Associate Editor Jim Weitz

Interview with Don Linder,
Author of The Last Executioner

Don Linder is a New Yorker living in northern Thailand, Chiang Mai Province. In 2014, he wrote a screenplay called The Last Executioner about the last man in Thailand to execute people by machine gun before lethal injection became the preferred method of capital punishment. Besides garnering several international awards, the biopic became the first film written by a foreigner to win best screenplay in Thailand—the prestigious Takata Tong award (literal translation “Golden Doll” award), the equivalent of the Oscars. I talked with Don about the challenges that he as a foreigner faced researching and writing a very personal biopic in a distinctly foreign culture, his development as a writer, his approach to writing generally, as well as what he’s working on now.


Weitz for O:JA&L:  How did you become interested in writing?

Linder:  “My first interest was poetry. I remember reading EE Cummings and writing my first three poems when I was 11 years old. Later, in college and graduate school at Columbia University, I studied comparative literature with a focus on modernism, specifically Irish writers like Yates, Joyce and Synge. In between, I went to Stuyvesant high school, which specializes in math and science. On the one hand, the curriculum there gave me an almost analytic base for processing information—a sort of logical pithiness, which had an impact on my writing. And on the other hand, the atmosphere of the school was conducive generally to creativity. Nobody cared how you dressed or wore your hair. A close friend of mine there was Walter Becker, who became a founding member of Steely Dan. That kind of blend that I was around, scientific and artistic, had an influence on me.”

Weitz for O:JA&L:  You say you were interested in poetry early on. How did you come to write prose?

Linder:  “It was a very organic change. My poems started showing narrative elements with characters, scenes and descriptions, which finally just transitioned to prose. I found very quickly that I’m a short story writer not a novelist. It has to do with my worldview. I view the world episodically. Not as a closed-system, which makes an easy transition to screen writing, which is episodic, scene after scene.”

Weitz for O:JA&L:  Do you have any particular approach to writing prose?

Linder:  “I very definitely define myself as a character-centered rather than a plot-centered writer. I do have a sense of how a character acts and what decisions a character would make in a given situation. To me the most important thing is to deeply understand the character, and understand what a character would do in any given situation, whether that action is expressed or not.

“I used to work with the novelist John Gardner. John and I were light years apart philosophically. We saw the world very differently. But he was a fantastic editor. Just as an example, I might bring a 30 page short story to John, and he’d say something like “the Buick should be green not red.” And I knew exactly what that meant. It meant that if the main character went into a show room, he would choose that color car, and that sets off a whole universe of other decisions. It sounds strange, I know. But to me the most important thing is to really deeply understand what a character would do in any given situation.

“And every story’s essentially about transformation. Understanding a character’s transformation is key. The plot elements kind of move that along. Whereas a more plot-centered writer sort of sees the plot as determining the character’s choices and feelings.”

Weitz for O:JA&L:  How did this character-centered approach influence your writing in The Last Executioner?

Linder:  “The quirks and disjunctions in a character are what I find most interesting. In 2007, I met Chavoret Jaruboon at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand (FCCT) in Bangkok. There were three people on a panel taking questions. One was an Australian woman who worked with slum kids and prisoners and was known as “the angel of Bangkok.” Then there was a Thai man who had spent ten years in jail for money laundering. Then there was Chavoret. What interested me in him was that this was a guy I could be sitting next to in Starbucks, and yet he executed 55 people. It’s that kind of disjunction that interests me. Writing a story that explores an intriguing disjunction in a character’s personality.

Executioner.MV5BMzc1MDE4OTIwMl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNTU1MTQ1MTE@._V1_SY1000_CR006761000_AL_-1.jpgWeitz for O:JA&L:  How did you go about getting to know Chavoret? What was that process like?

Linder:  “At the FCCT, I think I was the last person to ask him a question—and he spoke English well. I asked, ‘How do you reconcile your Buddhism with what you do? What do you do after an execution? Do you go out for beers with the guys?’ And it turns out he did! And his answer to my question about Buddhism was a very pat answer, I thought. He felt like he was helping the prisoners fulfill their karma in a gentle and benevolent way. And yet he didn’t define himself as a religious person, he didn’t go to the wat all the time. He felt he was a spiritual person, but not in the traditional religious sense.

