“A Geek in Thailand” could well be the most enjoyable book I have ever read about this country – and trust me, I’ve read a few. The man behind ‘Geek in Thailand’ is British journalist, Jody Houton. Let’s talk about the man himself and how the book came together.
Jody, welcome to the ajarn hot seat. I loved your book and we’ll get on to that in due course but let’s get to know a little bit about the writer himself - where are you from in the UK and did you always plan on a career in journalism?
I’m from Leigh, Greater Manchester. I’ve always been a writer; mainly fiction and, in my teens, raps. Becoming a journalist and writing for a living seemed like a natural step to make.
After getting my undergrad degree, however, my wanderlust proved too strong to ignore anymore, and so I packed my bags and left the UK.
It says in your Amazon bio that you’ve lived and worked in several countries? Where exactly and what did you do?
Phuket, Bangkok, Thailand
In all but France (where I worked on a campsite), I taught English, with a little freelance writing to supplement my income.
I’ve never been the backpacking type, so when I discovered that teaching English as a foreign language allowed me the opportunity to visit any country I wanted (especially Japan), get paid for it and live quite well, I was hooked. I spent a year or so in each country, then moved on.
After a great few years, however, I began to realise that my heart wasn’t in it anymore. In fact, after literally falling asleep in one of my own classes, I knew it was time for me to leave the profession. Working in Seoul, which has a low cost of living, high salaries and plenty of opportunities for lucrative PT jobs, I managed to save up enough money to return to the UK and finally get my Masters in journalism.
Now that you’ve settled in Thailand, has this become the best place to call home?
In a way, I suppose. There’s a lot going for it in many different aspects of life.
But, I’ve also been quite fortunate in my ‘postings’ – Japan was a wonderfully exciting, creative and fun place to live and work for a chap in his mid-twenties. The laidback lifestyle of a small village in Greece was also very rewarding; beautiful beaches, being able to lean out and pluck oranges from a tree in my garden; and very welcoming locals.
Even Seoul, which was the place I liked the least, was fun in its own way; I had a good bunch of friends, who were all at the same point with teaching and all were saving up enough money to return to our respective countries for further study.
Seoul has a great nightlife scene. I think it’s all about where you are at personally, at that time of your life. Although I look back with perhaps the most fondness at my days living in Tokyo, I’ve about had it with city living though. The cost, the noise, the people, lack of greenery.
Your bio also says that you work for Thai newspapers and magazines. Are those channels of media work spread pretty evenly?
Since arriving in Thailand I’ve worked on fortnightly magazines, weekly newspapers, and now, currently, a daily newspaper. I also do a fair bit of freelance writing and editing for the odd project and website.
Is there plenty of work around for an expat journalist in Thailand?
I suppose so. If you’re qualified and have a bit of experience you should be able to find a bit of work. You also need your fair share of determination and stamina.
I came to Phuket with a few thousand pounds sterling and a vague possibility of a job, and for a while was just working freelance. During that time, I was living very frugally, but was still in sunny Phuket and not in rainy London or Manchester.
I suppose, like with many things that you, along with many others, want, you need to just get out there and give it a go. The longer you’re here, the more contacts you make, and the easier it is to find extra work and income. I also teach English to aspiring air hostesses part time.
And you do some radio work as well?
Back in Phuket I used to partake in a weekly sit-down chat on the radio, where the presenter and I would discuss the week in news, with a good dose of humour, as is needed when discussing stories in Thailand. There’s quite a vibrant English language radio scene in Phuket, much more than Bangkok I’ve found.
OK, let’s talk about the book. I notice that ‘Geek in Thailand’ is part of a ‘Geek in’ series with each one focusing on a different country. I assume that the Thailand book is the only one you’ve been personally involved in?
That’s right. The first, ‘A Geek in Japan’ was written by Spanish expat Hector Garcia, based on his very popular blog of the same name. That was followed up by ‘A Geek in Korea’ by a fellow Mancunian journalist that lived and worked in South Korea. Mine is the third in the series, with ‘A Geek in China’ due for release this summer.
