Thomas Swick: A Way to See the World

Travel Interviews: Jim Benning asks the South Florida Sun-Sentinel travel editor about his new book and the role of the travel writer in challenging times

10.20.03 | 8:13 PM ET

Thomas Swick

Few newspaper travel editors have published collections of their own writing. But it shouldn’t come as a surprise to World Hum readers that South Florida Sun-Sentinel travel editor Thomas Swick has written an engaging new collection. In the World Hum weblog, we often link to stories in Swick’s Sunday section. It’s one of the nation’s most ambitious. Swick’s new book, A Way to See the World: From Texas to Transylvania with a Maverick Traveler, which includes many stories that first appeared in the newspaper, helps reveal why.

Swick is an eloquent writer, whether he is evoking St. Petersburg, Russia or the tiny Texas town of Archer City. He is unflinchingly honest, and his writing is filled with understated humor, even when he is describing his home state. In the book’s introduction, for example, he writes, “The standard uniform of the South Floridian is still a T-shirt and shorts, and it is impossible to take a man seriously when he’s bared his legs.” Swick is an avid reader, and his stories are peppered with quotations from other writers. It’s as though Swick is inviting his readers not only to join him on a journey, but to enter into a grand literary conversation, too. Finally, and most endearingly, Swick’s stories reflect the critical eye of an experienced traveler but never betray the jaded coolness one finds in so many travel writers. Take the title of the book’s last section, “Nothing To Declare But My Wonderment.” It’s hard not to like a travel editor who, even after years of chronicling his journeys, still enthusiastically declares his sense of wonder.

This is Swick’s second book. He is also the author of Unquiet Days: At Home in Poland.

World Hum: The title of your book is “A Way to See the World.” Can you give us a taste of how you, as a traveler, look at the world?

The title can be read a few different ways. Most literally, it refers to my job as travel editor. It can also refer to my approach in the book, which is to focus on things that don’t get written about that much: the everyday aspects of travel (immigration stamps, fellow travelers, late-night arrivals) and the unsung places on the map (Croatia, Iowa, Vietnam, Trinidad). But it also suggests a way of looking at the world, which I think is beautifully expressed in the epigraph by Jan Morris; that idea that no matter where you go you find—or can if you look—delightful, noble, life-affirming souls (in her words “lordly ones”). I still see the world as a place of infinite fascination, though also of increasing danger. And not just because of terrorism, but violent crime, which has grown out of the widening gulf between rich and poor and a general breakdown in moral values. It puts a new spin on Paul Fussell’s declaration that “we’re all tourists now,” because being a tourist in the 21st century means inheriting some of the risks of 19th century travelers.

Has this world of increasing danger affected the way you travel?

I’ve always tried to travel inconspicuously, for instance, wearing clothes that make me blend in or—where that’s not possible, in Asia for instance— at least not look like a rich American. A great tool for this is a weathered leather book bag I carry over my shoulder, or across my body, which I’ve seen men using from Warsaw to Cairo to Mexico City but rarely in the United States. In Athens this summer I’d buy the International Herald Tribune,  which came with an English-language section from the Greek paper Kathimerini, and stick it in the back pocket of my satchel in such a way that the only thing visible was the Greek paper’s name. Even though it was in Latin letters, it still, I thought, made me look more local. Though it was probably unnecessary, as Athens is a fairly safe city.  Traveling alone, as I usually do, is a blessing and a curse: you can silently slink past the pickpockets who have their eyes on bigger game (the fanny-packed groups broadcasting their nationality in high-volume English).  But if you’re cornered, you’re easy prey without a sidekick. I’ve always been drawn to the seedy parts of town, and I think I’ve developed a sense of when it’s not a good idea to venture any farther. Last year in Rio I was always alert, finding streets, after dark, that didn’t present long, empty stretches. And throughout my stay, as often happens, instead of getting mugged I met wonderfully generous people.

In the introduction, you offer your own definition of travel. You write, “I think of travel as anything that extends one’s realm of experience or expands one’s lexicon of acquired convictions—and occurs beyond the backyard (thus distinguishing it from reading).” So often we think of travel as something that must involve a journey thousands of miles from home. But you’re arguing against that definition here, aren’t you?

