Showing posts with label travel writing. Show all posts
Showing posts with label travel writing. Show all posts

25 January 2023

Jonathan Raban

Jonathan Raban died last week.  He was eighty – not a bad run.  He didn’t hit my radar until Old Glory, but certainly other people knew who he was already.  He resisted being called a travel writer; like Bruce Chatwin, he was somewhat sui generis, a writer of moods, and weather, sudden storms and inner barometrics.  He wasn’t always the easiest guy to get along with, it’s said, but he gave as good as he got.

Old Glory is about a boat trip down the Mississippi, an homage to Mark Twain and Huck Finn, and it establishes the narrative persona Raban adopts as his continuing cover, skeptical and na├»ve, transparent and concealed, a way of revealing himself, the traveler not so much a catalyst as a blank sheet of paper.  We might be reminded of Twain in Roughing It, as well, neither of them ready to spoil a good story for lack of the facts. 

This bemused self-deprecation is of course a fiction, or a convenience, it wears out its welcome – it’s maybe a Brit thing, too, that affectation – and Raban discards it, later on.  By the time of Passage to Juneau, eighteen years on, the voice is no longer passive, and it’s fairly caustic, a burden of greater self-awareness.  Juneau is about transition, voyage as metaphor, and ends in personal loss.  Raban puts irony aside, and steps out of hiding, from behind the literary device, and a safer distance.  It’s unnerving, a closer intimacy than perhaps we bargained for, accustomed to chilly remove. 

Somewhere in the middle, he wrote the novel Foreign Land and a memoir, Coasting, which are back-to-back, and hold a mirror up to one another.  Both books are about a sailing trip around the coastline of Britain.  Coasting also serves up a savage take-down of Margaret Thatcher and the British national blood-lust over the Falklands.  Foreign Land is more muted and less tethered to any specific politics, and for my money, a good deal more affecting; it has a specific warmth, generous and without grievance. 

He called the lure of the open road (or the open water) a path to “escape, freedom, and solitude.”  He seems to have had a less than joyful childhood, and his taking leave of things is a constant, one restless eye always tipped toward the horizon.  I wish him, at the end, safe harbor. 

18 June 2014

Writing the Travel Writer

Special treat today. Jeff Soloway is the winner of this year's Robert L. Fish Award, given by the Mystery Writers of America to the best first mystery short story by an American author.  Since "The Wentworth Letter" appeared in an e-book, he thinks he may be the first person to win an MWA writing award without appearing in print.   He used to be a writer of travel guides and is now a book editor in New York. —Robert Lopresti

by Jeff Soloway

Last year, Robert Lopresti and I both had stories published in an ebook collection called Malfeasance Occasional: Girl Trouble. Rob liked my story (and I liked his!), and when he heard that my first novel was being published by Alibi, Random House’s new digital imprint for crime fiction, he asked me to write about my experience. So here goes.

The Travel Writer is about a travel-guidebook author and freelancer who accepts a free trip to a swanky hotel in Bolivia, ostensibly to provide a glowing review of the hotel but really to investigate the disappearance of an American journalist. When I sent the manuscript to an editor at an independent publishing house, she told me that though the writing was great, no one was interested in mysteries that take place in South America. I was advised to stick to the U.S., or—if I absolutely had to get all exotic—England or Italy.

Luckily for me, Alibi’s editors took a broader view of the tastes of the mystery-reading public. Soon after I sent the manuscript in to Alibi (just by email to the address on the website—I had no connection to any of the editors and still don’t have an agent), the editor told me he liked both the novel and the concept of a travel-writer detective.  He asked for synopses of two sequels so he could pitch the idea of a new series. I assured him that I had a number of great ideas, and then spent the weekend holed up in my bedroom trying to think up some great ideas.

Nothing in publishing ever works as quickly as you want it to, so it was several months later that I finally got the good news: Alibi wanted to sign me for three books. I was told that all of Alibi’s books would be priced very low—the idea was that these digital originals would recapture that market that used to be served by the little mass-market paperbacks that were once ubiquitous in drug stores and supermarkets. I was given the choice between a traditional publishing deal that provides a small advance against the usual royalty for ebooks, or a less traditional one providing no advance against a much higher royalty rate. I chose the first. Of course, now, after publication, I have to hope that I’ve chosen wrong—that the book sells so well that I curse myself for forsaking the higher rate. But I wanted some sort of financial guarantee.

The editing process was a real surprise to me—remarkably, and admirably, traditional. My editor, Dana Edwin Isaacson, printed out the manuscript, marked it up by hand, scanned the pages, and emailed them to me. He had suggestions both minor and major, and did a nice job of sweetening them with compliments along the way. After a month or so at the hard labor of revising, I resubmitted the manuscript. Dana said he loved it. His love, however, did not prevent him from emailing several dozen more pages with additional edits.

