In Conversation With James Dorsey

Honestly, it has only been the last couple of years that I have felt confident in my work and found real joy in the process. Now writing occupies my every spare moment. If I have become a decent writer it is a gift, and it brings to mind a quote from Picasso, “The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away.”
— James Dorsey

Welcome to Conversations, a series of interviews with multi-genre writers about travel, place, home, habitat, and exile in their writing and in their lives. The idea of the series is to look at travel and writing about place in a diverse context: a conversation with the traditionalists as well as the experimentalists. The series began in October with the masterful Tim Cahill, followed by the dream-maker Patricia Schultz. You can find past interviews in the Archives.

Next up is James Dorsey, the picture of a self-made writer and explorer.  Trained as painter, he decided to dive into the literary world at age fifty, and writes with astonishing clarity about some of the most remote peoples on the planet. He's written about everything from wildlife in their habitat to getting an exorcism to removing live land mines. His writing has a certain earthiness to it, and this combined with skill and an open mind makes him one of the best storytellers I've read. He is a travel consultant to the prestigious Brown & Hudson of London, and has just published his second book. Read on for a conversation about the meaning of exploration, what it takes to write a good travel story, and his journey as a self-taught writer.


AGA: I’ve heard you called an “explorer of a bygone age.” Reading your enormous number of travelogues over the last few months, it’s clear that you’ve earned the title of explorer. I’m interested in a few things: how do you define an explorer as compared to a traveler?

JD: Let me begin by saying it is an honor to be included in such an accomplished lineup of writers.

I truly believe there is a difference between tourists, travelers, and explorers in that tourists go someplace as a respite from a repetitive life while travelers go to learn, and explorers seek what no one else has yet found.   The simple act of going somewhere is not traveling unless you get something significant out of it. This is not to say that one way is superior to the other, only that they are different.  I was a tourist for many years and gradually become a traveler.  Sometimes I travel and other times I explore.

AGA: Do you see this age of exploration is something of the past, as others have stated?

JD: Only a month ago a jungle tribe in South America made outside contact for the first time.  While the entire earth has known the tread of boots or has been photographed from above, there are areas and people we still know little or nothing about. Exploration is looking for that lost tribe, while travel is sitting with them to learn their cosmology.  The tourists want to take their photo and go back to the hotel.

AGA: You go lots of places that other people don’t, and I want to really delve into the cultural and historical implications of such journeys, but first I’d like to know: was this something that always attracted you? Did exploration find you, or did you find the explorer in yourself?

JD: I came to remote exploration gradually. The more I saw the more I wanted to see but I don’t care much for crowds or places similar to where I live. For me, it’s about learning the differences so I went farther off the beaten path each time as it gradually became a passion. Along the way I was made a member of the Explorers Club and the Adventurers Club.

AGA: It must have been a revelatory experience to meet others who had the same passion that you did…I often have felt a mix of joy and belonging when in a room of travel writers. It must have quite similar for you to meet groups of explorers.

JD: It was a revelation to know there were other people who did the things I did and my friends that thought I was crazy were wrong.  I now have a world-wide network of kindred spirits to provide my entre into remote places.  Also right from the beginning, my wife, Irene, has been curious, ready, and willing.  Whenever possible she has been with me on my journeys which we both believe are more important than the destinations.  She co-founded the Society of Women Adventurers that thrived for almost a decade but unfortunately is now defunct.

AGA: Did you have literary mentors or travel/explorer mentors growing up?

JD: I read travelogues as a child but preferred watching travel shows to reading; shows like 7 League Boots, and Wild Kingdom. I remember watching an episode of This is Your Life that featured the great explorer John Goddard.  It was right after he had paddled his kayak 4,000 miles down the Nile River and I was thinking how could anyone do such things?

AGA: And Goddard ended up being a mentor and co-explorer with you as well…did meeting people like Goddard bring out the writer in you?

