Don George: The Art of Travel Writing
Travel Interviews: Jim Benning asks the author of Lonely Planet's new guide to travel writing about the pleasures and challenges of the work, and the legacy of Salon.com's Wanderlust
03.22.05 | 8:59 PM ET
When Lonely Planet founder Tony Wheeler hired Don George to be his global travel editor four years ago, one of the first things Wheeler said to him was, “You’re the perfect person to do the travel writing book we’ve been thinking about.” Replied George, “That sounds good to me.” Last week, Lonely Planet’s Guide to Travel Writing finally hit bookstores. Written by George—with contributions from Charlotte Hindle, David Else and Janet Austin—the book includes interviews with writers and editors, story samples and instruction on crafting and selling travel stories. It’s a welcome addition.
Few instructional books on travel writing available today have much to offer serious writers and readers, especially those interested in the literary possibilities of travel writing. This one does, thanks largely to George’s wealth of experience. Not only has he written hundreds of travel stories, but he spent years as the travel editor of the San Francisco Chronicle and Examiner, and he created Wanderlust, Salon.com’s groundbreaking travel section. The book’s publication seemed as good an excuse as any to talk to George about travel writing, so I called him at a Miami hotel, where he had just arrived for a travel expo. His flight had been rerouted, and he had been marooned on the tarmac for more than an hour, but George was displaying the relentless good cheer he’s known for in publishing circles. As soon as he recounted the ordeal, he laughed it off as just another adventure: “That’s what travel is all about, right?”
World Hum: Congratulations on the book. How did it come about?
The impetus for the book at Lonely Planet came about when they did a book called “Lonely Planet Travel Photography.” It was a big success. That made people think, maybe we can branch out a little. What would be the next book? Somebody said “travel writing.” I guess the idea had been kicking around Lonely Planet for about half a year when I joined.
What is it about travel writing that attracts so many people?
People love to share their travels with loved ones. The next logical step is, maybe I can make some money at this. When you find out that there are people who make a living as travel writers you think, oh my gosh, how nice a dream job is that? And then of course, if you try to make a living as a travel writer, you learn the harsh reality of it all.
(Laughing). Your dreams are soon crushed.
Yes. (Chuckling.) Or at least reality hits with a bit of a thud.
You did take pains in the book to explain just how difficult it is to make a living as a travel writer. I was happy to see that.
Yeah, I thought that was incredibly important. I think it does a disservice to people to lead them to believe that everybody is making a living as a travel writer, or that it’s easy. Some of the earlier travel writing books erred in that regard, I think. They painted a fairly rosy picture of it. I knew that to be responsible to all my travel editor friends and colleagues and all the wannabe travel writers out there, I had to paint a very accurate picture of what it’s like. I hope the message that shines through is that you don’t have to make a living as a travel writer to enjoy writing about your travels, and that you can be a better traveler, at any level of professional or amateur travel writing, by adopting the travel writer’s mindset. You’ll be a better, more sensitive, more attuned, richer traveler. That’s a huge gift, even if you never get published.
That does comes through.
Good. I wanted people to realize that being a professional travel writer isn’t necessarily the end, it isn’t necessarily the goal. There’s really only a handful of people in the whole world who make a living purely from travel writing. So why even set that up as a goal for yourself? If it somehow happens, that would be quite wonderful, but why not think about how to integrate what you love, if you love to travel and write, with other things in your life?
It reminds me of something Pico Iyer said in your interview with him in the book. He paraphrased a remark by Milan Kundera: The writer’s job is to help the reader see the world as a question. I love that.
That’s really great. Pico is so full of wisdom. My original plan was to use snippets of interviews. But his was the first that came back and it was so wonderful I thought, I can’t cut a word of this. The other people also wound up giving us wonderful interviews.
What do you think about the state of travel writing today? Is it easier to write and publish travel stories now than it was 20 or 30 years ago?
It’s a complicated situation. On the one hand, in traditional media like newspapers and magazines, I think the competition is probably more intense than it was 20 years ago. There are fewer slots, fewer pages, and more people competing for those slots. So in that sense it’s harder. But on the other hand, the Internet has opened up travel writing tremendously in terms of self publishing. Anyone can create a Web site or a blog or just an online repository for their travel articles. Even if it’s not the same context as a Conde Nast Traveler magazine, if you have a personal travel Web site, some people are accessing it. And with the explosive growth of Web sites that link to other sites, people find their way to all sorts of individual sites. That’s really fantastic.
Unfortunately, though, most of the money to be made is still in print.
Yes, as we both know all too well. (Laughs.) Wanderlust, which was paying people money for their writing, didn’t make it. And at great sites like World Hum, people aren’t pouring money into your coffers so you can pay writers a whole lot of money.
Tell me about it.
So, financially, the money is still in print, basically. If you want to make a living as a travel writer, you’ve got to make it in print.
Going back to something you said a moment ago, it’s interesting that there are fewer slots for travel stories in newspapers now than there were 20 years ago. I didn’t realize that. It seems counterintuitive, because the travel industry has only grown.
