In Conversation With Jeff Greenwald

I always come back to that wonderful line from Durrell: “A town becomes a world when one loves one of its inhabitants.” I think it is important to fall in love with a place as soon as possible—with a friend, a café, a riverside bench, a ritual, a landscape.
— Jeff Greenwald

Welcome to the Conversations Series for 2015. This is a series unlike any other: last year I was looking for interviews with writers about travel themes, and I couldn't find anything both diverse and deep. So I had the idea of creating a series that did, and Conversations was born. It began in 2014 with Tim Cahill, Patricia SchultzJames Dorsey, and Raquel Cepeda.

This year the series will offer more than thirty interviews with writers from multiple genres talking about travel, place, home, habitat, exile, belonging, and craft, combined with a wider focus of defining what travel literature is as spoken by diverse voices and perspectives.

We're starting off with the phenomenal Jeff Greenwald, who not only is a master of the genre,  he is also a true Renaissance man: he seems to have his fingers in every creative pot. The author of such literary travel classics as Shopping for Buddhas and The Size of the World, he's also an accomplished photographer, journalist, humanitarian, monologist, and Executive Director of Ethical Traveler.

He's a writer who embodies both compassion and the ability to fall in love, over and over, with the places and peoples he writes about. Read on for an interview that is truly golden, with wordsmith and world traveler Jeff Greenwald.

AGA: When I think of travel writing, you immediately come to mind: Your work and life are intertwined with the genre, which is a powerful statement about your contributions thus far.

How do you see travel writing as a genre?

JG: Travel writing as a genre seems archaic to me. I don’t necessarily mean that in a negative way. Classic travel writing often has the elements of an archetypal quest, a story about a “hero”--even an initially clueless one, like myself--embarking on a voyage of discovery, with tribulations, setbacks, wisdom and redemption along the way. As I point out in the introduction to my stage show, Strange Travel Suggestions, it’s an arc closely related to the Fool’s journey in the Tarot: a cyclical path that leads us back into a deeper self-understanding.

I love that genre, and I’ve written and performed in it with great enjoyment. But it’s become the form, and the cliché. For me, at least, it’s become a sideshow rather than my actual motivation. The great improv teacher Keith Johnstone talked about the need to “interrupt the routine”: because stories, including travel stories, become so predictable that they themselves are like routines.

AGA: “A sideshow” rather than your actual motivation….I know what you mean about the predictability factor, but to me there seems a shift, as well: isn’t there a re-frame happening? 

JG: There is. Let me see if I can put this into words that make sense.

The basic equation of the travel writing I value has changed for me over the years. It’s no longer about what is important for us to discover about ourselves; it’s about what is important for us to know about the lives of the people we visit. Not what I think we need to know, but what they think we need to know.

There have been many, many books that fulfill this aspiration—from Joe Kane’s Savages to Katherine Boo’s Beyond the Beautiful Forevers; from Tarquin Hall’s To the Elephant Graveyard to Alex Pham’s Catfish and Mandala.

And because the Fool’s cyclically journey is not easily dismissed, this form of narrative is also a form of self-discovery. It’s just not directly framed as such.

AGA: How do you think your body of work contributes to both this reframing and the travel genre in general?

JG: As for my own small contribution to the genre, I’d say that most of my books follow the archetypal route. But I also think that—in Shopping for Buddhas, The Size of the World and especially Snake Lake—I’ve given voice to the people I’m visiting, and tried to express elusive elements of their culture and political evolution. In Shopping for Buddhas, I veered away from my often playful narrative to take on human rights, corruption and art smuggling issues. [Note: The book was banned in Nepal for many years as a result.] In Snake Lake, certainly, the priorities of pre-revolution Nepal—and the pull of Tibetan Buddhism—are more central to the story than my own haphazard quest. The Size of the World was a personal journey as well, and probably the most archetypal of my books, but I think it’s also a good snapshot of the planet Earth at the dawn of the digital era.

AGA: I’ve read all of your books, of course! I just finished Snake Lake and it’s my favorite book of yours: I like how much of the book is the voice of the place itself, I like the story of your family life and brother taking central stage at times... it’s masterful. It made me curious about what writers you read growing up, who influenced your style and voice?

