Interview With Peter Lloyd
Pete’s Peregrinations: What is the Back story?
Peter Lloyd has been writing for Pattaya-based publications for more years than he might like to recall. He recently completed his first attempt at a novel and talks with the Trader about the research and real-life experiences that went into the writing.
What is the central plot to Back?
Back is a thriller about Mark a 23 year-old guy whose grandfather, Spike, fought in the Vietnam War with the Studies and Observation Group (SOG), a real-life highly classified special forces unit, whose main task was to sneak into Laos and Cambodia, creep up close to the Ho Chi Minh Trail, spy on it and do their best to destroy it. On his deathbed, Spike gives Mark a combat journal and asks him to go back to the jungle to recover something for him, so Mark and his friends, students at NYU, one of whom is an ex-US Marine, go back to the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos, to try and recover what his grandfather left behind.
This leads to some serious and unexpected consequences for them, some of which arise from Spike’s mission all those years ago. It’s in two parts. “Back: Across the Fence” is Part 1 and “Back: Into the Jungle” is Part 2.
Why is it in two parts?
Part 1 has 1968 combat chapters from Spike’s journal alternating with the modern-day story as the friends prepare for their trip, and ends as the friends go into the jungle, having picked up some distinctly dodgy fellow-travellers on the way.
Part 2 is all modern-day, as we follow the misfortunes of the backpacking group as they deal with natural, historical and psychological dangers, as they penetrate deeper into the jungle.
How did you come up with the ideas in the novel?
I’ve had the idea for a long time to write a novel that catapults the Vietnam War into a twenty-first century context. I believe this novel achieves that.
Was there a particular inspiration that drove you to write it?
I’ve had an interest in the Vietnam War and backpacker novels for a long time, and often thought about combining the two, but I never found the right inspiration..
That changed when I read an amazing book called ‘SOG: The Secret Wars of America’s Commandos in Vietnam’, by John Plaster, and, during my research for the novel, I became a contributor to a Special Forces website where there are some incredible stories from survivors of SOG missions. When you read their real-life accounts, you wonder how anybody could survive what they went through.
You don’t need to believe the Vietnam War was a war worth fighting to respect the bravery of people massively outnumbered in the jungle, well behind enemy lines, under heavy fire, with little chance of survival, who successfully fought their way out. At the same time as I read John Plaster’s book, and began researching SOG missions, I was also backpacking extensively in Laos, Cambodia and Thailand, and I began sizing up people I met, as well as sights and sites as possible scenes in a modern-day novel I had not even yet decided to write.
Places like Red Mountain, the jungle itself, rivers and waterfalls, places in southern Laos, Vientiane, some really cheap backpacker hotels, and some other incidents in the novel I can’t mention as it would spoil the read, were all identified on these trips, even before I had decided to write a word of the book.
Another motivation for writing began with an extensive and detailed exchange of correspondence with an ex-CIA case-officer, who had served in Laos during the “Secret War” - a guy called Jack Jolis. We decided to collaborate on some interviews which we posted on the Modern Forces website. He subsequently read the novel for me and made excellent comments and suggestions, and provided some real-life inspiration for some of it.
I also paid a return visit to Phnom Penh, but I can’t say much about that as it might spoil one of the main sub-plots in the modern-day chapters.
How did you do the research?
I’ve travelled extensively in the jungles and seen a lot of war remains in Vietnam, Cambodia and, especially, in Laos. I’ve also come across a lot of UXO (Unexploded Ordnance) and been out with UXO clearance teams into the Laotian jungle as they combat the still-deadly relics from the Vietnam War along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
I’ve also spent a fair amount of time with a backpack slumming it through one-horse towns in Laos, where a lot of the modern-day story is set.
I also spent a lot of time in Khao Yai National Park in Thailand. While I was in Khao Yai my wife and I were charged by a bull elephant protecting its young in the dead of night. Unfortunately the video of that incident, which features me yelling in expletive shock, chucking the camera down, still rolling, and switching on the truck engine before throwing it into reverse on a blind corner to escape, is lost in the mists of time. We were really lucky that night.
So, in many ways you’ve had a first-hand taste of what it’s like to be in a southeast Asian jungle as well as the experience of getting about in what are still some quite undeveloped areas. Do you think these experiences have helped inform your scene setting within the novel?
I hope I have successfully brought out in the book how isolated you can become, and sometimes how hostile and claustrophobic the jungle can be. It’s like a character all in itself.
Going back to an earlier comment that I think is quite valid. You don’t have to think the war was worth fighting to indeed appreciate the enormous courage of the men who were engaged on both sides. Does your novel explore the possibility that there were some American soldiers who might have been left behind after the 1973 Paris Accords?
Yes it does. I have no doubt some were left behind in the jungle, and that sub-plot also weaves its way through the book.
And you’re right. There was incredible bravery and courage on both sides, and a lot of combat-hardened US Vets I’ve been interviewing for the website go out of their way to praise the bravery of the NVA and Viet Cong as opponents, which is quite interesting.
What type of reader do you think would be drawn to the style and the subject matter of this novel?
It’s a thriller, combining a strong 1968 story of a guy on the run through the jungle, and a modern-day backpacker novel. I think people who are interested in travel, Asia, the Vietnam War, backpacker novels and modern-day travels in Asia will get a kick out of this book.
Now it’s finished and you’ve had time to digest the end product, what do you like about the book?
I like the contrast between the 1968 mission, where these guys were complete masters of the jungle and nothing fazed them at all, compared to the modern-day trekkers going into the same jungle and being totally at its mercy.
I think I have brought out how isolated and lost you can quickly become, even with modern communications, in triple canopy jungle. Even after an hour’s walk, if you were left on your own, you’d be in big trouble. I like that idea, of isolation in an increasingly connected world.
The Asian jungle is seventy million years old, and you often get a powerful sense of your own insignificance and irrelevance to it as you pass through. It has an oppressive timelessness and it hides many secrets. The people in the novel certainly find some.
How do you plan to market the book?
Writing it was easy. Now I have to sell it, which is much harder. My website www.peteralanlloyd.com, will help, as it features a lot of interesting articles about the Vietnam War generally, and also about locations and issues touched on in the novel. I’m also using Twitter feeds @PeterAlanLloyd and also posts on various websites, plus Facebook.
Where can I buy it?
On Amazon and Smashwords. Just look for Back Parts 1 and 2.
Why no hard copy?
To be honest, I couldn’t be bothered writing hundreds of letters to agents just to be taken on. You have heard all the stories. If someone wants to publish a hard copy of Back, I’d be delighted. I just didn’t want the hassle of trying to find someone to do it, and Amazon/Kindle, Smashwords and e-publishing generally provide an alternative to the old beating-your-head-against-a-brick-wall method of trying to find an agent and a publisher in order to get published. But you have to do your own marketing, and that can be a challenge.
What is the story with these aluminium, or as the Americans would say, aluminum, spoons?
During my research I visited a hill village in Laos where they convert aluminium war scrap such as plane parts, helicopter metal and weapons, into spoons! I bought 100 of them and plan to give one away each month in a draw of people who send me confirmation of their order. I’ve put details of this on my website www.peteralanlloyd.com.