JD: Yes, four decades later John became a close friend and mentor.  Through John and the two clubs, I was able to meet explorers all over the world who inspired me.  Now, to many, exploration is a pursuit of the past: this is what really started me writing. I personally know many people who are explorers in the old world classic sense but our current age of technology has overshadowed such feats. I was seeing so many fascinating places and people that I felt compelled to share it as much as I could.  Fortunately, merging the two has become a way of life for me.

AGA: Can we talk about the role of exploration for women as compared to men? You knew I was going to ask you this! I’m really about empowering women to see places and having the conversations about the inclusion of more diversity within travel writing itself, so I think talking about the role of women in exploration is important. I took note that the Adventurers’ Club decided not to include women in a recent vote, although the Explorer’s Club is co-ed and there is the exclusive women-only club for exploration, WINGS. What are your thoughts?

JD: It’s a bit ironic to get this question right now just after the Adventurers’ Club voted on whether or not to admit women for the first time in its 93 year history… and they voted a resounding no. As a member I see both sides of that vote but for me women have always been equal explorers.  It is our society that has not acknowledged them properly.

AGA: Any women explorers that inspire you personally?

JD: Offhand, I can go back to 1804 when Sacajawea trekked with Lewis and Clark, or about 1890 when Isabella Bird was the first woman inducted into the Royal Geographic society.  Then there are Amelia Earhart, Gertrude Bell, Freya Stark, Beryl Markham, and Sally Ride to name but a few. A close personal friend was the first woman to dive on the Titanic; in addition, she was the first to sign up for both Virgin Galactic and I believe, Space X.  Unfortunately, she has passed on but she defined the word exploration.  I have met many more single women traveling in remote places than I have men, and I hope that the women of the millennium generation are not being taught to limit themselves the way many of the women of earlier generations were. Fortunately, writing is an art form that knows no gender.

AGA: I love that you say writing is an art that knows no gender. As for travel, it is expanding all the time, and I read recently that more women travel than men. Time changes everything. You grew up at time when many amazing discoveries were being made all over the world. Can you recall what some of these were and what it was like to be that climate of the world opening up? Did these affect your desire to travel?

JD: I was a child of the 60’s, hippies, drugs, the Beatles, Vietnam War, space exploration, walking on the moon!  The boredom of the Eisenhower years was blown away by the experiments of the Beatles, Jack Kerouac, and Bob Dylan who made an entire young generation open their minds to new possibilities.  The 60’s were a mini- renaissance.

AGA: But your parents were from the Great Depression era. Did you travel much as a family when you were a boy?

JD: Both dropped out of school early on to keep their families afloat. We never lacked for necessities but there was no money for travel and my parents only read magazines.  It was a loving family and we never missed what we did not have.

AGA: I’ve heard similar stories from other people who grew up in that time, and I recall my grandparents’ collection of Reader’s Digest on their bookshelves. What was the first book you read that you remember, that made you seek out more literary reading material?

JD: I was 20 when I read the first book I was not required to read.  It was Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood-- I had no idea why it was so groundbreaking at the time, but it excited me and made me start reading.  Reading got me through three boring years in the army.

AGA: Three years in the army. That must have been difficult. Tell me about your travels just after that.

JD: I first went abroad when I was 27, and already married for five years.  My wife Irene and I wandered around Europe for three months in a two person tent.

AGA: It sounds marvelous.

JD: Money, jobs, future, nothing mattered in those days, just the moment.

AGA:  Let’s talk a bit about writing and your work. Do you define yourself as a travel writer or as a writer? Or both? Do you write in other genres: poetry, fiction, biography, memoir?

JD:  I think of myself as a storyteller due to lack of formal writing credentials.  I never had any training, never went to college, and barely passed high school English.  I have always written from within about my own travels and occasionally wander off into philosophical essays, but that alone has given me a vast canvas.  I have published a couple hundred articles ranging from how an elephants’ trunk functions to what it’s like to undergo an exorcism.  I guess that makes me a travel writer as everything I have done has come out of that.

AGA: That is so inspiring to me, as someone who also has no formal training whatsoever, scarcely managed to graduate from high school, and never went to a four year college. Some people seem to have a natural voice, or can be self-taught. How did you start writing?