JG: One of my great early influences—who became a dear friend—was the futurist Arthur C. Clarke, author of 2001: A Space Odyssey and “inventor” of the communications satellite. Clarke also wrote books about his adopted home of Sri Lanka, which got me very interested in the sea and scuba diving.

Other early writing influences included Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Hemingway, Atwood, Norman Mailer--with whom I had a memorable encounter in 1972, Ursula Le Guinn and of course, Tom Wolfe, Ken Kesey, Hunter Thompson and Jack Kerouac. Some equally big early influences were artists and musicians: Calder, Ansel Adams, Ravi Shankar, Isamu Noguchi, Diane Arbus, Brancusi, Van Gogh, Joni Mitchell, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Leonard Cohen, and Picasso.

AGA: Wait! Memorable encounter with Norman Mailer? You’ve left a thread dangling and I have to pull it. Do tell.

JG: I profiled him for my college newspaper, and we spent many hours talking. This was before I’d actually read any of his books, unfortunately. He also said a few things during his public lecture that I’ll never forget—even quite drunk, he deftly and savagely manipulated the audience. He was sort of a genius of belligerence.

AGA: Were there any other books which inspired you to go out and see the world?

JG: I used to absolutely lose myself in those old Time-Life Science Library and Sierra Club picture books. And some movies. Books like Navajo Wildlands, along with the film Lawrence of Arabia --which I saw 43 times while working as an usher at the Plainview Theater--had an enormous impact on me. I mean hey, I just spent New Year’s in the Mojave Desert!

AGA: I’d like to talk about your first book, Mr. Raja’s Neighborhood, which is about Nepal. It was published in 1985, and I imagine you have a great deal to say about the writing of that book, and the experience of writing a travel book at that time.

JG: That book was an anomaly. Before leaving for Nepal on an 18-month Rotary Journalism Fellowship in 1983 and 1984, I’d been working as a sculptor and visual artist. I had a strong affinity for Asian mythology and culture, inspired by my very first trip to Asia in 1979. After my return to Kathmandu in 1983, I woke up every morning, smoked some hash, and wrote very detailed letters to my artist and writer friends – pounding away on the manual Smith-Corona I‘d lugged to Nepal, correcting mistakes with Wite-Out correction fluid, using carbon paper to make copies. During my absence some of the best letters were published in a small literary journal, and after I returned to the US a selection of them were collected into a modest and experimental book. The writing is raw, spontaneous, and very anti-literary. I was reporting mainly as a visual artist, expressing my observations, experiences and frustrations. Few people think it’s my best book, but many people say it’s their personal favorite.

AGA: How has the experience of writing travel literature changed for you since that book came out in 1985?

JG: My writing has evolved since then, and the demands of the profession have changed my style quite a lot. It’s far more narrative and researched. But that’s not the main thing. Though I still write in the first person, my articles and books aren’t directed to such a clear, surgically defined audience. I mean, every one of those letters was a direct personal communication to a specific close friend, someone I’d been seeing almost every day in our shared studios.

AGA: Something that sets you apart from other travel writers—and really, a great number of human beings—is that you forge very deep experiences on your travels on purpose.

You’ve done some amazing volunteer work and humanitarian work on your travels, and you’ve written about some of these things. Can you talk about some of these contributions you have made and how they affected the way you see place?

JG: With pleasure! My first experience with volunteering was in November 1979, during the Cambodian Civil War. Pol Pot had just come to power, and Cambodians were fleeing for their lives into Thailand. I arrived at the Khao-I-Dang refugee camp on the Thai/Cambodian border as a UN volunteer, and despite my very limited experience designing fountains, I was appointed chief water engineer. Mind you I was 25, and had never done anything remotely like this before. I was given a bunch of local volunteers and a load of bulldozers and water tanks, and directed to help build water distribution centers for the estimated 150,000 refugees who would be arriving within the week. My experiences there became my first published story: a raw tale called Very Alive, which appears in my anthology, Scratching the Surface.

AGA: That is one of the first stories I read by you. It’s leveling, humbling, and very real. It was one of the first times I saw that travel writing can—and should—incorporate all of the human experience. I could tell when I read it that the experience changed you, dramatically.

