Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Up Close and Personal with Author Chris Thrall of Eating Smoke

Chris Thrall’s highly anticipated new release, Eating Smoke: One Man’s Descent into Drug Psychosis in Hong Kong’s Triad Heartland, is a powerful yet humorous autobiography about a man who hopes to start a new life in Hong Kong only to fall into a terrible drug addiction that nearly claims his sanity and his life. I am pleased to have had the opportunity to speak with Chris about this dramatic story, and I am proud to share what I've learned about his exciting and amusing story.
Collette: Thank you so much for joing me today, Chris. I'm thrilled to have you here. Can we start with a little bit about you. Who is Chris Thrall?

Chris: Chris Thrall left the British Royal Marine Commandos in 1995 to run his own business in Hong Kong, but less than a year later was homeless, in psychosis from crystal meth addiction and working for the 14-K, a Hong Kong triad crime syndicate, as a nightclub doorman in Wan Chai’s infamous red-light district.

Collette: What made you want to join the military? Was it a childhood dream or something that seemed right at the time?

Chris: I joined up for a bet. My friend’s father was a Marine, a veteran of the Falklands Conflict. Dan was telling people that the Royal Marines have the toughest infantry training in the world. We both left school with little qualifications, so he went on the Potential Recruits Course at the Commando Training Centre in the UK – a 3-day trial made up of swimming, gymnasium, endurance, assault course and military knowledge tests, to see if you have what it takes to enter the eight months of training to earn the coveted green beret. Having been accepted he came around to my house bragging and said, ‘Of course, you’d never be able to pass it.’ So I went to the recruiting office the next day.

Collette says: A bet? You're quite the daredevil.

Collette: How do you think your time in Northern Ireland and the Arctic influenced the path your life took in Hong Kong?

Chris: There’s not much need for Artic warfare and survival training on the streets of tropical Hong Kong! But understanding how covert organisations, such as the IRA, operate gave me an immediate interest in the Hong Kong triad syndicates.

Collette says: No need to dress for the cold there, I imagine.  

Collette: While you were in the military, you started a business in Hong Kong. How did that come about?

Chris: By chance. I got involved in network-marketing organisation, Quorum International. It involved selling electronic products – home, car and personal attack alarms and other security products – and sponsoring distributors into my ‘network’. I got to two positions away from the top of the company’s compensation plan – the top being financial freedom for life. Then Quorum opened for business in Hong Kong. I recruited a military contact there, a Hong Kong Chinese guy. Together we built a massive network in Asia and the first one ever in China. Our first month’s turnover was almost US$100,000, so I gave notice to leave the Marines.

Collette says: That would have been pretty strong motivation for me, too.

Collette: After you moved to Hong Kong, your business fell through and you were forced to turn to odd jobs. Can you tell us a little how you went from marketing to bouncing in a bar?

Chris:  After I’d moved to Hong Kong, Quorum International, our parent company, folded, leaving me no choice but to walk away from three years of hard work. I loved being in Hong Kong, so I took the first job available so I could stay. It was in a computer trading company where I was employed for my ‘white’ Western face. In my crazy boss’s eyes, this made his company look successful when clients visited. In my next job, I sold advertising space to corporations such as AT & T, Bell, and British Airways, in a business directory that didn’t actually exist! Finally, I got disillusioned with the business world and didn’t want to see my youth slipping away in a suit, so I took a job in Hong Kong’s infamous Wan Chai red-light district as a nightclub bouncer.

Collette: That’s quite a shift, businessman to bouncer. Now is that when you began using drugs?

Chris: No, I’d used recreational drugs during the House Music scene that took off in the UK in the early 90s. It was a phenomenal time for many in my generation with the most uplifting music we’d ever heard and the cross-cultural club scene breaking down social barriers and traditional prejudices. It was great fun and a big learning curve.

Collette: Like Grunge here in the U.S. Ah, those were good times!

Collette: Can you touch on your descent into psychosis without giving away too much of your story?