“After the panel I went up to his editor and told him I’d like to do an interview with him. And originally I had in mind maybe a feature article for the New Yorker or New York Times Magazine. And they arranged for me to meet him at his office in the prison a week later. By that time he was no longer an executioner. He had become the foreign affairs sort of liaison because he spoke English and he was good with the embassy people and the foreign prisoner’s families. He had several books out in English, and several in Thai, the most famous being “The Last Executioner.”

“When I went to see him in his office it was probably the most bizarre interview I ever did. His first love was rock’n roll. We talked for about 5 hours. But for the first half hour without any explanation he just started playing air guitar and singing Beatles and Elvis tunes. I thought, well this is pretty interesting…. Later, as time went on, I must have interviewed about 50 people as part of my research, from his family, to his drummer in his first rock band when he was 19, to his monk confidante.

“In addition to being fairly well tuned to character, I’ve travelled all my life and I can pick up some of the key elements of different cultures fairly quickly. And I had lived in Thailand seven years or so by that point, so I knew the culture. That all together is how I got to know him. And then as I was researching the script, there was one woman who was American-Thai, born in Laos, but whose parents are American, and who had spent many years in Thailand and is very Thai, and she gave me a lot of insight into about 50 hours of the video interviews, giving me a lot of the cultural insights I might have missed, which was extremely helpful.

“When you do that kind of research, you get sometimes very wildly different stories from different people, and it’s the writer’s job to synthesize that, and make some reality out of that. When you’re writing fiction, it makes it a little bit easier because you can make up a situation that kind of fits.”

Weitz for O:JA&L:  I read that the other people who were asking questions at the FCCT that night were asking softball questions, which I thought was kind of strange. Why wouldn’t other writers not see an interesting story there? I imagine there are a lot of these sorts of stories, sort of regular people with unusual backgrounds. And how do you find these sorts of people?

Linder:  “For me, it just surprised me. A lot of these people were top journalists. I don’t know why it happened. I’ve taught writing a lot. Is it something you can really teach to people? I think you can teach a little structure, plotting and how to look at characters. For me it’s more a sense of things. I’ve always been more interested in the people around me. The writer Studs Turkel was a longshoreman from Chicago, his most famous quote, well his most famous book was full of little vignettes of different people. That was a formative book for me, seeing how you quickly get to someone’s personality. Something that is accurate to your own vision.”

Weitz for O:JA&L:  Did you find that he seemed to feel any guilt or ambiguous feelings, or was he at peace?

Linder:  “He didn’t set out to be an executioner. When he was 19 years old, he was playing rock’n roll. Then he met his wife, and she got pregnant. He was an intensely responsible man. So he decided he had to give up his love of rock’n roll and do the responsible thing. For me, one of the main themes of the movie is the perennial struggle between being an artist and making a living. He tried other jobs, like working on an oilrig, and they didn’t work out. So he passed the civil service exam for a prison guard, which offered a stable job, and because he was so precise and committed, they asked him if he would be an executioner. He got an extra 2000 Baht per execution, in those days a lot of money. For him, in some ways it was just a job. One thing about Chavoret, he was very good at compartamentalizing. He could do his execution, go out for beers with the guys, and love his family. He did it mostly by compartementalizing. I don’t know whether he was pro or anti-capital punishment. I got the sense he became anti-capital punishment, though I can’t say for sure. I don’t know whether he had moments of horror or nightmares, I don’t know, he never revealed that to me.”

Weitz for O:JA&L:  At one point in the movie, he went to a monk to ask about his karma, and the monk says ‘don’t worry about that’, almost as if he were surprised he’s bringing it up.

Linder:  “I got to know his monk-confidante well. They often toured together, going to schools warning kids about drugs. I ask the monk about the karma issues, and his answer was that Chavoret was an executioner not a murderer. So, what I glean from that is this was his job.”

Weitz for O:JA&L:  Shifting gears a little. What would you say is the role of the writer in contemporary life?

Linder:  “Telling the truth. But there are obviously very different shades of telling the truth. So maybe it’s an attempt to tell the truth, whether it’s fiction or journalism or anything.

“A rational person has their own truth, but also recognizes that other people have other perspectives. One of the first premises of writing any kind of opinion piece is you always make some reference to the opposition.”

“And it has to be interesting.”

Weitz for O:JA&L:  What are you working on now?

Linder:  “A story called Ghost People, about the Hmong people who live in Lao and Northern Thailand. They are basically mountain people.”

Weitz for O:JA&L:  What’s the story about?

