Pico Iyer: On Travel and Travel Writing
Travel Interviews: Two decades after boarding a plane for the trip that would yield "Video Night in Kathmandu," Pico Iyer talks to Matthew Davis about fact and fiction, books he wishes he hadn't written and his humble beginnings as a travel writer.
11.30.06 | 8:32 AM ET
In the fall of 1985, a young writer got on a plane for Nepal, embarking on his first foray into travel writing. Pico Iyer was 28 years old when he began the trip that would be explored in “Video Night in Kathmandu,” a landmark book that instantly established him as one of the world’s leading travel writers (the book was No. 8 on World Hum’s list of the best travel books). In the 21 years since that trip, Iyer has sculpted, defined and expanded travel writing as much as any writer in the field. Whether spending time with the Dalai Lama, being held at gunpoint in Yemen, or “traveling” within LAX, the essays and books that result from Iyer’s trips are known for their keen insight, and his prose for its lucidity and elegance. Last year Iyer was a keynote speaker at the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program’s NonfictioNow Conference. He sat down at the conference to talk about travel writing, his process as a writer, books he wishes he had written and not written, and his favorite dish.
World Hum: Where do you see travel writing falling into the genre of nonfiction?
Pico Iyer: Well, travel writing always dances on the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction. I remember Paul Theroux brought out a selection of stories a few years ago and when they appeared in the New Yorker, they were literally characterized as “Fact and Fiction.” Bruce Chatwin’s stories always are flickering on the edge, and it is hard to tell what is invention and what recreation. And I remember V.S. Naipaul brought out a book a few years ago called “The Way in the World,” and the same text came out on one side of the Atlantic as nonfiction and on the other as fiction. So in some ways I think the distinctions are as arbitrary in travel writing as anywhere else. But clearly the allure of travel writing for many people is that they can throw fiction and nonfiction and everything in between into their narratives. For many readers, perhaps, travel writing means guidebooks or some very specific kind of promotional writing. But for writers, when we think of the masters—whether it’s Kapuscinski or Naipaul or W.G. Sebald—they stand at the heart of literature, imagined and otherwise.
I’m curious about that because I think sometimes when you tell someone you’re a travel writer they have this idea of guidebooks, where to go find the best restaurant in Paris, and that’s where travel writing gets…
Instead of being classified as literature.
Which is actually a mixed blessing. I’ve come to find that, practically speaking, there’s a benefit to being a travel writer, because it means those six people in the world who enjoy reading my books, when they go into a bookstore, know exactly where to find them. And within this relatively small genre, of which there are relatively few practitioners, each person has a much larger presence. Whereas if I didn’t have that tag attached to me, each book that I would bring out would just get lost in that huge sea of nonfiction, and in that regard, sometimes I’ll write books which are mostly literary essays, but I’ll ask my publishers to characterize them as travel writing because I think that will actually help to bring them to the right readers’ attention.
But you’re right, in terms of just ordinary discourse, it’s a term not very much different from cookbook writer or comic book writer, and though comic book writing is moving up in the world now, it still does have a sort of stigma attached to it. And I think that if you brought that phrase to V.S. Naipaul, say, he would bridle rather than say, “Well I’m the first Nobel Prize Winner from the field of travel writing.”
I think really the definition of a travel writer is someone who would never think of himself as or call herself a travel writer, partly because he or she doesn’t want to live in boxes and partly because what is bringing the energy and life to the work is what each of them is bringing from other fields. That’s to say, I think of Bruce Chatwin as an anthropologist principally; I think of Jan Morris as an historian; Paul Theroux is really a novelist more than anything, and his travel trips are busman’s holidays through which he conducts research between novels. And V.S. Naipaul has more or less exploded the whole distinction.
So, in some ways, travel writers themselves are working to stretch the margins, and I think that’s quite exciting. And W.G. Sebald, too, who, I think, is one of the really original writers in the field. When his books came out they were often characterized as fiction, history and memoir. The same weekend I cited his book “Vertigo” on a panel in Los Angeles as the best travel book I’d read recently, it won the Los Angeles Times’s Book Prize for fiction. Orhan Pamuk’s beautiful book on Istanbul—the best travel book I’ve read recently—evokes a city hauntingly precisely by drawing on a novelist’s resources—just as Joseph Brodsky did with poetry in writing his immortal book on Venice, “Watermark.”