After Dana was done with it, the manuscript went to Random House’s production department, where it was exhaustively copyedited. The copyeditor checked my character’s wanderings against a map of La Paz, Bolivia and even queried the political graffiti I quoted, among many other things. I appreciated the back-stopping, though I did occasionally assert my privilege as a novelist to make things up.

Several months after the copyediting I received another small set of editor’s queries, clearly from a proofreader. I didn’t even know they had proofreading (as opposed to one round of copyediting) for digital books.

 Now the novel is finally out. It’s priced at $2.99, which means it’s cheap enough at least to tempt a lot of readers but also that it has to sell a lot of copies to make anybody any money. Will it? The publicity people at Random House are working hard to get the word out. They sent the novel to the mystery author Christopher Fowler and received a terrific blurb in return, and they’ve launched an online marketing campaign. And of course, I personally think the novel is pretty good. The main character brings an original perspective to the traditional mystery, and the writing is funny—I hope. All I know for sure is that I wrote the thing as well as I could.

08 May 2014

Other Places

by Eve Fisher

In a shameless attempt to win a vacation, I filled out a survey the other day about past vacations.  It asked - among an endless list of things - for a memorable sight, restaurant, etc., from various cities that my husband and I have been lucky enough to seen.  And I decided to share some of them with you.

Herodion Roof-top Bar
Athens, Greece.  We were given a tip by a cousin to stay at the Herodion Hotel in Athens (  If you ever go, stay there.  Well-run, surprisingly quiet, and three wonderful advantages:
(1)  It's right around the corner from the Acropolis Museum.
(2)  It has a rooftop restaurant with a view to die for.
(3)  Every room (or at least ours did) has a balcony from which you can see the Acropolis. At night, with the Parthenon lit up, an appropriate beverage, the warm air...  you never want to go back inside...
Movie Tip:  (none of these are specifically in Athens, but...)  Mediterraneo; Zorba the Greek; A Touch of Spice
Mystery Tip:  Anne Zouroudi's Hermes Diaktoros mysteries; also quite a few Mary Stewart's (old, but well-written)

Florence, Italy.  We went there on a guided tour, and I'm not giving names because I don't want to get sued. We were NOT happy, because they ran our feet off, didn't listen to any suggestions (like can we stop to get a bottle of water or use the toilet), and basically didn't know as much as we did about Italian art.  Sigh. Anyway, of course they took us to see Michaelangelo's David, giving us a full hour or so to appreciate the masterpiece.  I was satisfied in about 10 minutes (so I'm a Philistine), and I went wandering around the rest of the museum (Galleria dell'Accademia), and right around the corner was a wonderful room that was full of discarded Madonna altarpieces:

I mean, all four walls were covered in these, stacked seven high, heavy beaten gold, with blue-robed Madonnas with heavy-lidded eyes...  And yes, discarded altarpieces - because in Italy, as the Renaissance came in, you wanted something a lot more modern than these hypnotic, incense-laden half-domes of gold...
Movie Tip:  "Obsession"; "A Room with a View"
Mystery Tip:  Giulio Leoni - The Mosaic Crimes starring Dante Alighieri as sleuth

File:Amsterdam canals in summer.JPGAmsterdam, the Netherlands.  Besides canals, bicycles, the Rembrandthuis, the Van Gogh Museum, the Rijksmuseum, etc., there is also my favorite activity in any foreign city, eating.  I always try to find an obscure one where locals eat, and one night in Amsterdam we lucked out:  a restaurant which was chockful of elderly patrons, eating and talking.  We sat next to a table of eight little old ladies who were gossiping over their wine and lamb with huge whoops of laughter.  I don't remember where it was - but we loved it.  The lamb was very good, too.
Movie Tip:  "The Girl with the Pearl Earring"
Mystery Tip:  Jansillem van de Wetering, the Henk Grijpstra and Rinus de Gier mysteries.

Venice.  I fell for Venice the way a teenaged girl falls for that sexy older man who everyone knows is wrong for her.  Including her.  But it doesn't matter:  the look, the voice, the touch, everything is intoxicating.  I still feel that way. Riding the vaporettos to Murano and Burano, not to mention San Michele (I like old cemeteries); eating spaghetti a vongole and minestrone every chance I got; chamomile tea on a rainy afternoon, overlooking the canals; the smell of the place, the feel of the place, the light, oh, the light...  Give me half a chance, and I'm going back there, and staying as long as my pension will allow.

File:Canal Grande Chiesa della Salute e Dogana dal ponte dell Accademia.jpg

Movie Tip:  "Don't Look Now".  (We actually stayed in the hotel that part of this movie was set in.)
Mystery Tip:  "Don't Look Now" (du Maurier), and, of course, Donna Leon's Guido Brunetti mysteries.

Well, there's a start.  Now, if only that survey will send me back to one of these places...