Chris: Crystal meth seemed like the perfect drug – the key to the lock, so to speak. Not only did I feel cool, calm and in control, accompanied by an immense sense of energy and euphoria, but it also made me very creative. I discovered ‘abilities’ – writing, poetry, drawing – that I was told I was a failure at in school. I just wanted to live on this amazing high everyday. Then a strange incident occurred. I was in a shop buying a blanket for my new apartment. I glanced at its label looking for a price tag – but what I saw instead changed my whole existence. I sensed a massive underground conspiracy. Everyday events took on new and subliminal meanings. In reality, the meth had overloaded by synapses and my cognition was breaking down. But it was impossible to appreciate this at the time.

Collette: How much involvement did your interaction with the 14K Brotherhood have on the situation you found yourself in?

Chris: It was 14K triads that ran the nightclub I worked in. When you consider that organised crime is a global conspiracy in itself and that the Hong Kong triads are well-known for using secretive methods of communication such as hand signs, gestures, clothing, symbols, etc, it didn’t do much to improve my own situation. I lived in a continual state of confusion, perpetually wracking my brain trying to differentiate one conspiracy from the other, or wondering if they were one and the same.  

Collette: You have been able to survive the trauma of Hong Kong. What do you do with yourself now that you are back in England?

Chris: I’ve purposely avoided giving too much of my current life away. When people read Eating Smoke, I want them to appreciate the fast-paced and thrilling story through my eyes at the time. The reader gets to experience as near to firsthand as is possible what it’s like to descend into mental illness while working as a doorman in a club run by the Hong Kong triads in the Wan Chai gangland. I think for the reader to have a picture of me in their head as my life is now would somewhat impinge on the story. Perhaps that’s the subject for another book.

Collette: Your intense, humorous and candid book, Eating Smoke: One Man’s Descent into Drug Psychosis in Hong Kong’s Triad Heartland is due out October 1st in the US. From what I’ve read so far, it is a shockingly blunt and honest depiction of your life at the time. Can you tell me a little about the writing process? What approach did you take to honing your skill to such perfection?

Chris: As far as English was concerned, I only had a high-school qualification and no experience of creative writing. I didn’t even know what grammar was, if I’m honest. I began to make a list of all the poignant memories I had of my time in Hong Kong, in addition to scribbling a rough prologue. I wanted to engage all readers in the Eating Smoke story, irrespective of their favoured genre. I’d spend an evening every four months or so doing this, until I had a chronology of memories, a prologue and a rough first chapter. Eating Smoke was still a pipe dream for me. In 2008, I found myself out of work. I put the computer on and six months later, I had a 230,000-word manuscript. Then using books, websites and forums, I spent a year learning the art of good writing and editing.

Collette: From the excerpts I’ve read, Eating Smoke is a fast paced and thrilling read. Did you add anything into the story to keep the momentum going, or is it all true to life?

Chris: The majority of the feedback I get is that Eating Smoke had the reader laughing aloud. It’s not all about drugs, gangsters and violence – in fact, there’s very little of the latter in the book. It’s more about a young man’s experience ‘finding himself’ in the world’s most amazing city, the crazy adventure ride I went on and the often-hilarious situations I found myself in. I didn’t add anything. I just edited the mundane bits out. Having said that, life doesn’t get more dramatic than descending into psychosis from crystal meth addiction while working as a nightclub doorman for the Hong Kong triads.

Collette says: Paranoia coupled with dealing with real-life dangerous gangs… my heart stops just thinking about it.

Collette: After everything you have seen and gone through, how were you able to incorporate such wry humor into your writing?

Chris: Commandos must possess a quality known as ‘cheerfulness under adversity.’ Even in the direst of circumstances, marines must have a joke at the ready. Eating Smoke isn’t a memoir of regret. Despite the highs and lows, I had an unbelievable time in Hong Kong. I experienced fascinating areas of life and am fortunate to come through it intact. Many of the situations I found myself in were very funny. And those that weren’t, well, you’ve still have to laugh.

Collette says: I think it’s fabulous that you laugh about it. I read a blog post you did about flying in Florida and had to giggle.

Collette: You are very honest in your depiction of the 14K and ‘foreign triad’. To people who know nothing about these groups, can you give us a quick explanation of who they are and what they do?