What about your childhood. You traveled quite a bit. You were born in England to parents from India.
And then moved to California when I was seven and then began going to school by plane in England when I was nine. So, yes, travel entered my bloodstream very quickly. And at a relatively early stage I probably realized intuitively that when it came to settling down or being part of a family or a community, I was not very well-prepared. But the compensation was that there were other things for which my background had equipped me quite well. So, if you set me down in Rwanda tomorrow, I probably wouldn’t be culture shocked and I would probably feel no more estranged than I do in India, England or America. So I think, yeah, in that sense, my upbringing schooled me, I suppose, in expatriation and in outsidership, which is to say in writing, in a way, certainly in observation, because everywhere I was, whether it was in England or California or India, it was a foreign place to me.
And what do your parents do?
They’re both academics. So, grew up in India, went to England for their college, never returned, taught philosophy at Oxford and then my father was lured over to California by a think tank in the 1960s when they were convinced they were going to re-make the world in California.
Were they supportive of your writing? Or did they want you to do something more practical?
Probably something more practical. And because they were academics, I’m sure they were keen for me to be an academic, and I was determined that whatever I did, whatever my strengths, I would never be an academic for that very reason. So, I think they felt a little of the usual parental concern when I left grad school. And even when I left grad school for Time magazine, which seems like a relatively secure alternative. But they kept saying, well, you can finish your PhD on the side or whatever. And I think that anyone who embraces writing knows he is throwing his arms around a very uncertain proposition.
Was there a writer that you recall reading when you were young that made you think, “Huh, I may want to do that…”
I think I fell into the whole writing business. In some ways, when growing up, like many, many people, I realized that writing and traveling were the two things I most enjoyed. And I thought how wonderful it would be to take holidays for a living. But it never went more than just a whim. And then the more I studied English, because I actually studied nothing but English literature for eight years—and each year I became less and less employable, as I see it, and less and less qualified to do anything except read or write—the more the idea took hold in me.
I’d always enjoyed writing partly because I like being alone and I like being at my desk, and I don’t have trouble putting words on the page. So, I probably quickly realized, that, well, this is something that comes easily and is fun. But how to actually make a living out of that is something that maybe I went to graduate school to find out. And I used those years of being in a kind of limbo to try and gather the strength and clarity to know where to go with it.
Twenty years ago you started traveling for your first book, “Video Night in Kathmandu,” in the fall actually.
Yes, wonderful, as we speak actually.
That book was unique at the time, in its ambition and scope and style, and I’m wondering how you see that book 20 years later.
Thank you. What an interesting question. It does seem to me a book written by someone in his 20s. But I think there are strengths in that as well as weaknesses. And so almost every 50-page passage there I would probably turn into a five-page passage now. And I was just thinking about it as I was taking a walk in Japan last week. When I wrote “Video Night in Kathmandu” I would say, “I am walking down Clinton Avenue in Iowa City and I am seeing the House of Aromas and then I am seeing the Iowa Old Capital Mall and then I am seeing this,” and I would take and register everything in a kind of bombardment of images. And somewhere in the back of them all, there is a person playing the saxophone, maybe I would have said then. Now, I would cut everything away and just go right into that person playing the saxophone and make a very different kind of scene or texture out of it.
But, I think that if the book has virtues it is powered by both the excitement of my discovery of the world and of my discovery of a form at the same time. And by the excitement of my taking a holiday from my day job, because I was stuck in a cubicle in New York City when I was writing that book, and I managed to get a six-month leave of absence from my company in order to spend three months traveling and three months writing. And so having to write a book in six months and seeing that book as a way out of the office towards a life of freedom and wandering might have lent the project a certain energy. And really just the sense of being in love with the processes and with the strangeness and excitement everywhere I was going. So I think it crackles with a kind of youthful energy that maybe I would be the better for to have more of now.
Would you still have the same fascination with those ironic contrasts?
