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A Sense of Place by Michael Shapiro

A Sense of Place: Great Travel Writers Talk
Go to to order.

Want to find out how some of the most successful travel writers in the world work, travel, and think? A Sense of Place sets out to make it happen, in interviews with household names and less famous talents from the world of travel writing. Many of them go out of their way to call themselves anything but a “travel writer,” which probably stems from the selection of who is featured. All are book authors (who write almost as much fiction as non-fiction, collectively) and only a handful have recently written for travel magazines or newspapers.

With a title like A Sense of Place, Shapiro couldn’t just phone these interviews in. Though the predictably cranky Paul Theroux answers his questions via email, for the others Shapiro logged some serious frequent flyer miles visiting authors in their homes or where they sit down to write each day. He talks to Redmond O’Hanlon and Sarah Wheeler in England, Tom Miller in Arizona, Jan Morris in Wales, Frances Mayes in Italy, Peter Mathiessen on Long Island, Tim Cahill in Montana, and other dots on each side of the Atlantic. (Until I read this book, I never considered what a lock—some would say a duopoly—citizens from the U.S. and the U.K. have on the travel narrative genre.)

By its nature, a book like this is going to be a bit uneven. Some writers are obviously better on paper than they are in interviews. Others have the amazing ability to distill bits of wisdom into effortless answers, cranking out the kind of quotes they are always striving to get from the people they meet in their travels. Arthur Frommer’s years as a radio host are evident in the crispness of his responses. When describing his stays at the top luxury hotels around the world, he says, “I regard them as one more crushing bore after the next.” When Pico Iyer lays out the reasons why British boarding school is great training for being a travel writer, he makes the argument as skillfully as a debate team captain. When Rick Steves, the level-headed guidebook publisher and PBS Television host talks about how people should ideally travel, he comes across as, well, a level-headed guy who would make a good TV host.

With the exception of Backpacker Nation founder Brad Newsham, these authors have all reached a point where they are making a comfortable living from their writing. It is gratifying to see almost all of them express pleasure and some kind of thanks for reaching this point, with perhaps a bit of “pinch me” edge to it all. Bill Bryson states, “All I ever wanted to do was to be able to pay the bills through writing. I have no greater wish than that.”

None of them have taken it for granted enough to slack off, however, even when, in the case of Jan Morris, hitting the age of 80. “I have a great life,” comments Sara Wheeler, “but it is hard work.” We find, through the interview with Simon Winchester, that some writers work 12-hour days too, starting at 6 a.m., but at least in an interesting home office instead of a soulless cubicle.

By getting a feel for where they write, we get an intimate glimpse of how these authors put the words together when the trip is over. We find that Redmond O’Hanlon’s study is filled with bizarre bugs and creatures preserved in jars. We learn that Peter Mathiessen’s office is a memento-packed building 60 yards from his house, with a Zen meditation studio further down the path. When it turns to writing and their lives, however, it’s never about such amateur concerns as writer’s block or a lack of ideas. The struggles they face are ones most any of us face: the struggle to balance work and family, the challenge of balancing home and away time, and the frustration of not having enough time to read all the great books out there.

Many of the writers are eager to talk politics, which could put off those on the far right. Like most people who have seen how the rest of the world lives, they are overwhelmingly sensitive, open-minded, and liberal. A few also bemoan the state of modern publishing. Simon Winchester, once the Asia-Pacific editor for Condé Nast Traveler, talks about how he seldom writes for magazines anymore because they mostly want to cover the boring places that are easy to get to (and are more likely to pull in ad dollars). Rick Steves and Arthur Frommer, two men who founded guidebook empires, fret about the sorry state of guidebook writing today—the by-the-numbers approach and lack of personality.

In the end, not a lot of the book is about the mechanics of getting things published and building up a track record, though Shapiro does his best to draw out advice for new writers. Sarah Wheeler says about aspiring travel writers, “I’m often shocked at how little people read. You’ve got to read all the time.” Jeff Greenwald adds that they should “take the craft of writing as seriously as they would take learning how to play the oboe.” Tom Miller asks, “What makes your travel so different than anyone else’s? People don’t want to read for the tenth time about Antigua unless there’s something startlingly new.”

Bill Bryson offers a reality check and bats back the myth that it’s nearly impossible to find success as a travel writer. “All the time I get letters from people asking, ‘what’s the secret?’ like there's some incantation. The secret is you just pound a path to the top of the mountain. You don’t just sort of levitate your way up.”

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