My Dad: Veteran, Author, All-Round Great Guy

It’s hard for me to write about my dad, Paul Zolbrod, in anything other than sentimental clichés: He’s been my life-long inspiration as a parent, a person, a thinker, a writer.

A Native-American scholar for over forty years, he was made fun of, at first, for attempting a poetics of the oral tradition, but the world caught up with him: His translation of the Navajo creation story, Diné Bahane, is still going strong over twenty-five years after publication, one of eight books he’s written or edited. But before he was a scholar, he was a fiction writer. When I was growing up, he regaled me with tales of living in bohemian squalor on the GI Bill. He collected cans to get enough money to buy himself his own tins of beans while he worked on his novel, which is set during the Korean War, when he served in the army. He finished the book, Battle Songs, and submitted it, and had the same kinds of near-misses that so many of us have. The novel was acquired by a press but then dumped when the publisher merged with a more corporate one, a story that suggests that the more things change, the more they remain the same.

A decade or so ago, as I was working on my first novel, he revisited his. He revised it, sent it to some presses, got some glowing rejections. My father takes enormous care with his writing, and everything I’ve written of his sings; fifty years after he wrote it, he still believes Battle Songs is the best thing he’s ever written. Putting his money where his mouth is, he eventually self-published, paying for multiple rounds of editing and copyediting, strengthening it each time. A sort of Korean War version of The Deer Hunter, with something to say about Western Pennsylvania coal country as well as combat, Battle Songs is a wonderful book. I recommend it to anyone interested in its subjects, and you can buy it here.

One proof that Battle Songs touches on themes that matter is that they are still relevant today. My dad recently wrote an editorial about the legacy of the Korean War, and I’m posting it below. If I hadn’t read this, I certainly wouldn’t have known that this summer was the sixtieth anniversary of that conflict.

A Veteran Remembers the Korean War. . .

“It sickens me yet, that slaughter….” —Walt Whitman

As a Korean war era draftee  and the author of a novel about that conflict—Battle Songs—I failed to see much notice that this summer’s sixtieth anniversary of our entry into it has now come and gone. Still unresolved, it remains our forgotten war.  Yet it stands as a bleak benchmark in this nation’s history, since it represents the first in a string of undeclared, winless wars that, appropriately or not, brand us as geopolitical meddlers.

With the perspective I now have, I even question Truman’s decision to send troops to Korea, although I recognize how difficult that choice was.  More clearly, though, I find it nothing short of tragic that following our mighty World War II triumph, we were giddy with invincibility and failed to realize that wisdom does not necessarily accompany military power.

Vietnam followed, then Iraq, and now Afghanistan.  In between,  a series of quick little military exploits strengthened our mindless faith in raw might–Grenada, Panama, a first Gulf War, Haiti, Bosnia, etc.–that only reinforced a “bring it on” bravado, leading us deeper into national debt, arousing international disfavor, and poisoning our national will.

I don’t claim a historian’s certitude, but sixty years later I know this. A dark gulf of insensitivity separates managers of the macrocosm who send youngsters to fight from the way lives are shattered in the microcosm of combat in ways unimaginable to anyone lacking military experience.

While not having fought in Korea, I live that lesson just the same after sixteen weeks of infantry basic training where I was taught to kill;  after sharing a Tokyo Army Hospital ward with wounded soldiers during the aftermath of the war;  after weeks of round-the-clock duty as a corporal at Tokyo Quartermaster Depot dispatching emergency supplies to surrounded French troops at Dien Bien Phu;  after two stays in a Veterans Administration hospital immediately following my discharge; and even now at the local VA clinic where my disability pales when I meet Vietnam vet comrades still carrying shrapnel in a shoulder or a groin, or a youngster newly returned from Iraq or Afghanistan learning to walk on a prosthetic leg.

