The Third Act
A writer’s life is not unlike a drama with three acts. The first act ends around 39 years old, the second act runs from 40 to 59 years old, and the Third Act is 60 years old until the final scene.
Some writers start their career late in the second act of their lives (e.g. Raymond Chandler). Other writers never make it to the Third Act (e.g. George Orwell, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Raymond Carver). Some like David Foster Wallace don’t make it alive out of the First Act.
The Third Act for a novelist who survives that long is becoming more common. Sure, authors like Christopher Hitchens bow out early in at the very top of their Third Act performance. Georges Simenon and Charles Bukowski continued to produce excellent work during their Third Act. Some say that the Third Act produces works that don’t quite measure up to the early work. Writers wear out, they run out of ideas, energy, focus and the passion that is required to produce a professionally written novel.
The authors who write about Bangkok are mainly Third Act authors: Timothy Hallinan, John Burdett, Collin Piprell, Dean Barrett, Alex Kerr, and myself. We’ve all been around a long time. At the beginning of the Third Act , an author should take time to reflect on his first two acts. After finishing that self-appraisal, he can assess the possibilities that lay ahead. Does one have anything left to say? Many authors as they enter the Third Act believe that they are only just hitting their stride. That sixty is only a number, and besides, is sixty the new fifty? There is no way around it. Sixty years makes for a lot of candles on a birthday cake.
It is a sobering sight—all of those lit candles against a tropic night on a Thai beach, a tiny bonfire of vanities burning bright. Each author turns that bend in the road and sees the stretch of the road ahead in a different way. In Thailand, the civil service, the military and corporations retired sixty-year-olds. Turn them out to pasture to make way for those behind them. There is no age expiry date for writing novels. With a number of novelists, their books remain pretty much the same and hitting the Third Act doesn’t change their style or content. They keep plugging way for the fans that followed Act one and Act two, hoping to bring in new fans along the way. It would be as if Picasso stayed with his ‘Blue Period’ and kept it blue to the bitter end.
Colin Cotterill joined the Third Act club on 2nd October. I single Colin Cotterill out because I’ve just returned from his 60th birthday party in the southern Thai province of Surat Thani. Colin did a reasonably good King Lear performance on the beach in front of his house as he railed against the forces of nature (it did look like rain most of the time) that carry men forward through time.
In his separate Hobbit House where he writes, his handwritten notes for his latest book was open on a small stand next to his computer. His computer was turned off. He wasn’t writing. He was entertaining. I flew in from Bangkok, another Canadian friend flew in from Chiang Mai, and a Norwegian friend drove up from Phuket, his romantic interest from Japan and six German nationals descended on his compound. Colin met my plane at Surat Thani airport and took what he called the romantic route from the airport on a 2-hourdrive to his compound. It was raining. His Japanese companion was in his blue Brio following the pickup, no doubt wondering why she was in a separate vehicle.
Colin arrived at the provincial airport driving a clapped out manual shift pickup. Also waiting at the airport were the six German nationals. They were on my flight but I didn’t see them on the plane. I didn’t see much of them after Colin loaded them into the back of his pickup. The Thais at the airport smiled. They must have thought a new human trafficking ring had been organized with Colin driving, me riding shotgun and four teenaged Germans in the back. Or may be Colin does this on a routine basis. I didn’t ask.
The father of one of the German teenagers is a famous German journalist who had written a profile on Colin a year ago. He brought his son and his son’s friends and another journalist along to celebrate Colin’s birthday. We all came to Colin’s place to celebrate the start of his Third Act.
His six dogs occasionally fought. His guests mainly drank buckets of wine and beer as they ate fresh crab, prawns, mackerel, squid, and spicy Thai salads. The German teenagers, it turned out, hated fish or anything else from the sea. They were lobbying for real meat. So sausages were specially made for them. We were reminded not to mention the war. The German editor broke the ice as we all stood looking at the sea and said every sixty years or so German liked the idea of holding onto a beach much like the one Colin had built his house on.
There was a birthday cake and candles—the kind you blow to make a wish and appear to go out only to pop back to life. Colin kept blowing the trick candles for some time before he gave up. He understood that candles were a birthday metaphor gift. One author to another, letting him know that at his newly advanced age, there is no choice but to continue to huff and puff and sooner or later the candles will go out. Meanwhile, Colin’s unfinished novel left untouched during the days of celebration, like the trick candles, was a reminder that nothing is ever as easy as it seems and the end is rarely in your control.
A delegation of Thai neighbours, including local politicians and fishermen showed up. They inspected the German. The head fisherman seemed to think the teenagers might make a reasonable crew until he found out their anti-fish bias likely made them a bad choice for fishing for squid and crabs.
The night of the birthday there was a huge bonfire on the beach, the flames fed by people throwing on dead palm leaves. On one side were four tents on the beach where Colin housed the Germans. The rest of his house had places for others to sleep on the floor. I tried to convince the Laotian NGO worker, an extremely kind woman, to type a couple of fables into the book that Colin was working on. I suspect the Dr. Siri novels were written this way during Colin’s Second Act. I suggested he expand that process in Act Three. I put it to him, that in return for not mentioning the war, each guest should add a page or two in their own language: Laotian, German, Norwegian, Japanese, Thai, and Canadian. It would save on translation cost down the road. Besides, when an author enters the Third Act, he needs not just inspiration but all of the help that he can find from others wandering past the office space.
Colin might be hitting the final stretch like the rest of us third-act authors, but I suspect he will surprise us all. I call it Colin Renewal, a reset, a new First Act. You see, Colin has bought a new car, built a new house, and has a new, beautiful Japanese partner. That’s not the kind of thing someone who is winding down is expected to be doing. Building, designing, hugging, and dancing on the beach.
He said it was his best birthday party ever. He didn’t want us to leave. I can understand why he felt that way. Once the party ends, and we all leave, he has to go back to his Hobbit House and finish the book that awaits him. The book he started late in the Second Act, now requires a newly minted Third Act author to reach down deep and find something he’d always wanted to say but had ever found the words until that night on the beach with the moon in a clear sky reflecting on the sea, and bonfire burning and an international cast of friends, he might have found himself understanding that when that many care enough to make a journey to the middle of nowhere to sing happy birthday on a remote beach, it is worth carrying on.