John Shors is the author of the Thailand-set novel Cross Currents, which tells of a family who own a small resort on the beautiful island of Ko Phi Phi Don off the coast of Phuket. The family are struggling to make ends meet, and things are about to get a whole lot tougher, given that the book starts in the week before the Indian Ocean Tsunami of 2004 when thousands of Ko Phi Phi residents lost their lives. You can read more about the book itself here.
This is Shors’s fifth novel – the others being set in places as diverse as Vietnam and India, and he delights in making the settings of his novels as important as the characters in the books.
John has kindly agreed to answer some of my questions about the writing of this novel, and of Ko Phi Phi itself.
John, this is a novel in which the location is extremely important – tell us a little about your own relationship with Ko Phi Phi…?
After graduating from college, I taught English in Japan for several years, where I worked hard and managed to save some of my income. After leaving Japan, I backpacked around Asia for almost a year, and came across Ko Phi Phi, Thailand. This butterfly-shaped island was probably the most beautiful place I had ever been, and I basically fell in love with it. Not only had I discovered a tropical paradise, but the local people were quite friendly, and there was a wonderful rapport between locals and travelers, something not always present overseas.
In the years that followed, I found myself returning to Ko Phi Phi. Once I became a full-time writer, I decided to create a novel set in Ko Phi Phi, but I couldn’t figure out the vehicle to make such a story happen. I wanted to write more than a love story set in paradise. I wanted something that was global in nature. When the Indian Ocean Tsunami swept through Ko Phi Phi in 2004, I realized that I could write a novel that brought that day to life, celebrated the strength of the human spirit, and generated money for those who had been hurt by the wave.
How did you go about deciding whose perspective this story should be told from?
My goal with Cross Currents wasn’t to create a novel centered on the tsunami, but a character-driven story that could stand on its own feet without the wave. It seemed to me that Cross Currents should be told from two perspectives—Thai and tourist. So, I created the Thai family and the American family, and put a lot of effort into bringing these characters to life.
Ever since the film “The Beach” the Phi Phi islands have come under the world tourist spotlight, but there is a concern about the environmental impact of tourists – is this a place you think tourists should be visiting?
‘The Beach’ certainly brought a lot of attention to Ko Phi Phi. I visited the island long before the movie ever appeared, and have been back since its release. I wish that the island was as unspoiled as it was twenty years ago. But the world doesn’t work that way. And, fortunately, for the most part, Ko Phi Phi is still in good shape. There are no high-rise hotels, no cars, and no pollution. It’s certainly true that the Thai government could do a better job protecting this paradise, and tourists could do better as well. I was on the island a year ago, for instance, researching Cross Currents, and to my dismay I saw several tourists leave or drop litter on this pristine beach. So, while I encourage people to travel to the island, I also hope that they treat it with the respect that it deserves.
Maya Bay on Ko Phi Phi Ley (Lee or Leh), made famous by the film ‘The Beach’- Image courtesy of Cybercap via Wikimedia Commons
For someone who has not visited the Phi Phi islands before – how would you suggest they approach a visit?
A trip to Ko Phi Phi has some logistical challenges, but is doable. One can fly into Bangkok, and then fly to Phuket, which is Thailand’s biggest and most popular island. It’s a two-hour ferry ride from Phuket to Ko Phi Phi. The islands around Ko Phi Phi also make for wonderful day trips. There is world-class snorkeling, an abundance of white-sand beaches, etc. Many of the islands are completely undeveloped.
Any special recommendations for things to do or places to visit/stay?
I made an effort to bring a lot of the highlights of Ko Phi Phi to life within Cross Currents. For instance, my characters swim with sharks, hike to the top the island, visit a huge cave, etc. One of my goals with the book was to bring the joys of the island to vivid life on the page.
Have you been back to the island since the tsunami?
The tsunami occurred on December 26, 2004, and I visited the island in 2007 and 2010 to research Cross Currents. I was amazed at how everything had been rebuilt. One would have never known that such a calamity occurred there.
When we look at the types of novels written in English that are set in Thailand, Cross Currents stands out as being very different from much of what is generally available, how do you feel it fits in relation to what is normally published?
There certainly are many gritty novels that occur in Bangkok and have to do with the underworld there. At one point I thought about doing such a story, but in the end decided that I wanted to write a novel about the beauty of Thailand and its people.
You have made a habit of choosing interesting locations for your novels, often places that have not been written about before. How do you choose your locations?
I try to pick locations that I want to further explore and that haven’t yet been brought to life through popular fiction. Many writers have written novels set in Paris, London, Rio, Shanghai, and Tokyo. I want to write novels that occur abroad, but that are set in destinations that people aren’t quite as familiar with.
Do you have a favorite?
Well, I really do love Thailand. It will always be a special place to me.
What do you hope people take away from your novels?
One of my hopes is that my novels will help people realize that the world is a small place, that people are a lot more alike than they are different. Sometimes, through politics, we focus on our differences. Yet there is a lot more that binds us together than separates us.
If you are looking for a virtual journey to a beautiful Thai island, then I highly encourage you to pick up a copy of Cross Currents. Thank you John for your time and we look forward to your next novel adventure…
Packabook was kindly provided with a review copy of the book “Cross Currents” by the publishers.