JG: That experience started me out by putting a very realistic face on what, for many people, is an abstract tide of human suffering. The people fleeing to Khao-I-Dang were not guerillas or nomads or impoverished grass hut-dwellers; they were accountants and secretaries, farmers and teachers, schoolchildren and nurses. An entire population had been uprooted. So it was sort of like what our grandparents discovered in World War Two – that all of us, even those of us lucky enough to be in the middle class, can be blindsided by tyranny. It gave me an early understanding of genocide, and a deep affinity for human rights issues.

AGA: A redefining of transformational travel—and really, being human... and more recently? What experiences have you had that combined these different shades of being in a place: humanitarian, writer, and traveler?

JG: More recently—exactly 10 years ago, in fact—I was hired by Portland-based Mercy Corps as their Communications Director in Sri Lanka after the Indian Ocean tsunami. I was not a volunteer; I was paid for my work. Joined by my great friend Dwayne Newton—a world- class photographer, now a lieutenant in the SFFD—we traveled all over the devastated island’s coast, documenting the terrors and tragedies of that event as well as the imaginative strategies that  local people—Tamils and Sinhalese alike—were using get back onto their feet.  It was transformational, eye-opening. My dispatches from that two-month mission appeared on, and are documented on the Ethical Traveler website. [Note: You can read them here:  (scroll to the bottom of the page.)]

Finally I want to point to my most recently published book, Snake Lake. Among other plot lines, that tale includes my experiences in Nepal in 1989 and 1990, when I served as a stringer for the San Francisco Examiner –back then a relatively credible paper-- during Nepal’s Democracy uprising and revolution. I reported on human rights abuses, corruption, and may other subjects that had first caught my attention in 1987, while writing Shopping for Buddhas. Being in the middle of a pro-freedom revolution is an astonishing thing, and it transforms one’s sense of what is possible in this world. I hope this doesn’t sound arrogant, but I felt that writing Snake Lake was a form of humanitarian work.

AGA: I agree with that sentiment. The book was look inside an experience that few get to witness or take part in; yet as a reader, I felt I was there, alongside you, as you documented both the suffering and the joys.

JG: With its first-hand observations about revolution, suicide and Buddhism, it brings together a fair amount of what I’ve learned about human nature, globalization and liberation. And for what I earned from the book, it might as well have been a volunteer project!

AGA: Snake Lake is unusual in that it skirts the line between non-fictional memoir and fiction. This has become a very controversial issue. How did you handle it in your book, and how do you justify the approach you took in that narrative?

JG: On the book’s copyright page is a barely legible disclaimer. It explains that, as a number of the most important friends and lovers in the book did not wish to appear in the memoir, I had to conceal their identities and recast their roles in the story. I also combined a few other people I knew into single characters. This amounts, in a number of cases, to fictionalization.

An obvious question comes up: why didn’t I just write and present Snake Lake as a novel?

AGA: That is precisely what I wondering! Why didn’t you? It seems like that is the common tactic these days…

JG: The reason was that I wanted people to understand that everything else in the book—Nepal’s rebellion and revolution, my role in reporting that crisis, my relationship with the high Tibetan lamas and education in Buddhism, and everything about my brother Jordan and his descent into depression—was true. Once something is presented as a novel, every aspect may be or contain invention. I hoped to create a situation where I could have it both ways, even if it meant writing in a new--and not necessarily welcome--genre. Now, it seems, more and more writers are comfortable taking such liberties in their memoirs. But in 2010, when Snake Lake came out, no one knew quite where to classify the book, and some of the reactions from reviewers were less than kind.

AGA: It’s a stunning book, and I think you are right: what people are writing now as memoir is more fluid, and Snake Lake certainly deserves its place in that shift.

The book captures a certain mindfulness: the perspective is intimate and vast at the same time, and I think this because you have this way of curating your experiences when you travel into this very “real” on-the-ground, personal relationship with place.

How can a traveler keep that mindfulness when they travel?

JG: I always come back to that wonderful line from Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet: “A town becomes a world when one loves one of its inhabitants.” I think it’s important to fall in love with a place as soon as possible – with a friend, a café, a riverside bench, a ritual, a landscape.

