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.
I have found Thailand one of the most challenging of our World Challenge countries, because in general the literature about this beautiful, friendly country is very different from that of others in the region. When it comes to countries like Japan or China for example, there is a multitude of books to choose from which explore issues such as family life, the position of women, aspects of history etc – all subjects I am passionate about. But when it comes to Thailand, the novels available tend to fall into two categories.
The first are books about Bangkok crime – such as John Burdett’s Bangkok 8, described as “ a sexy, razor-edged, often darkly hilarious novel set in one of the world’s most exotic cities” or Dean Barrett’s Skytrain to Murder in which an American detective is on the trail of a murderer through “Bangkok’s seedy underbelly including dangerous slums, high class gentlemen clubs and a house of domination.” These novels have a big following, and for those who like gritty, underworld crime they are ideal.
The second category consists of books about Western sex-tourists and their relationships with conniving Thai bar girls. These books are often marketed as “warnings” to gullible Western men and at least on first glance appear to do little to really explore beyond the stereotypes. At this stage I am loathe to include these novels on Packabook’s list of books set in Thailand, until I have had a chance to read some of them myself and determine their level of sensitivity and respect for the country itself. So far, I’m not convinced.
Neither of these categories particularly appealed to me as I searched for a book to read for our challenge this month…but I have found a few other titles which look a little more promising.
You may want to try Mischa Berlinski’s Fieldwork, a mystery novel set in the northern hills. Reviews suggest this novel gives a sensitive and well-researched perspective on the landscape as well as the cultures of tribes in the area.
Or for a closer look at Bangkok there is Letters from Thailand, a 1969 novel by Botan which has recently been re-released in English. The book is one of the country’s most enduring novels and gives us the story of a Chinese migrant attempting to make his fortune in Thailand.
But for this challenge I decided to try a new release which ticked all the right boxes for me, and had the added advantage of being set in a place I have actually been to, albeit just for a few hours.
Cross Currents is a novel set on Ko Phi Phi Don, an island off the coast of Phuket. You may be more familiar with one of the other Phi Phi islands, Ko Phi Phi Leh the location for Leonardo Di Caprio’s 2000 film ‘The Beach’ which introduced the stunning beauty of the islands to the world.
This novel is set the week before the Asian tsunami of Boxing Day 2004, so there are no prizes for guessing where things are heading. While the actual number of people who died on Phi Phi during the tsunami is hard to determine and will probably never be known, it seems it was in the thousands. The particular shape of Phi Phi Don (butterfly-shaped with two wide bays and a thin strip of land in between) meant it was hit by waves from two directions. The resulting damage and loss of life were devastating, and the infrastructure has had to be completely rebuilt since.
Cross Currents tells of a family who run a small resort on Ko Phi Phi Don. Lek and Sarai depend on convincing a few tourists a day to stay in their beachside bungalows, but it’s a challenge. Many people prefer to stay in high-end accommodation, and for the family, it is a daily battle to make ends meet. Into the picture comes a young American called Patch who is clearly on the run from someone, but is helping Lek out with work around the resort. When Patch’s brother arrives to try and convince him to give himself up, he is torn between dealing with his past and staying in paradise and helping the family who have pretty much adopted him.
Ko Phi Phi Don – Image courtesy of C-Fix via Wikimedia Commons
The novel has a fairly simple narrative and won’t tax your brain cells too much, but it does a lovely job in exploring the lives and feelings of the protagonists. We get a wonderful insight into Lek and his family and the challenges they face, something I doubt you’d be able to read about anywhere else. The tension obviously grows as we approach Boxing Day, as we all know what is about to engulf this beautiful island. The description of the tsunami itself is terrifying, and while the ending of the novel feels a little unbelievable, it takes nothing away from the emotion of the story itself.
There are some wonderful characters in this novel, not least two of Lek’s children; his witty, feisty daughter and his dreamy, budding marine biologist son. As that tsunami approaches, I can guarantee you will be praying to every god you’ve ever heard of for those two delightful children to survive. It is heartbreaking to think of the number of children who were actually swept away when the wave approached, and the novel really brings that home.
I highly recommend this book for those of you looking to join us for the Thailand leg of the World Party Reading Challenge. If you fancy trying something else, here’s our selection of books set in Thailand to explore. Let us know what you are reading and what you think of it in the comments…
Packabook was kindly provided with a review copy of the book “Cross Currents” by the publishers.
Enjoyed this post? Have a look at our other World Party Reading Challenge selections.