Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Iris Mitlin Lav Interview - A Wife in Bangkok

Photo Content from Iris Mitlin Lav

Iris Mitlin Lav grew up in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago, Illinois. She moved to Washington, DC, with her husband in 1969, where they raised three children. She is retired from a long, award-winning career of policy analysis and management with an emphasis on improving policies for low- and moderate-income families. She has traveled extensively in the US and abroad, and she lived in Thailand for two years in the 1970s. She and her husband now live in Chevy Chase, Maryland, with Mango, their goldendoodle, and with grandchildren nearby.


Latest News
I just found out that my book received a 5-star book review from Readers’ Favorite. “A Wife in Bangkok by Iris Mitlin Lav was a very interesting read, and certainly well-researched as evident by the author’s own time in Thailand….. Overall, the novel itself was well-written and delivered at a steady pace that made me feel an attachment to the characters. I would definitely read another book by this author in the future.” 

Who or what has influenced my writing?
I have always loved novels set in Asia, even before I lived in Thailand. I especially like the novels of Amitav Ghosh. When he writes about the tiger-infested Sundarbans of India or Imperial China at the time of the opium trade, the reader feels that he or she is engrossed in those strange environments and participating in the story along with the characters. I love being transported to distant places and times, and I strove to give some of that evocative feeling about Thailand in my book. 

Most rewarding experience since being published
As I write this, my pub date is still a week away. But in promoting my Zoom release party, I have reconnected through social media with a number of people with whom I haven’t been in touch for many years. Great fun to catch up.

Hope for readers to be thinking
I would like readers to get some insight into the difficulties and disruptions “trailing spouses” face when they move with their spouse to live in countries where life is very different and they typically do not have their own job. I would like readers to get a sense of place, to enjoy the beauty and strangeness of Thailand. I’d like them to get some understanding of clinical depression and the possibility of resilience and recovery from it. And when they read the last page, I would like readers to feel happy that Crystal and Brian have come through all the adversity and are on a stronger and more loving path. 

About a Wife in Bangkok
When Crystal’s husband, Brian, suddenly announces that his company is sending him to manage its Bangkok office and that he expects her and their children to come along, she reluctantly acquiesces. She doesn’t want to leave the job she loves and everything familiar in their small Oklahoma town, but she feels she has to be a good wife and follow her husband.

Crystal finds beauty in Thailand, but also isolation and betrayal. Fighting intense loneliness and buffeted by a series of frightening and shocking events, she struggles to adapt to a very different culture while battling a severe depression. Ultimately, she must decide whether her broken relationship with her husband is worth saving.

Worst distraction
I started writing this book at the beginning of 2016, when I retired at age 70 from a long career in public policy dedicated to improving government policies and programs for low- and moderate-income households – the last 25 years of which were with a non-profit organization. Most of the first draft of the novel was written that year. But after the presidential election, I decided that I needed to go back to work. I put the novel on ice for a while and came back to it about a year later. 

What part of Crystal did I enjoy writing most?
I wanted to write about Thailand, where I had lived with my family in the mid-1970s. But I am a pretty private person, so I didn’t want to write a memoir – which in any case I didn’t think would be that interesting because we enjoyed ourselves there. What our friends did find interesting when we talked about our experiences was our descriptions of the country and the customs of the Thai people. So I decided to write a novel with a strong sense of place and culture. For example, I enjoyed writing about Crystal’s efforts to learn the Thai language and things about Thai culture, the elephant ride Crystal took through the jungle from a village in Northeast Thailand in which she used her language ability and common sense to solve a problem, and, as she recovered from her depression, how she methodically considers the pros and cons of returning with her husband to Bangkok. 

If I could introduce Crystal to a character from another book
I think I would introduce Crystal to the character Rachel from Dara Horn’s novel, Eternal Life. Rachel has lived nearly 2,000 years, during which she has repeatedly “died” every 80 years or so and had to transport herself to a new country or location and re-invent herself. Crystal could learn a lot from how Rachel creates a new life for herself in each time period and location. 

