Interview with Andrew McCarthy: A ‘Strange Second Act’
Travel Interviews: Jim Benning asks the actor, director and writer about his new book and his second career in travel writing
10.09.12 | 8:53 AM ET
The first time I met Andrew McCarthy was at the 2011 Book Passage Travel Writers & Photographers Conference. I’d heard that the star of “Pretty in Pink” had taken up travel writing, but I had no idea what to make of it. Sure, actors have occasionally said they wanted to write travel stories— Drew Barrymore comes to mind—but I’d never seen evidence that any had really pursued it. And yet, there was McCarthy at the conference, having a conversation on stage about how travel had changed him, and about how he approached writing stories. Even so, I couldn’t help but wonder, was he really serious about this, or was travel writing just a passing interest?
After that McCarthy went on to write more stories for newspapers and magazines. In August, he returned once again to the Book Passage conference, as serious as ever about writing. And then last month, he published his first book, The Longest Way Home: One Man’s Quest for the Courage to Settle Down. It’s a deeply personal account of his struggles in relationships and the lure of the road, taking the reader along with him to Patagonia, Costa Rica, Mount Kilimanjaro and beyond. It’s a touching, evocative story—certainly not the work of a dilettante.
When McCarthy passed through Los Angeles recently on his book tour, I sat down with him for breakfast at a busy diner. Over fried eggs and the whirring of a cappuccino maker—not to mention the occasional gawking of diners—I asked him about the book, his travels and writing.
You once told me that Paul Theroux’s “The Old Patagonian Express” was the first travel book you read. Can you talk about the impact it had on you?
Yeah. I’d walked across the Camino de Santiago in Spain. When I came back someone said, well now that you’re a big traveler, you should read Paul Theroux. I was like, who? I wasn’t a reader at that point in my life. It was great. In Spain I was very much alone and out of touch for five weeks. But it didn’t really occur to me to travel alone, to travel hard, to travel without a plan and be out of touch. The book opened my eyes to that way of travel. This was 20 years ago. Then I read “The Great Railway Bazaar” and I then I read all of them. I started traveling more. I met a girl who was living in Singapore and she said, If you want to come to Singapore, I’m there. She came back to New York and I ran into her at some event and said, how’s Singapore? So I went down there and had a great weekend and when she went back to work I had nothing to do so I went up to Angkor Wat. This was the mid-‘90s when there was no one at Angkor Wat. I was staying in a guest house. I bicycled around. It was great. Then I went to Phnom Penh. Then Laos and Vietnam. I traveled around for a month or six weeks, just wandering.
Were you writing at that time?
No. I started writing on that trip. You know when you travel like that you’re completely untethered. I met a lot of people but I’d go days without hearing the sound of my voice, because I was often very alone. I had an amazing time. I tried to keep a journal and it was so lame. I realized I’m not a journal guy. I thought, I’m embarrassed even reading this myself. Imagine if somebody saw this. The first story I wrote, a kid pulled up to me in Hanoi on a scooter and said, ‘If you want, I take you around.’ So I got on the back of his scooter and we spent the day together. I went back and wrote about that. I wrote down the dialogue and had the arc and I felt really calm. All that shit that was going on in my head found an outlet that wasn’t just me talking about my feelings. It was a way of capturing my experiences. And it was like, yeah, that’s what Vietnam was like.
Then I wound up going up to Laos and saw an obnoxious American girl trying to rent a bicycle, screaming at an old man, a little Laotian old man, about a flat tire. And I thought, something about that captures Laos. So I wrote that up.
Actually, that first one I wrote, about Vietnam, that’s what won the Lowell Thomas award this year. It sat in my drawer for 18 years. Then recently National Geographic Traveler asked if I had a little essay, any vignettes. I gave them that one just as I’d written it 18 years ago. So that was gratifying. I’d just thrown all these old notebooks in a drawer.
That’s great. So did you continue to write essays and anecdotes after that trip?
Yeah. For all the trips I took. But very few of the travel stories I was reading in magazines were communicating what I experienced in travel. There was no personal aspect, like you see on your site, very immersive. Most of the stories I was reading then, it’s you go here, you go there. I just didn’t know how to find those other kinds of stories.