No. I think I would make my way to the end of those pretty quickly. For example, I have been spending a lot of time in Dharamsala, India recently, spending time with the Dalai Lama, and it is as compact and compressed a global village as you can find anywhere. Really, Dharamsala is about a lot of young westerners sitting in a bar called McClo listening to the Eagles singing “Hotel California” and “Lying Eyes” and lots of very hunky Tibetan guys who have just fled over the mountains from Tibet circling around them. And it’s about the dance of fascination. It’s about the westerners reaching out for the antiquity or mystery of the Tibetans, and the Tibetans, really, looking for a life in America.
But, as soon as I see that, I think, well, I did that 20 years ago, and there is nothing new I can say. My thinking hasn’t matured sufficiently that I can bring anything new to it, so I’ll devote maybe one paragraph, not a whole book to it. So in that sense, yeah, I don’t think there is very far you can go with those ironies. I think what I have tried to do is internalize them. In that first book, what I was watching was a dance of fascination between, say, a Filipino woman and a German man. And what I’ve done since then is try to see what the children who come out of that marriage feel and sound like, and what happens in the next act when the dance of cultures is happening within somebody rather than actually on the streets or in the bars.
Let’s talk about your process a little bit. Your writing, especially in “Video Night in Kathmandu,” is incredibly detailed. It is very much like you are taking a camera and shooting a panorama. One of the challenges of any writer, but especially someone who writes and travels, is the process. You’re going to Tibet, for example. What do you do before you go? What do you do while you’re there? When are you writing? When are you fitting this together? What is the process?
I think I usually pose a question to myself, of myself and of the place before I go. And I choose a very, very specific focus. Because anyway, it is an act of presumption to go to Tibet and Nepal for two weeks and write a whole chapter about it. So, as you remember in that book, in Japan, I chose baseball, in Manila, music, in India, movies, in Thailand, sex. Each focused theme gave me a keyhole through which to focus the material and to see a culture that I couldn’t pretend to say anything definitive about. Each theme gave me a microcosm to work within. And beyond that, I pose a question as a starting point, to frame an argument, and, of course, as soon as I get to one of those places, that question flies out the window and is replaced by another question. And then—the hope is—a deeper question and a still deeper one, and finally one that can’t be answered at all.
The main practical thing I do is to map out a kind of outline in advance and an itinerary in advance, confident that both will get exploded as soon as I travel. Just having them, though, is a kind of reassurance. It’s like mapping out a way to get to an airport in advance, which gives you the freedom, in some ways, to get lost en route. And then when I go places, I think that the reason there was so much detail in that book was I take voluminous notes in long hand because I grew up in the pre-computer generation—and in a hand so illegible I can hardly read it. So, probably for each place where I spent two weeks, I took two hundred fully paragraphed pages, the way someone might take snapshots, or today, run a video camera. And then, I didn’t actually write any of the text while I was on site. I was too busy taking in data.
But at the end of my trip I went back to my home in California and put all the notes together. And I think in that book the assembly came very, very quickly, because I had only three months to write most of 12 chapters, but it doesn’t have the virtues of reflected distance often. Nowadays, what I’ll often do is take the same number of notes, but, when I get home, write without even looking at my notes or write three months after I’ve come back from the place when memory has begun to filter my impressions and when I’m writing more from imagination or from the heart, even, than from notes.
But in that book, because I was doing it very quickly, I relied on notes. Though the notes, as I say, were really fully formed rough drafts of essays, taken then and there, while I could still feel and hear and smell what was around me. And I suppose each chapter, which was a kind of argument, was about the explosion of my simple assumptions. I would go in and I would see a 250-pound German man with a tiny 16-year-old Thai girl, and I would think, “There’s the exploitation of the East by the West,” and then I would begin to think more about it and see that it, like everything, was much more ambiguous. I suppose each chapter was a journey into ambiguity and away from the abstractions I had when I set out.
One of the reasons why people squirm a little bit when they hear travel writing is the sense of a foreigner going in and recording and reporting about a culture that is not his or her own. What are your thoughts on that and how do you see that pull, that dynamic about a foreigner going in and writing about a culture that is not their own?