JD: I was a successful painter and feeling burnt out after a big show at the Los Angeles County Art Museum.  I decided to take a year to write just because I wanted to see if I could.  A year later the art world had forsaken me but my articles were selling.

AGA: That’s amazing and I think will encourage many people who are considering a change in their life. It’s so gratifying to hear that following your passions can work out. What was the first piece you wrote that you sold?

JD: My first one was about a close encounter with a wild Orca that approached my kayak in British Columbia.  I sold it to the California Academy of Sciences magazine, now defunct. I was 50 years old.

AGA: That gives me chills of the very best kind. So then you were on the travel writing track, boom! Tell me about what this experience was like.

JD: With no training, it took me a long time to realize the true power and beauty of words and how to use them, even though I was selling to places like Colliers, Christian Science Monitor, Natural History, the BBC, and numerous international airlines and newspapers.  When Colliers published their first edition in five decades, they asked me for a travel essay and that remains a very high honor.

AGA: Were you able to apply lessons learned from being a creative in another discipline? Did you do anything to self-educate?

JD: I saw great similarities between painting and writing and used already developed techniques to segue from one to the other. My only training, such as it is, involved reading books by five writers whose work spoke to me, and breaking them down page by page, paragraph by paragraph…and even sentence by sentence until I understood what worked, what did not, and what I liked or did not like.  Those five are Lawrence Millman, Barry Lopez, Beryl Markham, Anthony Bourdain, and Tim Cahill.  To me, they are artists who paint with words and I strive for that. I still read everything they write and learn from every word.

AGA: In my world, you are a great writer, and I have learned a great deal reading your work. How do you see yourself as writer now?

JD: Honestly, it has only been the last couple of years that I have felt confident in my work and found real joy in the process. Now writing occupies my every spare moment.  Only in that recent time have I thought of myself as trying to produce something literary rather than just writing informative articles.  If I have become a decent writer it is a gift, and it brings to mind a quote from Picasso, “The meaning of life is to find your gift.  The purpose of life is to give it away.”

AGA: I love your devotion to the craft. Tell me about your process.

JD: I don’t have a real process.  I try to write every day, even if it’s one sentence.  I have notepads all over the house and in my truck that are full of two and three word ideas.  Sometimes, finished sentences come to me in bed so Irene is used to my turning the lights on in the middle of the night to scribble notes.  Once I find the zone I can write for hours, and forget to eat.  Usually my dog will head butt me to take her for a walk when I get too lost.  I never write more than quick notes while on the road.  It all happens back at home later.  I take hundreds of images for my stories and many times the image will kick start a new story later.

AGA: One thing that fascinates be about your work is that you intentionally choose to visit cultures which are rare, closed, and sometimes dying off. In your stories you bring their voices into the narrative beautifully, letting them tell their story. I’ve read many travelogues that don’t do this, and I think one thing I really admire about you is that you have cultivated a sincerity and respect for the people you write about. And you seem to also garner the respect of the people you visit, too.

JD: I have always felt empathy for the cultures I visit because I have always been aware that I could just as easily have been born in a mud hut or homeless on the streets.  This awareness has made me appreciate my own life and respect others.  When I visit a remote people, I live in their village, eat their food, and join in their ceremonies.  I enjoy immersion in cultures I have no knowledge of. Most of them are honored to have an outsider so interested. Being older also gives me a great advantage in remote places.  I am usually the oldest person there as tribal societies have low life expectancies.  In Africa and Asia, age commands respect, much more than here in America where we tend to warehouse our elderly and worship youth.  The older the person, the more knowledge they possess, and they get that in those places.  There is an old saying, “When an African dies, it is like a library burning.”  White hair has opened a lot of doors and provided me with many stories.

AGA: I have to ask you—because you have been to so many very remote places among peoples few have seen or spent time with—are there any places you’ve been forbidden to visit? There are places that don’t want outsiders, understandably so. Indigenous cultures are speaking up and setting limits with how they are portrayed, as well as limiting access so that their culture is kept intact.