Then I met Keith Bellows [at National Geographic Traveler]. I knew someone who knew him. He agreed to meet me in an East Village bar. I said, let me write for your magazine. He’s like, you’re an actor. But I kept on him. It took a year. I said, dude, just don’t pay me. Just let me try it. He finally said okay. He asked me to bring back 5,000 words because he knew it’d be terrible and he could edit it down. And it was fine. What I brought back was not what he assigned to me. He wanted me to go to this place in Ireland and approach it like I was casting a film. I said, okay, great, great. I had no idea what he was talking about. So I wrote about what I always write about. And the name of that article was “The Longest Way Home.” It was about feeling at home in Ireland. So then I had another idea about doing a story in southern Spain, where they shot all the Spaghetti Westerns. So that was a no-brainer. That was really cool.
Even though you didn’t see many personal travel stories at first, you’ve managed to find a way to write a lot of them. What do you think about the other kind of travel writing out there? The more service-oriented writing?
I can’t do a service piece. I don’t know how. I did one once and it was terrible. It was excruciating. It was a 400-word piece about these islands off Mozambique. I’d done a first-person experiential narrative and the editor said, we also need a little service piece. It’s just a skill I don’t have. I write about my experience and I just don’t know how else to do it.
What I always had, going back to that piece in Hanoi, was my voice. I learned the other stuff. You can learn that.
How? How did you learn it?
I just read other stories. I’d go, oh, they start with sort of a provocative event, and they end with that provocative event. I thought, that’s cool, I’ll do that. Then I’d see this magazine does it this way. And that’s called a lead. And that’s a kicker. It’s easy to learn that stuff. I knew I wanted to do this for some reason. I didn’t know why. But what I’ve always fought for is that I publish my own writing. I’ve taken stories away from places. I took a story away from National Geographic Adventure. A really personal story about going back to a site where a girl had died in the Wyoming mountains. I was with her when it happened and I went back to write about it.
Is that the anecdote you mention in the book?
Yeah. I wrote a story for the magazine and then they rewrote it entirely. I said, read your first paragraph. Read my first paragraph. Are there any similarities? I said, I’m taking the story to Outside. I didn’t even know anyone at Outside. But it was personal to me. I’m fine with being edited, but I will not be re-written. One guy said this is the standard thing we do. I said, this isn’t my standard. I’ll rewrite something 50 times. But don’t rewrite me. I don’t need it. This matters to me. In the end, Adventure ran my story.
A lot of magazines have this kind of overarching voice. They want all the articles in the magazine to sound alike, and they habitually rewrite.
The better the magazine is, the less they do that. The Atlantic wants to beat the shit out of my voice and that’s fine. I’ll rewrite it until we get there. They were kicking back every comma. I’m like, that’s fine. The New York Times’ voice, where it’s Mr. Smith—that’s fine. It’s their thing. But when places dismiss me, then I take it very personally. Sometimes I think it’s because I’m in the brat pack. But they probably do it to every writer. I think some writers don’t stand up to that. I’ll say, I’ll rewrite it. I’ll go back and forth on an edit 10 or 15 times. Just don’t rewrite me.
I’m sure a lot of writers don’t fight it. But you’re in the enviable position of not having to worry about where the next rent check is coming from.
Well I have a pretty high overhead. [Laughs.] Yes, travel writing was a drastic realignment of certain things.
So you didn’t get into travel writing for the money?
[Laughs.] No one does.
Where did the idea for the book come from?
I had the idea in the back of a cab going to Patagonia. It literally played out in five seconds. I was really sad to be leaving. We’d just decided to finally get married after five years of being engaged. So I was quite sad to be leaving. On the other hand, I was so excited to go alone. And I was like, what is wrong with me? It was so strong, both feelings. Then I realized I’ve had that feeling my whole life. About acting, about success in acting. I thought, this is so exhausting it’s going to kill me. So that’s when the idea came to me for the book. I traveled to Patagonia and kept notes and came back and then went to the Amazon. Then when I was in Costa Rica, I was in my jungle lodge writing my book proposal. I’d race out for an hour and then race back and write my proposal. I sold it after that. The book isn’t a will I or won’t I get married? It’s more of a how will I get married?
It’s very affecting. So where do you want to go with travel writing next?
