Seattle-based travel and humor writer panel on "Change in Motion: Extraordinary Travel Writing," at A Room of One's Own Feminist Bookstore at noon Sunday, October 19. In a interview conducted via email, Fox previews his appearance by noting some of his favorite travel writers and books, assesses the value of travel journals and some of his favorite journaling techniques, offers some advice for coping with some of the more worrisome recent trends in the travel industry, and cites some of his own travel ambitions for the coming decade.
The Daily Page: Why Globejotting? Why share all these techniques and risk inducing hundreds of rival travel writers who might eat into your livelihood?
Fox: Ha! Well, Globejotting isn't necessarily a book for professional travel writers. It's a book about travel journaling -- about how to write more exciting diaries on the road. A lot of the people just love to explore and want to document their journeys more richly, so that they keep their memories alive after their trips conclude. That said, well-written travel journals can certainly serve as springboards for more polished, publishable articles and essays, so it's certainly a book aspiring travel writers will benefit from.
I wrote it because I've been teaching travel journaling classes for many years and it's a niche that, to my knowledge, no other writer has covered in this much depth. Students express a couple of common frustrations with their past endeavors: Either their writing fell flat and failed to really capture the spirit of their journeys, or they just didn't get very much recorded, because they were so immersed in the experience. Globejotting tackles both of these challenges, and teaches people how to write about their trips in ways that are meaningful and lasting.
How would you appraise the value of travel journals?
For most of us, our travels are moments very different from our everyday lives, and for that reason, we want to document and remember them. Most people rely on photography to recall their trips. Taking pictures is quick and easy, but journaling is a much more holistic experience. So many things elude a camera -- what we hear, smell, feel; the personalities of the people we meet; the emotions that flood our minds, and so on. So as much as I love to take pictures when I travel, journaling adds many more dimensions.
When, where and how do you prefer to write when you're on the road? And when, where and how do you prefer to write when you're at home?
The trick to writing on the road is to do it fast, whenever and wherever we can find a few spare minutes. Our time to write in the middle of a big trip is limited, so the most effective thing to do is to splash as much detail onto the page as quickly as possible. It won't be our best writing, but it keeps our experiences alive. Then when we get home, we have a framework we can polish into well-crafted essays.
As far as when to write goes, if we wait for the perfect time to write while traveling, that time never comes. I always carry a small notebook with me and scribble down a few thoughts whenever I have a moment -- waiting in lines, waiting for my travel partner to shower, etc. But also, I encourage people to go someplace fun to work on their writing -- a café, a pub, a park, someplace where they are still having cultural experiences happening around them that are more exciting than the walls of their hotel room.
At home, I'm a night person. I like writing late when there are fewer distractions. And I like getting out of my house to write. Professional freelance writing can be very solitary, so during the day I tend to go to a coffeehouse or some other place with people around. When I'm at home, I start taking the "rough drafts" I've written into my travel journals and start polishing them into publishable work, so that's when the rewriting, and re-rewriting, and re-re-re-re-rewriting happen.
Which travel writers do you most admire? Which travel books do you hold in highest regard? And what have you learned from them?
Paul Theroux was my first inspiration. Somebody gave me a tattered copy of The Great Railway Bazaar at a youth hostel in northern Norway one time and I was amazed by his eye for detail. He taught me early on that often, it is the tiny details we barely notice that turn a good story into a great one.
My favorite travel writer these days is J. Maarten Troost. He's got an amazing knack for finding humor in foreign cultures without seeming condescending toward them.
As a humorist, Dave Barry is my biggest inspiration. When I started writing humor professionally a few years ago, I took a very geekish approach to studying his books and understanding how he set up his essays. I think that's a great way for aspiring writers to grow: Choose one author you really like and pick apart his or her style. But be careful. The first time someone compared me to Dave Barry, I felt incredibly flattered. The second time it happened, I realized I needed to stop reading his stuff before I turned into a cubic zirconium Dave Barry.
Which travel writers do you most dislike? Why do they turn you off? And what have they taught you?
Hmmm… I'm reluctant to answer this one too specifically. The more we write, the better we get, and a mediocre writer today might still be evolving toward greatness. What turns me off though is the sort of "us versus them" approach to travel writing that used to be more prevalent several decades ago. If we're writing about a place that is foreign to us, we need to keep in mind that place is not foreign to the people who live there. We are the outsiders, and if something seems "wrong" or "ridiculous," it might just be because we, as outsiders, don't get it.
Besides a journal and pen, what three specific journaling tools do you consider the most indispensable?
Curiosity, motivation, and maybe a beer. But seriously, you don't need anything more than a journal and a pen (or I prefer a pencil -- I like the way they feel on paper) to write a great travel journal.
If you had to give up all but three of the travel journaling techniques you cite in Globejotting, which three would you hold on to?
Speed journaling, a story a day, and verbal snapshots. Speed journaling, like I talked about earlier, is simply writing as much detail into your journal as fast as you can so you have more memory triggers later. Focusing on one specific story, encounter, or event every day captures your most memorable travel moments in more detail (and as a professional writer, these stories later become articles I can publish. Verbal snapshots are a sort of "live reporting" journaling about life around you as it happens. I've got an example of this in Globejotting, in which I started writing in Stanley Park in Vancouver, not really sure what I was going to write about. The next thing I knew, a black squirrel was standing at my feet staring up at me. I ended up writing a fun little essay about the squirrels around me, and how I was having an eerie sort of communication with this one squirrel as we observed each other.