Yes. In its broadest sense, travel is simply crossing over into other worlds, other attitudes, other ways of life, which may be as near as the next street over (especially in this country, with all its ethnic richness).  Which is why I hate it when people say that travel writing is dead. Travel writing is writing about place, and as long as there are places there will be writing about them. Many of my favorite travel books are by people who write about where they live, albeit often as expatriates, and I always tell students in travel writing workshops that if they want to cut down on costs they should write about home (or places nearby). You don’t have to buy a ticket to write a travel story.

There is an art to this kind of travel you describe. What are a few of your strategies for extending your realm of experience or expanding your lexicon of acquired convictions, as you put it?

I try to learn as much as I can about a place before I go. Once there, I have a three-step process: 1) walking (not planning to see anything but hoping to see everything, and taking in sounds, smells, tastes, etc.); 2)  sitting (you observe the passing parade much better when you remove yourself from it); and 3) (the tough one) participating. To me, meeting people is the key. I always try to leave with names of contacts; otherwise I just try to meet people by chance. I read the local papers, which tell me about events —concerts, exhibitions, sporting events—where I’m likely to find locals.  Because I don’t think you can begin to understand a place without talking to the people who live in it. The best ones not only enlighten you, but give you an emotional attachment. Travel is always seen as something exciting,  but by nature it is, as Janet Malcolm described it a few years ago in the New Yorker, “a low-key emotional experience, a pallid affair in comparison with ordinary life.” She noted that “we stand before paintings and look at scenery, and sometimes we are moved, but rarely are we as engaged with life as we are in the course of any ordinary day in our usual surroundings.”  Which is absolutely true; the trick is to get out of the museum and make new friends.

I particularly enjoyed your description in the book of how you became a travel editor. Why do you think you were drawn to this field?

I’m not sure. Probably growing up in a small town, in a small state (Phillipsburg, NJ), made me want to get out and see what else there was.  None of my friends—in high school or college—had any interest in traveling, and I think I saw it as a way to be different. Not in an eccentric or alternative lifestyle way, but in the sense of having uncommon experiences, gaining other perspectives. As for wanting to write about it, well, I found myself drawn to literature in my junior year in high school (“Our Town” and “Spoon River Anthology” stand out) and that interest really blossomed in college. When I started writing,  traveling gave me something to write about. And, since so many of the people I knew were staying home, I had a sense of purpose as well; I needed to tell them what they were missing.

So what do you think is the role of the travel writer these days?

I think it’s to entertain and educate readers about the world and—if possible—engage them emotionally, so they end up not only learning but caring. Americans on the whole are not that knowledgeable about other countries. But you can’t force people to learn; you have to make it a pleasure. So you convey information through description, characters, humor,  stories. And occasionally you slip in important asides, a process Calvin Trillin has called “sneaking in the facts.”  If the role hasn’t changed, the writing has. In the old days, travel writers went places their readers had never been; their job was to come back and describe an unknown realm. Today, everybody has been everywhere, or if they haven’t they’ve seen it on TV. So the travel writer has become more analytical, not just describing landscapes but interpreting them, seeking out meanings.  I’ve always been dismayed by how little respect travel writers get. The realm of knowledge needed to write a good travel book—including among other things architecture, language, history, food, music, religion,  politics, flora and fauna—is infinitely greater than that needed to write a good novel or memoir. And still the travel writer is seen as the slacker,  sunning by the pool with an umbrella drink.

Who are some of your favorite travel writers and why?

Evelyn Waugh, as I say in the book, was the first writer who showed me the literary and comedic possibilities of travel writing. After college I read “When the Going Was Good” and was totally enchanted. There are so many others I enjoy and admire: Graham Greene, Gerald Brenan, A.J. Liebling,  Kate Simon, M.F.K. Fisher, S.J. Perelman, Norman Lewis, P.J. O’Rourke, V.S. Naipaul, Patrick Leigh Fermor, Jan Morris, Paul Theroux, Colin Thubron, Jonathan Raban, Pico Iyer. Like Waugh, I “prefer all but the very worst travel books to all but the very best novels.” I’m partial to style and humor, and writers with a strong voice who nevertheless manage to make the story about the place rather than themselves. In the case of people like Leigh Fermor, Morris, Thubron and Iyer, you get that winning combination of a versatile mind that’s able to interpret with a probing heart that allows them to connect.

Yet so much of what we read in newspaper travel sections falls flat. I loved the article you wrote for the Columbia Journalism Review a couple years ago about why so much travel writing is so often uninspired. What kind of response did you get to that?