Well, I think I always write from a position of a complete everyman, of a completely typical tourist, acknowledging at the outset that I am not a specialist in those cultures, I am a foreigner, as you say, I haven’t studied them, I don’t speak their languages. So, for example, when I went to Thailand, I knew I was not really in a position to say anything authoritative or informed about Thailand. I’m stumbling along, using my English, and what I’m meeting, principally, are hotel workers, taxi drivers, bar girls. And so when I describe them I’m not really describing Thailand, but I think I am describing the tourist’s Thailand; those are the people that almost all tourists in Thailand happen to encounter. And so, what I am claiming to do is, probably, just to represent the typical visitor’s point of view. And, Paul Theroux is very good in suggesting that there is a dishonesty in claiming we don’t have judgments. We all make very unfair judgments about the places we go, and when a Chinese person comes to Iowa City, he or she makes unfair judgments about us, as we do about him, and that’s part of the process of how a dialogue begins and evolves. And I think I have one small advantage over some people, which is that when I am traveling around Asia, looking at how it took in western stuff, I am partly an Asian and partly Western, so I can claim a small acquaintance with both sides of the dialogue.
Deeper than that, though, I never really worry about the issue, because every writer is an outsider on the subject he is writing about. Even if he is writing about his mother or his hometown, he has to be, to some degree, a foreigner to speak to the reader, who is, almost by definition, a foreigner, too. The larger problem I see with travel writing is—and you must have found this when you came back from Mongolia—that you have had these life-changing experiences and have entered a whole different way of seeing the universe but it’s not apprehensible to your friends in Iowa or in Evanston. And when you start talking about it, it is very hard for you to make your conversion experience as powerful to them as it was to you. And I am the same way. If either of you in this room had been to Uganda, to which I have never been, it would be hard for me to attend to your stories, whereas if you were talking to me about Japan, which I know well, I would be on the edge of my seat.
And so, I think travel writing has a hard time appealing to people who haven’t traveled and who don’t see a book on place as a literary text in the way they would see another nonfiction book, and that’s one of the hurdles that I don’t know how we can surmount. But certainly I can understand the reader’s skepticism. And I think there would be other people who would have complaints about Orientalism or about imaginative imperialism when writing about the West’s meeting with the East. But that’s never concerned me too much. I remember a young friend, a daughter of a friend of mine, was studying in California, and actually one of the texts for her class was my “Video Night” book, and apparently the professor gave a long lecture about how this was horribly, oppresively, western in its view point, and how only a westerner could write like that. And she said, “Sorry, I hate to say this, but I actually know this guy, and he’s from India.” [Laughs] But that wouldn’t necessarily change the point.
How do you think travel writing has evolved over the past 20 or 30 years?
I think it’s evolved a great deal. Partly because even when I was growing up, travel writing was mostly white, nearly always male, often from England, and about going to Africa and Kenya and surveying the strange customs of the natives. And I think now it is more and more about a half-Thai, half-German girl living in Iowa City, going to an Afghanistan full of German aid workers and Japanese businessmen. And what used to be a very simple discussion between, in some ways, colonizer and colonized, is now a dialogue between a multi-cultural society and a multi-cultural person. All of which has made the texts much more interesting. Even in the time when I’ve been writing, there are many more women, people from much different backgrounds, giving us their takes on the world. Americans, for example, going to Britain, and applying to Britain what Britain has previously applied to the world. You read my essay, I think, Why We Travel, and I cited Paul Theroux and Bill Byrson and Bill Buford doing that. Or Japanese or Frenchmen giving us their America.
So I think a straight line has become something of a rainbow explosion. Amitav Ghosh’s brand new book, “Incendiary Circumstances,” for example, reads like a view of the world written by someone who lives in New York and teaches at Harvard and writes for the New Yorker. But it also reads, more interestingly and powerfully, as a book written by someone who was born in India and grew up in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh and then lived in a village in Egypt for two years. The perspective is both multiple and shifting. A new kind of writer is speaking for a new kind of reader.
I think travel writing is also having to confront a challenge, which is a good challenge, namely the fact that it is not a remarkable thing now to describe Mongolia or Tibet because anyone sitting in Iowa City can access them on the Internet or their TV screens. And so the person who goes there has to do something more and other than just bringing back the sights and sounds. When I made that Asian trip in 1985, I thought it was enough to just bring back from Tibet, say, the sights and sounds because almost nobody I knew had been to Tibet or would have access to it otherwise. But now that Tibet is available to most Americans in their living rooms, through the Discovery Channel or Google Earth, the travel writer has to extend the form and refresh it, to write a more inward kind of travel, to write about a neighborhood in Chicago, say, and how the whole world has come and transformed his neighborhood, or to write about an inner and invisible Tibet. You don’t need to go to Timbuktu or Kathmandu to write a book.