You note the importance of relying on all five senses when composing entries in a travel journal. How would you rank them in terms of evocative power?
It depends on the situation. People tend to focus on their sense of sight, but really, the most important senses vary from moment to moment. A rainbow, an icy stream, or a gooey chocolate dessert each dominate different senses. But I think what's most important is to scan all of our senses before we start writing.
Sometimes our less dominant senses reveal powerful stories. I was walking through a spice market in Istanbul one time, where my senses of smell and sight were the ones I noticed most. But once I began to focus on what I could hear, I noticed a couple of things: The afternoon call to prayer flowing from a mosque in the distance, and Madonna's latest CD blasting from a boombox in one of the market stalls. The juxtaposition of those two sounds became a metaphor for the changing face of Turkey, in which some people are striving to Westernize while others prefer to stick with more conservative, traditional values.
To what or whom do you attribute your enthusiasm for travel?
My parents. They were crazy enough to move to England for a year when I was eight and my brother, Steve, was only four. Living in Britain and exploring many other countries at a young age sparked my obsession for being foreign early in life.
How has travel writing changed across the course of your career?
I'm not sure printed travel writing has changed so much over the last decade or so, but online, blogging has added an exciting new dimension. I can wander down the street in Dubrovnik, or Oslo, or Ho Chi Minh City, and an hour later, people all over the world are reading my observations. And often things I write in my blog turn into published articles later. Some of the later chapters of Getting Lost, my book of travel humor essays, began as hastily typed online blurbs.
What are your three greatest travel ambitions for the next 10 years?
I'm aching to get back to the South Pacific. I worked there a few years ago as a guest lecturer on a cruise ship. We had one-day stops in places like New Caledonia, Fiji, and Samoa, and I found the cultures and the people captivating. I'd like to go back and visit at a slower pace.
On a chillier note, I'd like to see Greenland before it melts into the sea… and Svalbard Island, which lies halfway between the northern tip of Norway and the North Pole.
And… I'd like to get some journaling tours going… where we sightsee as a group part of the time, have some free time to find our own experiences, and also have writing classes and times to share our journals along the way.
Recent trends in the travel industry (such as airline mergers and staycations) suggest the nature of travel may undergo dramatic changes in the near future. Based on your experience, what is your forecast?
Sadly, my forecast is people will travel less. They shouldn't. They should travel more economically. Sleep in hostels. Picnic. If museum entrances cost too much money, remember that wandering a random side street can provide just as rich of a cultural experience.
As far as so-called "staycations" go (I hate the word but love the idea), you can go be foreign for a few hours in your hometown by simply visiting a different neighborhood, a place of worship, an organization or club you don't normally affiliate with, etc. I've got a chapter in Globejotting called "The Joy of Culture Shock," that encourages people to go find a place close to home where they feel a little out of place, hang out there, meet the people who do fit in, and then go home and write about it.
How does travel shape your personal perceptions of home?
The more I travel, the more I feel I have multiple homes. I've lived in four different countries and I have parts of all of them in my personality. Even places I've never lived, but which I return to often as a tour guide, begin to feel like surrogate homes when I'm on the road -- especially if I have friends in those places.
Why do you live where you live?
I moved from Madison to Seattle 14 years ago when I started working for Rick Steves. I still guide tours for Rick, but I quit my office job four years ago to freelance full time, so really, I could live wherever I want. And I'm not wedded to Seattle. I've thought about moving to Portland, Oregon. I've thought about moving to Hong Kong or Ho Chi Minh City. Choosing between those options is a huge decision though. I'm just sort of waiting for the right moment or opportunity to go find a new home, and until then, I'm happy in Seattle.
The theme of this year's Wisconsin Book Festival is "Changing Places." How would you interpret or define that phrase?
What I love is the wide range of interpretations the organizers have given that phrase. It's a brilliant theme and they're having fun with it. In the travel writing talk at A Room of One's Own, I'll be discussing how changing places physically can also mean changing places emotionally, and how culture shock can be a catalyst for self-discovery.
In the sense of changing a place, if you were granted the power to change any one single place, what place would you change -- and how would you change it?
It's not my right as an outsider to change a place. I worry sometimes about the impact of tourism on small towns that get "discovered."
At the same time, tourism is reality. A perfect example is Venice, Italy. People complain sometimes about how St. Mark's Square is full of tourists and has few Venetians. But to stand there in the evening while the musicians are playing -- in this massive square, among thousands of people from dozens of countries… that's exciting to me. We've gathered there from all over the world to have a giant party. It's one spot on the planet where politics don't seem to divide people.
What was the last book you read that you would recommend to friends and neighbors -- and why would you recommend it?
Do Travel Writers Go to Hell? by Thomas Kohnstamm. Kohnstamm caught a lot of flack for his memoir about how he researched for Lonely Planet and had to cut a lot of corners in the process. It made people call into question the credibility of many guidebooks. But while Kohnstamm's actions were dubious at times, he wraps things up with some honest insights into the guidebook-publishing world. And he's got a fun, edgy writing style.