I’ve been reading Into the Badlands by British writer John Williams, an account of his two month road trip exploring ‘the underbelly of the American dream’, based on interviews with his favourite American crime writers. At one point, he drives through Chicago’s Hegewisch neighbourhood with Sara Paretsky, who points out a house she imagines as the childhood home of her fictional PI, VI Warshawski. I smiled when I read this, relieved to learn I’m not the only writer who feels compelled to find housing for people who don’t exist.
In Thailand, I needed to find two houses for my surrogate character: one where she lives with her family in the northeastern province of Sisaket; another where she spends the later part of her pregnancy in Bangkok, together with other surrogates. For the former, I chose one in a strip of humble wooden houses, where people serve food out front at night. For the latter, I chose a place off Thanon Sukhumvit in downtown Bangkok.
Little more than a dirt road in the 1960s, Sukhumvit has become one of Bangkok’s busiest thoroughfares. Today it is lined with shopping malls and upmarket hotels, a Skytrain line running above it. Smaller roads that intersect with Sukhumvit are known as soi: odd-numbered soi run north of Sukhumvit, while even-numbered soi run south. Off these numbered sois, in turn, is a network of even smaller lanes, many of them cul-de-sacs. It’s like Sukhumvit is the main river, the sois the major tributaries, and the lanes the creeks — the roadmap a palimpsest of the old canal system that comprised the transport routes back when the city was a swamp.
When I first arrived in Bangkok for this field visit, I stayed in Sukhumvit Soi 11, where I’ve often stayed before, though my erstwhile favourite hotel is now a hole in the ground, slated to become a condominium. When my family arrived to join me, I relocated to the Atlanta Hotel in Soi 2, something of a Bangkok institution, a bastion of morality, despite its proximity to some of the city’s sleazier areas. This time around, I’m in a laneway off Soi 22 in an apartment-cum-hotel, with established trees in the garden and a pond filled with frogs as big as my hand.
While much of what makes Bangkok unique is disappearing beneath the ubiquitous shopping centres — I never imagined this city could look like any other Asian metropolis — some of its charm endures, at least for now. For example, you can turn down a soi off a thoroughfare like Sukhumvit, walk past the seedy bars, dodgy massage businesses and 7-Elevens, and before you know it, find yourself in a residential enclave, where tall, lush trees dangle aequal roots like beaded curtains, sparrows chatter, squirrels scuttle along the electric wires, and dogs of indeterminate breed (and in varying states of neglect) alternately laze in the sun and bark at strangers. I’m staying in one such enclave; my surrogate character lives in another.
Space is at a premium in Bangkok, where affordable housing takes the form of tiny, two-room condominium apartments in areas where dotted lines on maps indicate that the mass transit system will one day arrive. The poorest live, if not on the streets, then in corrugated iron squalor along the railway tracks. It is surprising, then, to find many low-rise, free-standing houses in the sois off Sukhumvit, albeit hidden behind high fences and even higher trees. A Thai friend says such properties are owned by the country’s richest families; many are left empty, others rented out. This explains why some places look less glamorous than the location and infrastructure suggest.
It’s in one such house off Sukhumvit that I decided my surrogates should board, a two-story, free standing property with an ageing bench swing on the porch and clothes drying on racks in the courtyard. The house is walking distance from a Skytrain station, a couple of stops from where an IVF clinic might feasibly be, making it easy for the surrogates to attend their medical appointments.
As I walked along the soi, I tried to imagine how my surrogate character would feel about her temporary home, what might intimidate or, alternatively, comfort her. Certainly, the implied wealth of such a location — the houses with their ornate gates, flags flying from security guard boxes — would be intimidating. Likewise, the busy bar and restaurant at the mouth of the soi, which attract upmarket crowds. At the same time, she would be perhaps comforted by the plant- and birdlife, the familiar accents of the security guards and street vendors, the sight of the monks making the rounds with their alms bowls. She, or one of the other surrogates, might discover that a security guard working nearby was from a neighbouring village. They might convince him to share some of the green mangoes that overhang the front fence of the property in exchange from some of the yam ma muang they plan to make with it.
In addition to finding the surrogates a house, I also found them a temple, and several eateries and, later today, I will visit a park where I imagine them going for strolls in the cool of the evening.
Not all my characters have housing. For some, it’s enough to give them a street or even a suburb. But it’s helpful for me in animating the Thai characters in my novel to have a sense of their material circumstances.
I’m curious to know if other writers do similar. Does it help you to have real world points of reference in terms of where your characters hark from and/or live? Or do you carry their entire worlds in your head?