I recently finished reading Currency, a novel about a Thai man and 20-something American woman who get tied up in an exotic animal smuggling ring. It’s been awhile since I read a novel for fun, but I was given a copy of this book and the cover intrigued me (though it’s not particularly relevant to the story), so I dug right in.
In the story, the Thai man (named Piv) and American backpacker, Robin, are intimately involved and, for the most part, devoted to each other. But Robin, being the starry-eyed backpacker that she is, runs out of money and has to leave the country because her visa is about to expire, but schemes with Piv about ways the two of them can continue to live the dream of traveling the world. Doing that requires money, which is where the animal smuggling comes in.
The chapters in Currency alternate between Piv’s voice and Robin’s point of view. I found the chapters told by Piv to be a bit jarring and awkward to read, and though the book started out a bit slow, I couldn’t put it down by the time I reached the end. The concept of smuggling terrifies and grips me, and the story contained in Currency was no exception.
Currency, which was published in May 2010, is author Zoe Zolbrod’s first book. She took some time to answer a few questions about what inspired her to write the book and how travel plays a role in her life.
1. What was your inspiration for writing Currency?
When I returned home from an extended backpacking trip in Southeast Asia, I started writing short stories that featured travelers and foreign settings. One day, as an experiment, I sat down and started writing from the first person point of view of a Thai man who worked in the tourist trade. Almost immediately, the words just started pouring out, which was unusual for me. It was like the character, whom I soon named Piv, was sitting there with me and talking, and all I had to do was type what he was saying. Although I didn’t know it at the time, I had started writing Currency.
Piv’s voice was the inspiration for the novel. But while he came to me all in a rush, it took awhile for me to find a plot. I knew Piv would get involved with an American woman, and that they would get into trouble together, but what kind of trouble? Then I read an article in the New York Times Magazine about animal smuggling, and I had a big aha moment. I loved the way that endangered animal smuggling was both strange and interesting on its own as well as being symbolic of issues of covetousness, desire and geography-as-destiny that were already important to the book.
2. Is there anything in particular you hope readers will take away from your book?
I love reading fiction that both provides me with an escape and makes me think, and my aim was to give that experience to readers. I hope Currency will take readers places that aren’t part of their daily lives, and I hope it will also make them consider their own place in the scheme of things—both as an individual and as the representative of a country or culture.
To me, traveling—especially solo traveling—and writing have been absolutely intertwined. Immersing myself in other countries has expanded my mind, fueled my curiosity and stoked my interest in other people. Traveling has made me a better observer. Also, traveling alone taught me to be alone for long periods and provided me with invaluable writing and thinking time. The thinking time is probably what’s been most important. In my everyday surroundings, I can find it hard to enter into periods of deep reflection.
4. What are some of the highlights of your travels?
Visiting Vietnam in 1994 was a wonderful, once-in-a-lifetime experience. The country was just opening up to travelers, and people were so incredibly welcoming and interested in the handful of us who were making our way through the limited number of places we were allowed to visit. I hadn’t known what to expect as an American, but, in the south, at least, my nationality actually made me a star. Everyone wanted to try out some English, and older people wanted to tell me their stories of working with Americans during the war. I was literally cheered at times. I was regularly invited into people’s homes; I was taken out to eat. I spent hours in conversations that were intense and poignant.
In the Mekong Delta, I spent some time in Chau Doc, where I was the only apparent Caucasian, and I was taken by the hand and pulled gently from house to house, because so many people wanted to talk to me or host me for a glass of tea. It was during the Chinese New Year, so there was an air of festivity about everything anyway. And Vietnam is a beautiful country—the landscape, the architecture. But I don’t think I will ever go back, because I want to preserve it in my memory as it was during that transitional time.
5. What’s still on your travel bucket list?
Now I have a family, and my travel goals reflect that; I want to go places that I think would be fun for and with kids. I really want to go to Costa Rica, and we hope to go to northern Italy, where my husband has relatives, and to combine the visit with one to the south of France, where one of my oldest and best friends lives with her son. I also would love to go to Mexico for a couple months and do a home-study Spanish language immersion. My son is in a bilingual program at school, so he’d have a leg up on us. He’s also shown a lot of interest in Currency, and so now he wants to go to Thailand, and I’d love to find a way for us all to go there.
6. Do you have any plans for other books where the setting plays an important role?
I think in the broad sense, setting will always be important to me as a writer, but the books I’m thinking about now don’t have a travel component. It’s been a long time since I’ve been immersed enough in another country to set a book there. But I have a fantasy—and maybe it’s one that could come true—of going abroad with my family to live for a year, and then I would hope to write a fictional or nonfiction piece inspired by that.
Final photo courtesy of Lisa Meehan Williams. There are affiliate links in this post.