Chris: The triads – the ‘Brothers of the Marsh’ or ‘Water Margin’ – originated hundreds of years ago. Originally a clandestine brotherhood united in the Underground to fight against the oppression levied on the people by the ruling dynasty at the time, in recent years their philanthropic mandate has changed, somewhat, seeing them become a similar organisation to the Italian Mafia. As with the Freemasons and other secret societies, the triads communicate with secret hand signs, gestures and symbolism. Traditionally, only Chinese of pureblood are accepted into the Triads. The ‘foreign triad’ is a syndicate made up entirely of expats – foreign nationals that have formed their own crime syndicate.

Collette: With your brutal honesty, is there any risk of retaliation?

Chris: My honesty is in detailing my descent into psychosis from drug addiction. I happened to be working in a club run by the 14K Triad at the time. I haven’t divulged any information that you can’t find on Google or Wikipedia. That’s not to say that for people who haven’t experienced organised crime firsthand, Eating Smoke isn’t a real eye-opener.

Collette: What message do you think your book will send to readers?

Chris: I didn’t intend there to be any message – just an entertaining story. I like it when people tell me what they got from reading Eating Smoke.

Collette: Some people view writing as cathartic. Was this the case for you?

Chris: Enjoyable and educational – but not cathartic. To write Eating Smoke I had to relive old memories. Many brought a smile to my face – some had me laughing out loud – but others reminded me of how ill I was, the trauma I went through, and how I almost died. I don’t regret my Hong Kong experience, but I’m not sure how I feel about it, or writing about it, either.

Collette: The cover is very powerful: an ‘oh, so appropriate’ scene of someone literally on the edge. Who designed it, and how close to reality is it?

Chris: Tim McConville, based in the UK, flew to Hong Kong to take that Hong Kong and US cover shot. The model – ‘a man on the edge’ – is Andrew Dasz, an Argentinean actor and a martial arts expert. The building is in Wan Chai District, similar to the one I lived in. The picture sums up my Hong Kong experience to a tee – except I used to do handstands on the parapet.

Collette: Oh goodness, I'm hyperventilating again. J

Collette: You have a second cover with a man bearing a dragon tattoo. Is that the sign for the 14K?

Chris: I don’t know what the 14K tattoo is. In Eating Smoke, the reader will understand why that was a question I could never have asked. Two Associates designed the cover for Maverick House, my European publisher.  

Collette: Considering we mentioned two different covers, will you tell us the story behind obtaining your publishers?

Chris: I didn’t want to go down the traditional route to finding a publisher. I really believed Eating Smoke would interest people and didn’t want to see it chucked on a slush pile. Instead, I approached an author who I felt would connect with my story, to ask him if he’d be kind enough to read the first chapter. Tom Carter, author of CHINA: Portrait of a People, loved what he’d read, e-mailing me the next day to say his publisher, Blacksmith Books of Hong Kong, was interested in printing it. Maverick House then acquired the rights to market the book in Europe and other territories.

Collette: So clever. A wise move. So do you have plans to continue writing?

Chris: I’m waiting to see the response from readers of Eating Smoke before I decide on the next project. I’ve had adventures in seventy-five countries, if people are interested to hear about them. I’d also like to try my hand at fiction.

Collette: Well, I would like to read about them. Count me in.

Where can we find you online?

Amazon US: 
Amazon UK:
Book Trailer US:
Book Trailer UK:

Collette: Is there anything else you would like to add?

Chris: What a pleasure it is to meet you, Collette. And thank you so much for your interest in Eating Smoke.

Collette: The pleasure is mine, for sure. Thank you so much for joining me, Chris! I wish you all the greatest success with Eating Smoke and joy in your future.

Eating Smoke is sure to hold you captivated and enthralled from the beginning until the end. With eyes wide with exictement and watering from laughter, readers will turn the pages hastily when the story captures their imagination. Make sure you check the links and have a read of this exciting bestselling book when it's released in October.

My review of Eating Smoke:

When Chris Thrall left England for Hong Kong in search of his fortune and fame, the outcome he received was most likely not the one that he had hoped for. Leaving a career in the military, he hurried out to Hong Kong to capitalize on a booming business, ready to entertain the wealthy and make a fortune. While he found a fun-loving group of friends, he also found the potent and dangerous drug, crystal meth. This blunt and entertaining read is the story of Mr. Thrall’s coming of age the hard way, and I mean hard.