AGA: I love that so much: fall in love with a place as soon as possible. That’s simply wonderful. How does one do that, though?

JG: I’m not sure this is mindfulness so much as lose-your-mindfulness. It’s a process of surrender.

AGA: Give me an example of losing-your-mindfulness…

JG: I remember when, in the late 1980s, Islands sent me to the Solomon Islands. I knew nothing of the place, no one. But I soon learned about the idea of wontok: pidgin for “one talk.” Your community consists of the people who literally talk like you. With this in mind I made contact with the local Peace Corps volunteers, and after a few days of drinks and hikes had fallen madly in love with them--with one of them, very literally. They served as my conduits for a journey into the island’s culture and traditions, a window I’d have never been able to open on my own.

AGA: A window doesn’t open by itself. I like this image of conduits and connections creating the journey.

What do you suggest for the traveler who may only be somewhere for a short time and yet needs to capture the real place and establish a real relationship?

JG: The non-profit I created in 2003 – Ethical Traveler – offers “13 Tips for the Accidental Ambassador” on our website. These are suggestions about how to stay mindful during our travels. And I think that being mindful always leads to a more intimate and authentic presence, wherever we are. Simple skills—like learning a few words of the local language, being able to ask for help and knowing when to keep our mouths shut and just listen—can be enormously valuable.

AGA: So that moves the conversation towards general ethical travel practices. Can you talk about your organization and what it does?

JG: The idea for Ethical Traveler first took shape in 1996, when Aung San Suu Kyi asked that tourists not visit Burma while her country was under military siege. I wrote an Op-Ed piece for the Washington Post that year, suggesting that travelers heed her suggestion and begin to “vote with our wings,” using our economic clout to send a strong message to the junta. Six years later—in late 2002, while I was on tour with my book Scratching the Surface—I mentioned this idea to a Berkeley audience, and wondered aloud if an organization could be built around such principles. The result, after much discussion, was Ethical Traveler.

We’re now in our 12th year, and things are going incredibly well. We feature great “Actionable News” bulletins, useful resources for travelers, and offer some wonderful trips – every April, for example, I lead an Artists’ Delegation to Cuba. It’s really fantastic. This year’s in particular is going to be pretty amazing, given the changing relations between the Washington and Havana.

Our biggest and most visible project is our “World’s Ten Best Ethical Destinations” event. Starting in September, a team of more than 20 researchers will begin poring over the world’s developing nations. We ultimately select the ten that are making the most impressive progress on human rights, environmental protection and social welfare. It’s become a pretty exciting project.

 [Note: Read the report of who made the 2015 list of the best ethical destinations, here.] 

AGA: The Ethical Traveler website talks a lot about “ambassadorial potential of travel.” What does that term mean to you, and what are a few examples of that in action in your own personal work?

JG: All travelers are de facto ambassadors, whether we intend to be or not. The way we interact with people during our travels, whether in New Orleans or Teheran, has a lasting impact on the state of the world. In 1999, while traveling through Iran, I was approached by countless people—men, women and children—who wanted to know “why America hates us.” It occurred to me then that, for people all over the developing world, having the ear of an American is like having the ear of America. My assurance that I, as an American, did not hate them—had a visible, visceral impact.

On the other side of the coin, the stories I’ve told as a writer and performer about other parts of the world—Sri Lanka, Israel, Senegal, Ecuador, Tibet—have affected the way people here see those places and those people. The fact is that there’s no “out there” out there, it’s all an increasingly interconnected whole. Travelers, and especially writers who travel, can subvert bad government juju and tear down the media curtain by bringing back news of our person-to-person encounters.

AGA: I’d like to talk about the story behind one of your books, Shopping for Buddhas, which was just re-released in a 25th Anniversary Edition by Travelers’ Tales. What it is about this book that makes it stand out on the travel writing bookshelf? Why are so many people drawn to this book?

 JG: I don’t know. Maybe it’s the title!

In all seriousness, it’s probably because Nepal and Kathmandu are iconic destinations, and lots of people have had the personal experience of being there – and literally shopping for buddhas themselves. When it was first released, in 1990, the book was a bit unusual in that it was both a lighthearted romp and an investigation into some deeper issues—like art smuggling, human rights abuses, poverty, spiritual materialism and Buddhist philosophy. These issues and ideas were just becoming important to even casual backpackers.