A travel writer has to rethink what discovery means, and exoticism and movement. That’s why, having done a lot of descriptions of other countries, I went and spent two weeks in the Los Angeles airport as a way to claim it as a different kind of destination. Of course, you could do the same with a shopping mall or a hotel or a hospital. And all that I regard as travel writing.
It’s important to push the material inwards, because that is the unclaimed, unchartered territory, more and more. So, in my last book, called “Sun After Dark,” I described lots of physical environments but I took pains to include one chapter on jet lag because I thought that this is real alien territory where many of us spend a lot of our time but no one has really written very much about. Travel writers are being forced to turn their lenses in different directions, and that can only be a good thing because I think the story of a person going for three weeks through Tanzania and reporting back is almost exhausted. I think the Peace Corps genre, in which somebody lives in a foreign place for a number of years, that’s a wonderful, inexhaustible form in some ways. But, travel writing is having to find a new way to justify its existence.
I wanted to ask you about that LAX essay you wrote and also about the essay you wrote on the Potala Palace. These essays are different in the sense that you are not writing with these wide lenses but you have a much more focused lens. Do you go into those essays differently, both in your travel there, and also in your writing?
No, in the case of those two, not really. I think the more focused the better, and, perhaps, especially for someone like me, who can go all over the place. And this goes back to one of your earlier questions about “Video Night in Kathmandu” and the process. I take lots and lots of notes; and I think the challenge for me is leaving the notes behind and not feeling I have to include everything. And in “Video Night” I did include everything. And taking 200 pages of notes, I always feel I want to inflict every one of those impressions on the reader. And I think part of the process for me of learning how to do it better is seeing that though this may be wonderful stuff, it doesn’t belong. Writing is more about creating story than a storehouse.
But the Potala Palace was really a history piece, and I did that for an architecture book and though the editors did pay me to go to Tibet, when I went on this trip, I came back with a political piece about Lhasa as it was right then. And the piece I did about the Potala, I could have essentially done at my desk in California. So that’s a tricky example to use, because it’s not really a travel piece, but a history piece that served as a way to undertake some journalism. And also an example of the travel writer’s art—or craft—of getting yourself an assignment to go and cover a place and then also writing a much more personal and inward piece about what is really close to your heart.
The LAX piece I really handled exactly the same way as if I were writing about Mongolia or Manila. I just walked and walked and walked and walked for two weeks and took everything in as if it were a foreign country, as really it was. I think there is a bigger comparison or a bigger contrast between the writing I did then, and the writing I do now. Now that I’ve written a little bit more fiction, I think I am incorporating more of the instruments of fiction in my nonfiction, and so the process has become very different. In my most recent book I would just go to a place and settle on one moment and not try to take everything in. In “Sun After Dark” I kept my notes on the far side of the room and tried to write from imagination, from a current of feeling, from a single memory, to see what it would open out onto. And so the writing has much more room for mystery, is open-ended, takes in much more of the subconscious world and as with a lot of fiction, ends not in tidy resolutions, often, but in the shadows.
You’ve written about Tibet quite a bit, and I am wondering whether that is your favorite place to visit or if you have a favorite place to visit.
You’re asking such good and thoughtful questions. Well, usually if somebody asks me, “Where should I go tomorrow?” or “Where is you favorite place?” the first place that actually comes to my mind is Cuba, which I also wrote about quite a bit, though I haven’t been there in a long time. I choose it because it is the most complicated place I have ever been, the happiest, the saddest, the most idealistic, the most cynical, the most confounding. And the more time I spent in Cuba, the deeper were the questions that reverberated inside me, and, to some extent, I found that I never left them behind. And I wrote about that sense of hauntedness in both fiction and nonfiction.
But the second place I always mention is Tibet. And it’s a mysterious connection, but it is the only place where I felt lifted out of myself and lifted out of the world. The book I am writing at the moment is on the Dalai Lama, and at some point I decided that, after 20 years of short pieces and approaches to Tibet, I should try to give my life fully to it for some years.