I have an idea for another book. It’s about the whole notion of connection. I think travel is a means to something else. I don’t think travel itself is an end. So I don’t want to write a travel book that’s only about a place. I read this great book set in Africa, really well written, about a guy who went down a river. I loved reading it. But I thought, why did you need to write this book? I wanted to know. Paul Theroux wrote “The Happy Isles of Oceania.” That book was really about being brokenhearted, about lost love and finding love again. His more recent travel book is about aging. He comes clean about that. It’s not as personal as my book but it has a deeply resonant thing under it. It makes the travel relevant. It has a higher purpose. Paul Theroux finds himself paddling in those depressing islands. He paddled his way out of heartbreak and into love again. That gave the book a real resonance.
He does it so artfully, too. He weaves it all together so you don’t even notice what he’s doing.
Beautifully. He’s disclosing without being revealing. In that disclosure, you think, that’s enough to me. I get it. I can relate in some way. As long as there’s an emotional end to it. I think travel writing is a great genre for that kind of thing. For me, I don’t just travel to go somewhere. I don’t really care where, often. I care about what happens when I’m there and who I meet and the human experience of it.
I heard a smart person talking about memoir, saying, hopefully the “I” disappears and it’s more universal. Hopefully for the reader, it really isn’t about me at all. You want readers to have an emotional experience. You can’t have that experience unless I open myself up to you. That’s what I want.
This book is very personal. You write about some tough times. Is it hard for you to reveal yourself on the page like that?
Well I did what a lot of people do and told myself, this isn’t going to be in the book. I’m just going to write it, but there’s no way it’s going in. And then I’d read it and see, that’s the whole core of that chapter, isn’t it? And then I said to myself, it doesn’t matter, it’s fine, that’s just my naked-ish humanity coming out.
You get recognized when you go out in places. Here, for example. Was going to other countries an escape from that?
Not consciously. I get recognized in odd places.
No. I’m not Brad Pitt. In L.A., people are looking for it. L.A.‘s different than anywhere else. But it’s just part of my life. I can’t imagine what it’d be like otherwise. It’s been this way since I’ve been 20-odd years old. I’m much older now. Everyone is. When they’re 22-year-old girls, it’s a different reaction. We’ve all stopped squealing and it’s better for everybody.
[Laughing] Oh yeah. I’ve stopped squealing. Mostly.
Acting is just part of my life, and it’s been very good to me. Has it been good for me? I don’t know, but it’s been good to me.
I know for myself, though, going to a foreign place, it feels very liberating. Nobody knows who you are or where you come from.
It’s the greatest feeling in the world. Nobody knows who I am. It’s the greatest feeling in the world. I feel so buoyant. I’m thrilled with that feeling. Is that a reaction to being recognized at times? Maybe. But it feels much deeper than that. I feels like there’s a deep well there, you know what I mean? That disconnection-connection. I’m so connected to everything in this place because I’m so not connected. That’s an amazing feeling. That’s why I travel. I love that.
You’ve been in the unique position of taking a book of travel writing out to a very wide audience, to people who probably don’t read much travel writing. How do you think most people out there regard travel writing? What are you finding? Have you given much thought to it?
I find most people don’t even notice it, but people who do are passionate about it. It’s like travelers. People who get it really get it. But most people confuse travel with vacations. Most people go on vacation, so they’re not going to read about vacations. They’ll pick up the travel section and see if there’s a deal on Disney World. And I love vacations, but they’re different. Travel literature is not about vacations. Most people don’t understand that. They don’t understand what travel writing is.
Yesterday [at a book event] I got half a dozen people saying, I hope this book inspires my wife to want to travel with me. I’m getting emails every day now from people who are telling me about their journeys. They don’t even say anything about the book. That’s great. I love that.
Are people baffled that you got into travel writing?
Oh yeah. Deeply baffled. It doesn’t make any sense to them at all. Although some people say, wow, you have the two coolest jobs in the world. But most people are like, that’s weird. That’s why I’ve been on these TV shows [The View, CNN’s Piers Morgan Tonight]. It’s like, look at his strange second act.
[Laughing] You can’t beat the publicity, though. So with the next book, will you be treated to another “strange second act” media tour?
[Laughs.] We’ll see. I’ll let you know.