American Chris Tharp has called Busan, South Korea home for over a decade. He is the author of Dispatches from the Peninsula: Six Years in South Korea and The Worst Motorcycle in Laos: Rough Travels in Asia. Both books are published by Signal 8 Press.
How did you end up living in Busan, Korea?
I had spent 10 years as a “theater artist” in America, and while I did have some successes, it just wasn’t paying the bills. I was sick of being broke and even sicker of not seeing enough of the world, so I answered an ad for English teachers in Korea on Craiglist and three weeks later I stumbled off of a plane in the city of Busan. I loved it straight away and a decade and some spare change on, still find myself here. I really was looking to get out at the time and would have taken the first gig thrown my way. Luckily, I was offered a decent job in probably the best place to live in the country, so you could say fortune smiled upon me.
Teaching English in Taiwan was once a really sweet gig. It still has its attractions but it’s less financially rewarding than before. There are fewer students, more foreigners and less demand for English. What’s the current situation in Korea?
The situation in Korea mirrors that of Taiwan to a degree, in that we have passed the high water mark. I probably arrived four or five years before the peak, and yeah, it was gravy city. You can still sock away a nice amount of cash in Korea if you work it and are frugal, but the good jobs (read: university gigs) are way harder to come by, more sought after, and demand more credentials than the good ol’ days. While this has made the going hotter and tamed the Wild West aspect of ESL teaching that existed when I first arrived, it has probably improved the quality of teachers and English education in Korea as a whole. Yeah, it’s not as easy, and I got in while the getting was good, but overall there are less scumbags than before. This is better for Korea, but worse for expat writers.
Are Korean women submissive and their only goal in life to please their Western masters?
All I can say is that anyone who thinks that Korean women are submissive has never dated one.
Many Taiwanese say Korean sports teams cheat. Any comment?
Koreans will do anything to win. That said, Taiwan sucks at soccer, and while the Taiwan is a proper baseball nation (God bless ‘em), Korea is better by most any measure. How many Taiwanese play in MLB? So yeah, Koreans may cheat, but even if they didn’t, they’d still beat Taiwan in any major game.
What recommendations do you have for visitors to Pusan?
Yongungsa Temple, Gumjeongsan Fortress, and most importantly, Jagalchi Fish Market, the living heart and soul of this city.
Are you tired of eating kimchi?
Never. I eat it every day. In fact, when I travel abroad I get the Jones after about ten days. The Koreans were onto something with this one.
What are your favorite places in Korea?
As I’m sure is the same with Taiwan, many of the best parts of Korea are found in the countryside. I am particularly partial to Jirisan and Deokyusan Nation Parks, though the best place I have ever been in Korea is Ulleungdo, an extinct volcanic island that lies between the peninsula and Japan. It is a rather remarkable piece of real estate surrounded by pristine seas.
That said, Busan is clearly the best city. Seoul is way bigger and has much more going on, but Busan is just a nicer place any way you cut it. And it has the Busan International Film Festival, which is the largest in Asia, and pretty much the best thing to ever happen to the city.
Any recommendations for Korean/Asian books?
I’ve read a lot of the Korean non-fiction out there. Essential are Michael Breen’s “The Koreans” and “The Cleanest Race” by fellow Busanite, B.R. Myers
Any comment on the explosion of K-Pop and K-drama?
I don’t really get why the rest of Asia comes undone over what I see as a very manufactured, corporate product. Korean dramas and pop music are some of my least-favorite things about living here. They all seem to push a narrative of materialism and unachievable beauty. They are rarely artist-generated. It’s capitalist anti-art, yet it’s hungrily supped all over Asia. I get that people like pretty people, but it just seems so cheesy to me. Insincerity masking as opposite. But then again, I’m a 45 year-old American white man watching a kind of pop culture take place that I have zero stake in, so what do I know?
Your The Worst Motorcycle in Laos is actually about travels throughout Asia. Can you tell us something about it?
The book is collection of travel essays – a culmination of ten years of travel throughout East and Southeast Asia. When I moved to Asia I decided that I would bring a writer’s eye to the whole experience, so I’ve kept this credo alive as I’ve traveled. I always bring along notebooks and have blogged extensively as well. All of this proto-writing was revisited, sifted, and edited to create this book. A couple of the essays were written after I knew the publishing of the book was a go and were crafted specifically for that purpose.
What are your favorite destinations in Asia?
