I have been a fan of Rolf Potts’ writings ever since I read his story Storming ‘The Beach’ on Salon.com in ’99. Since then he has reported from over fifty countries for publications such as Conde Nast Traveler, Outside, The New York Times, National Geographic Traveler and The Guardian.
Potts’ book Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel (Random House, 2003) endorses the ethic of independent travel, and his newest book Marco Polo Didn’t Go There: Stories and Revelations From One Decade as a Postmodern Travel Writer (Traveler’s Tales, 2008) is a collection of highly entertaining and insightful stories.
Photo by Fritz Liedtke
I recently got in touch with Rolf Potts for a short interview.
Erica Johansson: First, why did you decide to become a travel writer?
Rolf Potts: I don’t know if there was ever a clear line between desire and decision. I mean, lots of people want to be travel writers, and many people dabble in it, and I was no different. I guess my transition from desiring and dabbling to an actual decision to do it happened over ten years ago, when I was first writing for Salon.com. At that point I’d been making stabs at travel writing for nearly five years, but nothing had workedout. When I started publishing in Salon, I decided to concentrate my energies and make it happen. Over ten years later, I’m still concentrating those energies, still making it happen. And it’s been great!
How did you get your first writing assignment?
Most of my early stories were written on spec, so I had already published quite a bit before I got a formal assignment. In some ways, the “Vagabonding” column I wrote for Salon was my first assignment, though that emerged out of months of spec work. My Salon column attracted the attention of an editor at Conde Nast Traveler, and my first formal assignment came from that magazine in 2000. The Laos journey I took for that magazine eventually become a chapter, “Toura Incognita,” in my latest book, Marco Polo Didn’t Go There.
What is the most rewarding aspect of travel writing?
There are many rewarding aspects of travel writing. The ability to obsess on both travel and writing, and to communicate certain travel experiences, is great. I’d say the biggest reward is when a story comes together just right, when I can take a very specific and unique travel experience and make it speak to something more broadly human and universal.
20081101-marcopoloHow was the response for your latest book Marco Polo Didn’t Go There?
The response has been great. I think people have been approaching the book expecting some entertaining armchair travel experiences — and the book provides plenty of far-flung stories — but I’m getting the most feedback on the “commentary track” endnotes, which look into the story behind each story. I think people aren’t used to thinking about travel stories in this way — they aren’t used to considering how stories were lived versus how they are constructed and communicated — and they love this aspect of the book.
The book has also sold surprisingly well, considering it was released amid a busy presidential election season and a global economic crash. It’s been doing about as well as my first book Vagabonding — which is great, since Vagabonding has such a broad and enthusiastic readership.
What is your best piece of advice for aspiring travel writers?
I always say to read a lot, write a lot, and travel a lot. And travel well. Make yourself an expert in some aspect of travel. That always gives you more to offer readers. I might also suggest that writers really know their markets — know which magazines and websites are open to what kind of writing. If you aren’t passionately familiar with the content and format of a given outlet, odds are you’ll never land a story there.
What has been your biggest challenge and how have you worked to
My ongoing challenge is focus and discipline. It’s a big world, with so many places to go and so many things to write about. It’s a constant challenge to discipline myself into not seeing too far into the future, to focus on being where I am, and writing about the experience at hand.
If time and money weren’t an object, where in the world would you travel?
If money weren’t an object, I’d go to Antarctica. I’ve always wanted to go there, and I plan to get there one day. I’d also like to return to Africa, once I’m able to create the time. I’ve only spent a few days in sub-Saharan Africa, and I’d love to return to the continent and travel slow.
For more information about Rolf Potts including published books, stories, essays, previous interviews, upcoming events and photos from his travels, visit www.rolfpotts.com