For all these years the reality of callow youngsters sent to Korea virtually unnoticed still haunts me. As a boy during World War II, I remember trolley rides to Pittsburgh’s Baltimore and Ohio station to watch newly drafted soldiers board trains while a band played in a cascade of confetti; and how as a young teen we helped greet them back as mothers and wives and girl friends kissed them tearfully.  Yet as a newly sworn-in inductee in the early fifties, I was marched after dark with others through alleyways from the Old Post Office Building to the same station; then boarded  an Asian bound troop ship from an empty San Francisco pier; and finally returned  to an equally deserted one.  We too  had embarked and returned, but who cared?

Since my discharge in the mid fifties, I have tried to reach an understanding of that conflict from a foot soldier’s viewpoint.  In addition to history books, I studied diaries, field reports, battlefield dispatches,  front-line hospital records, and even first-hand accounts by Hiroshima survivors.  Over that span of time I struggled to complete to my satisfaction a work of fiction that might remind readers of what was being overlooked.  It tells the story of four young inductees from Western Pennsylvania mining and farming communities into a war they do not understand to face an enemy they know nothing about.  Each in his own way must recognize a legacy of conflict of a different sort absorbed through their upbringing, raising the question of whether as Americans they are already predisposed to combat.

On two occasions I actually submitted earlier versions–once while the war in Vietnam escalated, and again after the first Gulf War.   The first submission was originally accepted by a trade publisher, but later cancelled when a managing editor declared that nobody would be interested.  The second submission was praised but rejected by a publisher uninterested in historical fiction, which apparently it had now become.

Moved to try again as young returnees from Iraq began coming to the local VA hospital, I rewrote it once more, aware by now that Korea had set a precedent for what had become a national addiction to military action, always at the expense of the grunt doing the fighting and the dying.  As a member of the Korean era generation, I am now with few World War II surviving exceptions one of the oldsters who sit waiting in the orthopedic department or the blood lab, still questioning war.  Perhaps one of the youngsters will tell his or her story, but mine brings a broader perspective

War is futile not just for the destruction it leaves.  Cities can be rebuilt, as nations in Europe and Asia have demonstrated.  It is futile because it recurs for reasons an individual soldier may not always fathom as easily as those who fought in the so-called Great Generation did.  It is futile because in it so many die so young. And it is futile above all for what those who survive endure for rest of their lives. That’s why the Korean War remains important in the face of forgetfulness.

Review Round-Up

Well, Currency‘s been officially out for a little over six weeks now. I’ve read from it maybe a dozen times in a half-dozen different towns. I’ve gotten some reviews and done some interviews. I’ve been absolutely drunk on the kindness and enthusiasm of friends and acquaintances, and, despite attempts to keep my focus on my many book-related blessings, I’ve also succumbed to moments of despondency over the rest of the world’s utter indifference. (I know, I know, I shouldn’t be comparing myself to anyone. I shouldn’t be checking the Amazon ranking. But, um, I can tell you Currency is at #559,688 as I type. Anyone want to boost my number? From what I can discern, a single purchase vaults it above 100,00 for a day or so.)

Anyway, I thought I’d round up a list of links to some of the press I’ve received, so I have it all in one place.

Gina and I were in the fantastic courtyard of Austin’s boho chic Hotel San Jose when she looked up from her iPhone to tell me that all-round indie-lit star Jonathon Messenger wanted to interview me for TimeOut Chicago, and with the way the sun was hitting the garden’s huge yucca plants, or whatever they were, this probably constitutes my most glamorous author moment yet. I thought the interview turned out well. Here’s a link to it.

And remember when I was so happy when The Chicago Reader ran a good review? Well, I just about cried for joy when I read this one in NewPages, a site that celebrates all things independent in literature. “What follows is a tour de force portrayal by a serious author of the realities of modern-day smuggling and those involved in these activities. Currency not only succeeds in its scope and in-depth research, but also in in its fluid, energetic, and intriguing prose.” I think I’ve discovered my next tattoo. (You have to scroll down to find Currency, but along the way there are lots of intriguing reviews along the way.)

