Beach nut

An interview with Alex Garland, bestselling and occasionally controversial author of "The Beach."


Sue Wheat
February 11, 2000 10:00PM (UTC)

There was something comforting about the suggestion by Alex Garland that we should meet outside a tube station in London. Pretentious is something he certainly isn't, despite his meteoric rise to fame through the success of his first book, "The Beach" -- a story of backpackers in Thailand who set up an idyllic community on a remote island that ends in "Lord of the Flies"-style disaster.

Published only four years ago when Garland was 26, it has gained cult status -- 700,000 copies have been sold in the U.K., and nearly 300,000 in the U.S. -- and has been translated into 27 languages. And Friday the film adaptation starring Leonardo DiCaprio opens in theaters across the country.

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Garland's second book, "The Tesseract," has also become a bestseller. Any author facing such affirmation should be riding the crest of a wave. Any man described as "the man to have" by Vogue would also be justly pleased. What I met was a man who seemed neither excited, confident nor vain. With slightly more weight than in his moody publicity pictures, he looks less pinup and more real. His good looks are rather Mediterranean, tempered by a beard that I can't help interpreting as a disguise.

How has the success of your book "The Beach" and now the commercial hype of the movie affected you?

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The success that comes from my books is not something I feel very comfortable with. Past a certain point you have to accept the idea that the success is a lot to do with the timing and luck and that divorces you from it massively. There are aspects of it that I haven't got used to at all. But I've enjoyed some parts of it massively. It relates to the same reason I did a lot of backpacking -- partly for the experience -- it's something to tell my grandkids. It's a weird chain of events to have in your life. I find that very rewarding.

What do you think about travel now?

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I like that question because it's very blunt but it leads to such a complicated set of responses. I think in "The Beach," I tried to get across an argument that wasn't polarized -- it wasn't saying it's all good and it wasn't saying it's all bad -- it was saying there's a middle road of common sense that hopefully the book suggests. I think I still feel a version of that. I still really enjoy going away and I do it a lot; in fact I do it more [now] than I ever did really. I went to Asia twice last year and I'm going to Sudan in March to write a short story for UNICEF, which they'll publish in a book with others.

Is Asia still your favorite destination?

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Yes, probably.

Do you feel sad going back there -- especially if you see bits that you like gradually being bulldozed?

It depends what happens to the destination and it depends on what you feel about change. Manila has changed massively in the 11 years since I've been going there. And some of the changes I think are a pity and some are good. I generally don't feel depressed when I see a McDonald's has opened in some Southeast Asian town because it seems like part of a stabilizing process to me -- that it's as much about jobs and livelihoods as anything else.

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What about tourism in Thailand? Do you think the film will be destructive?

I have absolutely no idea what the effects of the film will be. But on a separate side point, I am wary of viewing a place like Thailand as something delicate that will get stamped on by the West, because it removes any sort of notion of Thailand being complicit in what happens to it. To represent Thailand as a poor disempowered country is misleading. It goes out of its way to attract all sorts of tourism, and the people who are really disempowered in Thailand are the poor -- which obviously make up the majority of the country. But there's a massive middle class there and there's also a ruling elite. They make decisions about their country, as they should, and the effects of tourism are only partly the responsibility of the West and of backpackers. I don't feel comfortable writing Thailand out of that equation.

Has writing "The Beach" changed your perspective on global tourism? Are you positive about it?

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No I'm not. But I'm not entirely against it either. The thing about tourism is just that it's incredibly powerful. It's like a gun and it's incredibly easy to be irresponsible with it. And the speed of the impact that tourism can have on a place can be quite breathtaking. It doesn't take years, it takes months. That's how quickly it works. And it can be quite a bleak thing to witness. But I just think there's a toned-down version of it. I don't think tourism, for example, does any damage to Britain. Here we simply benefit from it -- it keeps people employed, brings in a lot of money, is part of the profile of our country. So if a third world country can get some kind of relationship with tourism that approximates the one we have here, then it seems absolutely fine.

But the difference is one of power, isn't it? Third world countries are disempowered because of their standing in the global economic system. They have to repay debt, they have to face structural adjustment policies imposed by the World Bank, so they don't have the power to control their own tourism. Whereas we set the rules, we have the power to control it.

This is true, this is absolutely true. And it's tricky -- the only way a country can often make itself economically powerful enough to deal with tourism is through tourism. There's also such a poor system of wealth distribution; tourist dollars tend to stay with hotel owners and don't really reach the people who work there. But that's a political problem the countries need to sort out for themselves. It needs people paying taxes in a different way and local politics to work differently -- irrespective of whether tourists are going there or not.

So now are you still a backpacker?

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Well, technically I am, just because a backpack is such a convenient way to carry your stuff round. But I never had that cheap backpacker psychology. I never used to haggle. If I was getting completely ripped off then I might say, "Come on, give me a break," but it was never a source of pride for me. Now if I'm really tired I deliberately put myself into an expensive hotel, because I want air conditioning and room service and that's great. Although obviously I still stay in cheap places too because that's often the only accommodation there is. But I've never felt there's any great virtue in slumming it.

Did you have that sort of sneering attitude to package tourists that many backpackers have? Do you think there's a difference between travelers and tourists?

No. Although the very first time I went away I was 17 and I probably did then. I felt backpacking was more adventurous. Of course there are differences. You end up doing things package tourists would never do, but whether that makes you any better than a package tourist, I don't know. About three years ago I went with my friend to their parents's villa in Spain near Benidorm; it had a swimming pool and all that, and was absolutely fantastic. I haven't done it since but I really would love to.

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How have people reacted to "The Beach"?

Sometimes you get backpackers who are just furious and contemptuous and say it's completely wrong. I suppose they feel the person you're attacking is them, which is understandable. People also write and ask, "OK where is this place? Stop keeping it secret."