26 February 2014

The Dying of the Light

by David Edgerley Gates

I was put in mind of this by a photograph my pal Jack Hrusoff posted on FaceBook. I took it to be Alaska, but it turns out to be Patagonia. The ends of the earth are all too familiar. I asked Jack if he'd read the Bruce Chatwin book, which it turns out he had, at which point my thoughts went South, so to speak.

Chatwin doesn't fit into any easy category, as a writer. He was a traveler, and IN PATAGONIA and THE SONGLINES are travel books, of a sort, but more in the tradition of an eccentric like Robert Byron, and Chatwin himself was a big fan of Patrick Leigh Fermor. THE VICEROY OF OUIDAH is more curious, still, because it's a novel, more or less, but in fact a kind of masquerade. It's about the slave trade in West Africa in the early 19th century, and a very thinly disguised retelling of the life of Felix de Sousa, a Brazilian trafficker in Dahomey, whose career was colorful enough without making any of it up. This was an issue that dogged Chatwin, that he didn't spoil a good story for lack of the facts, and his accounts of both Patagonia and the Australian aborigines were later disputed. That might explain why he chose to call THE VICEROY fiction, so he didn't have to defend his inventions, but it falls between two stools, and ends up feeling incomplete. It's the least satisfying of his books.

Chatwin wasn't above inventing himself, for that matter. He died of AIDS, when he was 48, but he concealed the fact of his illness, and told conflicting stories about it. One could imagine AIDS was simply too generic. He said, for instance, that he'd contracted some weird fungal infection in the wilds of Africa, unknown to modern medicine, or that he was bitten by a Chinese bat.

The sadder aspect of this, aside from self-denial, is that Chatwin was taken over the coals, in some quarters, for not admitting what had actually sickened him. Rock Hudson, when he was dying of AIDS, went public, and used it as a platform, to educate people. This was honorable, and took a lot of balls, on Hudson's part, but why should anybody demand Chatwin turn himself into a poster boy? He was unresponsive to treatment, and suffering from dementia, for openers. It can't have been easy.

The larger point is that we deserve some privacy, at the end of our lives. Dying is a lonely enough
business as it is. Oscar Wilde once remarked, "biography lends death a new terror." Me personally, I can forgive Chatwin his embroideries and evasions. His life was purpose enough, and I don't think he had any obligation to provide an example. The real question is whether we've left something that will live after us.

27 November 2013


by David Edgerley Gates
There was a Golden Age of travel writing between the world wars, Robert Byron, Freya Stark, and Peter Fleming, among others. (Fleming wrote three terrific books in the 1930's, BRAZILIAN JOURNEY, ONE'S COMPANY, and NEWS FROM TARTARY.)

Given their daring and dash, maybe it's
presumptuous to suggest that the guy who should be given top billing is the astonishing Patrick Leigh Fermor. He may be best known for his WWII adventures with the Special Operations Executive, a Brit spook outfit: he worked with the resistance in Crete for two years, during the German occupation.

Late in 1933, when he was eighteen, he set out on a tramp across Europe, on foot, with a backpack, starting in Holland, and ending up in Constantinople, a year or so later. He kept detailed
journals, but he didn't actually write about it, or publish, at least, until he was well into his sixties. The first book---of three---A TIME OF GIFTS, came out in '77, BETWEEN THE WOODS AND THE WATER appeared in '86, and THE BROKEN ROAD wasn't published until just this year (Paddy Fermor died in 2011, at ninety-six).

The really interesting thing is that although the books were written in recollection, there's no hindsight, no foreshadowing, no historical irony. Fascism was on the rise in '33. Hitler had come to power in Germany, Mussolini in Italy, there was the Iron Guard in Romania, and Fermor takes vivid note of all this, but he maintains his relative innocence. The point of view is not the older man looking back, but the younger man seeking
adventure. He doesn't entirely ignore the events of the years between, but the present intrudes very little. We get Hapsburgs, milkmaids, Gypsies, ostlers and monks, stables, cloisters, minarets, black bread and cheese, with straw for a bed, venison and wine and damask sheets. The sense of an old order fading, at times, or the past manifest and alive, an inhabited reality, in stones, in language and landscape, in gesture, or costume, or habit of mind. Fermor is, above everything else, evocative. Smells, shapes, or sounds. He doesn't simply notice, he inhales.

The best of this generation of writers, Paddy Fermor, or Peter Fleming, convey a sense of 
wonder, not weariness. We know the worlds they describe are lost to us, the Balkan monarchies, the salt-harvesters of the Iraqi marshes, the nomadic 
herdsmen of the steppe, as far removed from our own experience as they themselves were from the Crusades. On the other hand, they give us context and continuity. They may be closer to the Crusades than we are to them---an enormous gap opens in history, in the second half of the 20th century, the mechanics of war and tyranny, mass murder, the atom bomb. Reading somebody like Fermor isn't just a bridge to the past, it's a journey of discovery, to a time, we might say, when our hearts were still open and glad.