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Author Archive: "Chuck Thompson"

Remembering George MacDonald Fraser

[Editor's Note: Chuck Thompson, recent guest blogger and author of Smile When You're Lying: Confessions of a Rogue Travel Writer, wrote the following piece about the late author George MacDonald Fraser on his blog. We're pleased to reprint it with his permission.]

I picked up a voice mail this weekend from a distraught friend, Shanghai Bob, telling me that George MacDonald Fraser had passed away. In a way, I'm glad I wasn't there to receive the call — it would have been a tough one to get through and, anyway, not long before I'd received the same news (cancer) in an email from Nicholas Latimer at Knopf.

I wish I had it in me to write the kind of eulogy that Fraser deserves, but I know many others with a stronger connection to the great man will deliver those in the coming weeks. I will look for them online. What I can do, in the meantime, is post an interview I conducted with Fraser in December 1999. The story originally appeared in a 2000 issue of American Way magazine. Following the convention of the magazine, it has a somewhat overlong introduction and regrettably short Q&A section. However, if you aren't already a Fraser or Flashman fan, perhaps the intro will serve as a decent primer.

As for the Shanghai Bob connection, I can only say that while struggling through a difficult and often socially barren year in Japan alongside Bob and our mutual friend Robert Glasser (both Shanghai Bob and Glasser make several appearances in my book, Smile When You're Lying), Flashman and Fraser's other books quite literally helped us make it through the dark days . Through his books, I think all of us experienced that most strange and satisfying byproduct of the reader's life — getting to know and become "friends" (of a sort) with someone they've never met. Fraser's books had that kind of personal impact on people and his way of facing every situation, no matter how grave, with a sense of humor certainly had an impact on my way of thinking about writing and, indeed, living.

Fraser is beloved around the world, but he has a particularly large fan base among expats. I don't say this simply because it was as an expat that I discovered Fraser, but because his outsider's outlook, irreverence, and subversive wit aligns so perfectly with the sensibilities of many Westerners who often find themselves in tricky situations abroad. Meeting Fraser and conducting this interview in the lobby of a London hotel will always be one of the great thrills and privileges of my professional life.

Approximately 10 Or So Books I Think You Should Buy

At the risk of coming across as a pandering toady, on my last day of guest blogging I'd like to thank Powell's for more than just the opportunity to yap about my book on their site. I spent a good chunk of the 1990s in Portland playing music in various bands, being turned down for legit work, and hand-to-mouthing it in the typical way of the struggling band guy. These were fun times, but also stressful times, financially and otherwise, and aside from a few good friends and band mates, Powell's on Burnside was one of the things that kept me alive during the darker days. The reading room in back has changed — the magazines used to be in there, for one thing — but for me, like so many others, it was often a haven of sanity and warmth (literally).

Since Powell's generously allowed me for so many years to read their magazines for free, and has even more generously provided me with space this week to promote my new book, I'd like to repay the favor by mentioning a few recent books that I've enjoyed. The following suggestions in no way constitute ...

Five Tips For the Modern Traveler

Hit the road enough and you eventually acquire a workmanlike knowledge that goes well beyond knowing what you want at the Panda Express in Terminal C before you even look at the menu. It doesn't take a travel writer to get a basic handle on the industry, which is why it always amazes me that you almost never find anything novel or particularly useful in those "savvy traveler" columns every magazine and newspaper in America trots out two or three times a year to announce for the millionth time that you should drink plenty of water while on a plane and "check the Internet" to find deals on hotels. Wow. I'll bet no mileage-club gold-level account rep crisscrossing the country ever thought to do that before.

After giving up on finding anything new in those workhorse rundowns of tired tips, I began keeping my own list of ways of making life easier away from home. Though constantly in flux, my list (abbreviated below) is meant to equip any 21st-century traveler with the knowledge to travel like a pro.


The best way to start packing for a trip is by reaching into the drawer next to the bathroom ...

My Favorite Part of Smile When You’re Lying

I get that when you start off your book with a story about Aussie stoners and low-rent prostitutes, then announce that you're going to tear the mainstream travel press a new one, reviews and reader reaction to the thing are largely going to focus on the gory details. This is understandable; I'm not complaining about it. Unless your name is Clinton or Limbaugh or maybe Richard North Patterson, nobody asks you to write a book, so when you roll out your story to the public, you're pretty much obliged to take whatever response comes back.

Even so, you dump yourself out across 324 pages and it's interesting to see what sticks with people and what doesn't. Beyond the attention grabbers, I think of Smile When You're Lying as a memoir (a funny one, I hope) masquerading as a travel book. Like most memoirs, it's filled not only with my stories, but the amusing and sometimes poignant stories of people I've met (a few celebs like Mark Cuban and Dwight Yoakam) and friends I've made along the way.

A lot of travel writing seems as if it's written in a vacuum — as ...

How to Pay Off a Kinshasa Cop

Smile When You're LyingObviously, there's more to Africa than the lowlights of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but it's hard to shake some of the salacious and outrageous images from the most dysfunctional society I've ever encountered. In the Congo, they tell you that you don't have to worry about the ordinary people; it's the guys in uniform (police, military, petty officials) you need to watch out for. I found this to be entirely true.

Everywhere I went in the Congo, I was received warmly by the locals, and with open palms and toothy smiles by those in authority — authority there pretty much being synonymous with "the guys with the most weapons." Though on second thought, I guess that's what it means in our country, too. Maybe we're just better at concealing the ugly nature of universal inevitabilities.

Regardless, the cops in Kinshasa and other large Congolese cities have an interesting way of drawing their salaries, which are almost never paid by the government. Picking out a vehicle stopped at a light or sign, or just one crawling at the usual 2


Allow Me to Digress: A Brief Story from Africa Involving Tupac, Fresh Goat, and My Unimpeachable Views on Race Relations in America

I'm here, ostensibly, to pimp the glories of my new book, Smile When You're Lying, convince you of its eminent stocking stuffability "for the book lover on your list this holiday season," and, in the process, drum up enthusiasm (i.e., attendance) for my upcoming appearance at Powell's on January 14. Rest assured, all of these tasks will be taken up before my guest-blogger run ends on December 14. If you can't wait to hear about the book, go to for a synopsis, reviews, and cool photos with funny captions.

In the meantime, I've just returned from a month in Africa — my first trip there — and remain too obsessed with daily bribes to AK47-toting soldiers in the Congo and waking up from afternoon naps in Zambia to find baboons staring through the mesh window of my tent to discuss anything without covering Africa first.

As a rule, I'm bored with discussions of race relations in America and related history. This isn't because I don't consider these to be important and ultimately defining subjects in any review of U.S. society. It's just that from my point of view the problems always get framed ...

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