Travel writing and Americanness: a Q&A
Late last year, Harvard student Melanie Tortoroli interviewed me for a paper she was writing about travel writing and American identity. Here is our exchange:
Where were you born?
What were your parents’ nationalities?
Both of them are American.
In what place have you spent the majority of your life (or the most time)?
I spent all of my youth in the United States, mostly in Kansas, Oregon, Washington, and California. Since age 26, I’ve spent probably 80% of my time overseas, most of that being in Asia.
What made you make the initial move abroad?
I was 26 and low on money, so I moved to Korea to teach English. I had some friends who were already there, so they arranged the work for me.
Did you originally plan to stay for as long as you did? What has motivated your career as a world “”vagabond”?
I really didn’t know what to expect when I moved overseas, so indeed I did not expect to stay so long. I thought maybe I would stay a year or two, teach and make money, then return to the United States.
My initial motivation for travel was a simple curiosity in the world, combined with the fact that I knew I didn’t want to postpone world-travel until I was old. Eventually, I fell in love with travel, and with the adventure of living overseas. It was easier and cheaper and more rewarding than I had imagined.
What has motivated you to write about your travels?
I was a writer (or at least I considered myself such) before I was much of a traveler, so writing about my travels was an extension of my writing life. Before I started writing about travel, I hadn’t actually read much about travel; I mostly just read general fiction and nonfiction. But I think travel is a very inspiring and educational process, and it lends itself well to narrative. A journey can be a metaphor for so many things in life.
Do you consider yourself an American? What does your nationality mean to you?
I definitely consider myself American. Nationality can be an abstraction of membership in theory, but it’s usually much more culture-based. I am a product of America; I grew up there, and living overseas didn’t change that much. Moreover, I think that Americans who move overseas and presume to be “less American” or more a part of their host culture are fooling themselves. Even those Americans who presume to reject American culture do it in a very American way. Culture is stronger than you think – more visceral than intellectual – and you can’t just will it away when you move overseas.
Describe your writing. Do you consciously set out to touch certain themes, or is writing a natural process with minimal research or perceptions?
Experience, research, my intellectual background/interests, and on-the-road reportage inform my writing. I think it’s unwise and a tad lazy to be too stream-of-consciousness or solipsistic about travel writing. You have to at times keep in mind sense of place, sense of culture, historical perspective, etc. You have to remember that your audience wants to be informed, entertained, drawn into a good story. And I think it’s important for a story to speak to larger themes, even as it relates a specific experience. So yes, there is an intentionality to what I write.
Do you bring elements of yourself into your writing? Are there outside influences on your writing (e.g. publishers)?
Publishers and editors always influence content to a certain extent, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse. And I definitely bring in elements of myself into my writing. It’s important to not be self-indulgent, of course, but personal “voice” is vital. The audience likes it; they like reading an account by someone they think they could know and like and become involved with. In fact, I object to travel stories that presume to be too “objective.” Even if a writer intends to write himself out of a story, he’s still the one responsible for experiencing and researching it. And thus I think weaving in elements of the personal makes the writing more honest, and reminds the audience that this is the perspective of an individual, and not some universal and neutral comment on the experience.
How would you characterize America’s literary scene today?
Vibrant, chaotic, multi-polar; occasionally trend-driven, and given to market whims.
Do you write with an audience in mind? If so, what audience?
I very much write with “the” audience in mind, but I don’t know if I write for “an” audience necessarily. I write with the idea that any demographic might be reading what I write. I like approaching things for a general audience — which is why I try to downplay things like politics, which might pigeonhole me at the expense of reaching a broad audience.
Describe your location right now.
I’m at a farm on the Kansas prairie – lots of grass and rolling hills. Not many trees and not many people.
Has there been a moment – in your writing, in your daily life – that you have felt “American”? Or that you have felt like a foreigner in the city or country that you were/are living in?
I always feel American, and when I’m overseas I always feel like a foreigner as well. I’ve felt at home in places like Cairo and Pusan and Bangkok, but that didn’t make me feel any less foreign or any less American.