Really? People really think "The Beach" exists?

Oh yes.

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There's a famous quote from "The Beach" about Lonely Planet. Do you think they're taking responsibility for their impact?

I've got a lot of comeback from that actually. Some people get really pissed off. Joe Cummings from Lonely Planet wrote a very dismissive piece in the Bangkok Post. I'm not surprised he was sort of nettled. A lot of my problem with guidebooks comes not from the books, but the way they get used. All of the Lonely Planet books for example, have a really good breakdown of the country, explanation of customs and so on, but I just don't know how many people read it, which isn't Lonely Planet's fault. Having said that, Lonely Planet has really, really irritated me in the past. They put out a certain kind of ethos -- or they appear to -- that puts too much emphasis on the pack-your-bag-and-go side of things, like it's all a sort of a big bourgeois adventure. And I've seen the Lonely Planet do things that I personally consider very irritating.

The cherry on the cake for me was a video guide to Vietnam where the back blurb states that it "translates into video the Lonely Planet philosophy" and invites travelers to "fire an AK47 and experience Vietnam." And I felt -- I know exactly what they're doing -- they're tapping into the romantic traveler adventure mind-set and selling a piece of the Vietnam War, but that's not OK. That's like saying, "Fire a sniper's rifle, experience Bosnia" or "Lay a land mine, experience Cambodia." It's not acceptable for a big powerful publishing company to exploit a situation in that way. So I hold them accountable for that.

They always seem to me that they're still constantly surprised at where they are. But they're trying to pretend they can deal with it.

Yes. And I do think if you asked me, "Are you worried about the ill effects of the film and the book?" the answer is, yes I am. But that would be a drop in the ocean next to the effect a guidebook can have on those places. I don't think DiCaprio fans are going to start flocking to Thailand, and anyway, if you look at Thailand, the place is absolutely saturated with tourists already and how much more extreme can you get? That's not to say it's OK, it's not to say that if the film or book has a bad effect that I feel comfortable with that; I don't. But I don't see them leading the spearhead charge of tourism in Thailand. We're part of a huge army. I also feel that "The Beach" is clearly a criticism of the travel scene, it's not celebrating it, and that seems to me to be a reasonably responsible thing to have done on my part.

Richard said he travels without a camera; do you travel with one?

No. For exactly the reason I described in "The Beach." You end up just remembering the things you took a photo of. As I hate having my picture taken myself, I always felt there was something very intrusive about it. I can remember early in my travels seeing some picturesque old guy in ethnic clothing with a camera stuck right in his face like he was some sort of chimpanzee in the zoo, and thinking "there's something a bit weird and fucked up about this." But sometimes I travel with a Filipino photojournalist and I'm glad he's doing it because then I have great pictures. You know -- I'm a hypocrite in all sorts of ways.

What do you think of the environmental criticisms about "The Beach"?

It was 95 percent bullshit. I was worried about it and went to have a look at the film set, but when I got there it was a DiCaprio story, it wasn't an environmental story. Danny Boyle, the director, has argued that it raised the profile of environmental issues in Thailand so overall that's a good thing. I'd agree with that. I think the net result of it will probably be positive. But there's absolutely no doubt that some environmental damage was done by the film process. It's very hard for a film of that scale to be done and not have any impact.

The whole Hollywood-ization of your book has taken over the imagination on a global scale, hasn't it? Is that rather disturbing?

The thing about it is that I had nothing to do with the filming; all I did was watch it and I found that interesting because I like watching films. But in general I felt very divorced from it. At the time I was trying to write "The Tesseract" and doing other things -- it was something happening in the periphery. Also the bigger the film got, the less I felt connected to it.

So did you like the film?

Yes. I was surprised at how emotionally attached to it I was.

What about seeing Leonardo DiCaprio play the role of Richard, when Richard is so much based on you and Leonardo DiCaprio is so different from you?

Well it's a different Richard. And that helped me watch it.

Why did you decide not to go to the premiere in L.A.?

That's a long story. But it's like -- you've got to try and keep your distance from it. The film industry is like a black hole; there's a huge gravity that seduces you and sucks you in and you have to constantly fight against it.

What have you done since "The Tesseract"?

I wrote the screenplay for "The Tesseract" for the BBC. But a film isn't definite until they start shooting it, and even then sometimes they fall apart, so we'll wait and see. I'm waiting for the publicity from the film to die down before I start writing again.

And what do you want to do next?

Oh, I just want to write another novel. That's what I feel my job is really. The only thing I don't feel my job is, is being a sort of commentator on the travel scene, which somehow has happened. I don't know that much about tourism or the environment -- I've got a reasonably informed layman's perspective on it, that's all.

Do you intend to still use foreign countries as locations for future books?

Yes, if I manage to keep doing this job then probably I will. There's something about writing stories set in foreign countries that helps you feel separate from your subject matter. But I'm also quite interested in the idea of trying to write something set in Britain.

"The Tesseract" has some similar elements to "The Beach," particularly paranoia. Did you create that theme or is it something that's part of your reaction to life?

It's probably part of my reaction to life. But it's not a coincidence that I started writing "The Tesseract" in a run-down hotel in Manila, which is quite like the one in the book, thinking "why am I here? I keep finding myself in these bloody places, why can't I just stay at home and have an easy life?" I think that probably happens once every time I go away.

Do you think you'll ever get to the stage where you'd just rather stay at home and work out what life's about here?

Yes, I think I've been at that stage for the last four years, but for some reason I can't bloody stop traveling. I think my vision of the future is that I have kids and settle down and maybe once a year I'll go off on some trip on my own somewhere but it won't be the same relentless, compulsive thing.


Sue Wheat

Sue Wheat is a writer living in England.

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