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The Writer’s Hot Seat: Rolf Potts on Travel Writing

04 February 2014 on Blog, The Writer's Hot Seat   Tags: ,

Interview by Michael Toner

In this segment of The Writer's Hot Seat, we have an interview with an author I have read over and over again while drifting across the globe in my own desire to experience other people and cultures. Rolf Potts is one of the most influential and prolific travel writers in recent memory. His focus on independent, long-term travel has inspired people to pick up and explore the world for over a decade and counting. Beginning as a travel writer for Salon, Rolf has gone on to write and publish numerous travel memoirs, essays, and several books.

Rolf's first book, Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel, was released in 2003. He has reported from more than sixty countries, and his work has been published in The Best Travel Writing anthologies, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New York Times Magazine, The Believer, The Guardian, Slate.com, NPR, and Sports Illustrated. His second book, a collection of essays entitled Marco Polo Didn't Go There: Stories and Revelations from One Decade as a Postmodern Travel Writer, won the 2009 Lowell Thomas Award from the Society of American Travel Writers.  It was the first book written by an American to win the Chatwin Prize for travel writing.

Rolf will be giving a reading at the University of New Hampshire on February 6th (5:00 pm, Memorial Union Building, Theatre I) as part of the UNH Writers Series. Read more about the author and his work on his website: www.rolfpotts.com.

Barnstorm: One of my favorite essays of yours is “My Beirut Hostage Crisis.” Mr. Ibrahim is an incredibly complicated character that completely overwhelms the narrator, the reader, and the experience with his presence. One issue with travel writing I've noticed is the need to exaggerate the foreign “both places and people” to an audience, but sometimes we run into characters that are completely over-the-top, and might need toning down to be believable. I read in your endnotes that you removed some pretty outrageous moments with Mr. Ibrahim from the essay for the sake of believability. While writing and editing, how did you make those choices in what to include and what to leave out of the final essay?

Rolf Potts: I think a lot of these decisions come out of the writing process itself. The more you write, the more your story tells you which details are and are not necessary. Before I sat down and wrote about Mr. Ibrahim, I thought it would be a mostly comic story but the more I wrote the more I realized that the core of his story was not comedy, but tragedy. Ibrahim was eccentric in part because his life and the life of his city was so full of sorrow. For me to string all of his eccentricities together, I think, would have detracted from the more serious story at the heart of the experience. I used notecards to help organize my stories back then, and the more I wrote, the more these cards full of funny details about Mr. Ibrahim ended up in the discard stack. There are still plenty of comic moments in the final version of the story, but as the endnotes in Marco Polo Didn't Go There suggest far fewer than actually happened in real life.

B: The “commentaries” following your essays in Marco Polo Didn't Go There are particularly fascinating. While many writers might wish to keep their travel essays and experiences neatly packaged and self-contained, you've given us a behind-the-scenes look at your thought process while constructing your essays. Why did you feel it necessary to include these after your essays?

RP: Part of the reason I did this was to give the reader something a little extra, since many of these stories were originally published online. There used to be a time when a book of previously published travel essays tied an author's work together in one place but in the age of author websites and Google searches, it's not hard to get out and find a given author's body of work on your own. So in a sense, the endnotes upped the ante and connected the stories through my self-critical look at the tactics and circumstances that went into writing the stories. In addition to extra content, however, I wanted to give the book a postmodern aspect, and push beyond the veneer of nonfiction storytelling to explore the more ragged world of lived experience and authorial choice that went into the creation of the story. In a sense I meant the book to be a quirky travel writing handbook, since it's as much about the creation of the stories as the adventures themselves.

B: When you first started travel writing, were you concerned about the way in which you portrayed foreign cultures and people? Concerned, that is, about inadvertently stereotyping, creating caricatures, or exaggerating the exotic in ways that might offend?

RP: Yes, since the days of imperialism and, really, all the way back to Herodotus how one portrays other cultures has a way of intertwining with how the home audience perceives itself. It's hard to write around this, and to an extent anyone with a point of view is going to risk putting a subjective spin on what he sees. I think this is fine, so long as the author communicates to the reader that he is an itinerant observer of culture and not an expert of culture. The local person might have a perspective that differs completely from that of the traveler and in fact five different local people will probably have five different perspectives on their own home and culture. This is why the travel writer must push beyond the memoiristic perspective and explore these contradictions and complexities through solid reporting. Travel writing holds a space between journalism and the memoir; when it veers too far into the journalistic direction it presumes a kind of false objectivity, but when it veers too far into the memoiristic direction it risks a kind of narcissism. One interesting thing about the current travel writing atmosphere is that like no other time in history local people are able to respond to how they are portrayed. I mention this in the introduction to Marco Polo Didn't Go There, and I chose the cover image (a camera lens focused on a Thai monk, who himself is photographing his fellow monks) to imply that the 21st century travel writer must be cognizant of this. Exaggerate or lie about foreign cultures in your travel writing, and the people of those cultures are more likely, these days, to read you online and hold you accountable.

B: As someone who got his start as a travel writer with Salon, you've championed the use of the internet and social media as a way for people to read and engage with other travelers and their experiences around the globe, yet you've also said that there will always be a place for traditional literary travel writing. How do you see it changing or adapting to stay relevant in the age of Twitter and Tumblr?

RP: Travel writing has always been a broad discipline that ranges from the deepest literary reportage to the shallowest consumer promotions. I think the literary side of travel writing will always be rooted in immersive experience and nuanced long-form narrative much of which will continue to find its specialized audience in the book (and, increasingly, ebook) realm. Consumer travel writing and reportage has been made more complex by the advent of social media and online tools. It still verges on the vapid from time to time, lots of top-ten lists and syrupy language but now you're more likely to have a crowd sourced conversation that brings more critical perspective to bear on all these recommendations and destinations. A glossy travel magazine might recommend ten activities in a given destination, but now you can go online and see hundreds of reviews and trip reports for these destinations and some of those reviews will contradict the seeming authority of the glossy magazine. So I think online and social media have made consumer travel writing more accountable, more of a two-way conversation while still leaving room for the more specialized world of literary travel reportage to thrive in the old, traditional way. 

B: This is a simple question, but I'm always curious: What travel authors do you particularly enjoy, and which books were inspiring to you as a young travel writer, before social media and the Internet?

RP: I think Pico Iyer and Tim Cahill were big influences early on. Cahill was great at capturing the adventure aspect of travel without ever losing his sense for humor and telling detail. Pico's work intuited that globalization-era travel writing goes much deeper than one monolithic culture reporting on another; it is, rather, a complex, multi-polar dialogue that is full of desire and incomprehension, even within a single person who may feel like he belongs to more than one place. In time I've come to appreciate the work of many other travel writers, but Pico and Tim were key influences early in my career. As were non-travel writers like Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller, Annie Dillard, Mark Twain, and Walt Whitman, who helped me understand when I was quite young what could be achieved on the page.

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