James Eckardt is a renowned farang author who resides in Thailand. He is the author of Waylaid by the Bimbos, On the Bus, Running with the Sharks, Boat People and the soon to be released Bangkok People. He is currently working for the Nation, one of Thailand's two English newspapers. Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, he seriously considered becoming a priest and he attended the Catholic Seminary of the Immaculate Conception on Long Island where he studied grand philosophy. Quoting from his first book Waylaid by the Bimbos, Eckardt says, "My journalistic career was launched when my wife tried to castrate me. I was writing the dire details to a friend in Canada when the thought struck - why not polish this gibbberish and peddle it to the Bangkok Post?" Recently Scott Murray had a chance to sit down with Jim and discuss his life and career.
Tell us about your time in the Peace Corps?
Yeah, Africa was what I had instead of a happy childhood. I was a chiefdom development engineer with the Peace Corps in Sierre Leone back in 1969. We were really the Green Berets of the Peace Corps. They parachuted us into the bush and then two years later we emerged with malarial complexions, tropical ulcers, and fascinating intestinal guests. We had it rougher than anyone in Vietnam except for those on the front lines.
We did all kinds of things like introducing hybrid rice strains and fertilizer, and building schools and roads in bush villages. But, I was known as the chicken king of the northern provinces in my area. I picked up white star-cross layers (chickens) in the capital, Freetown, and brought them back to where I was based. I must have debeaked thousands of chickens in my time.
But, Sierre Leone is really a country that you have to see through the bottom of a beer glass. We started with twenty workers, five of whom were confirmed drunks. By the time our tenure was up eleven had quit, we had nine confirmed drunks, and we had all lost thirty pounds.
While I was in Sierre Leone I caught shistonaisis, or river blindness as it is commonly called. It's real nasty stuff that gives you every horrible symptom imaginable. You catch it from snails who become infected by people defecating into the river. Luckily, by the time I caught it the Germans had invented an orange horse pill that cured it. Before that you had to go through a six month recovery program where you were subjected to lead poisoning to cure the shisto.
After my time in Sierre Leone was up I drove across parts of Africa with two friends on a Honda SL 175. After leaving Sierre Leone we drove through Liberia, the Ivory Coast, Ghana, Togo, Benin and Nigeria. There was originally supposed to be four of us, but our leader Percy Brown had a blow-out ninety km out of Freetown, hurt himself, and couldn't go with us. And the remaining three of us really didn't know what we were doing - we just wanted to smoke dope, and let the wind blow through our hair.
After Africa, I signed on as a Peace Corps recruiter (for US$2000 a month, up from the US$90 a month in Africa) and I basically recruited myself as a grunt out to Brazil to work for a Brazilian agricultural research agency. I knew exactly where I wanted to go, and I went there. I ended up in the middle of nowhere in a place called km forty-six which is forty-six km outside of a town called Altamira on the Riu Xingu Amazon. It was really the Dodge City of the Amazon. It was a Wyatt Earp town with a large number of hookers, and everyone wore a gun.
How did you end up in Thailand and why did you stay?
Eric Robinson, a friend of mine from the Peace Corps wanted to sail a boat from Manila around South-East Asia, and he convinced me to join him after my time in Brazil was up. So, we left Manila, headed for Sabah, turned left towards Singapore and eventually ended up in Jakarta. I then ended up working my way back to Singapore and on to Malacca where I spent six months working on a novel and living off of my inheritance.
While I was in Malacca someone gave me two maps, one of Phuket and one of Songkla, but I got them confused and I ended up heading to Thailand thinking Songkla was Phuket and visa-versa. I drove a Honda 250 XL Scrambler from Malacca to Kota Bahru and I left my bike with another Peace Corps volunteer because at that time the Thai-Malay border was bandit country.
I then entered Thailand and I ended up staying in Songkla for fifteen years where I met my wife, got married, and had kids. When I first got to Songkla, however, all I did was hang out on the beach, smoke dope and read Shakespeare. One funny story was when I first arrived here I didn't know about the difference between Buddhist and Christian years so I woke up one morning after a particularly rough night, looked at a Buddhist calendar and said, "How did I gain 500 years?"
After we got married I took my wife home to America for about a year. We ended up living in Alabama for a while where I was working on a book on the civil rights movement called Alabama Days. The southerners were very friendly to my wife as they thought she was a war bride. The book was accepted by Simon & Schuster, I was given a cash advance and my editor and I worked on two draughts but unfortunately by the time it came out in 1982 the editorial board thought that it wouldn't sell as it was during the Reagan era. Too bad, I still think that is a really good funny novel though.
So, we ended up coming back to Songkla and I got a job working for the US consulate as an administrative vice-consul in Songkla. I also taught English at Sri Nakinwirat University. When the consulate closed down I moved to Bangkok, and I have been here for the past five years. My family resettled in Prachinburi (my wife's father, who was a police sergeant in Songkla was originally from Nakhon Nayok).
What made you want to become a writer?