Thanks. Just to clarify a bit, my criticism was of travel journalism,  not travel books, which I think are generally of high quality. In fact, that was part of the inspiration for the essay: Why, I wondered, is there such an enormous gap between the two? I think that was partially answered by the fact that the essay got virtually no response. Nobody seemed to care. Most travel editors, at both newspapers and magazines, see their job as that of helping people plan vacations (and rather sumptuous ones at that,  if you look at some of the glossies). I think that is part of our job, but I also believe it’s nice to give people something interesting to read (especially in a country where the average citizen spends only two weeks of the year on vacation). I’ve always argued that if all you do is fill your publication with tips and information, then the only people who read it will be people who travel. And, though it’s sometimes difficult for those working in the business to grasp, there are a lot of people who don’t travel. Some of them enjoy doing it vicariously, through stories; some like to learn what they can about the world by reading. Unfortunately for both, a lot of travel editors are not terribly interested in evocative or thoughtful writing.

What kind of future do you see for newspaper and magazine travel writing in general?

As for the future, I don’t see the appetite for consumer stories diminishing. The world situation, rather than broadening outlooks—as it should; now more than ever Americans need to know about the rest of the world—has generated a retreat, at a number of newspapers, into more service articles, especially about places that are within easy driving distance. Strangely, freelancers haven’t quite grasped this, and I currently possess a huge backlog of pieces from the ends of the earth. I would be thrilled to find a fresh, eye-opening story about Florida. Because, ultimately, every place is worth writing well about.

Has the way the world changed on September 11, 2001 affected the way you edit the Sun-Sentinel Travel section?

In the months after the attack I wrote a number of columns reflecting on the tragedy and how I imagined it changing travel. And earlier this year I wrote columns with headlines like “The national folly of Euro-bashing” and “Travel in a time of fear, hate, and war.” Not the usual stuff of travel pages.  I also ran a few related freelance stories, such as a piece by an American woman living in Cairo on the mood there during the build-up to the war. And I’ve been running a series of stories, by another American woman, who went to Morocco to study Arabic (and arrived a few days before the terrorist attack in Casablanca).  But other than that, it’s been business as usual. I haven’t cut back on the number of foreign stories I run; as I said earlier, my problem is finding good freelance stories about the U.S.  As for my own trips, I’d hoped to go to Bali this fall, but the terrorist bombing in Jakarta nixed that. I don’t think I should spend my newspaper’s money to visit a place most readers are avoiding. I went to Greece because of the coming Olympics, but I was also curious to see how I’d be received in what is possibly the most anti-American country in Europe. I encountered no hostility because of my nationality, but I did hear a lot of opposition to my country’s policies, bits of which are making it into my stories.

I really enjoyed your piece in the book about your visit to Archer City, the small Texas town where writer Larry McMurtry lives and runs several bookstores. You had planned to interview McMurtry during your visit, but when you arrived, you found that would be impossible because he had just left town for a week. Some writers might have given up and gone home. But you stayed and wrote terrific story about the town anyway. It seemed to me fitting, because travel offers so many surprises, and not all of them are pleasant. How do you stay flexible?

Thanks. I think the more traveling you do, the more flexible you become, by necessity; those backpackers who go off for months, or years, must eventually end up double-jointed. There’s no other option. Type-A personalities do not make good travelers.  In Archer City, I stayed because I was writing a travel piece, not a profile, and I knew I could get a sense of the place without its most famous son. I had read McMurtry’s essay/memoir “Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen,”  and when I wrote the story I quoted from that, so there was a feeling of McMurtry being there. And almost everyone I met, when I told them of my disappointment in not meeting him, assured me that he wouldn’t have been very talkative, that he hates sitting for interviews.  And I’m not crazy about doing them. I think one of the (many) advantages of being a travel writer, as opposed to a reporter, is that you rarely have to interview people, you can just sit and talk with them. Interviews are artificial and generally unsatisfying. Witness my interview, in a later chapter, with Jesse Ventura. It was partly why, when a few days later I met with Garrison Keillor, I made it more of a conversation. People are more forthcoming when you just chat.  In the end, I think the Archer City story benefited from McMurtry’s absence; it forced me to be more reflective, which in turn made the story less featury. And there are worse fates than being stuck in a town with a quarter of a million books.

Where do you plan to travel next?

I’m off to Thailand in a month. It’s my replacement for Bali, and a place that most travel writers have already written about. But as Paul Theroux once sagely said, “No one has ever described the place where I’ve just arrived.” 

Have a great trip. Thanks, Tom.

Photo by Craig Ambrosio.

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