Note, I have rather eclectic taste in fiction
  • 1) The Water Dancer: A Novel by Ta-Nehisi Coates. I (a white woman) grew up in a very integrated neighborhood in Chicago, Hyde Park, and learned a lot about the contemporary Black experience and the migration to the north from Black friends who still had family in places such as Mississippi. But this novel gives a visceral insight into the conditions of slavery and the feelings of those caught up in it.
  • 2) Golden Poppies: A Novel by Laila Ibrahim. This is the third related novel by this author that traces a Black family and a White one from slavery through problems and discrimination living in the North. I chose to read it for similar reasons as described above, and grew attached to the beautifully drawn characters in the novel.
  • 3) Maud’s Line by Margaret Verble. It is the story of a young Cherokee woman living in the 1920s on a land allotment that the government had given to Native Americans who managed to survive the Trail of Tears. It is a poignant description of the extreme poverty lacking any modern conveniences in which she lived, offset in-part by the warm and caring extended family in the community that helped and embraced her as she lost immediate family members. This is a topic I knew little about, and reminded me of the oppressive policies of the time.
  • 4) The Elephant Keeper’s Daughter by Julia Drosten. This story takes place in Sri Lanka in the early 19th century when the area was under harsh British rule. At one level it is the charming story of a very brave young woman and the elephant that was trusted to her care. On another level it is about the evils of colonialism. It has two of my favorite things in a novel: an Asian setting and an elephant.
  • 5) The Rat Catcher’s Olympics by Colin Cotterill. This is one book in a mystery series set in Laos that I like to read. The protagonist is a Dr. Siri, a medical examiner with a sideline of solving mysteries. In the process of following the mystery, the reader learns a lot about Laotian culture and politics in the post-Vietnam War period. The books are a quick read and always entertaining.
  • 6) Bangkok Wakes to Rain by Pitchaya Sudbanthad. This is a science fiction/dystopian novel about the future of a flooded Bangkok because of global warming. It also looks back through the eyes of one woman to one of the worst moments in Bangkok’s history, the coup d’├ętat by the military that killed several students at Thammasat University, which occurred while I was living there. 
  • 7) The Hot Countries (A Poke Rafferty Novel Book 7) by Timothy Hallinan. This is one of a series of novels set in Bangkok in contemporary times. Poke Rafferty is a journalist married to a former sex worker on Patpong. Poke always manages to get in some scrape with the local gangsters or has to solve some complicated and dangerous problem for someone. I love this series for its sensitive treatment of Bangkok’s infamous sex workers and their personal backstories and desires, and for the contrast of what is wonderful about Bangkok with its dark side. These books are quick reads, but I am always sorry when one ends.
  • 8) Gun Island: A Novel by Amitav Ghosh. In this novel, the protagonist Deen chases the origins of an old Bengali folk tale thru richly described areas of India, Europe, and the U.S – leading to a strong message about climate change in the midst of fascinating characters he meets along the way. 
  • 9) Walking Shadows (Decker/Lazarus novels book 10) by Faye Kellerman. This is another series I like to read, in part for the mysteries and crimes that are solved, but also for the character Rina Lazarus. Rina is an Orthodox Jewish woman who met a Los Angeles police detective in the first book and subsequently married him after he converted. She is clever and strong, and often is the person who actually solves the crime – while maintaining her Jewish religious practice, welcoming all sorts of people into her home, and cooking for whoever might be around. In this book, they have moved from Los Angeles to a small town that seems to be in upstate New York but nevertheless have to deal with a murder. 
  • 10) If All the Seas Were Ink: A Memoir by Ilana Kurshan. As a woman in her 20s, Kurshan moved to Jerusalem for a brief, ill-fated marriage. Finding her self alone in a strange place, she turned to a practice called daf yomi, reading a page of Talmud a day to complete a six-year cycle on a schedule that has everyone participating reading the same page each day. The memoir highlights her experiences while completing the cycle, and how what she learns from the Talmud helps her to move on with her life. 
Most ridiculous fact I know
The actor James Cagney spoke Yiddish in a 1932 Warner Brothers movie called Taxi. 

Something I have dreamed about doing
I would love to go on a trip to the Silk Road countries such as Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Bukhara – to see some of the amazing history there and experience a very different way of life. 

Best date?
This is my 55th year of marriage to my wonderful husband. I met him at a dorm party that I went to with another guy who was my mother’s friend’s nephew that my mother insisted I date at least once. I spent most of the time at the party with my future husband, who also lived in that dorm – and that was the beginning. (Lesson: always listen to your mother.)

Go back to one point in my life
I think I would go back to the spring of 1973. I had just finished my MBA degree and had not yet started working. My husband and I, with our 2-year old, took a 6-week trip around the world that was mostly related to my husband’s job. We flew west from Washington, DC to Toyko, Japan (with stops in Chicago and Seattle). From Tokyo we were able to go to Kyoto and Nara, Japan. Then we went to Thailand and traveled a bit around the country. From Thailand we went to the newly-created country of Bangladesh, then to Calcutta, India, on to Katmandu, Nepal, and then to New Delhi, from which we traveled to Agra to see the Taj Mahal. We flew to Rome where we spent a few days, and then came home. This was my exciting and interesting introduction to Asia and to extensive international travel. It was all so different and so new to me at the time. 