Well, when I was young I was sent to a Dickensonian type boarding school called the Carmelite Minors Seminary in Middletown, New York and my only escape was reading. And, if you read a lot it usually makes you want to write.
Who are some of your favorite authors?
Thomas McGuane who wrote the National Book Award nominated 92 in the Shade (McGuane also scripted the movie in 1975 starring Peter Fonda and Warren Oates). He also penned Shoot the Piano Player, and Nobody's Angel.
Walker Percy who wrote The Last Gentlemen, The Second Coming, Lancelot and The Moviegoer which won the National Book Award.
Robert Stone who wrote Hall of Mirrors, and that wonderful book set in Nicaragua - A Flag for Sunrise which is even better than Joseph Conrad's Nostromo, Dog Soldiers, Children of the Light and Outerbridge Reach. McGuane, Percy, and Stone were all Catholics, bent, orthodox, and fallen away.
I also like Ken Kesey who wrote One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and Sometimes a Great Notion; and Thomas Pynchon who penned Gravity's Rainbow, V, and Vineland. And, of course I really enjoyed Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano.
What work are you most proud of?
Boat People. People that have read it have told me that they picked it up, and read it right through the 460 some pages. I think that a hundred years from now when people look back at the whole tragic Vietnam refugee mess they will see my book as a Grapes of Wrath of that era.
What contemporary writers do you admire here in Thailand?
I think Colin Pipperel is a good writer. He has written Kicking Dogs, and Bangkok Knights. I also like S. Tsow (Bill Page), and humourist Steve Rosse, but we are very different. He loves his child Andy, and he always praises him in his work, whereas I'm always slagging my kids - "My Daughter Erika, the Beast, "The Beast Gets Beastlier" etc. I don't know why that is.
The granddaddy of all expatriate writers residing in Thailand is Jack Reynolds who wrote A Woman of Bangkok. That book still rings true today, and it is filled with a lot of good insights. The Bangkok of his day wasn't all that much different than the Bangkok of our day except it was a lot smaller of course.
Who are some of the Thais you admire, and why?
I admire the generation that came of age after World War II. Unfortunately, many of them are dying off now. But, they never shed a drop of their Thai identity. They went off to the West and they become experts in certain fields but they still maintained their Thainess. People like Prince Bira, Ajarn Somnuck, Kris Asakul (of the Ocean Group), Khun Suk of DK Books, and Kukrit Pramoj (even though he was a little bit older).
How do you remember your time with the now defunct Manager magazine?
Working for Manager was great for me because it has allowed me to work in a huge pulsating city, and write about it using a literary style which was new to me and that has been a real thrill. It is great magazine with a lot of scope, and it has given me the freedom to experiment with a lot of different styles.
Through Manager I was able to meet and interview hundreds of people. People like architects, advertising people, boxers, bar girls, taxi drivers, railway workers, movie stars, slum dwellers, gem traders, restaurant owners, corporate tycoons, the whole gamut of society really from top to bottom.
Where would you recommend a tourist traveling through Thailand visit?
I think Krabi has the most beautiful beach in the whole country, Laem Phra Nang. And Satun is a great place to go snorkeling and scuba diving.
Where's the greatest place on earth?
The Foreign Correspondents Club of Cambodia because it is right on the river. But, there are a lot of great places like the City Hotel in Freetown, Sierre Leone which was mentioned in Graham Green's The Heart of The Matter. Also there is a place near Belen, Brazil called Sao Sebastian which is located on Mosqueiro Island and that is also a wonderful place too.
Are you content here, or where else would you still like to visit, or travel to?
Well, as David Pratt a former editor of the Bangkok Post, and now of the Globe and Mail, once so aptly said, "At one point in your life you choose a country, and later on, you find that country has chosen you." That is pretty much the way I feel about Thailand, but I would like to travel to Mozambique one day if possible. Since they speak Portuguese and it is in Africa I thought I could combine a bit of both Brazil and Africa by going there.
What would you still like to do?
I'd still like to cover a war.
Ed Note: A few months after this interview was conducted Jim dropped 30 pounds and shaved his beard, losing ten years. He also unfortunately lost his job when Manager went bust during Thailand's economic crisis. He then went to Phuket to work for five months as editor of the Phuket Gazette, before moving to Cambodia for eight months to work for the Phnom Penh Post, covering the elections, border massacres, street riots and such. Downsizing cost him that post and he returned to Bangkok in late November 1998, where he was jobless for three months, scruffing around as a freelancer (He used to joke, "What's the difference between a freelancer and a street corner hooker?" "The hooker gets paid on time. And she gets more respect.")
Jim finally landed a job at Scand-media as editor-at-large of five Chamber of Commerce magazines before arriving on the editorial desk of The Nation on 1 March 2000. His latest book about his tribulations called The Year of Living Stupidly: Boom, Bust and Cambodia will be published by Asia Books (www.asiabooks.co.th). His last book, Bangkok People, also published by Asia Books, was #1 on their best seller list for ten weeks.
For more information contact Jim c/o:
44 Moo 10 Bangna-Trad Rd
Tel: (662) 317-0042
Fax: (662) 317-2071