Beyond that, though, when I began writing I just addressed the place before me. But I think, because by now I’ve done that quite a bit, I’ve exhausted my limited bag of tricks in a way. So now when I travel I try to use each place as a metaphor and as a gateway to something much larger. So, for example, when I am writing about Tibet now, it would be less of Tibet in itself and more of Tibet as a model of exile and of the 21st century conundrum of how to construct a home when you’ve lost your physical home and how to use exile to create a whole new virtual, invisible kind of community, as the Dalai Lama is trying to do. And that’s one thing, in terms of my process, that I notice has changed a lot. In my last book, nearly all the pieces were about places I had been to before, and when you are revisiting a place, really, the theme of the piece becomes memory, and how you’ve changed and how it’s changed. Often the theme becomes illusion. And in each case I am using the place as a way to think about issues that, really, are in myself. When I wrote about Tibet in my last book, for example, it wasn’t really about Tibet, but it was about faith and skepticism, and how much we should believe when we are traveling abroad. And Tibet was just a convenient portal to that.
In an essay you wrote about Ethiopia, you mention a really frightening moment when you are driving through the night and the driver is stopped numerous times by men with guns. They are harassing the driver for money.
Yes, it was very frightening—in Yemen in fact, not Ethiopia.
And I am wondering, you have traveled quite a bit, and that cannot be your only experience with danger and peril. Can you think of other examples where you have been, maybe not in a life-threatening situation, but we all have these moments when we travel of times that are very scary, very frightening, very extraordinary in somewhat negative ways. Can you think of any others?
Well, I think the dirty secret of travel writing is that those most uncomfortable, dangerous moments make for the best material, and on a certain level, if you are a writer, that is what you are looking for, even though if you are a traveler, that is what you are trying to stay away from at the same time. So, I haven’t exactly sought them out, but I have sought out places where bad things are likelier to happen than elsewhere. And I have had a fair number of startling experiences, I suppose, though that was one of the scariest.
But, I remember when I began traveling, there were civil wars in Afghanistan, El Salvador and Lebanon, and in those days Washington D.C. had a higher murder rate than any one of those three places. And I come from Southern California, and I think for many people in the world, the really scary, dangerous place today is Los Angeles, and rightly so. Statistically, it is probably more dangerous than almost anywhere. And I’d always thought that, but I got a small confirmation of it when in the ‘80s I traveled around war zones and I saw the revolution that undermined Marcos in the Philippines. I was in Nicaragua and El Salvador and Cuba and Honduras and many places that on paper were quite dangerous. And nothing ever happened to me. And then I came back to affluent, privileged Santa Barbara and my house burnt down, with me inside it, and I almost died while just writing my book in my parents’s house.
I mean, it’s interesting. I wrote a piece in early 2001 for Conde Nast Traveler because I’d just been traveling in the Middle East. And I was urging all the readers of that magazine to go to Syria and Jordan and saying that, unfortunately, bad things are just as likely to happen to you in New York and Washington as in Syria and Jordan. And that came out in May 2001, and, four months later, unfortunately, the readers of the magazine were much too forcibly reminded of that fact.
I think one of the curious consequences of 9/11 is that it used to be that the rich countries of the world seemed relatively safe and the poor ones relatively dangerous, but I don’t think we can rest on those illusions now. Actually, it may be the rich countries which are more dangerous now. And when you asked about specific events, one thing I remember is being in Atlanta when there was a bomb about 100 yards away, and I was sitting in a room like this at about one in the morning, and suddenly it was as if 10 filing cabinets were falling down on the ceiling. But, again, that was in Atlanta, not Yemen.
You are very adept at noticing trends, global trends, not only in cultures and how they’re exchanged, but also in people, and how they travel. Have you noticed anything in terms of after 9/11 versus pre- 9/11 about how that changed. Either in a westerner’s sense of place and of the other in travel or a foreigner’s sense of the traveler?
Yes, I think the main change has been here in America, among Americans. And I think 9/11, if anything, was a reminder of the importance of getting to know one’s neighbors in the global neighborhood and of traveling. And yet I think most of my neighbors in California regarded it as a call to stay at home, drew exactly the wrong conclusion from it.