Another reason people are drawn to Shopping is because it’s a pretty basic and accessible primer on Hinduism and Buddhism. And it doesn’t take itself too seriously—a quality which has won it a few hardcore fans in the Buddhist community (e.g., Robert Thurman) as well as some very contemptuous detractors.

AGA: Let’s talk about your writing style. Your sentences and gift for description are phenomenal. How do you create these detailed vistas of words? How do you see all of that when you are somewhere?

JG: Well, err, thank you! Like most writers I do try to create a sense of place, a sense of scene in my work. Whether I’m telling a story from a stage or on the page, my first responsibility is to visually take my audience with me. Once they've entered a scene viscerally, it’s much easier for a story to unfold with all its nuance and humor. Small details are important, and can convey a lot of ambient information. A trapped honeybee beating against the closed window of a small Italian restaurant; a cow grazing the rice offerings from the lap of a stone Buddha in a Kathmandu square; the sidewalk of a tree-lined street, dappled with tiny crescent suns during a solar eclipse. It’s just the way writers pay attention—which elements of a scene catch our eye and appeal to our memory.

AGA: Small details are so important, I agree. And then there is the moment where one halts and leaves it to the reader to imagine…

JG: Part of the process, as in painting or sculpture, is knowing when to stop. That’s the real mystery to me. How do we know, intuitively, when we've provided just enough description to impart a scene, but not overwhelm the reader without our own experience? How did Rodin know, for example, when he’d “finished” his marble sculpture of Victor Hugo? Everyone should check it out—it’s in San Francisco’s Palace of the Legion of Honor…

This is really a question about voice, a subject I find inexplicable. Trying to define yourself, as the saying goes, is like trying to bite your own teeth. But believe me, I ask the same questions myself, of other authors. How did Katherine Boo suck me into Behind the Beautiful Forevers in the very first paragraph? How did Hemingway and Vonnegut create intricate reality out of such simple sentences? How do authors as diverse as Don DeLillo (White Noise) and Anne Pachette (State of Wonder) suggest the hidden motivations of their characters? Voice is the secret sauce, but I’m not sure even the chefs know the recipe.

 AGA: Can you offer up a favorite paragraph from one of your books that illustrates your gift for description and the hugeness of your prose style?

JG: Here is one of my favorite small sections from The Size of the World, describing part of the three-day drive from Kathmandu to Lhasa, Tibet:

“Not a single aspect of the world around us seemed futile or weak. Nothing was for show. Every crag, every stone and sword-cut valley lay exactly in place, inhabiting its own eternal kingdom. Protean clouds pulsed across the sky like dynamos, illuminated from within by electrical storms. Columns of rain danced between them, never touching the ground. When sunlight hit the suspended downpours the drops of rain blazed like opals. I rolled down my window, smelling ozone and ice.

In just four hours of slow driving, from the Nepal border to this region just beyond Nyalam, we’d entered the rain shadow of the Himalaya. We had left the Kathmandu Valley -- with its lush mythology, saturated rice terraces and snake gods -- and ascended into the spare, luminous wilderness of the plateau. Gone were the dairy cows and mangoes; gone the balmy nights and ice-cream socials. The approachable gods of the Hindu pantheon had stepped aside, abandoning the stage to the mercurial earth-spirits of a far less forgiving terrain. The Himalayan landscape is so vast and powerful that you know it’s alive: Water, air and lightning gods have inhabited these hills for eons, and the arrival of Buddhism did not displace those deities as much as make them reconsider their loyalties.

The road flattened. We pulled into a small encampment, pulled on our hats, and staggered breathlessly into a ramshackle lodge. There was a fire in the hearth, and a carpeted bench to rest on. Our driver signaled to the aama, and she poured us cups of savory po cha.

The thick, broth-like aroma of black tea and rancid butter rose to the back of my nostrils, and as I put the cup gratefully to my lips I knew just what it meant. I’d crossed over, once again. This was Tibet.”

[Note: click here to see a photograph of the place described]

 AGA: I think I just stopped breathing! That was divine… how do you record what you see and experience in such a place? Do you take notes, journal, use a tape recorder? What is your story collecting process on the road?

