TRAVEL ... Rolf POTTS
Interview by TAN MAY LEE
GOOGLE THE INTERNET for travel articles and you’ll find that the best written ones are by Rolf Potts. Potts grew up in Kansas, where he now also owns a ranch. He describes himself as a late bloomer, only seeing the ocean for the first time when he was 15, and not owning a passport until he was 25!
Yet he plucked up the courage to head off, including landing himself a teaching job in South Korea, of which he says, “Korea was such an integral part of not just my travel life, but my life in general. My experience there wasn’t always easy, but it was an essential part of my coming-of-age, and who I became.”
His “big break” in the travel-writing realm was when he became a columnist at Salon.com, and “my second big break was when Bill Bryson picked ‘Storming the Beach’ for The Best American Travel Writing 2000.”
He moved to southern Thailand for a few months to write his travel manual, Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel, which was published to great success, and in 2008, the American publisher, Travelers’ Tales, put twenty of his best travel stories together to make the collection, Marco Polo Didn’t Go There.
If you didn’t become a travel writer, what else could you imagine doing?
Lots of things, actually. I love teaching—I teach a writing class in Paris each summer—and I can imagine myself doing more of it. I can also see myself being comfortable in all kinds of jobs, from working with my hands to being an entrepreneur. But of course I love being a travel writer and I can’t imagine changing my main line of work anytime soon.
Do you think travel writing typically ranges from humorous misadventures to some form of self-realisation that ends with how the traveller is “humbled” by the whole experience?
I think humour is an essential part of travel writing, since travel so naturally lends itself towards humorous situations. Plus, humour is often the best way to deal with cross-cultural misunderstandings. Travel constantly forces you into humbling situations, so it’s good to approach the experience with a keen sense of humour and self-deprecation.
Do you think human beings are meant to be nomadic?
Well, Bruce Chatwin seemed to think so. I don’t know if I could make a similar generalisation. I do think that nomadism is a huge part of our collective human past, and to travel is to get in touch with a very essential part of our human selves.
Would you say Marco Polo Didn’t Go There is similar to a collection of short stories?
I’d say this is a good analogy. Collections of travel stories are very much like collections of short stories, and they are similarly hard to sell. I feel lucky to have been offered the chance to collect my stories in Marco Polo Didn’t Go There. No doubt the strength and success of Vagabonding was a factor in this, since my first book has such a broad audience. Hopefully my future travel books will find a similarly broad audience, so I can do another travel-story collection in another ten years.
What is it about travel literature that moves you more than, say, lad lit? You seem to know a lot about fiction as well; will you ever write fiction?
I like travel literature because—when it is done well—it is outward-looking. So much other writing, from fiction to confessional memoir, can feel confined and self-obsessed, whereas travel writing endeavours to embrace cross-cultural situations. As for fiction, I’m definitely interested in writing fiction—but if I do it will probably have a similar sensibility to my travel writing, in that it will be about international and cross-cultural situations.
Reproduced from the July-September 2010 issue of Quill magazine