Linder:  “It’s about the Hmong themselves and also the guy who came up with the scheme to recruit the Hmong as mercenaries. I interviewed the grandson of this man. The grandson is now a senior TV correspondent, and I was able to get a lot of information from him. The Hmong were recruited as mercenaries during the French Indochina wars, and then the CIA dirty war and the Vietnam War, and afterwards they were abandoned. They were hunted down by the Pathet Lao, who are communists, and many tried to get to Thailand for refugee status, unsuccessfully. And this is one reason many wound up in the USA.”

“The US and France recognize them but they don’t really do anything. So they’ve been termed Ghost People. There are 100,000’s in California, France and Thailand. In the US they have to a great extent assimilated, like the Vietnamese did. The Hmong who live in SE Asia get no assistance, and are in danger all the time. The Pathet Lao hunt them down to this day. Many hill tribe people do not have official citizenship so they are not represented and don’t have access to basic necessities.”

Weitz for O:JA&L:  Where did you find the information?

Linder:  “The story is written based on very extensive research into every aspect of their life. Though I did not have a lot of opportunity to speak with many Hmong people.”

“If I needed to know something about shamans are marriages or other customs, I researched as needed using resources available on the internet and in the library. Over the years, I’ve seen and visited Hmong tribe villages. It was important to be as accurate as possible.”

Weitz for O:JA&L:  Are you working on anything else?

Linder:  “Yes, and here’s another example of how character plays into my vision of things. From time to time I’ll watch some old game shows on Youtube because they are interesting culturally or because of language, etc. And one of them was “To Tell the Truth.” (Chavorez actually appeared on such a show in Thailand.) So one night I’m watching Youtube, and the premise of the show was to guess who the real person was. So there were three women all named Jean Dollinger. Her story was she had been a model, and she had answered an ad to be a ‘gal Friday’ to accompany an anthropologist on a trip to the Amazon. So she goes with him. They eventually get married. Then on her own she becomes quite a writer, writing about head-hunters in the Amazon, about harems in Saudi Arabia. She was a real writer. And a lot of her articles were published in men’s magazines. Not girly magazines, but adventure magazine type things. She was very good looking. And again, she interested me as a character. Oddly, there was very little information about her on the internet. Though there are a wide variety of images of her, from her decked out in a pith helmet and a hiking outfit to topless Betty Page type, faux S&M photos. This is the type of thing that interests me. This disjuncture. So I’m currently doing some research and trying to do a kind of biopic. I’ll probably do more of those. A combination of actual biography and fictionalization. There’s actually only one book about her, no Wikipedia entry. I will eventually try to contact her family. It’s difficult to get a foothold on her. Once I get a clearer sense of what I want to do, I’ll contact an American who wrote a dissertation about her.”

Weitz for O:JA&L:  How would you describe your writing process?

Linder:  “I don’t have a routine. I’m not very disciplined. But when I get into it all time

disappears. Most of my writing gets done at night. I do incredible research, which is partly because of my academic training at Columbia. I keep researching until I get to the point where I begin to plot out, or at least have scenes I can move around.”

Weitz for O:JA&L:  Is there any particular audience or ideal read you have in mind when you’re writing?

Linder:  “Stuff that thinking people will appreciate. A certain level of intelligence. I don’t want to sound snobbish. I want to appeal to anyone with a brain. And I’m not trying to write high-brow, I just want to write something that has some comment on our lives. ‘The Last Executioner’ opened the same week Transformers 4 opened. You can imagine who won that race.”


About the interviewer:
James Weitz is a satirist and author of a novel, Gonzo Global Inc., a satire of globalization in which Mexican tap water is exported to the United States and sold as a laxative. He has lived in Asia and Latin America for most of the previous 15 years. During that time, Weitz has worked as a technical editor and taught ESL, composition and law at schools and universities in Latin America, China and Taiwan. Previously he worked in the Latin American and Caribbean region of the World Bank and on anti-corruption issues at the Organisation of American States. His stories have appeared in the journals Red Savina Review, and Pennyshorts. Jim Weitz has a Master of Arts in Applied Linguistics with a focus on cross-cultural communication from Nottingham University and a Juris Doctor from the University of Minnesota. He also contributes articles to O:JA&L on Literary Tourism associated with the Western Pacific region.

Image: View source at IMDb.

Portrait image: Courtesy of Don Linder