Journal today
I got up at 6 am to do my laundry. We live in an apartment building with a shared laundry on our floor, so especially during the pandemic that is the safest time to use it. Then we spoke for about 45 minutes with our son who lives in Israel, as we try to do every Wednesday morning. I did a little bit on my novel release plans, and then we went out for a one-and-a-half hour walk in the beautiful, quiet woods that are in a rarely-used part of Rock Creek Park with our goldendoodle dog Mango. Walking in the woods is so therapeutic at this time when we are largely stuck indoor because of Covid-19. After showering and resting a bit, we tuned into a virtual political fundraiser to which we had contributed. My husband, who rarely cooks, made veal marsala for us for dinner. In the evening I wrote a letter to my pen pal who is in a federal prison in West Virginia now, with whom I have been corresponding about twice a month for the last three years. He has been in segregated housing, confined to his cell for all but a brief period each day, so my letters cheer him up and give him articles on various topics to read. Then I watched the last part of a baseball game that the Washington Nationals unnecessarily lost. All in all a good day – except for the Nats loss. 

Unique thing I am afraid of
I am afraid of having an incapacitating, uncomfortable illness that lingers for many years before I die. My father had a major stroke when I was 10 years old, partially recovered and then had another stroke. He didn’t die until I was 21 in 1967, but those 11 years were miserable for him and for the rest of the family. I know health care is better now than it was then, but I am afraid that something similar could still happen to me.

Favorite Quotes/Scenes from a Wife in Bangkok
“A couple of hours later, Brian came back to the room after work and awakened her, saying he had a surprise for her.

“I’ve arranged for a sitter for this evening. You and I are going out alone to what I hear is a very special restaurant. Take a shower and order some room service dinner for the kids. And we can be on our way!”

“Okay,” Crystal said drowsily. It was not what she most wanted to do at the moment, but she realized that Brian was trying to be nice to her. “I’ll be ready soon.”

Crystal put on a new halter-style sundress that she had bought before she left, and took a stole in case it got cool. She did not yet know that evening in Bangkok was only slightly less hot, never cool.

They took a taxi farther down Sukhumvit than she had been before and turned left onto a soi numbered in the thirties. After several other turns down small lanes in the soi, the taxi left them off at a footpath. As they walked up the path, subtle lighting showed off myriads of orchids in different shapes hanging from every tree and surrounding the path in pots. There were shades of pink, purple, and white with some yellow markings. Their thick, syrupy fragrance enveloped them. Crystal told Brian that she had never seen anything so beautiful. She had seen an orchid only once in her life, when her date for the senior prom had brought her an orchid wrist corsage. At the time she had thought it was miraculous, but it had been nothing like this.

At the end of the path was a pavilion made of teak and rosewood with pillars, a roof, and half walls to allow the diners to continue to enjoy the garden and the orchids while they ate. The tables were built in along the half walls. The lighting inside the restaurant was soft and low to accentuate the feeling of eating in the garden among the orchids.”

This scene takes place the day after Crystal arrives in Bangkok with the children. Brian has already been there for three months. This scene is based on a real restaurant that existed at the time and that seemed to me to be other-worldly. The scene plays several roles in the novel. First, Brian decides they are going out to the restaurant without consulting Crystal, a pattern that harks back to Brian’s unilateral decision that they would move to Thailand. Second, Crystal is still tired and jet-lagged, but Brian isn’t sensitive to that. On the other hand, as the scene proceeds they have a good time together and there is the suggestion of the possibility of a good relationship, even if one does not then exist. And, of course, it shows off the beautiful side of Bangkok.


“The situation got worse. Brian began regularly staying out one or two evenings a week. He told Crystal that he was dining in restaurants with potential business associates. Most of these were Thai officials who he hoped could help his company get permission for additional drilling. He told Crystal that these were always all-male affairs, and there was no way he could include her.