It’s true, and it is a bit of a puzzle. When I was the travel editor at the Examiner and Chronicle, we routinely had a 30- or even 42-page section. So I had maybe eight or 10 stories every Sunday. And now, it’s about half that size, and that’s pretty much true across the board for Sunday travel sections. The pool of advertising dollars that used to be there for newspapers is probably the same or less than it was before. Newspapers don’t have the singular stature they once did. In the Bay area, every single big travel company would take out huge ads in the Sunday travel section, because that was the place readers went for information. Now there’s the Internet, cable shows, so many more outlets. So the size has been cut down a lot. There are a lot of budgetary pressures on travel editors now. Travel magazines are maybe on par with where they were a few years ago. But certainly in the newspaper realm, where a lot of beginning writers broke in, it’s a lot harder. Which is not to say the editors aren’t looking for new writers. They are, and part of the joy of being an editor is discovering new talent. But there’s just not as much flexibility or space or financial resources there.
In the book, you write about travel publishing markets in the U.S., the U.K. and Australia. Where do you think travel writing is most popular these days?
The U.K. is where it has the most mainstream popularity. There’s a long established tradition of travel writing in the U.K. going back to Chaucer. And because the U.K. is so close to continental Europe, travel has been part of peoples’ lives in a way that it isn’t in the United States or Australia, even though Australians are great travelers. So I think that travel is just more a part of the culture. We find our travel literature books sell best in the U.K.
What will it take for travel writing to achieve more popularity in the U.S.?
It will take a huge shift in the American sensibility, probably. We really need to put on the global citizen hat and think more about getting over the oceans—literal and metaphorical—around us. We need to realize that travel is a fundamental part of what we as human beings do and that we can really broaden and stretch ourselves by doing it. When travel in that broadening and stretching sense becomes more mainstream, people will naturally turn more to great writers who are writing about their own experiences of that. I think it’s going to take a slow movement. It seems like it’s starting to happen. Travel literature is probably selling better in the U.S. than it has in the past. But it’s a slow journey. So much of American culture does not point toward the value and importance of getting outside of your own box. So much of it is centered on the United States as a self-sufficient entity in the world. We’re inculcated with the notion that we can go it alone and do it ourselves, and that really goes against learning about other cultures and the kind of vulnerability you experience when you travel. We need to grow and evolve as a country, I think.
Here here. It’s been almost four years since 9/11 turned so many aspects of American life upside down. Looking back, what kind of an effect do you think it has had on travel writing?
In some ways it made us all reevaluate our roles as travelers and travel writers and as travel editors. I’ve always felt that everyday travelers were the best ambassadors, and I feel that more strongly than ever now. And I think that travel writers have this really burning obligation to educate people about the larger world, and that was thrown into even greater relief in the aftermath of 9/11. And I think travel editors feel that, too. Stories that bring the planet closer together and embody some sort of human understanding are very important. There’s a place for the five-star hotels of the Riviera story, but I do think that more people feel that travel isn’t just about pleasure and enjoyment. It’s about something much deeper and more important than that. It’s about human connection and intercultural bridging and learning about the world so that hopefully one day 9/11 will be inconceivable because we’ll think, we know those people. How could we bomb them or how could they bomb us? They were at our house for dinner. If we ever reach that point, that will be a huge planetary evolution. It’s going to be a long time coming, but that’s how I really see the role of travel in the world. So I think that 9/11 underscored that whole sense of travel writers’ and travel editors’ responsibility.
It seems to me that a lot of travel editors personally would agree with you, but because of market forces or advertising pressure, they can’t publish as many stories about the Middle East or other areas as they might like because they think their readers won’t go there.
I think so, too. The travel editor always walks this really fine line between leading the reader and catering to the reader. And leading the publisher and catering to the publisher. Everybody does it in a particular way and some people take more risks than others. Some people have audiences that allow them to take more risks. It’s a very complicated equation for every travel editor. You know that in the best of all circumstances they would be constantly educating people about places like the Middle East. But that doesn’t realistically make business sense, so they do what they can.
That reminds me that in the new book, you note that when Paul Theroux was working on his last book, “Dark Star Safari,” he tried to interest magazine editors in stories about Africa before he left for the continent but couldn’t get any takers. That blew me away.
I know! He told me that when I interviewed him a while back. Every single magazine he approached said, “Get in touch with us after you’ve been there and let us know what kind of story you might like to write.” But nobody wanted to give him an assignment before he left. If I had the money I’d say, “Here’s the money, Paul. Go.” I think editors aren’t interested in Africa stories. It’s so far off the tourist map that there’s just not a whole lot of interest. Conde Nast Traveler, Travel + Leisure, they’re not going to run pieces because it’s not a place people want to go. Even if Paul Theroux wants to write about it.
Well, if Paul Theroux is getting rejected, that should give a lot of struggling travel writers hope.
Exactly. (Chuckles.) It gives us all hope, in a curious way.
Shifting gears a bit, if you could assign all aspiring travel writers several books to read, what might they be?