JG: I carry around a small shirt-pocket notebook and jot down bare elements—sometimes just a few words—of salient scenes or dialogue. The inspiration for this shorthand was a book about the painter Andrew Wyeth; though he painted in almost photographic detail and color, his sketches were often just a few black charcoal marks on paper. It’s amazing how even a tiny cue can unlock our memory of a scene.

 When I’m back on my own, in a café or my room--or on a long bus ride!--I write up my notes. Usually twice a day. I try to write my impressions spontaneously, in narrative form, without a lot of editing. I use a rather antique device called an AlphaSmart NEO—a simple, lightweight and bulletproof electronic notebook. It runs for two years on three AA batteries and can store 1,000 pages of text —but shows only six lines on its gray scale screen. So the tendency is to move forward, not stew over what I’ve just written!

When I’m on assignment doing interviews I use a tiny Olympus digital recorder, and hire a transcriber. It’s easier that way. Believe it or not, I don’t know how to type. I’ve written six books using the two-finger method.

AGA: Your lack of typing skills hasn’t seemed to affect your prodigious output. What about when you come back: how do the notes become story, as you type away with two fingers?

JG: I’ll go through my journals and lift out sections that work, then massage them together with more detail, information, dialogue, and transitions. Usually the structure will be intrinsic, already in my head. As with the stories I tell on stage, I like to go in knowing my opening scene and ending line.

AGA: Your words are deeply poetic: you strike me as a poet. Do you read poetry and if you do, who are your influences?

JG: My writing career began with poetry, which I studied at UC Santa Cruz under Bill Everson and many others. That was a side interest; I was actually trained as a clinical therapist!

I taught a class at Santa Cruz called The Performance of Poetry, and was deeply involved with the legendary Santa Cruz Poetry Center. Through that world I got to work and read with some great wordsmiths, such as Ellen Bass, Ken Kesey, Philip Levine, Claire Braz-Valentine, Gary Snyder, William Burroughs, Flora Durham and the late Greg Keith. I even got to drive Allen Ginsburg to SFO from Los Gatos one night. He spent the whole ride talking about Bob Dylan and singing “Idiot Wind.”

AGA: Sounds like a great travel story! And what about your poetry? Tell me about your poems.

JG: Unfortunately my poetry was pretty sucky, and though I had quite a few pieces anthologized they rarely come back to haunt me. However…. LitQuake and Penguin published a book last year called Drivel: Deliciously Bad Writing by Your Favorite Authors. Two of my poems are in there. Give them a miss.

But hey… You were complimenting me. Which goes to show that poetry, for some writers--like myself--is a good foundation but a bad destination. As far as who I’m interested in now, the poets on my radar include Lisa Mueller, Jack Gilbert, Marie Howe, Billy Collins, Jane Hirshfield, Walt Whitman, Mary Oliver and lots of great haiku poets!

AGA: I’ll be honest and tell you I’m glad you weren’t a stellar poet, because it meant the travel writing world got ahold of you instead!

Going back to travel writing, lately I have been reading a lot of travel writing that is maybe not so stellar. Is this on writers or publishers? How do you deal with the difficulty of writing about what is as compared to what is expected, particularly for travel writers who feel pressured to make things look better or more on the surface? How can a travel writer go deep and yet meet the expectations of publishers?

 JG: This hasn’t really been difficult for me, because a lot of the humor in my writing--which people expect--is based on mishaps, misunderstandings and near-disasters. But I’ve rarely found a place, with the possible exception of Mauritania, which I consider the world’s largest cat litter box, which lacks redeeming qualities. But almost every city or country I’ve visited has profound and transformational aspects, and points of pure fascination.

AGA: I can’t leave that alone. What do you mean, Mauritania “is the world’s largest cat litter box?”  When were you there and what were led you to arrive to this somewhat colorful and aromatic description?

JG: The place was nasty, the people were mean and food was terrible. People kept slaves in Mauritania—legally—until 1981. Enough said!

AGA: But how can a travel writer go deep? Do you think publishers want deep thoughtful writing or quick turnout that is scripted?