I’m obviously somewhat biased, but I think it’s a great series. Books written by expat journalists about the countries they actually live and work in.
What I loved most about ‘Geek in Thailand’ was its lively, magazine style format but although I haven’t read the other ‘Geek’ books, I assume you had to follow that ‘magazine’ format anyway?
Yes, it followed a similar format, but I like to think that the format has evolved over the editions. For example, unlike the Japan one, I noticed there were a couple of interviews in the Korea one, and I decided to build on that and feature even more; I tried to feature one interview with a prominent person in that topic, whether expert, or interesting/weird figure.
I think it works well. I think both Daniel Tudor (author of A Geek in Korea) and I, as journalists, added a bit more colour and journalism to our respective editions. I’m sure A Geek in China will follow a similar format, but with perhaps a few tweaks from the author.
How long did it take you to research the content for ‘A Geek in Thailand’ and how many hours a week did you devote to it?
I started the project in the latter part of 2012, it’s hard to say for certain how long it took me to research the book, as from the moment I began, I became more actively involved in engaging in and attempting to understand Thailand.
I was constantly making little notes of what I thought was interesting, or weird, or emblematic of something else, which then propelled me to start studying, deciphering, revising and trying to bring it all together.
I had written it all by Christmas 2014, just in time for what was to be an early-2015 release, but then, of course, everything changed. What with the protests and subsequent coup, the publisher understandably thought that it wasn’t the best time to be releasing ‘a lighthearted overview of the fun and fantastic culture of Thailand’ so it was delayed.
It wasn’t back to the drawing board exactly, but it certainly allowed me some breathing space to revisit some of the content again, it turned out to be a good thing for the project, as by the time I thought of looking through some sections again, I had moved to Bangkok and was seeing things through perplexed city eyes, as opposed to perplexed island eyes.
So, all in all, it took just shy of three years to research, write and edit A Geek in Thailand. More or less every Saturday during that period was given over to it. Not going out on Friday nights, so I could be fresh for my Saturday stint, and being too frazzled and tired to go out on Saturday nights, meant that I, to an extent, metamorphosed into a genuine geek about midway through the process.
Books on Thailand is a very crowded marketplace isn’t it but you must be pleased that ‘Geek’ stands out as something truly unique?
Yes, I like to think so. My intention when I began the project was to write something to fill the wide open gap between generic travel guide, and the countless memoirs/fictional tales written by jaded expats on “Naughty nights with naughty Nong”.
I have no interest in Thai boxing so I would have had to dig deep for the motivation to write about it. Were there any chapters of the book that you found tough because you perhaps had little interest in the subject matter?
A Geek in Thailand covers a huge range of topics, and sure there were some that I, let’s say, had less fun writing than others. I think the sections where the subject matter has been exhausted in other books like, for example, temples and festivals, I didn’t find as rewarding or fun writing as others.
I had a great time discovering the wealth of talent the Thai art scene had though, and hopefully that comes through. I think the great thing about this format is that I’m sure there are many people that are interested in temples and festivals; there’s something for everyone.
One part of the book that I really enjoyed was the interviews with local, everyday Thai folk such as the Phuket som tam seller. I assume you had Thai assistants helping you out with some of that stuff?
Yes, not assistants per se, but certainly good friends.
Were there ever times when you thought you had bitten off more than you could chew by taking the project on?
As this was a project that I essentially did in my free time, while working full time as well as either freelance travel writing and/or teaching, there were certain times towards the end of the project, when I was editing every thing and bringing it all together, that I existed on very little sleep, and very many energy drinks.
Around six months into the project, my computer died, along with the hard drive, and I had a stressful, sleepless night until I could go to the computer shop to find out when was the last time I had saved my files. Terrible night… but only lost a few days’ of work in the end.
Were there any topics that you didn’t cover in the book for any reason?
Absolutely, there were some sections that I pushed for that unfortunately didn’t make it past the publisher. For example, sections on the uneasy relationship, past and present, between Myanmar and Thailand, along with a more in-depth look at Thailand’s darker ‘industries’ were vetoed. It’s understandable to an extent.