How did you get started traveling?
I grew up in the suburbs of Washington D.C. Our house was for several years the last house in a subdivision that bordered on a couple miles of woods. My first real travel experiences were my solitary walks in those woods beginning when I was about five. It was the foreign country in my own backyard.
My dad used to travel on government business and would send me postcards from all over the world - from Thailand or Nepal or Argentina or Dallas. By the time I was eight - and I'm 50 now - I had already tried to imagine myself in the floating markets in Bangkok.
Our family took lots of summer vacations in our station wagon - the Grand Canyon, Maine, California. I was mesmerized by the sceneries and by the lives I imagined were lived by the people I'd see out the car's window. After college I hitchhiked across the United States a number of times. The late 60s and early 70s was an amazing time. I'm a geezer now - a few days after I turned 50 I received my AARP (Association of Retired Persons) card in the mail, so I'm a card-carrying geezer now. But I think that people who didn't get to experience that time really can't imagine it. In a trip across the U.S. I would see literally thousands of hitchhikers - and we were all pretty chummy. For several years running, at the University Avenue on ramp in Berkeley, there was always a minimum of about 50 hitchhikers. This summer I drove from San Francisco to New York and Washington D.C., and in that whole time I saw exactly two.
In 1973 I left North America for the first time. I thought I'd be spending a month or two in Europe - castles, museums, bierfests. Instead, seven months later, at the tender age of 22, I wandered into Afghanistan. The month I spent there irrevocably changed my life.
How did you get started writing?
My father praised a birthday poem I wrote for my grandmother when I was five or six years old. It's the first positive feedback I remember receiving - my dad wasn't terribly effusive - and it made a big impression on me. And ever since then I think I look to writing (although I almost never write poetry) to get my strokes, my validation from the world. Sometimes I think this might be a shame, a tragedy. Am I simply living my life trying to recreate the experience of positive feedback from my father? I'm not sure, but it's certainly possible.
What do you consider your first "break" as a travel writer?
In 1984 my first wife told me she wanted a divorce. I split for Asia and over the next four months or so circled the globe - Japan, Hong Kong, China, and I rode the Trans-Siberian from Beijing to Berlin. When I came back to San Francisco, I rented a tiny apartment in the Haight-Ashbury and spent nine months doing literally nothing but writing a book about that trip. Eight, ten, sixteen hours a day - writing. Over the next two and a half years I drove a taxicab and rewrote the manuscript three times, and finally one morning I got a call from a New York editor who said, "I absolutely love your book and want to publish it just the way it is." I thought a friend was playing a joke on me - I have friends who would do that - and I made her give me her phone number and then I called her back. The next hour, as it sunk in, was the single most euphoric hour of my life - I expect I'll never have another hour to match it. It was published by Random House in 1989 - "All The Right Places."
As a traveler and fact/story-gatherer, what is your biggest challenge on the road?
I suppose it's maintaining the focus and discipline to keep my notebooks current - this might simply be a lack of confidence. I've never had an advance contract to write a book - both of mine were sold after they were completely written. And, since it has always seemed absolutely improbable to me that someone would actually publish my work, I've found it easy, tempting, to tell myself that it isn't really important to be meticulous about my notes. On the road there are so many distractions, and there's the constant urge just to daydream, to put things off. Maybe I'm just being overly self-critical. I always come back with tons of notes.
The other big challenge, I find, is staying healthy. Some people can go anywhere, eat anything, have no problems. I'm not one of them. I came back from my first trip with hepatitis, and every trip since then it seems I've had some - as you called your cholera, Rolf - marquee disease.
What is your biggest challenge in the writing process?
Over the past 20 years I've averaged maybe $2,000 a year from my writing - and most of that has been plowed right back into travel or supplies. I have a five-year old daughter now. My wife is a reinsurance broker, and it's her job that keeps our family going. I'm at home with our daughter most of the time. Writing has taken a back seat to child rearing. My biggest challenge is finding the time to write. I've got at least three books I want to write - and it's like they're backing up inside me. If I ever die of a heart attack they won't find plaque or cholesterol clogging my arteries, they'll find all these sketchy chapters, half-formed paragraphs, run-on sentences, random words, scattered individual letters, little scraps of punctuation, all compacted into a thick sludge that eventually froze me up ....
I feel like I must put in the parental disclaimer here: I, of course, love my daughter more deeply than anything in the world. This is true - I don't think it can be otherwise for a human being. But I was totally unprepared for the enormous change that parenthood has brought into my life. Until I was 45 I had oceans of free time. Now I encounter occasional puddles. And for me, writing requires oceans of time. I have to sneak up on it. I cannot flip a switch and suddenly be writing.
What is your biggest challenge from a business standpoint?
Finances. When I was young I assumed that all authors were rich. Now I know the sad truth. I've had two books published - both successfully. I invested about nine years of my life and at least thirty or forty thousand dollars in cash into writing and researching them. And I've received about $40,000 in royalties from them. My dream would be that one of them - well, both would be nice - would have become a runaway bestseller, and that I could afford to have my wife stay home and raise our daughter, and that I would be freed up to write. And if I had the money I would hire an assistant. Pretty typical fantasies, I suppose.
Do you do other work to make ends meet?
Since 1985 I've been a San Francisco taxicab driver. These days I drive mostly on weekends. I love the job - it is so much fun. If I do ever become rich, I intend to keep driving two days a month - I'd do it for free, heck, I'd even pay to do it. I get something from cab driving that is beyond money.
What travel authors or books might you recommend and/or have influenced you?