What a wonderful question. The single book I always talk about as my favorite travel book of all time is “The Snow Leopard” by Peter Matthiessen. I think everybody should read that because it does so many different things so well. It’s a pure travelogue that brings his adventures to vivid life. It’s a wonderful, learned meditation on Buddhism and the role of Buddhism in his life. And then it’s this incredibly searing, moving personal portrait of his doubts and challenges and what he’s going through. And all of those themes are seamlessly woven together. I just think that’s a master textbook. Other people I always point to are John McPhee. I really love “Coming into the Country.” I think it’s a terrific piece of journalistic travel literature. Anything by Jan Morris is brilliant. Tim Cahill. I always learn something from him, some new appreciation of both the planet and the writer’s craft. Bruce Chatwin’s “In Patagonia” is a really interesting book that makes you rethink what travel writing can be. And Paul Theroux. “The Great Railway Bazaar” is just a brilliant full-of-life book.
In your book’s short history of travel writing, you trace the modern first-person travel narrative back to “The Great Railway Bazaar,” published in 1975. What was it about that book that helped launch the genre?
It was an incredibly well written book. Really lively, full of texture and detail and incredible attentiveness to things. At the same time, Theroux had a unique and powerful voice. And it was a huge commercial success, because the writing was so good and there was something very appealing about the whole notion of traveling by train. It was something an American audience could grasp in a way they couldn’t more far flung, middle-of-nowhere tales. Everybody has a train in their life, and there’s usually a positive association with that. Theroux unwittingly—I don’t think he planned it this way—tapped into that. So I think it was a really successful book on all different levels. That liberated a lot of people who had put travel writing into a certain kind of box. That book said that travel writing can be personal, it can be provocative, and it can be popular.
You’ve written and edited a lot of great stories, but you’ve never written a narrative book. Ever thought about it?
I have. It’s been in the back of my mind for a long time now. One of the main hurdles is that, making a living as a travel writer and editor, I’ve never undertaken the kind of long, extended journey that would lend itself most easily to a big travel narrative. The other hurdle is that, as someone who’s been writing a travel column for basically 25 years now, I feel like I’ve mined every inch and cranny of my travel experiences, so in a way I’ve already written about everything. And it’s hard to go back to things I’ve written before with a fresh mindset. So it would almost have to be a new trip, something that I planned specifically to make a book out of. Or it would be some sort of memoir, where I was writing more about what I’ve learned in the past.
So we might see something like that in the future?
I really hope so. When I look at what I’ve done so far and what’s left for me to do, that’s pretty much number one or two on the list.
You mentioned Salon’s Wanderlust section earlier. It’s been about five years since Salon closed that section for budgetary reasons. What amazes me is that the archives have gone on to have a great shelf life. I know a lot of people who read those stories often. What’s your perspective on what you did at Salon? I don’t think the travel publishing world has seen much quite like it.
It was incredibly exhilarating and exciting. Salon was filled in the early days with that sense that we’re breaking new ground here, we’re writing the rules. I was given incredible editorial latitude. And the Internet gave us this immediate global access that nothing I’d ever worked on before had. So on the one hand, I had readers all over the world. But I also had contributors all over the world. People like Rolf Potts came out of nowhere as far as my life was concerned. And Jeffrey Taylor and people who I came to think of as the stable for Wanderlust. At the Examiner and Chronicle, I probably never would have had contact with them and they wouldn’t have read anything I was doing. I don’t know what the legacy of it is except that the archives are inspiring and give you a sense of the potential for that kind of writing. Maybe a lot of great blogs that are being written, and certainly great sites like World Hum, got some kind of inspiration from Wanderlust. That’s certainly a legacy I’m proud of.
Absolutely. We’re still inspired by it.
You ask a lot of writers in your book what they think constitutes good travel writing. What is good travel writing to you?
There’s guidebook writing, which in a very compressed space brings a place to life or really precisely analytically presents some information that takes bloom in readers’ minds and allows them to have a much richer, deeper, more appreciative travel experience. And the other kind is travel literature, which is precisely rendered experience that plumbs the world outside the writer and the world inside the writer and rigorously evokes the most important qualities of both. So readers get an intense sense of an experience and feel they are there with the writer. And at the same time, they also have a sense of how this affected the writer and what lessons it taught the writer. And so on one level, readers feel they’ve been to a new place and had a new experience, and on another level, they feel that this has touched something deep inside them, which they can relate to something else in their life: I’ve never been to Yemen, but that guy’s experience there makes me feel what I felt in Kyoto. I think there’s a sort of three-dimensional picture puzzle that goes on, where you’re connecting emotional themes and geographical themes. Great travel writing fills in pieces of that puzzle in a way the readers never forget.
Is that what attracted you to travel writing?
Yes. When I first realized that I could make a living as a travel writer, one of the things that most appealed to me was that travel writers are in a way the last great generalists. You can write about travel and almost anything that you’re passionate about. It could be art. It could be history. It could be music. It could be cultural anthropology or sociology. You can bring it all to bear on your travel experiences. And in writing about it, you appreciate your own experience more. Somehow it becomes deeper and richer. I just thought, this is great, not only do I get to explore my two main passions, travel and writing, but all the other stuff I care about, too, like art and literature. What a great field.
And now, with this book, you’re helping others to explore those possibilities.
I hope so!
That seems like a good place to finish. Thanks so much.