In Conversation With Tim Cahill

Somehow, I’d become convinced that being a writer was what I wanted to do. This was in high school. My unspoken fantasy was that I’d live in a small town and travel to faraway places and write about them like Hemingway or Conrad.
— Tim Cahill

Welcome to the first in the Conversations Series: interviews with diverse writers of all genres about travel, place, home, habitat, and exile. When I thought about creating this series I knew I had to start with one man in particular. Although he needs no introduction, here are the basics: the author of numerous literary adventure travelogues, including Jaguars Ripped my Flesh, Pass the Butterworms, Road Fever, and Hold the Enlightenment, Tim Cahill is without question one of the best travel writers in the world.  He's also one the kindest people you'll ever meet, full of stories and advice paired with humility and a wry sense of humor.


AGA: Let's start off talking about  travel writing and writing in general. Do you see yourself as travel writer, or do you see yourself as simply a writer of places, a memoirist?

TC: I am a writer.  I like to think of myself as a story teller. 

AGA: Was literary travel writing a passion you had from the beginning of your career or was it a genre you eased into?

 TC: I fell into it. 

 AGA: Have you ever written in other genres?

 TC: Yes.  I wrote a mercifully unpublished novel when I was 25.  In those days, I wanted to be a novelist.  At the time I was living in San Francisco and most of my friends were artists or photographers or poets.  One artist —— James Gorman - painted birds.  He said, I cant get these paintings published anywhere without some writing.  I agreed to write about birds so my friend could publish his lithos..                          

Unfortunately, I suffer from ornithological dyslexia.  But I did know turkey vultures.  I used to hike up on Mt. Tam and lie on my back in a clearing and watch the vultures circle above wondering if I was dead enough to eat.  So I researched vultures and wrote a piece about them which I sold to the Sunday magazine of the San Francisco Examiner.  Thats the way I broke into non-fiction: as a vulture writer.

The editor liked my work.  I did several more pieces which all stood out because I knew nothing about journalism.  I had my MFA from San Francisco State and knew about the techniques of fiction.  As it happened, that was the very definition of what was the hot new thing, New Journalism: telling a non-fiction story using the techniques of fiction.  My Sunday magazine stories came to the attention of a small magazine start up in San Francisco called Rolling Stone.  I was hired there and wrote rock and roll, as well as profiles of movie stars and politicians.  I did some investigative work.  I was on the ground in Jonestown a day after that happened.

My first book, Buried Dreams, a national best seller, was about the serial killer John Wayne Gacy.  

So yes, I have worked in a lot of different non-fiction genres.

AGA: What about travel writing do you love? What draws you towards it and keeps you there?

TC: Im good at it.  I think thats because Im curious about other cultures.  Because the field is inexhaustible.  Because I can see stories everywhere.  Because - lets face it - I get paid to travel.  Is there any better job in American journalism?

And I think I have this thing in me that Germans call the school teacher mentality.  When I learn something interesting I have an urge to explain it to other people.  I have to remember to keep that tendency buried in the context of the story.  Otherwise, as some of my best editors have told me, I can get encyclopedic.  

AGA: I'm curious about your childhood. Growing up, what books did you read and how did these affect your desire to become a writer? Did you have heroes or heroines who were writers?

TC: Frankly, I was slow to read.  I think I got the bug about 12 or 13.  From that point on, I read voraciously; one of those kids who read under the cover with a flashlight every night.  Im pretty sure that that is how I developed my lifelong case of large economy sized insomnia.

In those days, I fear my passion was science fiction.  It was interesting because there was pulp science fiction and there were fine literary science fiction writers.  At 13, I was beginning to see the difference.  It was pretty clear.  I also liked H.P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allen Poe. All that dense adjectival prose.  Which stays with me to this day.  I can sometimes feel myself lapsing into purple.

Later, my tastes became more ambitious.  My favorite writers were a mixed bag.  The poet William Blake, Joseph Conrad, Ernest Hemingway. 

And somehow, Id become convinced that being a writer was what I wanted to do.  This was in high school.  My unspoken fantasy was that Id live in a small town and travel to faraway places and write about them like Hemingway and Conrad.  But I never told anyone about that ambition.  I lived in Waukesha, Wisconsin and there was no one there who made a living at a writer.  It seemed to me, as a person who loved to read, that writers must be gods.  And to admit to that ambition would surely be an act of hubris.  I kept that shit to myself.