JD: The only place that has not allowed me to enter was an Inupiak village in Alaska. They told me that they did not like white people.

AGA: I get their point of view. I lived with the Ngabe people of Panama for quite some time, and while I was allowed to visit the small communities near my village, the more remote ones I was not allowed to go to. I respected that. Can you tell me about a place you’ve been where you were warmly welcomed?

JD: Riding across the Sahara Desert of Mali with Tuareg nomads was a highlight that I have returned to many times in my stories. These Muslim desert warriors accepted me as one of their own.   There are not sufficient words to describe what it is like to be initiated into a remote clan as a brother.

AGA: What place have you been recently which has pushed your storytelling to new heights?

 JD: Most recently, the spirituality I found in the people of Myanmar has impacted me greatly and I am producing a story about that right now.  It is about an aged lady of a remote hill tribe and her interaction with me and my camera to produce a series of incredible photos. This may be one of the best stories I have written to date.

AGA: One of the travel stories I read by you--which is quite well known--is your narrative of being in Cambodia, at the Self-Help De-Mining Operation. Can you talk about this experience of working to remove mines?

JD: I was invited to the minefields of Cambodia by friends who work there. Aki Ra was captured by the Khmer Rouge and made a child soldier, taught to lay landmines.  As an adult he devoted himself to their removal and became a CNN Hero and has won the Manhae Peace Prize from South Korea.  Bill Morse left his plush life in Palm Springs and moved to Cambodia to help Aki Ra blow up landmines.  I followed them into the jungle carefully placing my feet in their footsteps, moving slowly as a glacier, and knelt next to them as they used a knife to expose a detected mine.  Being inches from a device that can reduce a body to pink mist is terrifying and exhilarating at once.  Imminent death clarifies the mind and heightens the senses to a degree most will never experience. Being in a mine field is combat without the shooting.  There is no more intense service to mankind and any risk was worth the story. These men are the noblest people I have ever had the privilege of knowing.

AGA: Incredible. That’s one of my favorite stories by you. I think you are noble as well, for taking on such a task and for writing about it.

AGA: Changing topics, one of the things I wanted to talk to you about is that there is a tremendous amount of discussion going ‘round right now about what it means to be a traveler and to have a responsibility in regards to where we go. There are many people who think that we shouldn’t visit remote groups, and then there are those who believe that we should, but with care. Obviously, you fall into the second school of thought.

JD: I am always conflicted about visiting a pristine environment because my very presence has impact no matter how small.  Obviously, in the end, I do it because that is how I have chosen to make a living and I feel the need to let the outside world know this is how the majority really live.  Entire cultures come and go with little of the world knowing they ever existed.  A century ago there were over 30,000 languages spoken and now there are less than 6,000 by my reckoning, with few of these being taught in schools or at home.  We probably lose a language every week.  When that happens it is a global loss that leaves a gaping hole in the collective consciousness of mankind.

AGA: Yes, I’ve read about that, the loss of language. We kill off our own cultures and peoples, too.

JD: We deliberately destroy our own cultures. What is the value of someone accepting your beliefs if they did so with a gun to their head? The Bagavad Gita has a passage that says, “I have become death, the destroyer of worlds.” Robert Oppenheimer quoted this after detonating the first atomic bomb and that seems to describe much of mankind today.  I try to give some of these vanishing people a voice, to say “We exist!”  So, yes, even though I impact a remote society by visiting it I try to minimize my presence.  I also never bring gifts of any kind from the outer world as my experience has proven it alters the fragile balance within tribes.

AGA: It’s a heady responsibility to be a traveler today and do it with sensitivity and thoughtfulness. It’s been said that you travel and explore more as a participant than an observer. This is quite difficult, especially when one is writing. What are some of the differences between observer and participant, and how can a travel writer cultivate the power of participation?

JD: To travel as participant rather than observer requires an open mind, patience, and the ability to accept the unknown.  If I have to sleep in a goat pen and eat termites to get the story I am fine with that because that is how the local people live. If local standards of living are not equal to my own the discomfort is only temporary and compensated by the amazing things I am learning.

