Travel has always inspired writing, and the two share a symbiotic relationship. There is something about being away from home which inspires a mania for recording events and impressions. Perhaps it’s the knowledge that this is, in all likelihood, a fleeting moment of our lives never to be experienced again, and so we seek to grab a hold of it somehow. Most typically, our recording takes the form of photography. Growing up in the 1970s, I always enjoyed the slide nights when people would showcase their journeys to exotic destinations like Bali, Fiji and Disneyland. I never wanted the carousel to end, though I noticed some of the older folks quietly slipping out of the room.
For those of us inclined to write, travel can inspire us to purchase a pile of Moleskines and spend our days in foreign cafés recording our experiences almost as soon as they’ve occurred. When we are away in a new country, particularly when we are alone, it is easier to develop an eye for quirk and detail which is so much a part of what makes travel writing so very interesting. Freed from the familiar, we are suddenly alert to life’s wonderful strangeness, and also to the incredible similarities between people, no matter how separated by geography, race and culture.
It is this eye for awareness that the travel writer must develop. Of course, stories are always around us, but when we are fully immersed in the daily dramas of career and family obligations we forget just how interesting the stories of the people around us are. But the moment I step off a plane and find myself somewhere – anywhere – else, I am suddenly interested in the lives of everyone around me. And I want to record their stories.
The things we notice, record and comment upon go into creating “voice,” which is the thing publishers and editors always want. People never notice the same things. Just spend a holiday with a partner or a good friend and you will realise this. Those things you find remarkable say so much about you too, and your freakish selection of noteworthy characters, places and events is what marks your authorial voice. You always betray more about your personality than you might think when you write about others.
To write travel in the twenty-first century, I think it is essential that you also have a sympathetic voice. Travel writing has traditionally been a litany of complaints and a re-telling of hazardous moments in the journey. But as more and more of us travel to far-flung destinations we become more interested in the people and cultures we encounter, and less interested in the zany exploits of the adventure traveller. The reader wants a considered look at the culture they are interested in. There is not much room, I’m afraid, for snarkiness and whingeing. The people who are buying your book or reading your article want to go to the places you describe, or they are in love with them. They don’t want to read you griping about them. This is the mistake so many make when they begin to write about travel. When I wrote Destination Saigon, my publisher told me that they had had several manuscripts submitted about Vietnam, but they all affected a world-weary tone of patient sophistication that alienated the reader. I think you need to love the place you are writing about, or at least be engaged deeply and seriously at some level. I call my books “love letters” to the countries I am writing about.
I have always read travel books, and from a very young age I dreamed of being a professional traveller. I adore the work of Pico Iyer, who has recently turned inward and written about meditation, but otherwise writes a lot about travel. Iyer’s book Global Soul was a revelation to me when I first read it as a young man, a manifesto for the new global citizen, and I read it again and again, as though it were describing me. I have also been transported by Andrew X. Pham’s Catfish and Mandala, a brutally honest travel memoir in which an American Vietnamese man “goes home” to Vietnam and discovers that he doesn’t really belong there. It is a haunting, ego-less book which can be painful to read but which is, I think, a masterpiece.
But perhaps my favourite travel book is one from another age altogether. Gontran de Poncins’s From a Chinese City describes the adventures of a French count living in the middle of Saigon’s Chinatown, Cholon, in the mid-1950s. For all of its politically incorrect failings it is a completely charming book, and shows just how fascinating full immersion in a place can be for the reader. He lives in a cheap hotel, drinks local cordials and even, briefly, attempts to engage a wife for the duration of his stay. The writing is glamorous, romantic and completely sympathetic to the place and the people it describes. De Poncin was in love with his subject, and every time I read this book I wish I could write like him.
The travel memoir market is a tough one, and in this brutal publishing atmosphere it becomes harder and harder to sell such a project. For writers keen to try their chances I would recommend the following:
– Choose a popular destination: interestingly, there is very little travel memoir about the really popular destinations such as Bali or Phuket, and I think there is room in the market for books about them.
– Have a strong concept or point of difference: travel for a reason and have some obvious themes. I always tell people to take their hobbies on holidays with them. This also helps you to find a way into the place much more quickly. Go in hot pursuit of chrysanthemum cultivators, kick boxers or quilters. Make them the stars of your book, and incorporate your own passion and knowledge.
– Be really careful of misery and self-pity: these are the things we naturally record in our journals, and they seem incredibly interesting to us. Less so to the reader. Of course there is room to record your scrapes, fights and frustrations. But just go easy.
– Plan your adventures. Before I travel, I submit a chapter plan to my publisher and this keeps me out on the field looking for stories and adventures. Of course you need to be flexible in your movements, but when we are away we can be tempted to waste our time. Plot out the places you will see and the things you will do and check that list every day. Your time is limited, and the sooner you do the essential things the better. This will allow you the time and freedom then to pursue your own quirky side-journeys and relationships.
Walter Mason is a writer, blogger and creative writing teacher. He has been visiting Vietnam for twenty years and studied the Vietnamese language at the Ho Chi Minh Social Sciences University in Ho Chi Minh City. He has studied and written about Vietnamese Buddhism and religion extensively. His first book, Destination Saigon, was named one of the ten best travel books of 2010 by the Sydney Morning Herald. Walter’s latest book, Destination Cambodia, was released in 2013. He lives in Cabramatta, Sydney. Information about his upcoming tour is here: http://www.heritagedestinations.com.au/tour/vietnam-four-cities-journey-2/