Paul Theroux is my hero. I've read everything he's ever written. He once said that when he was 25 he decided that if he was going to be serious about writing he would have to write a book a year. And now he's 60 - and he's done that. Amazing. None of these complaints about childcare or money - he just keeps writing. And what amazing books! And what amazing talent! In 1989 I had a wonderful moment in Union Station, the train station in Washington D.C. I walked into the bookstore and there, side by side, were my first book and Paul Theroux's latest, covers facing outward. This was in June, I believe. I had finished the trip I had written about in late 1984 - four and a half years earlier. Theroux had finished his trip in February - four and a half months earlier! And now there was "Riding the Iron Rooster" already on the shelves. He must have simply sent his notebooks to his publisher and said, "Here." And it was all brilliant. Plus he'd learned Chinese just so he could write that book - he's phenomenal.
Also I really like Pico Iyer's lovely work. He told me he wrote "Video Night in Kathmandu" in less than 4 months! Unbelievable. Who are these guys? But maybe my favorite travel book, if it is one, is Jon Krakauer's "Into the Wild." I so identified with the guy he wrote about - an idealistic, troubled 22-year old kid who intentionally wandered off into the Alaskan bush and unintentionally died. It reminded me how easy it would have been, anywhere along my own path, to have made a fatal mistake. Oh, and Thomas Thompson's "Serpentine" - this chilling true story about a serial murderer on the backpacker circuit should be required reading for anyone getting a passport. But I can't end on that recommendation. I'll mention Mike McIntyre's "The Kindness of Strangers" - he hitchhiked across America without touching money, relying on the goodness of his fellow tribe members, we human beings. Quite moving.
What advice and/or warnings would you give to someone who is considering going into travel writing?
I've thought about starting a course for would-be writers. It would be titled "Stop Writing Now!" The first exercise would be this: "Imagine that your favorite author has just received the Nobel Prize or Pulitzer Prize or won the National Book Award, and is now coming to speak at the biggest auditorium in your city. You have been chosen to give a 90-second introduction. In the next 15 minutes, write that introduction."
I'm not certain about all the other ingredients of that course, but I am certain that as the course goes along it will be revealed, or politely suggested, to each would-be writer, that what we are all seeking in this writing game is to cause those laudatory things we say about our favorite authors, to be said, by others, about us. We're in this for strokes, I suggest, for validation, for acknowledgement. We all crave some way of having our ticket punched, of reassuring ourselves that our time here on earth is not empty and meaningless. We desperately need that. We want to know that others think we're worthy, worthwhile. And I would warn any would-be writer that it is highly, highly unlikely they will get this reassurance from the writing game. I've been in a few writing workshops and met a lot of aspiring writers, and now I know how the odds are stacked. Writing is a pyramid scheme - a few either very talented or very tenacious writers or, often, clever marketers, are making a lot of money. But they are the pyramid's tip. There are thousands of thousands of people who think that if they just sit down and draw out the story that is inside all of us - and there really is one inside each of us, I think - then they will be published, rewarded, feted, acknowledged, immortalized. Worse, we even think this will make us happy. My course - "Stop Writing Now!" - would hopefully reveal the folly in this line of thinking.
I came up with this idea about three months after my second book was, finally, after ten years of banging my head against publishers doors and other walls, published. In the first week my publisher shipped 5,500 hardback copies to bookstores around the country that had ordered them. Then I was sent on a three-month, fifteen-city publicity tour, with thirty-some appearances. I was on radio and television 30 or 40 times. I had a wonderful ten minutes or so on National Public Radio's "All Things Considered." More than that on "The Voice of America." It was indeed, great fun. I'd go again this minute. But at the end of that tour I asked my publisher how many books had been shipped. The answer: 5,500. Not a single new book had been shipped.
This was crushing. Here I'd just come back from this great thing that I thought would make me successful and happy, and now I was about as depressed as I can ever remember. There would be no living from writing. Fame was fleeting, even useless. All the things I had put my faith in were empty. If I was going to find happiness, it occurred to me, I would have to find it somewhere else. In myself, maybe?
And that's what I'd suggest to would-be writers. Write because you love it or because - perhaps for reasons you can't explain - you simply have to. But absolutely do not expect that writing is going to make you happy. It might. It truly might. But it's ... not bloody likely.
And I don't think I'd be doing anyone a disservice by promoting this point of view. Someone who really does need to write will not be put off by me - they'll just take it as a challenge, I hope. But there are people who would seriously be better off finding some other way to happiness. We would all be better off - and I wish I could follow my own good advice - by looking for our happiness, for our peace, our redemption, in places other than the symbols of happiness that our culture tells us we might win if we just jump through enough of the right hoops.
If you have to write, please, go at it. If you only want peace and happiness, however, maybe you should look somewhere other than writing. The only thing I can promise you from writing is struggle. And probably massive frustration. I know people who have been writing, unpublished, for 20 years or more. This has not made them happy.
What is the biggest reward of life as a travel writer?
Well, after everything I've just said, this will sound funny. I do know the experience of being moved by a book, of thinking how absolutely great it was of the author to take the time to write the book and to make me think or make me happy or entertained for a few days. And when I hear from people who have had that experience from reading my book...well, that's the biggest reward I can imagine. I've gotten letters from people - I got one just yesterday morning - who tell me that one of my books has made them reconsider the way they were living their life, and that they had made some decision - usually a decision to travel or take some other risk - that they probably would not have made without my book. To me, that's really humbling - and a bit scary, too. I'm just a guy. I write books and tell stories. To think that even one person has shifted his or her life because of something I've written... well, it's humbling.