I was also very excited by this review on A Traveler’s Library, because I’ve admired that site for awhile as one of the few that combines a literary aesthetic with a focus on travel. Writer Vera Marie Badertscher says, “I would call it a good summer/beach read, but don’t want to diminish it. I also predict that it will be standard fare in every backpacker hostel in Southeast Asia before very long.” Ah, that is one of my fondest wishes! This enthusiastic review by Danielle E. Alvarez on GoBackpacking, a site for independent travelers, would seem to head the book in the right direction.

But, man, it’s mostly looking to be a hard slog. I wanted to give away some copies of Currency to readers about to embark on trips, with the request that they would in turn leave the book where another traveler would find it. When Jeannie Mark from the well-designed, well-written travel blog Nomadic Chick contacted me about doing an interview,  I thought her site would be a great place to launch the traveling book idea. She loved it, and we designed a contest. Jeannie did a great job with the interview (which is here) and the promotion for it, but we received fewer entries than I had prizes to give away.  (Here’s what she had to say about that.) So, if it’s that hard to give-away a novel to an audience that it’s pretty much written for… sigh. (By the way, I’m still trying to get this idea off the ground. If you’re going on a trip soon and want a free copy of Currency to read and then leave somewhere, click here.)

Still, even if it’s an uphill climb, the internet makes networking with traveler-types easier than it would have been ten years ago. Emily Gerson at the site Maiden Voyage Travel just did a nice interview with me. I talked about publishing with small presses on travel writer Alexis Grant’s super-useful and professional writing blog. And I identified another site that hits my target audiences,  The Lost Girls, which is run by three women who quit their NYC media jobs to travel and blog around the world. (Their book by the same title came out around when Currency did. It’s at #3,382 on Amazon. Not that I’m counting. Not that I’ve noticed they have a list of national reviews on their Amazon page that’s as long as my arm.) I was grateful to see Currency‘s pretty cover and a good review on their homepage last week, right here. The reviewer is the only one so far who didn’t love Piv’s voice, but she was nice about it.

Not so nice was this review in Chicago’s NewCity Lit. I stumbled upon it just the other day, but I reckon some of my friends might have seen it and not told me about it.

Well, actually, I just reread it to post it here, and it’s not terrible. And, you know, I used to be the first to say that if reviewers give everything a sunny two thumbs up, then what’s the point. But I think I’ve changed my mind. It’s so hard to complete a full-length work. It’s so hard to get it published. To find an audience. And then you’re going to dismiss it in a couple of sentences? It might be preferable to say nothing.

On the other hand, today I learned that a review of Currency that was supposed to run in a national print publication got pulled. I can’t help but wonder if it got pulled because the reviewer couldn’t be entirely positive. Better no national press at all than that?

Whatever. Better this—a book in hand, people reading it—than nothing, of that I’m sure. The good reviews I received before the not-good one did help inure me, and I was fairly well steeled for the indifference of the majority: I knew a book by a first-time author from a small press wouldn’t be met with trumpets. I knew having a platform was important, and that I didn’t have much of one beyond my supportive friends (whose numbers, thanks in part to the book, are growing). It’s been a journey, a real journey, in the best sense of word. No matter how much you read about a place, it’s different when you visit it. No matter how much you prepare, you’ll be swept along on some currents you can’t control. I always feel lucky when I get to go on a trip. And if you liked the book and spread the word, that would make me happy, too.

Cross-Cultural Couplings

First off, let me say that Currency officially hits the streets right about now. Dear visitor, I beg you not to judge this book on the absence of a dedicated web site. It is a hundred times better than its web presence, and although there’s little excuse for that in this day and age, isn’t it preferable to the reverse? Currency is exciting yet thoughtful, sexy yet serious. Yet fun! For real, you will want to take this book with you on vacation. But don’t take my word for it, you can read this review, or this advance praise. Or watch this book trailer. Etc. The following blog post was brought to you by the above shameless self-promotion!

