John Marrs' The Vacation is shortlisted for the 2022 Wilbur Smith Adventure Writing Prize.

How far would you run to escape your past? Venice Beach, Los Angeles. A paradise on earth. Tourists flock to the golden coast and the promise of Hollywood.

John Marrs © R. Gershinson

But for eight strangers at a beach front hostel, there is far more on their mind than an extended vacation.

All of them are running from something. And they all have secrets they’d kill to keep . . .

The Vacation is a compulsive, holiday-set thriller from John Marrs, the author of The One, now a Netflix Original Series.

About the Author: John Marrs is an author and former journalist based in London and Northamptonshire. After spending his career interviewing celebrities from the worlds of television, film and music for numerous national newspapers and magazines, he is now a full-time author. He is the bestselling author of The One, Passengers, The Minders, What Lies Between Us and When You Disappeared.

WNSF: What does adventure writing mean to you? Would you have considered yourself an adventure writer before being shortlisted for the Prize?

John: To me, adventure writing means taking the reader out of their armchair or their comfort zone and transporting them into a completely different world - one of your making. I believe that to pull off a successful novel with an adventurous theme means making the setting just as important as the story and the characters. I had not really considered myself as an adventure writer until I sat back and thought about what I had accomplished with The Vacation and the positive feedback it’s received. As much as I enjoy writing domestic, UK-based thrillers, there’s something a little bit extra special about writing a book that is set in a different country. The characters in The Vacation are all adventurers: they’ve travelled far and wide to reach their destination of a hostel in Los Angeles. And this diverse bunch enabled me to travel in so many directions when it came to writing their back stories.

WNSF:  Are there any particular books or authors which have made a lasting impact on you?

John: When I was a boy, I’d spend many an hour in the local libraries of my hometown of Northamptonshire. I devoured the Hardy Boys books by the conglomerate of writers known as Franklin W Dixon. Before I discovered them, much of what I read had been British based. The Hardy Boys ignited my interest in books set beyond our shores. Then JRR Tolkien took my imagination into a whole new realm with his graphic descriptions of fantasy worlds. Later, in my twenties, The Beach by Alex Garland made a huge impact on me. Everyday life and my work as a journalist interrupted my love of reading for quite a number of years until that book came along. Its island setting, its diverse rollcall of characters and its page-turning plot made for one of my all-time favourite novels.

WNSF: Can you tell us about any adventurous experiences in your life? Have they influenced you as a writer or your writing?

John: The Vacation is based loosely on my own travels around the USA as a 21-year old. And it features a hostel I stayed at for six months in Los Angeles, along with some of its many inhabitants. 

John Marrs in Los Angeles, outside the hostel which inspired The Vacation

In the mornings, I worked there as a cleaner, the afternoons were spent selling hotdogs and lemonades on the beach, standing in blazing hot temperatures on a wooden box and beckoning people over with my megaphone. The stand’s owner made me exaggerate my British accent in the hope it would encourage more customers! By night, I was checking people in and out of the hostel. As the first face they saw when they arrived, they would chat to me throughout their stay. So I got to hear a lot of very interesting stories and some exaggerated versions made my book. Writing The Vacation brought back so many happy memories. I would not have been able to have written this without my love of travel.

WNSF: Can you tell us about a particular relationship between two characters in your novel and how you made it feel genuine?

John: I have put more of myself into The Vacation than I have any other of my 11 novels. The main protagonist is Tommy, who, alongside his best friend Louis, leave their old lives behind to travel America. These characters are based on myself and my friend Sean and we did exactly the same thing some 30 years ago now. We’d known each other for about a decade before we gave up our jobs to go backpacking. I hope that in The Vacation, I tapped into our relationship to convey what it was like to go travelling with a friend. Spending all that time with one person can be incredibly intense but the memories you share last a lifetime. Eventually Tommy and Louis go their separate ways with one wanting to spend more time in big cities and the other wanting to explore the countryside. This is what happened with Sean and I. We had been each other’s support systems for months, and going our separate ways made us stand on our own two feet. Without Louis, Tommy has no choice but to immerse himself in traveling alone, making fast, new, intense friendships that are only ever going to be temporary as backpacking is a transient existence. You’re all sharing the same moment, you readily offer each other your life stories and soon after, you go your separate ways only ever to see one another again via social media. It can be a sad, lonely experience, but it’s also eye-openingly wonderful.

WNSF: A strong sense of place is vital to any great adventure story. What role does research play in your writing? How did you make your setting feel realistic?

John: The LA hostel in The Vacation is based on an actual hostel that still exists. It’s a stone’s throw from Venice Beach, LA’s most iconic waterside setting. And I treat the building as another character in my book. Back in my day and in The Vacation, it is a shabby, run down place and its best days are long behind it. But it is so vibrant and full of life that it doesn’t matter if the showers are missing heads, if the cockroaches outnumber the guests or if the WIFI signal is almost non-existent. It was probably the easiest character to write as I knew that building like the back of my hand. I travelled back in 1992 and although I’ve returned to LA many times since, I never wanted to go back to that hostel. I worried that my rich memories might be diluted in a visit from this modern version of myself. However, on a road trip with my husband four years ago, we stopped off at Venice and I decided it was time to look inside the hostel. The layout was very different to how I remember it, but the vibe was exactly the same. I could almost see a ghost version of myself roaming the corridors with a cigarette hanging out of my mouth and a plate of spaghetti and meatballs in my hand.