Xinjiang, China, Sumatra, Indonesia, and all of Laos. I love Indochina in general but Laos is just the best. I have been five times now and will keep coming back.
If you were 23, single and had a wad of cash in your pocket, what adventures would you go seeking?
The first thing I’d do is travel from Tijuana, Mexico to Ushuai, Argentina overland (with a brief boat trip over the Darien Gap). I am somewhat obsessed with Latin America yet have seen almost none of it.
I’d also do a similar overland trip from Shanghai, China, to Capetown, South Africa. Or I’d teach English in Ethiopia or Georgia. Or I’d just show up somewhere crazy like Afghanistan or Ukraine and start writing about it. The problem is, very few 23-year olds can write for shit. They’re babies.
What I certainly wouldn’t do is move to New York, London, or some other city awash in little rich fucks and hope to tread water. I would definitely try to make my name as a writer outside of the western womb.
What was the hardest part of writing your books?
Actually doing it. Actually sitting down and writing. Not looking at Facebook. Not smoking a cigarette. Not working a crossword. Not going to the bar. Not cooking tacos, listening to music, or playing guitar. Not watching Bigfoot videos on Youtube.
What promotion have you done for the books?
This is a great, necessary question. I have two books out, both published by Signal 8 Press, a terrific but very small company out of Hong Kong. Their PR muscle is less than mighty, which leaves the lion’s share of pimping up to the authors. This has been frustrating at times, but what do you do?
I maintain a constant social media presence, mainly Facebook. I am not picky about who I friend or interact with. I try to engage as many people as possible. In modern publishing they call this your “author’s platform,” which often causes the more introverted writers among us to recoil. As awful as Facebook may be at times, it has proven very useful for me as an emerging indie author. I have probably sold 90 percent of my books through Facebook promo. Nearly every time I pimp a book there, I sell at least one copy, or at least garner a review on Amazon or Goodreads. Now of course I’m still pretty small potatoes, but FB has worked in my favor. I also do Twitter but have gotten way less traction there, meaning almost everything I post is totally ignored. I suppose I’m just not famous enough. I’m convinced that Twitter is only good for people who have reached a certain level of internet notoriety. Or maybe I just don’t know how to work it since I was pretty late to that dance. Facebook, on the other hand, has been much nicer to me, which is why I stick with it.
How long have you been writing?
I have been writing most all of my life. My background is in drama, which I studied in college and ground out as playwright for ten years. I had my own theatre company where I wrote and co-wrote several full length, one act, and short plays that were produced in Seattle in Los Angeles during the 1990’s and early 2000’s. I also did a few screenplays and short stories during that time.
What are your writing habits?
Sit down with a pot of coffee and get at it. Lock the door and write. At this point I just reserve my whole weekend as writing time and hope to get as much done as possible. I always fall short of my goals. I used to pride myself as a prose factory, but as I get older I am more concerned with actually producing good work, so I’ve slowed down as an act of quality control.
What do you like to read in your free time?
I read a full spectrum of stuff. I lean towards lit—short stories and novels—though I also read a lot of non-fiction stuff—travel and especially history. While I am not generally big into genre fiction, I have a massive weakness when it comes to fantasy, and will devour books about dwarves, barbarians, and winged creatures with abandon. After all, most any good fantasy book is just a giant camping trip with monsters and magic. What’s not to love about that?
Who are your favorite authors?
Raymond Carver, Chekhov, Alice Munro, Hemingway, Sherman Alexie, Irvine Welsh, Edward Abbey, Harold Pinter, Paul Theroux, HS Thompson, Rushdie, DF Wallace (essays!), Oscar Wilde, Aleksandar Hemon, Howard Zinn, Raymond Chandler, Twain, Dorothy Parker, Norman Mailer, Ken Kesey, Jim Harrison…
… and a bunch of other fuckers.
What projects are you working on now?
I’m currently co-writing a sports memoir with legendary MMA fighter Jeff “The Snowman” Monson. This is a departure for me but has proven immensely rewarding. We’re approaching the finishing line with this project and hope to publish in early 2017.
In addition I’m also working on three novellas that I’ll publish as one book next year. They’re all set in the Pacific Northwest of the USA in the late 1980’s/early 1990’s and incorporate a lot of the deep woods madness that is imprinted in my psyche. One is in the bag, and the other two are outlined and ready to go, once I have the time to throw at it.
To learn more about Chris and his writing visit his Amazon author page.