Speaking of: I’ve done a few promotional interviews recently (one with myself, up at The Nervous Breakdown), and in them I’ve talked for the first time about the liaisons I had with Thai guys when I was traveling, and how they influenced the book. Up until now, although I’ve written about how loaded can be the attraction of tourists for local people in much poorer countries and about my awakening to the charms of Thai men, I’ve kept pretty quiet about my actual affairs.

There are lots of reasons for this reticence, I think. For one thing, I was involved with someone back home at the time; we had not promised monogamy, but still. Then I met the man I would marry, and it no longer seemed cool to go on about past lusts. But I think the crux is that I was embarrassed by these relationships. I was embarrassed that there was more than one, that they started to become a pattern. I was embarrassed by the disapproving looks that came from many quarters—from people who had seen the pattern play out, or who thought someone was taking advantage, or who simply found the combination of the two of us unsavory for any number of reasons. I could imagine quite a number of reasons.  Now, trying to sort through stuff, I wonder if these embarrassments weren’t sharper because they reminded me of a racially-charged situation in my junior high years, and also because my attraction to Asian men might have a connection to something even further back, and sticker. I could probably write a whole memoir unpacking this stuff like a set of old dishes, wondering over the continued, solid existence of things I haven’t seen for so long and reading the newspaper the items were wrapped in, amazed by the prices of years gone by, or by the wars that waged then, and so absorbed in the past that I wouldn’t notice my hands pricking from the dust until they were on fire.

Over the years, to feed or understand my fascination, I’ve sought out fiction about cross-cultural relationships, ones that include a difference in race and privilege. There’s The Lover, of course, and The Quiet American—I love The Quiet American. Less well known is When Mountains Walked, by Kate Wheeler, about a woman who has an affair with a revolutionary in Peru. I highly recommend it. And The River Sweet, by Patricia Henley—she writes so well about guilt-ridden Americans and other countries.

But the best book on the topic I think I’ve read is The Pickup, by Nadine Gordimer. That novel just dissects—so lyrically, so incisively; well, she’s Nadine Gordimer—the currents between a well-off South African white women and the Arab man she takes up with, an illegal immigrant. The needs of both, the hungers of both, the anger, the role of family and future and sex. It’s pre-9/11 but it presages 9/11. It’s one of those books I can read again and again, just in wonder that anyone could know all that, and say it so perfectly.

My Great Editor, Interviewed

Now that CURRENCY has been published, a number of people are asking me tactful versions of the question How come this took so long? and Why with a small press? In this excerpt from an interview with Leah Tallen, Other Voices editor Gina Frangello explains better than I ever could. You can see the full interview at Knee-Jerk, and if you read it you’ll see that patience reaps rewards, and that I just might win the prize for having the world’s most passionate and talented editor. Gina has a new short story collection out this spring, SLUT LULLABIES, and we’re going to be promoting our books together in Chicago, New York, LA, Iowa City, Portland, Tacoma, Seattle, and elsewhere. Shameless self-promotion time. Come to see us! Become a Facebook fan! Buy a book!

OV is getting ready to release a new book this month, right? Can you talk a little about Zoe Zolbrod and her first book Currency?

This novel has been a long time in coming, and I’ve been acquainted with it since the late 1990s. I fell in love with it in a writing group when I was still in grad school. I thought Zoe was going to make a million dollars and become a rock star with Currency, that’s how much I loved it and the other people in our writing group loved it. But the publishing world being what it is, that’s not what happened . . .

I think a lot of editors in New York were spooked by the fact that half the novel is narrated by a Thai man, Piv, whose English is not perfect and has a heavy Thai flavor. I mean, it’s a big chance to take, I admit. Publishers might think, What if this isn’t authentic? What if it offends someone? What if some reviewer says they don’t buy it and suddenly that is the party line? Editors at the big houses have shareholders to answer to and they’re not big on risk. They don’t live by their guts anymore. But I felt like I knew Piv in a way that transcended politically correct rules like that. He was one of the best characters I’d ever read in contemporary fiction. That’s not to downplay Robin, his American lover, who is an extremely strong and complicated character herself. But I felt like Piv was someone I had never met before on the page. When Zoe’s novel started getting rejected and agents started walking away, I was stunned.