 JG: I think the hope of publishers and editors is that writers do go deep, but that we do it with an economy of words and observations. Even in a guidebook or a service piece, the writer can point the reader to places that are authentic. Via magazine, for example, recently ran a very short feature on what to see when visiting Point Reyes. I’ve been in love with the National Seashore for 40 years, but writer Deborah Franklin focused on the places that most inspired her – and revealed three new highlights I’d never even heard of.

AGA: When we met last, I asked you what your advice would be for my travel writing career, and you said, don’t write for free. We talked about different ways around this issue and I’d like to talk it about again. Why do you think writers shouldn’t work for free? How do you think that impacts the travel writer, or writers in general?

 JG: It does impact the travel writer. Working for free devalues all writers, and —along with similar abuses like “content farms”—is destroying the craft of writing by lowering readers’ expectations of what good writing looks like.

This is a passionate subject, and I don’t want to sound bitter, because I’ve had pretty good luck and do command a fair price for most of my work. But even for a relatively successful writer, the culture of the industry is oppressive. Imagine hiring a respected painter to work on your house. They arrive, bringing all their skill and supplies, and finish the job in about two weeks. Afterwards you look at the painting, and decide it’s not quite what you wanted. Not only don’t you pay the painter for their work—you don’t even bother to contact them again.

My point is, we wouldn’t accept such terms in any other profession but freelance writing. Freelancers have no credible union, no benefits, and no clout. Any talk-back to an editor is tantamount to bridge-burning. That’s partially because there will always be a dozen other writers willing to come in and work for less – or for nothing.

There are boundless examples. Many travel magazines that I wrote for in the 1980s are paying exactly what they paid 30 years ago, or less. Take it or leave it. Others—and you don’t have to look far—are infamous for telling writers to develop complex pitches. They then take the information, discard the freelancer, and write the story in-house.

What’s the solution? I wish I knew. Many writers are desperate to get published, on any terms, and most don’t rely on writing for their livelihood. But it serves no one to devalue writing, and relegates our beloved profession to a very low rung of the entertainment industry.

AGA: For new travel writers, what are three things you suggest to get started?

JG: I always suggest that aspiring travel writers—even if they have enjoyed success in similar fields—attend the annual Travel Writing and Photography Conference at Book Passage in Corte Madera. It’s a very good place to meet like-minded people and get some face time with excellent editors, authors and agents.

Then get yourself a notebook, and a ticket.

AGA: Of course that is where we met for the first time, and as you are aware, it really changed my life. It turned it upside down, and it is a good place to meet connections and learn about the craft from the best. I don’t think there is any other travel writing conference like it in the world. Wise suggestion.

Leaping to something else, one thing I’m trying to do with these interviews is talk about the craft and the rich literary tradition that it holds: I want to encourage people to read more travel writing and to widen the definition of what it is. What travel classics would you suggest reading?

JG: Okay, this is where I make the embarrassing confession that I rarely read travel writing per se. I read a lot of books where the author is far from their home base, but I don’t necessarily consider that travel writing. I actually read a lot of science fiction, which I consider travel writing in the most extreme sense. There’s so much fantastic science fiction these days—I highly recommend Ted Chiang’s The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate, which is set in ancient Persia, Ian MacLeod and Vandana Singh, who often write tales set in South Asia, and Paolo Bacigalupi, whose stunning The Wind-Up Girl is set in a not-too-far future Thailand.

AGA: Oh, I definitely think of science fiction as travel writing…

JG: And once again, now that I’ve subverted the question, I’ll answer it. Here are ten “classic” travel books, a sort of random fiction and non-fiction selection from the scores that have had an especially strong impact on me: The Saddest Pleasure, by Moritz Thomsen; Last Chance to See, by Douglas Adams; Magic and Mystery in Tibet by Alexandra David-Neel, Swimming to Cambodia, by Spalding Gray; Desert Solitaire, by Edward Abbey; A Spider’s House, by Paul Bowles; West With the Night by Beryl Markham, To the Elephant Graveyard by Tarquin Hall, The Year of Living Dangerously, by C. J. Koch and Dispatches by Michael Herr.

And the books I’m reading right now: Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo; Descent, a novel by Tim Johnston; Jack Gilbert’s Collected Poems; Island of a Thousand Mirrors, by Oakland’s own Nayomi Munaweera, and The Year’s Best Science Fiction, edited by Gardner Dozois.