Filled with ambition and the confidence that he could succeed in a new country, Chris begins his career in the business world only to realize that his need for adventure is not being met. He turns to the nightclub world, doing stints as a DJ as well as a doorman. During this time, Chris gives an honest and heartfelt impression of the inside of Hong Kong ethos, throwing little tidbits in while he’s making every effort to remain respectful of a culture in which he is the ex-pat. However, the drug takes a deeper hold on him and makes it impossible for him to remain long in each job, and his friends come and go. He ends up working for a club run by triads, and as his addiction increases he plays a dangerous game of inadvertently offending the most feared group in Hong Kong.

Chris does an exceptional job portraying his decline into the deepest forms of addiction. Once a self-assured go-getter, he becomes a shell of the man he once was to the point where his friends begin to fear him, his employers have no choice but to release him, and the locals all know of him. His confused and paranoid thoughts leave the reader confused and paranoid as well, all the while hoping that things will eventually get better for our hapless hero. Ever the survivor, Chris takes matters into his own hands, standing up to the triads’ games, facing his problem and fighting to take control back. We are left cheering on our tormented protagonist as he stands on the ledge of death or survival, eagerly praying he makes the right choice. This is a great, fast-paced and engaging read where one will laugh, cry and shiver with fear right along with Mr. Thrall all the way through. 


Unknown said...

Great interview Chris. It's interesting to hear your experience. I'm sure alot of readers would love to read more stories about your adventures, I would.

Collette said...

Thank you Lorhainne for coming by. I agree completely with you. With 75 countries under his belt, he surely has a lot to tell.

Anonymous said...

Oh my gosh I can't wait to read this book. It sounds really cool.

Anonymous said...

This book sounds very interesting. You seem to have had a bunch of experiences and I'm eager to learn more! Good luck


Anonymous said...

Great interview! Excellent teaser, not that I needed it I already want to read the book.

Collette said...

It's coming out soon, my friends. I will do my best to encourage him to keep writing. Maybe I'll ask him to tell me his stories, and I'll write them out for him since he's so busy :D

Thank you for your posts!

Susan Blumberg-Kason said...

I read the book last month and absolutely loved it! This interview is great for people who haven't read the book, but it's also essential for people who have finished it. I knew Chris had 'been around the world', but had no idea he'd traveled to 75 countries!

Chris is such an inspiration. Many people dream of publishing their stories, whether they're memoirs or novels, but Chris has gone above that and achieved that dream. I can't wait to read his next book!

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much to Collette for an amazing interview that I thoroughly enjoyed. Thank you to Susan for being the first person to review Eating Smoke and for all your other support. And thank you to everyone who has read this blog and for the kind comments. Truly appreciated!

Zee Gorman said...

Great questions, Collette. Some have not been asked before and I'm always amazed at what I find out about Chris. Such a dramatic life!

Collette said...

Susan, you are so right. It is inspiring to see one who has experienced so much make the best of it and share with others to help them do the same. Chris, I am glad you enjoyed the experience. It has been my pleasure. And Zee, so true! I'm sure we all look forward to hearing more about such an interesting life.

Thank you all for visiting and commenting. :)

Carole Poke said...

Collette Great questions, you really drew out some interesting answers and facts from Chris. Chris very good to hear how you kept your humour but more reasuring to hear that you have no regrets about your bad times and miss-fortunes, and have managed to come through it all so well.

A good leason to learn for many readers and an enjoyable way to do it........Great Read.

Collette said...

Dear Carole,

Thank you so much for your kind words, and thank you so much for stopping by. You're absolutely right. I think it's amazing how one can take a terrible experience and learn from it rather than allowing it to beat him. It's quite a hopeful message :).

Iris said...

I have now almost finished the book, and I can´t stop myself from reading it. Every interuption is met with a sigh of annoyance by me, having to lay the book aside. Since I am from Germany and not that used to read English books, I have to say that Chris is such a creative writer who was able to create such lively images in my head, I needn´t have to understand every single word to get the whole picture. I can´t wait to read his next book!