Describing a visit to a clandestine opium den in Vientiane _ one of the last of its kind, and now closed _ a decade ago, he laments the prosaic ambience, the poor condition of the antique smoking paraphernalia and the sullen, elderly clients. He also notes the low quality of the drug, which is mixed with dross scraped from opium pipes, increasing the dark brown paste's morphine content, and thus amplifying the potential for abuse and addiction.
"Imagine the possibility that, a mere hundred years from now," Martin writes, "the modern wine industry and the millions of people who support it could be reduced to a roomful of elderly winos swilling fortified wine from stemware held together by packing tape."
Until 1959, when Thai authorities declared opium illegal, Bangkok boasted the world's largest opium-smoking establishment. Heng Lak Hung on Charoen Krung Road housed more than 5,000 users and maintained an estimated 10,000 pipes, said to be the finest collection in the world. Those pipes, along with thousands of specialised lamps and other smoking gear, were burned in a massive bonfire in Sanam Luang after the "opium divan" (in the parlance of the day) closed its doors.
According to Martin, such burnings took place all over China and Southeast Asia as the perception of opium, influenced primarily by Western thought, shifted from that of a condoned vice to a great social evil.
That wholesale confiscation and destruction of opium paraphernalia have made the items scarcer than Roman coins today, a fact that appealed to Martin when he began collecting pipes, lamps, bowl scrapers, needles, containers, trays and "hundreds of arcane tools that were once manufactured solely for the ingestion of opium, and whose functions have largely been forgotten".
The writer, who served in the US Navy in the Philippines and later settled in Bangkok to work as a journalist, purchased his first vintage opium pipe in Vientiane in 2001 while working on a Time magazine article. The simple, finely crafted instrument featured a bamboo stem, a mouthpiece made of water-buffalo horn and a delicately engraved ceramic bowl. From that moment forward he became obsessed with learning more about the history of opium and building a collection of the obscure components of the opium-smoking kit.
Martin soon discovered he was one of only a few such collectors in the world. Besides haunting antique shops around Southeast Asia, he made a plethora of eBay purchases, finding that America and France _ the only two countries outside of Asia and the Middle East where opium-smoking became common, even fashionable, in the early 20th century _ were particularly good sources.
Martin also dug deep into opium literature, studying such books as Jean Cocteau's Opium: Diary of a Cure, in which the French artist recounts his acquaintance with fellow Parisian opium connoisseurs and his harrowing recovery from addiction in 1929. His favourite, Opium-Smoking in America and China, was published by New York doctor HH Kane in 1882. Original copies of the book are extremely rare, but Martin eventually found one for his collection.
Before long Martin became the world's foremost authority on the "shadowy Asian ritual" and in 2007 he published The Art of Opium Antiques. By this time he was becoming acquainted with the world's more elite collectors. Not surprisingly, among his new friends were a handful of habitual opium users.
Although Martin had experimented with opium smoking a few times as a backpacker in the hills of northern Thailand and Laos, when he met true connoisseurs of the ancient ritual, and especially after he learned the difficult art of "rolling" (shaping opium into a small pellet and inserting it into the tiny hole at the top of the pipe bowl so that it adheres to the rim), he found out first-hand how opium can stealthily transmute from recreation to obsession, and finally addiction.
Martin's account of the characters who populate the rarefied contemporary opium-smoking universe, along with his descriptions of smoking sessions, make up some of the more compellingly written passages in Opium Fiend. His frequent visits to the Vientiane home of ''Willi'' (to protect their reputations, Martin employs pseudonyms for many of the people who appear in the book), who dedicates a spare room to an immaculately assembled collection of antique opium art, furniture and smoking equipment, draw the reader into a romantically hazy world suspended in time.
It's a place that should not exist in the 21st century, yet through the friends' shared obsession with opium culture, it becomes a decadent and deeply intellectual refuge from the ordinary world.
''Willi and I liked to think of ourselves as heirs to the lifestyle of wealthy, old-time smokers whose only limitations were their own imaginations,'' he writes. ''We amassed a small selection of pipes to choose from, each a favourite because of some unique detail in its design or ornamentation.
''In the most basic sense, the huge layout _ the pipe and lamp and sundry tools spread out upon their respective trays _ was a system for keeping the involved and messy process of opium smoking as organised and tidy as possible. But to Willi and me, it seemed much more significant. Many pieces of our paraphernalia had been handled by long-departed souls who were adept at spinning the sap of poppies into dreams. We came to believe that the accumulated knowledge of this escapism was trapped within the paraphernalia itself, and that by using it, Willi and I were somehow learning important truths that had been long lost. Our sessions, progressively more blissful with each meeting, seemed to bear this theory out.''
It is when Martin starts smoking on his own, in Bangkok, that things begin spinning out of control. His precise and compelling descriptions of this journey into opium hell, and of his attempts to wean himself off the pipe, woven together with fascinating nuggets of opium lore and a behind-the-scenes look at professional collecting, place Opium Fiend among the classics of opium literature, alongside Cocteau and De Quincey.