AGA: What books, at this point, would you like to be remembered for most?

JG: As far as the books I’d like to be remembered for – as if we have a choice – I’d put The Size of the World at the top of the list, and right below it Snake Lake, though that odd and difficult book will always be a source of great consternation to me.

 AGA: I like to ask something quirky and personal in every interview. Tell me about three objects you have brought back from your travels and the story of how you came to possess them.

JG: Of course there’s my Buddha, but I wrote a whole book about that rather fraught acquisition.

I wear a strange and ancient ring made of what the Tibetans call thokcha, or “sky metal.” Legend has it that this strange metal, origin unknown, fell from the celestial sphere—either in meteorites, or during a war between the gods and demigods of the Himalayan pantheon. Many centuries ago, the ring was in the form of a dorje, a Tibetan thunderbolt symbolizing impenetrable clarity:

These days, ironically, the dorje is so worn down that its shape is not at all clear. Some people think it looks like a butt.

During my around-the-world overland trip in 1993-94, a Moorish Mauritanian slave trader gave me his cigarette holder and tobacco pouch. Though it’s not my proudest possession, it serves as a reminder of my visit to a strange and difficult country. It was the one and place on Earth that I have seen African slaves working in conditions that recalled America’s pre-Civil War days.

When I was in Iran for the total eclipse of the sun in 1999, the civil workers in Esfahan were hanging huge, colorful cloth banners from all the streetlamps lining the main avenue. The banners were in Farsi, and showed an image of the sun being eclipsed by the gorgeous dome of the so-called Womens’ Mosque. I stood there and admiringly watched the workers put up the banners. After a few moments one of the men came down from his ladder, carefully folded one of the banners, and presented it to me as a gift.

Finally, for my third object, I’m going to take a chance and send our readers off-site to a tale --about another ring--that I recorded for the NPR radio show Snap Judgment.  It’s about one of my oddest and most prized possessions. Now listen, y’all, don’t navigate away to this story until you’ve reached the end of this interview!

AGA: I hope they do follow that link! A few more  questions first, though:

What are you working on right now? I see you as a kind of Renaissance man, doing a lot different things, so I hope we get a glimpse of that in your answer....

JG: Yes, there are many irons in the fire. Such is the life of a freelancer!

Here’s a glimpse, which I will limit to half a dozen hare-brained schemes for 2015. First, I’ll soon published a wonderful story with the BBC about my cross-country flight in a powerful open-cockpit airplane no bigger than a kayak. Next, I hope to start working on a series of travel stories that will commemorate the 20th anniversary of the publication of The Size of the World. I’m also the senior writer for a consulting firm called Now Labs, helping visionary companies develop and launch new products that challenge our thoughts about technology and design. I’m building a scale model of the Batmobile as part of an article for Todd Oppenheimer’s newly launched Craftsmanship Magazine.

AGA: You truly are a whirlwind, with a Batmobile to boot! What about Ethical Traveler? Are you leading any groups or taking any trips in 2015?

JG: In April I’ll lead my fifth annual Artists’ Delegation to Cuba—Lithuania and Chile are also on the books.

Finally, I really hope that 2015 will be the year I tuck into my next book project. I won’t say much about it, except that it’s a sort of potlatch—and will provide a way for you and our readers to take possession of those objects I mentioned in my answers to the last question!

AGA: I can’t wait to read your next book and be transported to someplace new. Thank you so much for this time creating a conversation about all the things I love. It’s been a tremendous pleasure.

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About the author, Jeff Greenwald:

Journalist, photographer, and Renaissance man Jeff Greenwald is the author of many books, including Mr. Raja’s Neighborhood: Letters from Nepal, Shopping for Buddhas, The Size of the World, Scratching the Surface: Impressions of Planet Earth from Hollywood to Shiraza, and Snake Lake. He is in numerous literary anthologies and has received accolades and awards such as the Lowell Thomas Gold Award for best book in 1996. His early experiences working in humanitarian work shaped his ideas of what travel is and can be. He might be anywhere right now, but you can find him in cyberspace on his website and on Twitter.