In the rest of the world, I don’t see much of a change in perceptions of America except perhaps a hardening of that fundamental disjunction, that I am sure you noticed, which is that most parts of the world are quite skeptical or hostile towards the American government, but those same people love American culture and love nearly every American individual they meet. A few years ago I went around to all the countries then covered by the “Trading With the Enemies Act”—Cuba, China, North Korea, and Vietnam—and I found, for example, in Cuba and Vietnam when people asked me where I came from, and I could have said India or Japan or England, I always said America because those people were more keen to meet Americans than anyone else. And that’s something, of course, you know, but that many people in this country who don’t travel, don’t know. I suppose the only thing I notice is that the gap between America and the rest of the world does seem to be increasing. And I think it’s still the case that 30 percent or fewer of the people here have passports, which seems ever more dangerous. The country that most wants to change the world is also the country that least wants to see or learn about the world. I actually wrote about this on the first anniversary of 9/11, for the Los Angeles Times—remarking that in Bolivia and Tibet and Vietnam and other places I’d been recently, there was less sympathy than before for the U.S., and the paper got a lot of hate mail in response!
In terms of my own travel, every time I go even to Santa Barbara airport everyone is looking anxiously around when they see somebody like me in the departure lounge. But that sort of happened to me even before 9/11. I happen to look like many of the more visible trouble-makers in the world.
Getting off the topic of travel for a little bit, if you could take authorship of a book, which book would you want to take authorship of?
Ah, you’re asking all these questions no one’s ever asked before. Three things come instantly to mind, so we’ll pretend this is a word association test or instantaneous answers are what you need. The first I thought of was “The Quiet American,” which is my private Bible. And I think many a traveler would claim it as one of the better books about exile, about foreign romance and about American involvement, which keeps both an emotional and political story going simultaneously. And then instantly I thought of “Moby Dick” because that’s the most impressive novel I know. And then right after that I thought of “Mason & Dixon” by Thomas Pynchon because that’s the most impressive contemporary novel I’ve encountered in the last few years. But I think the reason I like “Moby Dick” and “Mason & Dixon” is that there is something unfathomable about them, and there is something not quite human about Melville and Pynchon, to the point where I, as a reader, can’t even comprehend that somebody could write those books. So, really, there is no way I could ever write something like that. “The Quiet American,” because it’s small and human, seems more accessible as a possibility.
How about the reverse question. Is there something that you’ve written that you wish you were not the author of?
[Laughs] Well, I think every writer—you, too, I am sure—feels every book is a failure, a very dim approximation of the book one had in mind initially. So, there are quite a few books I have written, and I’ve only written eight, that I would gladly repudiate. Certainly, all of them failed to turn out the way I had hoped and certainly now, with a few years away from them, I can see how I should have done them differently.
Maybe the first one I’d jettison is a novel called “Cuba and the Night”—I threw myself into fiction and only realized at the end of it I didn’t have a clue how to write fiction. And I wrote a book called “The Global Soul,” that was about globalism because I thought that was an important territory to address at that time, and I had had a chance to experience more globalism that some. But that book makes me sea sick and dizzy, and I don’t like reading it, though I felt it had to be written in that very jangled way. But it’s not very user friendly or reader friendly. Often as a writer I find myself thinking that I have to write the kind of book that I’d never want to read.
In addition to travel writing, you write very many essays and reviews of books. I am thinking in “Tropical Classical” you have a couple of really funny essays, one about the visual author and how that’s affected how readers view writers. And another one about blurbs and about the superficiality of blurbs and how blurbs are becoming the book now instead of the actual book. I’m curious to get your thoughts on that and also writing as a business.
I try not to think too much about writing as a business. For me, all the joy comes at the desk and what comes after is a kind of sales tax and is what you have to do to pay admission to this otherwise wonderful career. So I live in rural Japan, and I have never really been on the world wide web, and I live very far from New York, and, from, I suppose, the day-to-day real world details of publishing. But that’s a conscious choice. It was almost a choice between, I won’t say happiness and success, but between being very plugged into that world or being plugged into the real world, and I figured I didn’t have enough energy for both, and I got more satisfaction from the real world. I did, after all, move from a 25th floor office in Rockefeller Center to a Zen temple on a backstreet in Kyoto when I was in my late 20s.