At that time, I ran a magazine, not a press. Then later, when I launched the press, we published books of short fiction exclusively. Only a little over a year ago did Stacy and I decide to launch the Morgan Street International Novel Series, and we kept getting all these submissions . . . but I couldn’t get Piv out of my head. I hadn’t even seen Zoe in a couple of years, and Stacy had never read the novel, so I was terrified of getting Zoe’s hopes up and not coming through—I knew she’d been through enough with this project. But I had to ask her for the manuscript so Stacy could read it. I think I was as nervous as she was, waiting. Luckily Stacy fell as deeply in love with this work as I had, and that was that.

How does Currency represent OV’s mission statement?

The Morgan Street International Novel Series grew out of an anthology we did in 2007, that Stacy edited, A Stranger Among Us: Stories of Cross Cultural Collision and Connection. That book featured thirty writers from all over the world, some published for the first time in English and others already major writers like Josip Novakovich, Nathan Englander, Etgar Keret. In that book, we made an explicit point of defining “culture” through relationships—in other words, while Nepalese culture may be very interesting to an outsider, it is not exotic or even always thought of as “culture” per se, by people in an insular community within Nepal, if that makes sense. A lot of books have explored this-or-that culture, which is important, but we wanted to explore culture as a more shifting, active thing, defined by people interacting and realizing their differences, in both positive and negative ways, and grappling that to figure out who they are. Zoe’s novel fits in with that way of exploring culture perfectly.

At the magazine, we’d always had an interest in international fiction, but through the anthology project we really realized we wanted to keep going with it—that we didn’t feel like the dominant publishing industry was offering enough fiction set outside the United States, only a few heavily promoted titles a year that became “the” Indian novel or “the” Afghani novel, etc. We wanted to provide more options, even if in a limited way given the size of our list.

Books: Revisiting the Golden Triangle

In terms of my ever-lengthening life, I didn’t spend much time in Southeast Asia. Not much time in Thailand, not much time in Vietnam, barely any time in Laos. And the time I spent there was so long ago. But once I returned, I had such a craving for those places, such an urge to understand more, to experience more, to revisit and linger. One way to do that is by writing. So I wrote stories, and essays, and then, endlessly, a novel set in Thailand. Another way to learn and to visit, of course, is by reading. Here are a few of my favorite books that have taken me back to Thailand and its borders regions. I recommend them to anyone gearing up to go or anyone who wants to remember.

Fieldwork, by Mischa Berlinski

A great read for anyone interested in Northern Thailand, this story within a story explores the tensions between a hill tribe based on the Lisu, an anthropologist who sets up permanent residence with them, and missionaries who have worked in the golden triangle region for generations. There’s a murder mystery and a mysterious cross-cultural romance, a dysfunctional-family back story and an expatriot’s-dilemma frame story, and through it all, Berlinski demonstrates a depth of knowledge about multitudes of different worlds with a grace that left me awe-struck. I’m fascinated by Southeast Asia’s cultural complexity and America’s recentish involvement in it, and I’m aware that my fascination—or any outsider’s—raises issues of its own. He gets at all that, wraps it around a riveting plot, and makes you feel like you’re there. Man, I want to go read this book again right now.

