Philip Gibson is surely the most successful e-book single author living in Laos. He's also probably the only e-book single author in the small Asian country. Nonetheless, he's created a brilliant series of e-book singles called Hashtag Histories, in which he focuses on important historical events and tells their stories through a string of tweets from real-life people. So far, he's written Hashtag Histories about the fall of Berlin (see the Thin Reads rave review), the bombing of Tokyo and his latest e-book single #Cuba62.
He's a teacher who has worked in a number of countries including England, Spain, Japan and Laos, where he moved in 1991. He met his wife there, and raised his two sons about 25 miles from the country's capital Vientiane. The Thin Reads T&E budget did not allow us to travel across the world for a face-to-face interview, so instead we settled for this enlightening and entertaining email exchange as part of the Thin Reads interview series.
Thin Reads: How the hell did you wind up in Laos?
I came to Laos 23 years ago. I had been living in a Buddhist monastery just over the Mekong River in Thailand and needed to visit Laos to renew my Thai visa. One thing led to another and I ended up opening an English language school as a secret front for an Australian Christian organization that had been refused permission by the Communist authorities to set up a church, but was allowed to open an English language school -- the first English school in Communist-era Laos. Kind of an odd thing for a wannabe Buddhist monk to do, but I needed to start earning a salary again. It was also very dangerous and I ended up in a whole heap of trouble with the incumbent Commies.
Thin Reads: What's the high-speed Internet connection like where you live?
When it works, it's fast. But the telecoms company is run by the state with little or no competition, so the service is very patchy, going down for several hours each day. Especially when it rains... which is often.
Thin Reads: How do you research your fact-packed stories from a farm where you live on a tributary on the Mekong River? It seems like you'd be better off in a studio apartment across the street from the New York Public Library in Manhattan.
The Reading Room at the British Museum might be even better. As for living in Manhattan -- I wouldn't be able to stand the noise and constant activity -- all those automobiles, and people in the street blowing trumpets and the like. I live on a quiet, secluded, forested riverbank away from all that and appreciate it. I have a large library, a Kindle e-reader packed with a constantly growing collection of books, which I can download. Plus I am able do a great deal of research from a huge range of sources on the Internet. The books and information just flow effortlessly through cyberspace into my satellite dish receiver (I call it my futuristic tree) planted among the other trees... bloody wonderful!
Thin Reads: Because you live in Laos, we imagine -- probably incorrectly -- that you're basically living off the grid. So how did you get the idea to write Kindle Singles, which is a very forward-leaning on-the-grid content form?
We have installed electricity in the farmhouse we built ourselves here. Oddly, we were allowed to install the cables and posts ourselves, but were compelled to buy only the concrete posts (to cover the two kilometers to the nearest transformer) sold by the state-owned cement company. The damn posts ended up costing more than the house. Social media is widespread here in Laos and, as far as I can tell, there is no censorship. If there were, I wouldn't have to worry that Number One Son and Number Two Son might be watching too much Internet porn on their iPhones and iPads. We get it all here.
Thin Reads: How did you hatch the idea to tell history through a series of imagined Tweets from real historical figures?
During the Libyan Civil War recently, I was looking for more up-to-date information than that provided by the regular news services. I found that Twitter hashtag feeds such as #Libya, #Benghazi and #Tripoli were full of minute-by-minute (actually second-by-second) commentary by participants from both sides on the ground, politicians, journalists, the military and other observers and interested parties both inside and outside of Libya. As is the case with such instant commentary on Twitter, a great deal of the feeds was taken up with repetition, misinformation and general dross. However, when all the dross was removed or curated, what remained was a compelling, accurate and detailed account of the conflict unlike anything that existed (or exists) elsewhere.
During this time, I maintained a day-to-day thread on the conflict on a history forum in which I participate. That thread, composed almost entirely of carefully curated tweets, ended up being a much-appreciated, very detailed and accurate account of the conflict. So I then created another thread, this time imaginary, on that same history forum of a period in history, which fascinates me and many others -- the final days of Hitler's Third Reich. That thread was also much appreciated and resulted in me using the content to publish the first book in my Hashtag Histories series: #Berlin45 (see where it landed among the Thin Reads' best e-book singles of 2013). I then wrote #Tokyo45 and #Havana62 using the same format.
Thin Reads: You've written Hashtag Histories about the fall of Berlin during World War II, the bombing of Tokyo and the Cuban missile crisis. What's next in this series? The first Ali-Frazier fight?
I'll leave the Ali-Frazier fight to you. Good luck with it. Don't pull any punches!
Another author suggested I use the same approach to provide "first hand" accounts of events during the medieval period, but I think that would be stretching it a bit far. The social media format seems (to me) only suitable for historical periods in which there is at least a rudimentary form of electronic communications. Could be wrong about that though.
That said, the basic concept of what I have done with Hashtag Histories is not entirely unique, nor confined to adaptation of modern social media. There is a literary form called "Epistolary Fiction" in which diary entries, letters, newspaper clippings, etc. are used to add greater detail and realism to a story. Examples of the form include Stephen King's novel Carrie which is written using an epistolary structure, through newspaper clippings, magazine articles, diary entries, letters, etc. Also, Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897) uses not only letters and diaries, but also dictation cylinders and newspaper accounts
However, I am using the form for non-fiction (history) and while my books will not appeal to those who insist on the traditional academic format, I believe it enables a large amount of accurate and captivating historical detail to be presented rapidly, informatively and entertainingly while being unencumbered by time-consuming background description. There's no dross, and all the Hashtag Histories books can be read in a couple of hours.
As for my next book -- it will be #Houston70 and will be out later this month or in early April.
Follow Howard Polskin on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@thinreads