James Eckardt is an international American novelist who has written eight successful novels. He is a former Sierra Leone Peace Corps volunteer and has spent the majority of his life living overseas. He is currently the chief book reviewer at The Nation (Thailand). Recently, I had the chance to speak with Eckardt about his long career as an ex-pat American author. Here is our interview.
In your latest book, Singapore Girl, you write about your true story of falling in love with a transvestite. How did your family and friends react to this story? Were they shocked? How did you handle this?
First, Milly was not a transvestite, she was a pre-op transsexual. I mention in the book that Milly and some others became very successful women after their operations, married and just disappeared into the general population with no one the wiser about their past. I told none of my friends and family about Milly’s true past, and referred to her just passingly as a woman in my original sailing story. Only Erik, my shipmate, knew. It wasn’t something we talked about. I wrote the story of my romance with Milly and put it in an envelope where it remained for 30 years until Milly’s husband contacted me and told me what had happened to her. I knew I had a story then and wrote a prologue and two subsequent sections–”Ten Years Later” and “Thirty Years Later”–to bracket the original “Singapore Girl” story. Only after the book was published did I tell family and friends. By this time I didn’t care and I had a damn fine book. Milly deserved to be immortalized.
You’ve spent much of your life living in Songkhla, Thailand. We’ve read about an Islamic resistance movement occurring there. How is the situation? What are the people like there? Have you ever thought of writing a novel about the political situation in southern Thailand?
I spent 15 years in Songkhla, my wife’s home town. I wrote the novel, Boat People, a book of stories, Waylaid by the Bimbos, along with stories in other books [during my time there]. I’m returning in a few days after an absence of 18 years and I hope to find space in a newspaper to tell stories of my wife and I [to] a new generation. There is a long standing Islamic movement to the south of Songkhla in the provinces of Yala, Pattani and Natathiwat, where up to 80% of the people are Malay-speaking Muslims. Songkhla itself is one quarter Muslim but these are Thai Muslims. There are [Thai]Muslims throughout the South [who] are loyal to the King and the nation. I worked at the American Consulate in Songkhla for 12 years and do have a deep knowledge of the history of the insurgency. There’s always the possibility of a novel.
Your writing career as a published author spans over 20 years. Since you first started writing, how have you changed as a writer? Do you find the writing process easier or more difficult now?
V.S. Naipaul notoriously changed from a comical to a serious writer. Humour is a streak that’s always been in my writing, though my two novels set in Thailand (Boat People and Running with the Sharks) deal with deadly serious violence. My first novel, about teenage Catholic seminarians working as civil rights volunteers, was about a serious time but is mostly funny. Writing novels is difficult, especially when you’re first starting out. Writing stories is fun and I often found myself laughing out loud when I was writing them!
How did you make the transition from novelist to book reviewer? Which role do you enjoy doing more? Do you think reviewing books makes you a better storyteller? If so, how?
I think reading makes you a story-teller. It makes you want to write and tell your own stories. In 1997, the Asian Crisis brought to an end my 17 year career as a freelance humour writer at the Bangkok Post. Financial problems have recently ended my brief career as an opinion writer in The Nation, the Bangkok paper where I worked for eight years. I’ve taken advantage of small openings in the market since 1997 in the Phuket Gazette, the Phnom Penh Post, Bayon Pearnik, and The Nation. But many stories I wrote specifically for my later books. I read a lot so [I] enjoy writing reviews but wish I had a steady market for stories. We’ll see what happens when I return to Songkhla.
You’ve spent the last year living in New York and plan on returning to Thailand shortly. What is the biggest difference between living in Asia and the United States? What advice do you have for writers seeking careers as ex-pat authors in Asia?
There are too many differences to count between Thailand and New York. In 30 years with a Thai family (wife, four kids, three grandkids) and many friends, I learned to become somewhat Thai. I learned the language, the food, the cultural icons, the history, and the general outlook on life. It’s been a very nice vacation in New York, what with deli food, TV and movies, and the Yankees and the Giants. Since the other nine people in our extended family in the house are Thai, it hasn’t been much of a stretch. My advice for writers seeking careers as ex-pat authors is to have been born in an earlier age. Collin Piprell, Colin Cotterhill, S. Tsow, and a half dozen others came to prominence in the 1980s. The publishing scene has changed now and the book and story markets that we had once are now closed. There is one publishing house that is essentially a vanity press for white guys writing about Thai hookers, but some good new books do otherwise emerge. I reviewed some of them in the last decade.
Your book, Bangkok People, enjoyed a lot of commercial success in Thailand. What was it about this book that made it so attractive to readers? When writing it, did you have a hunch that you were writing something special?
I knew I had a book when I went on [a] fitness and weight loss regime and had a lot of time on my hands. I made a scrapbook of the 174 stories I had written for Manager Magazine and saw that the profiles were very good–good enough for a book that appealed greatly to people living in Bangkok. The people profiled were two thirds Thai, one third ex-pat, and covered a vast range of high and low occupations.
You have travelled and worked in many places around the world. What was the most challenging situation you have ever found yourself in? Do experiences like these help generate ideas for writing creative stories?
My literary philosophy has been to wait for a disaster to happen to me and then write about it. Covering the election riots in Phnon Penh was kind of challenging; sailing a boat for 2000 miles in the South China Sea was [challenging] too, [as well as] motorcycling across Africa. Always stay a moving target and don’t let the weasels get you down. My recent three years in Abu Dhabi was mostly a waste, but everywhere else–Sierra Leone, Brazil, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia–has been great.
Most of your books seem to be based on your personal experiences. How much of your novels are actually fiction and what percent would you say are true? Do you see yourself as a historical fiction author or strictly a writer of fiction?
All my books are based on personal experiences. In terms of fiction, as you plunge on into a second and third and fourth draft, you realize that you can lie and more and more fiction creeps into the tale. Conversely, in my true-life humour stories, I do not owe the reader the complete truth, only a good laugh. My motto is: “What is the fragile flower of truth, before the onrushing steamroller of a good story? You squash the sucker flat.” Or as William Faulkner said: “An artist has a vision he will do anything to bring it to life. He will walk over his grandmother if he has to. The ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is worth any number of old ladies.”
Lastly, what’s next for James Eckardt?
Damned if I know. I just hope I can get some stories and maybe a new novel out of whatever happens in Songkhla. I’ll be dipping back into Cambodia again. I might find some territory there to light out for, like Kep on the sea coast.