Burmese Looking Glass, by Edith T. Mirante

If you, like me, enjoy reading about people who are as brave, cool, and morally pure as you are in your dreams, well, Edith Mirante is just such a person. She’s written a book that should be of interest to any intrepid traveler with a conscious, and especially those who’ve been to the Thai-Burmese border region and have wondered about what they saw.  Mirante is a real-life “human-rights pirate” who visited Thailand as an artist in the 80s and became radicalized when she learned how the Burmese were suffering under their oppressive government. She took huge personal risks to document the situation of the hill tribes living close to the Thai-Burmese border, sneaking between countries, traveling deep into the jungle, and visiting dangerous characters in an attempt to get at a truth that she could share, even when people didn’t want to hear it. (She implicates the U.S. to some degree.) Since she did her work around the time that much of Fieldwork takes place, this is a good nonfiction counterpart to that novel.  It’s also a thrilling book on its own, and it’s a tonic to read about someone who managed to take dramatic action in the face of the kinds of entrenched misery that can make many travelers feel hopeless.

The Latehomecomer, by Kao Kalia Yang

The suffering of hill tribe groups seems to know no bounds. In this artful and heart-wrenching memoir, Yang tells the story of her Hmong family, who escaped Laos to find themselves in a series of refugee camps in Thailand before eventually moving to the United States. Yang depicts clearly and tenderly life in Hmong villages before, during, and after the Vietnam war; life in the refugee camps where she spent her first seven years; and life as an immigrant. The description of her family crossing the Mae Kong river was particularly harrowing for me. I read it while nursing my infant daughter, and when they made the crossing, Yang’s sister was newborn and sick, and her mother was nursing and infected. I remember sitting on the banks of that same river very near where they crossed, drinking beer and admiring the romantic view. I remember riding down that river in an inner tube, laughing, playing on a mud bank. How little most Americans know about Hmong involvement in the Vietnam war, and what a high price those involved have paid for it. But Yang’s book is about so much more than this. I can almost guarantee that anyone would love it.

Gold by the Inch, by Lawrence Chua

Well, Thailand is not all hill tribes and jungle trails. This novel about a gay Thai expatriot who returns to Bangkok to heal from a heartbreak and becomes enthralled with a male prostitute is both stylistically sophisticated and as drug-strew, dimly lid, and lurid as you’d expect a novel about Bangkok nightlife and sex-selling to be. And it hits the themes close to my heart: the grey areas around cultural imperialism, the economic subtext of so much, the complexity of sexual transactions, and the intersection of the personal and political. Not everyone’s idea of beach-reading because of its challenging prose and bleak world-view, it’s an interesting lens through which to view Bangkok.


With CURRENCY‘s release date only about two months away, I feel like I’m at the tail end of a veeeeeeeeeeeery long pregnancy, and labor has just begun. The final proof has been completed. Events are being set up. Preorder is available. A Facebook page has been created. (Please become a fan.)  And thanks to Max Wentzel, The Eternals, and Lisa Meehan Williams, there’s even a book trailer posted on YouTube. It’s really going to happen!

Here’s the jacket copy:

Piv and Robin are not such an unlikely  match. Piv, a small-time hustler in Thailand,  and Robin, a twenty-something back-packer from the United States, have always dreamed big dreams. What begins as a traveler’s affair in Sukhothai quickly intensifies, and the young lovers envision an idyllic future together, traveling the world. Their plans are thwarted in Bangkok, however, when Robin runs out of money, her credit is denied, and she may have to leave Asia and Piv behind. Desperate, Piv turns to Abu, a charismatic businessman acquaintance, for help. Thus begins Piv and Robin’s foray into exotic animal smuggling. Soon they find themselves amid an international crime ring that may have even darker underworld ties stretching from Kenya to Russia. Under the scrutiny of the traffickers who employ them, with investigators hot on their trail, and idealistic dreams unraveling fast, Piv and Robin must face the consequences of their individual struggles for identity, as well as the cost of their mutual desires.