Can you pinpoint something “American” about your writing? To what extent do you think the fact that you are an American has impacted your work?
I like to think that my writing is influenced by an American tradition of thinking and writing that goes back to the 19th century. If you read my book, you’ll see a big influence of Walt Whitman in my worldview, and of Henry David Thoreau as well. Mark Twain is another influence and role model. All of these writers had a distinctively American voice and sensibility, and I aspire to the same, even as I travel to far-off places. Even the American literary tradition that is critical of America executes that criticism in a very American way. So I think being American is very much a part of my writing.
Tell me about what has motivated you to travel. Your website bio says that you have no place of permanent residence. Where do you feel most at home? What is about a place that would qualify as a “home,” to you?
At first, I was motivated to travel by my simple fascination with the world, combined with the feeling that if I didn’t travel when I was young, I never would. In time, I came to realize that traveling was an active education, and a way of embracing the world. I travel because it harnesses my passions.
As for home, right now Kansas is the closest thing I have to home, since I grew up here, and I recently got a house and some land here. My family is nearby too, and that is invariably a factor in considerations of home (that’s something I’ve learned from experiencing other cultures, and realizing how central family is to people’s lives worldwide). As a peripatetic person, however, I’m not in Kansas all that much. So Kansas (and by proxy the USA) serves as a psychic home, even if I’m spending most of the year in Asia or Europe or South America.
How has place factored into your writing?
As a travel writer, place is very much a factor in my writing. And that’s good, I think, since travel heightens your sense of place, and allows you to come back and see your own home with a heightened sense of awareness. To try and downplay sense of place in travel writing is possible, but it’s not wise, because it’s so central to what you’re trying to accomplish.
Seeing as how you have traveled around both Europe and Asia, what would you say are the differences in living, as an expatriate or permanent wanderer, in these two continents? How have the differences impacted your writing, if at all?
America is closer culturally to Europe, so Europe feels less foreign to me. Europe is also more industrialized and modern than most of Asia, so it has a lot of the same comforts and efficiencies. Asia is industrializing in many places, of course, but it is doing so in a distinctively Asian way. So Asia is more foreign to me, and as such it’s much more appealing to me as a writer. Cultural differences – things that might seem strange or unusual from my perspective – always fascinate me and make for interesting writing.
Have you surrounded yourself with other Americans? Other American authors? Was this a conscious decision?
I don’t intentionally surround myself with people from any one nationality, and I have friends from all manner of cultures. But usually my closer friends, even on the road, have been Americans. In addition to sharing American culture (which allows us a certain shorthand of communication), Americans in general – or at least the ones you find traveling – tend to be engaged and laid-back and informal. And I like those qualities with all my friends.
I’m in touch with quite a few American authors, most of them travel writers, but because I travel so much I rarely see them in person.
How do you see the connection between your craft – writing – and your society?
This is kind of a general question, but I guess I would say that my writing is both a product of my society, and a part of it. Naturally, my audience is very specific to my subject matter, but I like to think that my writing is part of the counterculture tradition that started with those 19th century writers – writers who asserted that one could pursue a lifestyle outside of the din of work and habit.
To what extent do you think you national identity – as an American, etc. – has influenced your writings? Has it made you want to write?
National identity is more instinctive for me than it is a deliberate pursuit. I don’t set out to write in an American way, necessarily, I just do so as a result of my cultural grounding and influences. At times, being American makes me want to write because my audience is often American, and I like to help interpret the rest of the world for the home audience – usually in a way that is more organic and multifaceted than news coverage, which tends of be crisis-driven (and hence unrepresentative of real life overseas).
What is your opinion of the relationship between literature and the nation? Are there certain trends that you see in American literature that makes it unique? Have you sought to contribute to some element of this cultural literature?
Following on to what I said about Whitman and others, I think there is an optimism and inclusiveness that distinguishes American writing. American writing carries an exuberance about life and creation and the world at large, and I like to think I’m continuing in that tradition.