But yeah, in terms of the piece you mentioned, the first one was about authors’ photos. I wrote it in 1991, and in some ways, the presence of the author as opposed to the book, seems to be increasing with each passing year. And I notice there are more and more festivals and more and more book events and more and more commemorations of authors’ personalities and perhaps fewer and fewer people actually reading books. So, as that piece began to suggest, there’s ever more interest in the writer and ever less, it sometimes seems, in writing. And, as a writer myself, on the one hand, it’s a nice thing to be invited around the world to go and just present yourself, and do nothing but give people a face and voice. But it can be dispiriting that the heart of your interest and your attention is to some extent being neglected. And I think the Internet plays a part in that. I saw Susan Sontag interviewed in Los Angeles a few years ago, and she actually brought her own pet interviewer with her. But the museum where she was appearing had its own interviewer. So she was flanked by two rival interviewers, one who was asking her the questions she wanted to hear and the other who was asking the questions the rest of us wanted to hear.
And at some point, one of the questioners asked her “You made a statement once such and such,” you know, “television should be banned” or something, at which the other interviewer rose up, indignant, and said, “You should never ask her that question and you should only be asking about her work.” She, very quickly, rose to that and really spoke passionately in defense of her friend, saying the equivalent of “You want to talk to me about one quote that I gave to a magazine perhaps when I was half-asleep three years ago, and not about this verbal structure, which I have spent eight hours a day for three years trying to get it right.” She more or less said, “Everything we are saying right now is completely unreal. The only thing that is important is the book that I took so much trouble with.” And yet the fact of the matter is that in our modern day more people will remember the conversation or what Susan Sontag looked like than will actually engage with her complex work.
And so, that’s a difficult thing that we’re fighting against, and that’s probably what I was getting at in the beginning when I came in and said, “Well, unfortunately, this is the form of the time, these cameras right here.” Books are coming more and more to seem like means to an end, and not alluring ends in themselves. And I guess blurbs are just a curious, professional in-joke, and every profession has its own in jokes. But I think the piece about the authors’ photos speaks to something deeper that has actually increased exponentially in the 15 years since I wrote it in ways that even I couldn’t have conceived. And I notice more and more novelists taking as their theme celebrity, whether it’s Kazuo Ishiguro or Zadie Smith or Martin Amis. More and more books are about book tours and about being interviewed and photographed, and so the writer is getting flattered by one hand and punched in the stomach with the other.
So, what are you reading right now?
I read Zadie Smith’s book on the plane yesterday. I’m just about to read Alexandra Fuller’s “Scribbling the Cat” on the way back because that just won the very prestigious Ulysses Prize for Reportage in Germany. And, actually, I am never short of books to read. I spent the last month reading the new Salman Rushdie and the new Caryl Philips, both of which I thought were fully up to the high standard of their best. Most of what I read is novels. And I think, like most travel writers that you will meet, I read very little in the way of travel writing because it can be a bit harder to find real substance in our field. So, I tend to take most of my cues, I suppose, from fiction.
My final question is that if you can have one meal, what would you want to eat?
It’s the same question my partner asks me every year on my birthday, and I always give the most disappointing answer possible, which is just a can of corn and some tea. It’s funny, I’m relatively, I suppose, adventurous in my movements, but I’m the least adventurous person in the world when it comes to eating. And my friends refuse to believe it, but it is the sad, horrible truth, that almost everywhere I go, I go to McDonald’s.
I’ve noticed that people aren’t very interested in Japan, but the one part of Japan that almost everyone I know in this country loves is the food. And so quite often, magazines will come to me and say, “You are living in Japan, in this cathedral of wonderful cooking, please will you write something about it for us.” And for both the New York Times and Bon Appetit magazine I wrote about the local convenience store because I live in Japan and I don’t eat sushi and I don’t eat noodles, and I basically go twice a day to the convenience store and get a slab of pizza. And I ascribe it to growing up in England, my taste buds having been obliterated at an early age.
I was actually thinking about this yesterday—the fact that if I have a free evening, I think most of my friends will go and enjoy some really good food and very good wine. I will always go to the nearest movie house or I will take in some cultural goodie. And that is my nutrition and sustenance. Maybe that’s why I became a travel writer. Any food I recommend, you would have to run away from, I think.