“From skins to skin to golden Buddhas, CURRENCY is a moving and lucid look at how beauty can fall prey to our very love of it.”
Alex Shakar, author of The Savage Girl


I’ve not gotten much pleasure from seeing things I’ve written, whether for love or money, published. I know that I’m supposed to feel gratified and excited, so I’ve been known to pretend, both to myself and for any collaborators or colleagues who might be around when the box comes in from the printer or the contributor copies are picked up from wherever. But holding the book or magazine or newspaper in my hand has sometimes left me feeling almost bored and hollowed, and other times made me slightly queasy. The paper stock has not often been what I would have liked; the spaces between the section breaks have not been big enough. The sentences look weird set with the narrower margin or in the unfamiliar font, and inevitably some awkward phrase or six will catch my eye. Before I sent each manuscript on its way there was likely a point when I read what I had labored over and finally felt a pleasing zing zing zing from the rhythms of the words and ideas, and that’s when I would have called it done. But somehow the song of things I’ve written has mostly disappeared for me in the time between its leaving my screen and appearing somewhere else. And anyway, I’d be on to something else.

I had such a different reaction when I received the galleys for CURRENCY. They arrived at my editor’s house the day before Christmas Eve, so traffic was terrible and my to-do list was long, and it was snowing and cold and dark by 4:00 PM. If my husband hadn’t offered to put the kids in the car and pick me up after work and drive me down to Gina’s, I’m not sure I would have summoned enough real or manufactured excitement to make the effort. (I hate driving, so it doesn’t take much to make me beg off it.) But riding back home in the passenger seat and paging through the book in the street glow, I felt a joy that was like a deep physical relief. My son wanted to see the sole copy I’d been given, and I was proud to have it to show him, but I quickly asked for it back. Clasped in my lap, it felt like the golden ball of light referred to by yoga teachers leading visualizations, a glow originating from the object in my hands, rising up my spine, filling my svadhisthana chakra, my heart chakra, my mind’s eye–you know, all those spiritual locales that one might catch a glimpse of in a great yoga class but that in the cruel light of day can seem to be rainbow-hued fantasias. It’s true that I haven’t read the whole book, and that I have already found an error, but so far nothing I’ve glanced at has made me want to throw up. It’s made me happy and proud.

I’ve called this manuscript done so many times, and I’ve been wrong so many times, but now, thanks to Stacy Bierlein and Gina Frangello‘s thoughtful editing and to Allison Parker‘s careful copyedit, I know that it’s the best that it can be. Thanks to Lisa Meehan Williams’s photographs and Melissa Lucar and Steven Seighman‘s design and OV Books‘ and Dzanc Books‘ exacting aesthetic and respect for literature, it is a beautiful thing. The paper quality is amazing. The space between the section breaks is just right. And thanks to Kathy Kosmeja and Gina, who not only braved the dark and cold and snow on Christmas Eve’s eve, but also the post office, potential reviewers all over the country might as I type have a copy of CURRENCY if not in their hands, then on their desks. That other people are making such an effort for a novel I wrote makes me want to cry tears of ecstatic gratitude, as anyone who has sent out scores of manuscripts and written scads of fruitless cover letters and made innumerable schleps to the post office on their own behalf can probably understand. OK, I’m gushing. I should stop now. But this is not obligatory excitement. This is the real thing. It’s the best Christmas present ever, for sure.

Kind Words for CURRENCY

“From skins to skin to golden Buddhas, CURRENCY is a moving and lucid look at how beauty can fall prey to our very love of it.”
Alex Shakar, author of The Savage Girl

“From the first page to the last, Zoe Zolbrod’s CURRENCY had me hooked. I loved the boldness of voice, the visceral and intoxicating landscape, the engrossing and masterfully woven story. CURRENCY is a thrilling and unforgettable debut, and Zolbrod is a brilliant new voice that is sure to be with us for many years to come.”
Laura van den Berg, author of What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us

Currency is an absorbing story of love and betrayal in Southeast Asia, a thriller of trafficking bodies–both human and beast–across international lines, and a perceptive foray into the dark powers beyond our control. It is a story that asks questions about home and happiness, while deftly taking us into a society’s underworld where ethics are eclipsed by desperation, lust, and greed.
Shilpa Agarwal, author of Haunting Bombay