Now, I have many friends who are writers and am aware that neither they nor I are in any way god-like.

AGA: What about your parents? Did they read? Do recall what they read? Did you come from a writing and reading home?

 TC:  My parents did not read much.  In our house, we had Readers Digest condensed books and Time magazine.  Also the World Book Encyclopedia.

AGA: So much of your writing is about being outdoors, being in nature. As a boy , were you like Huck Finn, always off on adventures? What were your early outside experiences like?

 TC: I wasnt an outdoorsy kid.  I loved sports.  I played high school football and swam.  I was the Wisconsin State high school Champion in freestyle sprints and earned a swimming scholarship to the University of Wisconsin.  That took up a lot of my time.

AGA: Let's talk about how you craft a story. Do you have common themes running through your work?

TC: My early travel/outdoor work was largely concerned with risk.  Skydiving, cave diving, rock climbing, mountaineering, hard core caving, kayaking.  I was interested in how I dealt with fear.  And I observed others in the same situations.  Now, as I look back, I see that a lot of that was a mental flirtation with mortality.  I think that somehow that obsession may have lent a certain élan and even sophistication to stories that otherwise may have been simple a daring do.  And that has been a theme, I guess.  Mortality.

But frankly I dont think in terms of theme.  I just want to tell a story.  I want to make you laugh.  I want to make you cry.  I think story is like a lens that allows us to see the world more clearly.

AGA: One thing that is special to me about your writing is your sentences seem so well crafted, but you don't seem like you're trying too hard. Do you have an example you could give me of a perfect sentence or several perfect sentences?

TC: How about a couple of sentences?  In a lede?

Here goes:

The air was filled with a light snow that didn't precisely fall but seemed to drift aimlessly under a pearly, opalescent sky.  Everything else under that crystal dome was flat, an endless prairie of sea ice, white with the newly fallen snow, and I could see the curve of the earth in far distance of my vision in any direction I cared to look.  That direction was south.

AGA: You are a writer who has a deep relationship with place, especially with the outdoors. What draws you into a landscape?

TC: Let me tell you a story.  It took me three years to write the serial killer book which was sub-titled Inside the Mind of a Serial Killer.  I think I was successful in my goal of putting myself into the sewer to that mans mind.  And it was not psychologically healthy for me.

Meanwhile, every once in a while, Id take a break and do a story for Outside magazine.  It didnt matter if I was in the walking the Congo or diving in Tonga or riding horses in Mongolia: it was an opportunity to scrub my mind clean of the filth I dealt with daily.  And I saw quite clearly that wilderness - just about any kind of wilderness - is an antidote to the distress of civilization and to certain forms of manifest evil.  Wilderness was something I needed to be sane.

After the success of my serial killer book, I was asked to write about every new whack job that came down the pike. Jeffrey Dahmer.  Those kinds of guys.  But Id exhausted my curiosity about serial killers.  I chose simple sanity of the outdoors.    

AGA: I'd choose the outdoors over serial killers, too. What are some of the landscapes youve written about that have made a lasting and intimate impression you?

TC: I have spent time in the Amazon basin and in the Congo and they were priceless experiences but Ive found I prefer deserts, plains and semi-arid mountains.  While I can make myself comfortable enough in deep forests, I feel a bit claustrophobic.  I like vast vistas.

Which is why I live in Montana, on the drier eastern side of the Rockies.  One of my favorite places is Patagonia where there are area that look like a southern hemisphere mirror image of my home. Big mountains with glaciers on their shoulders, rivers full of big dumb trout, men on horseback driving cattle.  And the Bizzaro aspect: penguins underfoot.  Ostrich-like creatures called rhea trotting along the fence lines.

AGA: Its rare for you for write about an urban landscape. What urban places have you written about that still have a hold on you?

TC:  I cant recall any story Ive written in which the urban landscape was a character.  I once spent ten days on a crowded Congo barge.  We were packed so tightly that no one could move with jostling someone else.  But it was fascinating, in its way.  The barge had its own culture and social strata.  I occupied myself learning about that and thus survived what otherwise might have been a nightmare trip.

AGA: In your stories about the outdoors, there are often the themes of man against nature, or man blending with nature.

TC:  I would hope its never man against nature.  You dont fight the river. 

AGA: You're right, you don't.