AGA: That’s a learned skill, for most Westerners—one that some travelers miss entirely.

JD: The trick is to realize that our way of life is no better or worse than anyone else’s. A word I hate in the West is the word “primitive.”  I have yet to meet the poorest tribal person who would trade places with me because we all love our home and our families and are comfortable with what we know.  If you suspend all expectations, the experience is usually worth the effort.

AGA: You seem almost driven to leave your comfort zone: your work is based on a series of quests, of missions, of losing yourself and finding yourself again...over and over.

JD: I am compelled to leave my comfort zone in pursuit of what many would call spiritual quests.  The old saying that “youth is wasted on the young” was true in my case.  I was a total slacker until middle age.  Any success I have has come later in life and with it, a strong appreciation of what I have strived for and earned.  Mostly I look for otherworldly answers from religious leaders, shamans, witch doctors, healers, you name it: people far more spiritually advanced than I am. I also admit to an in-bred drive to accomplish things because I finally realized that life is a gift not to be wasted.

AGA: I relate to this deeply, this inner urge to seek otherworldly answers and to not waste time. I find that that inner drive is something to cherish.

JD: The clock is ticking and I only have so many seconds.

AGA: I know from getting to know you over the past year that you are big collector of objects and gifts from the places and peoples you have written about. I’m terribly curious to hear about this collection of yours. It must be fuel for your stories.

JD: It’s true that I am a collector. My friends say we live in a museum. I have treasures and trash, but every item has a story and its own worth.  I have a Maasai spear given to me after a lion hunt and a Nabataean oil lamp from Petra. I have a 700 year old manuscript page from the libraries of Timbuktu and a fire starter from African Bushmen. I have masks and pipes from around the word and indigenous clothing and the list goes on.  I also have over 60,000 digital images as memories. On my desk I have a tiny statue of a Hopi storyteller that inspires me each morning. Each piece brings back its own story as I look at it and returns me to the moment.  New story ideas often come to me when I am just browsing my shelves.

AGA: Your book just came out this year, a collection of stories from your travels. Since we met, you’ve been traveling a great deal, to Myanmar and few other places. Where you going next and what are you working on?

JD: My new book, Vanishing Tales from Ancient Trails, wanders through three decades of my travels.  I am currently writing several pieces about my latest journey through Burma/Myanmar and looking for the next place to go.  I still want to see Laos and am thinking of the Inuit people of Greenland--I would love to go out on the ice with them.  Mars would be nice, but I think I will be a memory before we get there.  And book number three is forming in my mind.

AGA: It's been such a gift to talk to you. Your passion and devotion to exploration is very inspiring, and I love the way you recreated your life at fifty to become a writer and traveler. I can't wait for your next book. Thanks, James. Readers, Please scroll down and leave a comment for myself or James Dorsey below, and don't forget to "like", to share, and to love.


James Dorsey has a new book out, Vanishing Tales from Ancient Trails: a collection of short stories of his adventures around the world. There is a link to the book and Amazon on the right sidebar of the website. I loved this book!

James Michael Dorsey is an explorer, author, photographer, and lecturer, who has traveled extensively in 45 countries. He has written for such publications as Colliers, Christian Science Monitor, LA Times, BBC Wildlife, United Airlines, Natural History, Perceptive Travel, Vagabundo, Seattle Times, Orlando Sentinel, Chicago Tribune, plus numerous African magazines. He is the author of two books. His work has appeared in seven travel anthologies and is featured in Best Travel Writing of 2014, published by Travelers’ Tales.  He is a correspondent for Camerapix International, is represented by Shutterstock, and his photos have been featured by the National Wildlife Federation, the International Whaling Commission, Kodak International, and Smithsonian Magazine. He is a fellow of the Explorers Club, and a former director of the Los Angeles Adventurer’s Club. Follow him on twitter @agingexplorer 

Next up in December: Raquel Cepeda and Jeff Greenwald. Don't forget to subscribe!