“CURRENCY explores everything that’s filthy, sexy and dangerous about money. An American woman travels to Thailand and falls in love with a local man — all very romantic until the cash runs out and the pair of lovers decide to begin smuggling. Zoe Zolborod’s fascinating characters hop borders, break laws, and try their best to communicate across cultural gaps. In this thrilling book, Zolbrod shows us how money talks.”
Pagan Kennedy, author of Confessions of a Memory Eater and The Dangerous Joy of Doctor Sex and Other True Stories

“CURRENCY is an impressive debut, a spellbinding novel of international intrigue and a heartbreaking love story between a naive young American woman and a sweetly ambitious Thai man. Zoe Zolbrod writes with authority about little known parts of Thailand in prose so beautiful I found myself conflicted between savoring every word and rushing to see what would happen next.”
Ladette Randolph, author of A Sandhills Ballad
Editor-in-chief, Ploughshares

“CURRENCY is a dance and duel, a literary thriller with a serpentine twist. With extraordinary imagination, Zolbrod evokes both partners of a star-crossed couple: Piv, a small-time Thai hustler, and, Robin, a questing American backpacker. Based in the seedy rooms of Bangkok’s Star Hotel, the action in Currency ranges from the tranquil mountains of Pai to the traveler haven of Khao San Road, from the heart of Singapore to the scrubby outskirts of the Philippines’ Cebu City. Along the way, the reader confronts walls of every sort — international and cross-cultural barriers, and obstacles to trust, and, ultimately, love.”
Josh Neufeld, author of A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge


I just sent the copyedited manuscript of CURRENCY to Gina, my editor. The next time I see the novel, it will be in galleys, manuscript no more.

It’s been twelve years since I workshopped the experiment in voice that became the first chapter of the novel. I was 28 years old then, and I smoked cigarettes blithely in the apartment where Mark and I had just moved in together. Up to that point, I’d written only a handful or two of short stories, each page wrung out of me slowly, and writing a novel seemed an impossible thing. But Piv’s voice was a wind at my back, and the few years it took me to complete the first “finished” version were great ones; they’ll probably go down as some of the best in my life. The story unfolded inexorably in my mind, and I had the time and attention to give to writing. Then came kids, mortgages, money worries and increasingly demanding day-jobs; rejections and not-quite-rejections and agents who sent me back through the pages. I revised in the cracks of time I could find. And received more rejections. And then, after I’d abandoned all hope, eventual acceptance. (Thanks, OV Books!) And now here I am, writing acknowledgments.

Writing acknowledgments is making me nervous. I fear I’m not always gracious in thanking people, being myself sometimes off-put by gratitude that seems too gushingly produced to be sincere but also knowing, first-hand and through observation, how much a heartfelt thanks or the lack of one can mean. I’m feeling twin urges to be brutally honest and very thorough. To make sure I don’t leave out any key players, I’ve tried narrating to myself the story of my writing this novel, and what I’ve found is that the most important people and turning points happened before the characters even materialized for me, long ago as that was. There’s one person in particular I’ve realized I need to thank—Tuk, a Thai man—whose last name I don’t remember. It’s been driving me crazy. I know I had it somewhere! So the other night I unearthed the plastic bin in the basement where I’ve been storing all the books I used to research the novel and the journals I kept when I was backpacking.


I meant to be efficient, because like many people at my stage of life, I always have more things to do than hours to them in, and I was already stealing time. But as soon as I opened the box, the smell of old smoke discombobulated me. The burnt musk has been synonymous with my memories of youth ever since 1995, when a bad apartment fire singed all my possessions it didn’t destroy. Like a genie going back into a bottle—whoosh—I was back in the past, and nevermind the sleep that I really needed to get that night. When I came upstairs hours later, my fingertips were black with soot from paging through the journals. It became almost beside that point that I found names and addresses of people I had completely forgotten, but not Tuk’s.