TC: In my outdoor work, I have a secret agenda: I want the reader to love the place as much as I do.  I hope they go there and experience it for themselves.  Sometimes people accuse me of spoiling a secret spot but, really, there is no place on earth that petrochemical companies, lumbering concerns, and real estate developers do not have in their sights.  As my friend Richard Bangs says, the major vector for the conservation of these areas is the amount of people who are personally invested in the place: the folks who have walked the trail or descended the river or climbed the mountain.  Those people are a readymade constituency willing to stand up and passionately defend the area.

 Why do I need to save those places?  Ive learned they help me scrub my mind clean.

AGA: Scrub your mind clean. I know what you mean. Do you seek this same synchronicity in your writings about urban places?

TC: I seldom write about urban places.  There isnt the same sense of urgency that I have about various threatened landscapes.  I did have some fun writing about Dublin when I walked the Dublin Marathon a few years ago.  Since I arrived a week before and wanted to do well in the marathon, it was a story about Dublin without pubs, which I submit, was a unique approach.

AGA: When I read your writing, it always hits me quite quickly that you are a man on a quest. Why is quest important when you travel?

TC: A quest, even the simplest quest, forces me to talk with people, to get something done, to understand how one gets something done in that place.  Without a quest, I could easily find myself in the guide book suggestions for the best bar and end up speaking English with other travelers.

AGA: What defines a successful quest within a travel story? Can you give an example from your work and tell a bit of that story?

TC: Any quest is good.  Really.  It doesnt have to be sexy on the face of it. 

But OK, I went to the Lost World in Venezuela.  I was looking for vampire bat caves.  But they basically they were not interesting.  So I went to Mt. Roraima, the mountain it is said Author Conan Doyle wrote his professor Challenger adventure about, using the reports of English climbers of the day.  I climbed the mountain.  Didnt find dinosaurs, as Professor Challenger did, but it was a good story.

 A quest, well written, is always a win.  Failure, well written, is as good a story as success.

AGA: Its hard to imagine you at home, mowing your front lawn and grilling some burgers on a Sunday afternoon. Your image is so strong from your enormous body of work, that I picture you always off on adventures. Yet I know this isn't true. Whats your life like when you aren't going places? Does nature call out to you?

TC: Well, I live in Montana.  There are rivers and mountains and all kinds of wildlife out my front door.

 AGA: Youve said before that your writing process starts while you are traveling--and even beforehand. Can you tell me what that means? Do you begin forming the story and writing it as it happens on the journey?

TC: I say: know as much as you can about the place before you go.  Know what the very best writers have said about it.  Because you are not going there to repeat what others have said.

Take voluminous notes on the road.  Copious notes.  Note taking is an art in and of itself.  It may be the travel writers most important talent.

AGA: Once you return home and begin to put the story pieces together, whats your process? How often do you write and for how long?

TC: Lets pretend I do what I know I have to do: Up whenever I feel like it but at the desk and working within 30 minutes.  No excuses.  Write in the morning.  Do blank page writing then.  If all goes well, I will drift into some nebulous zone where I write along and things I never knew connected begin to tie themselves up into neat little knots.

AGA: Do you have private space for writing, a Tim-habitat, if you will?

TC: Sure.  I have an office.  On the wall above my desk are all sorts of awards Ive won.  A friend did that for me when I was traveling.  I used to have an old Remington Rifle poster up there.  It showed an old trapper sitting by a fire in the snow in the evening.  In the surrounding woods were gleaming eyes and the shadows of wolves.  The trapper holds a Remington rife. The poster said, Big Enough and Strong Enough.  Thats how I liked to see myself vis a vis the various publishers and editors I for whom I worked.  And yes, I support wolves, dont see them as threatening campers and dont like the idea of shooting them.  Its a metaphor.

AGA: What are the things that make up that habitat? What about it makes it comfortable for you to write in? What are some of the objects in it?

TC: I can write anywhere.  Ive done it on ships at sea or in mud huts.  What makes me comfortable and helps me is the fact that I have friends, many of them.  I have friends here where I live in Montana and in New York and Chicago.  I have friends Ive met all over the world.  So objects that make me comfortable?  Theyre human.

AGA: Whats next? What are you working on? Whats your next project or book?

TC: Nothing is screaming at me.  A memoir might be next.  Maybe. 

AGAA memoir. I can't wait. Thank you for starting off my Conversations series, Tim. I know everyone will love this. This was perfect.

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