought up, where he was driven to brawl and hustle in the shadows of this city, in its dirt and disorder, to escape his poverty, in frantic and determined pursuit of the American Dream and the utopia it promises.
Landing in JFK at midnight, I jumped in a cab and asked the driver, a gruff and moody bearded Russian, to take me downtown. ‘I want somewhere cheap and dirty,’ was all I said, and he knew exactly where to go, mumbling, quite simply, ‘Okay’. The place he chose was perfect. I threw my bags in the room and took to the streets.
I must have walked for about three hours that first night, moving, seamlessly it appeared, between good and bad block, the former showing itself as I watched a beautiful coiffured couple step from their Bentley, hand the keys to a valet, then enter a luxurious brownstone apartment block; the latter, as I saw an ageing Indian vendor, rugged and exhausted, haul his street cart back to its lock-up for the night. Don had made it to the good block, and yet he’d had to fight a dirty game in order to get there.
Back in the hotel at four a.m., I wrote through till midday, unable to sleep, thoughts ablaze, body jittery, drinking bourbon one minute (Don’s drink) and coffee the next, getting inside my character’s head, trying to feel what it was like for him, what drove him to strive for all that he had. And when I was unable to find any words I simply stared at the cigarette-stained ceiling, a yellow brown; the peeling floral wallpaper from the 70s; the old hole-ridden bedding. I managed, eventually, to fall asleep.
I woke in the early evening with the definite feeling that Don was all about desire – the desire for wealth, for power, for sex – these intense, fundamental urges which can now be fought and paid for in the West – and so I took myself to a swanky restaurant, the place an opulent haze of hallucinogenic colours, shapes and lights, and gorged myself, along with all the other beautiful people there, on Ossobuco and fine Italian wine, then got talking to a Wall Street banker who wore only Brioni and had a penthouse in Tribeca and a holiday home in the Hamptons. ‘Give me a call when you’re next in town,’ he demanded, and handed me a business card, his power etched in its striking gold-embossed letters and matt black background. And finally, I staggered back to my hotel and picked up the phone to a call girl: she knew the hotel, quite how grotty it was, but came all the same.
From hereon I continued to lead a paradoxical life of poverty and hedonism, fluctuating between the material hardship of my hotel room, Don’s youth, and the flamboyant excesses of the city, Don’s adulthood. And when I eventually left New York, it was with the sure sense that I had, at least in part, lived my character’s life, an immortal rapacious one.
And then to Thailand, but not to Bangkok or one of the paradisiacal islands, but rather to Isaan, the remote northeast of the country, where I had now to get inside the belly of my other character, the monk Ajahn Dohn, a man who thought that happiness could not be found in the fulfilment of desire but rather in its eradication. A Buddhist, he believes that our cravings can never be satiated, and that if the purpose of life is indeed the acquisition of peace and happiness, then this is best found in a simple, virtuous and disciplined life, contrary to the one I had just led in New York.
The monastery was situated high up in dense forest, looking out over a striking vista of paddy fields and low hills. I embarked on a retreat. My accommodation was a kuti, a tiny hut made of wood on stilts some eight to ten feet above the ground, with a low narrow bed, a hard mattress, a straight-backed chair, a little table and some shelving for books. I was given a list of precepts to follow: refrain from killing, stealing, lying, sexual misconduct and taking intoxicants. There were also four additional rules of abstinence: eat just one meal a day, have no entertainment, remain silent, and sit and sleep on low, hard surfaces.
I did not sleep well that first night and when the bell sounded at three-thirty a.m. to call everyone to morning chanting and meditation I felt as if I were simply in the midst of a bad dream. I dragged myself to my feet, put on the white shirt and trousers I had been given, and made my clumsy, somnolent way in total darkness up the path that led to the uposatha hall, the main temple building.
Inside I found twenty men and women all seated in perfect upright cross-legged postures, as if puppets’ strings ran all the way from the bases of their spines to the tops of their heads and these were being pulled gently. I, on the other hand, sat slouched on the floor like Jabba the Hut, hunch-backed, bloated and uncomfortable as the abbot commenced the meditation.
All I had to do, he instructed, was focus on my breath in my abdomen, its rising and falling, and yet even this I was unable to do, my mind leaping like a monkey with ADHD from one thought and emotion to the next. I had come here to attain the calm and equanimity of Ajahn Dohn, and yet what I was actually experiencing was more akin to the frustration of a prisoner in solitary confinement going out of his fucking mind.
But once I stopped fighting, once I was able to let go, I had a brief glimpse of the exquisite beauty and simplicity of my other character’s life. The rational, hard-nosed sceptic in me who was all too willing to dismiss eastern spiritual practices as no more than impractical, escapist and delusional had to concede that there was something in them after all.
And so for the next three days I meditated for some ten hours a day, and slowly the thick mud in my mind began to clear and all the striving and craving began to dwindle, and with this came the sense that perhaps I could be happy without indulging myself, without the acquisition of wealth or power.
Back in London, the novel now written, I am still not sure whether I would rather be ablaze with desire like Don or equanimous in mind like Ajahn Dohn. But I am grateful to both of them for showing me their ways.