When Brian was in the house in the evening, Crystal felt lonely. When he wasn’t there, she felt desperate for human interaction. The children fell asleep by eight o’clock. She could hear the servants in back of the house having their dinner together, accompanied by lively conversation and laughter. She knew that this was the servants’ personal, social time and she certainly wouldn’t interrupt them for any reason short of an emergency. But she couldn’t figure out what to do with herself, wandering upstairs and downstairs in the house, out on the front porch and back inside. She smoked cigarette after cigarette, even welcoming the activity of lighting the match. When the monsoon rains came in the evening, she walked out onto the covered balcony of their bedroom and watched the heavens weep for her. She felt empty inside, a gaping hollowness. She would have given anything for someone to talk with. She could write letters to people back home. But she didn’t because she was afraid her unhappiness would show, even if she didn’t explicitly write about it. There had to be a way to live in Bangkok that was better than this, but she didn’t know how to go about it.”

This scene is intended to give the reader a visceral feeling of loneliness. It is modeled on feelings I had when my husband and I first moved from Chicago, where I had grown up and where I had a job and we had many friends, to Washington, DC for his work in mid-summer 1969. We moved into an apartment, and my husband immediately left for a 6-week work trip to another country. We did not yet have children, and there was not a single person I knew in DC. I planned to start graduate school in the fall, but that was several weeks away. Some of my feelings of loneliness than were transposed to Crystal’s in Bangkok – even though the causes were quite different. At this point in the novel, the reader knows that Brian is lying about what he is doing in the evenings.

When Crystal’s husband, Brian, suddenly announces that his company is sending him to manage its Bangkok office and that he expects her and their children to come along, she reluctantly acquiesces. She doesn’t want to leave the job she loves and everything familiar in their small Oklahoma town; it’s 1975, however, and Crystal, a woman with traditional values, feels she has to be a good wife and follow her husband.

Crystal finds beauty in Thailand, but also isolation and betrayal. Fighting intense loneliness and buffeted by a series frightening and shocking events, she struggles to adapt to a very different culture and battle a severe depression―and, ultimately, decide whether her broken relationship with her husband is worth saving.


2020 International Book Awards Finalist in Fiction: Multicultural

"Over the course of this novel, Lav presents an ambitious tale about overstepping cultural boundaries and losing one's autonomy within a marriage. . . . an unusual glimpse of life in Thailand in the aftermath of the Vietnam War." 
Kirkus Reviews

"Iris Mitlin Lav's story excels in its survey of emotional condition and growth. . . . The growth process she experiences by being an American wife transplanted to the alien culture and conditions of Bangkok makes for a mesmerizing story that follows the logical progression of her evolution with an astute attention to detail and psychological development." 
Midwest Book Review

"A Wife in Bangkok by Iris Mitlin Lav was a very interesting read, and certainly well-researched as evident by the author's own time in Thailand. . . . Overall, the novel itself was well-written and delivered at a steady pace that made me feel an attachment to the characters. I would definitely read another book by this author in the future." 
Readers' Favorite 5-star review

"A thoughtful portrayal of a major depressive episode in a wife and mother leaving everything behind in the 1970s to follow her husband to a foreign country for his career, also known as 'trailing spouse syndrome.' Culture clash and resentment ensue, leading to her treatment in a Houston psychiatric facility, which is illustrated in a sensitive way without stigma." 
Karen B. Rosenbaum, MD, psychiatrist and faculty at NYU and Weill Cornell Medical College

"Only someone with a deep understanding of Thailand could have written this book. The adept handling of the main character's conflict and the redeeming nature of love are matched only by the rich descriptions of the land, the people, and the culture. Indeed, Thailand is the other main character in this fascinating novel of a US family in that 'faraway country' of 1975." 
Jean P. Moore, award-winning author of Water on the Moon and Tilda's Promise

"This novel examines in great detail what it might be like to be uprooted from one's comforts and culture and plunged into the unknown. The novel is an intricate and wholly well-informed presentation of the complexities of Thai life and culture; a well-plotted adventure of corporate intrigue; a close examination of the structure of an uncommunicative and weak marriage; and an exploration of the effects on Crystal's psyche of obsession, self-doubt, loneliness, and situational depression. Finally, the novel suggests the possibility of healing and redemption." 
Bruce J. Berger, author of The Flight of the Veil

You can purchase A Wife in Bangkok at the following Retailers:

And now, The Giveaways.
Thank you IRIS MITLIN LAV for making this giveaway possible.
1 Winner will receive a Copy of A Wife in Bangkok by Iris Mitlin Lav.


  1. My journal entry would say it has been a tough week- I was bit by a neighbor's dog, an aunt is having breast cancer surgery and my best friend had to put her cat down. But, I am determined to make the rest of the week a happy one.

  2. A great week. Work 2 days and off 3 and the weekend.