''Opium preys on compulsive behaviour,'' he observes.
''The same traits that made me a passionate and successful collector also rendered me unable to resist its siren song.''
Expenditures on his deepening habit _ which included regular purchases of chandu, opium's creme de la creme _ eventually exceed his income, and as he blows off work assignments, unable to leave his pipes and travel, Martin is faced with the distasteful probability that he will have to sell some of the most precious pieces in his collection in order to stave off a painful, and a potentially deadly, withdrawal.
''For years [collecting opium antiques] had been my main source of entertainment _ until I discovered how entertaining opium smoking could be. Now my opium-smoking habit was threatening to change everything. What it was coming down to was this: opium paraphernalia or opium smoking _ I had to choose. If I continued smoking opium, I knew that my collections would literally pay the price.''
It is this dilemma that finally drives him to seek recovery. After unsuccessful attempts to go it alone _ the book opens with incisive descriptions of vomit, involuntary defecation and intense body pains _ he finally appears to rid himself of opium after enlisting in the legendary detox programme at Wat Tham Krabok in Saraburi.
Yet in his admission of a short relapse afterwards, followed by a sobriety that holds till the present, Martin suggests that he may never be entirely free from the substance.
''Opium is very patient,'' he says.From the pipe to the pen: a chat with Steven Martin
How difficult was it to convince Random House to publish 'Opium Fiend'?
I wrote up a pitch that included two sample chapters, and I showed that to a couple of friends who are published authors. One of them showed the pitch to a friend of his who was working at HarperCollins, and the publisher made me an offer. Since I had no agent at the time, my author friends advised me that it was time to get one. Once I had an agent, things happened very quickly. Three publishers bid on world rights, and about a week after I'd signed with the agent, I had a book deal with Random House.
How well is the book doing?
Opium Fiend is not an easy book to categorise. The publisher went with the "addiction memoir" label, but besides my own story of collecting antique opium paraphernalia and getting carried away with the "research", it's also a history of opium smoking, as well as a travelogue of sorts. Fortunately, most readers seem to be forgiving of the fact that the book's description on the dust jacket and on booksellers' websites doesn't exactly match what's between the covers. The reviews so far have been very positive.
What has been the highest praise you've received in print? And the worst criticism?
Of the professional reviews, I was happy that the reviewer for Kirkus pointed out that much of Opium Fiend was about "making literal the similarities between collecting and addiction". That's important to me because my interest in collecting antique opium paraphernalia largely predated my experimentation, and subsequent addiction, to the drug.
Nowadays, the internet and online booksellers allow readers to leave their own reviews and comments, and I think potential readers take a lot of stock in what the amateur reviewers have to say. I've been happy to note that the readers' reviews have also been largely positive, and while I appreciate the feedback, I did notice that at least one amateur reviewer suggested that I had made the whole thing up. For someone like myself who has invested so much time, effort, and heartache into separating historical opium fact from historical opium fiction, the accusation would have been galling had I taken it seriously.
You've written compellingly about how "patient" opium is in bringing addiction to its admirers. Do you think that is essentially different than with, say, alcohol?
I'm not a doctor, and as I noted in the beginning of my memoir, I don't mean to imply that anything that happened to me will or will not happen to others. As with other addictions, I'm sure personality has much to do with who gets hooked and who doesn't _ be it to opium or alcohol or any other addictive substance. Obviously, the only sure way not to become addicted to something is to abstain from it.
In your book, you changed the names of many of your opium-smoking and paraphernalia-collecting colleagues. But in the case of the late Roxanna Brown, you decided to use her real name. Did you anticipate any negative response to that, since you reveal her long-time use of opium?
No, because I figured that anyone who reads my book will immediately see how highly I thought of Roxanna Brown. In order to tell my story I had to tell Rox's story too, because our lives were so intertwined during those years. I hope people who read the book will see it as a tribute to her, because that's exactly what I was hoping to achieve. She was my closest friend during the later years chronicled in my memoir, and her sudden death was emotionally devastating for me. (Editor's Note: Roxanna Brown was a US citizen and art historian based in Bangkok who was an outspoken critic of antiquities smuggling. However, she was implicated in a Thai-US smuggling ring. Brown was arrested upon her arrival in the US to give a lecture and, in frail health, died a few days later in custody. The charge against her was dropped immediately and the question of her involvement in smuggling became a controversial topic).
You talk about your love of the opium-smoking ritual. Have you found anything to replace it that doesn't involve addictive substances?
Believe it or not, I find writing about opium to be therapeutic _ perhaps in the same way that people who attend AA meetings discover that sharing their experiences distracts them from the niggling demands of a former addiction.
What's next for you? Any books or articles planned for the next few months?
I'm working on another book _ trying my hand at fiction this time.
Have you stopped collecting opium paraphernalia?
My entire collection is now in storage at the University of Idaho, but I'm still collecting on a limited basis.
However, due to increased interest in collecting opium antiques, prices have gone way up over the past few years, and there are now many, many fakes and reproductions out there _ some of them quite good. So collecting is much more of a challenge than it used to be.