Thomas Kohnstamm | Do Travel Writers Go to Hell?

On Guidebook Writing & Being "Pistol-Whipped" in Venezuela

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You probably heard all the buzz about Thomas Kohnstamm’s book Do Travel Writers Go to Hell? a year ago when it first debuted. Even if you don’t follow the travel world too closely, the story was all over mainstream media once a few major outlets like CNN and the NY Times quoted Thomas out of context. Well, all I need is a good scandal to send me straight to Barnes & Noble to pick up the book in question, which is precisely what happened in this case. I took the book along with me to Alaska, and figured it would take me awhile to finish, as I’m generally not too enthralled by nonfiction. WRONG. It reads like a this-can’t-possibly-be-happening novel and, yet, it was all true.

In short, Do Travel Writers Go to Hell? documents Thomas’ foray into the guidebook writing world fresh off of Wall Street and straight into Brazil’s gritty underbelly and, as someone in the profession, I can say truthfully that he hit the nail on the head. While I’ve now learned how to work it a bit better, my very first guide for a start-up series was poorly paid, more than a little disorganized, and left me high and dry—I think I actually lost money in the five-month process. Then, there were the times I had to hitchhike through barren regions of Spain or drive a MANUAL rental car through shoulderless stretches of the Pyrenees—when I had never driven a stick shift in my life—where I honestly thought I was not going to live to see the sun rise again. While I didn’t have any crazy hook-ups or drug encounters like Thomas writes about, I think his book was a rather accurate portrayal of the lengths many travel writers go to in an industry where the employee is not respected or paid what he/she is worth in order to produce a quality story. Needless to say, I read the book in two days. Anytime anyone tells me I have a “dream job” or that he or she is interested in getting in the profession themselves, my immediate inclination is to give them the book. Even if you have absolutely no desire to do what both Thomas and I do, you’d still find it entertaining to say the least.

As soon as I got back from Alaska, I e-mailed Thomas, not expecting to hear back, well, ever. My note read something like this:

I was prepared to be totally pissed off at your (in)accurate portrayal of the travel writing business, but I must say, the second I delved into your world, I couldn’t put the book down. It was spot on, riveting and read much like a novel. Some of those news articles prior to your book’s publication portrayed you as pompous; I found you anything but. (And I was glad for the World Hum article that set the record straight.) I’ve already passed on your book to several of my friends, because I want them to know what my “unemployment” is truly like (that’s how many refer to my freelance lifestyle). I fear they’ll think you’re the travel equivalent of James Frey; it all seems so preposterous to those who haven’t experienced it.

But he wrote me back just days later and couldn’t have been nicer.

Thanks for getting in touch and thanks for giving the book a fair shake after all of that negative publicity. It really wasn’t a publicity stunt—if anything, the publishers had vaguely pushed towards controversy, but had no plan of how to handle it once it hit and due to the hyperbolic and sensationalist nature of the first article about it in some Aussie tabloid things just got way out of control. It was a pretty wild—and often ugly—roller coaster for a month or two there and I am just able to step back and start to reflect on it a bit.

Since then, Thomas and I have become e-mail pals of sorts—hopefully, someday we’ll actually meet in person—and he agreed to do a Q&A. Go devour his book—no really, we’ll sit here…and wait…you ready yet?—and come back and read what he has to say. I don’t make demands often, but this? Is an order!

If, going into the job at Lonely Planet, you’d known everything you know now—the pay, treatment, difficulty in getting the work done—do you think you still would have given up your Wall Street career?

Yes. Without a doubt. I was not trying to say that guidebook writing is a horrible job so much as I was attempting to express my fundamental view that life is all about trade-offs. Many people naively imagine travel writing to be some sort of unmitigated dream job.

Travel writing is an insanely difficult career (as you know, Kristin) and in it I discovered many of the complications, compromises and corruptions that also haunted my earlier career. That said, I had innumerable spectacular experiences on the road and would not give those up for anything.
Thomas Kohnstamm | Do Travel Writers Go to Hell

We’ve discussed before that people–even some in the industry–are so eager to write off the book as hogwash without having read it. Do you think the whirlwind of (somewhat negative) publicity you received prior to the release actually helped sales, or, consequently, hindered, as those close-minded types refused to even see what it was all about?

Somewhat negative? I had people (who had never read the book, because it wasn’t even out yet) calling for my head to the point that I received more than 20 death threats.

It definitely hindered the release of my book although I have found that the book has continued to get readers—many of whom missed the controversy and came to it later and with an open mind.

The controversy was really unfortunate as it was based on hearsay, misquotes and a good dose of hysteria. It had almost nothing to do with the actual content of the book and didn’t do anybody any favors (except for a few loser bloggers who only get attention when they stoke people’s sense of self-righteous indignation).

What do people seem most surprised to learn about in our type of work?

People don’t really understand writers in general. Most people don’t know any writers in the flesh and tend to imagine them through what they’ve seen in the movies or read in books. Writers are seen as some sort of mythical, reclusive (and probably alcoholic) creature who works for artistic integrity and the greater good—not to pay the rent or eat or any such thing.

The Internet and social networking are bringing us all closer, but I guess that a lot of people are still surprised that we deal with a lot of the same ups and downs and crises of confidence with our job and industry as anyone else.

Any travel vocabulary cliches you absolutely refuse to use? (e.g. My editor forbids me to include “opulent,” “elegant” or “sumptuous” in anything; I forbid myself to ever type “atmospheric” and “picturesque”–what do they even mean, really?–which ironically I long ago dubbed “Lonely Planet phrases.”)

Yeah, it’s tricky in travel writing—especially when writing about hotel rooms and beaches. However, a lot of editors want cliché articles. I mean, honestly, we’re often writing about the same stuff over and over again, simply because it was popular in the past…so the articles are going to be the same recycled concept regardless of the adjectives.

More generally speaking, I don’t like uber (with or without the umlaut). It is trying to be cutting edge, but isn’t. Saying that something is “uber-exclusive” sounds douchey (although the word douche is pretty overused these days, too).

I can’t stand the word hipster—the worst being “uber hip” or “uber hipster.” Hipster is a lame way to make a sweeping generalization. The designation of “extreme sports” makes me want to kick the writer in the balls.

I won’t eat up any more of your blog with this rant.

What traits do you think it takes to make it as a travel writer?

You will never get into the career and persevere through the hard times unless you are a disciplined risk taker or are an independently wealthy egomaniac (in which case it is a vanity job and the hard times will never get worse that realizing you’re a poseur—who still has money in the bank either way). You also have to be innovative and think outside of the box in order to be constantly creating new opportunities for yourself. You must have general travel and writing skills, but I think that it is best to balance them out with a specific expertise. For me, it was languages. For others, it could be drums, cooking, surfing, fashion, regional politics, whatever. Most successful writers expand beyond that expertise, but it really helps when you are starting off.

Who’s your own travel icon?

Hard to say. I’ve met a lot of nutty travelers out there doing crazy shit—and I am always impressed (and frequently jealous) of their adventures. I’ve met dozens who are way cooler than Bear Grylls.

I like to read about guys like Hernan Cortes, Robert Clive, William Walker and other twisted (frequently Machiavellian) individuals who really went for it when the consequences of a bad trip were death or worse.

For those who didn’t read the Times article in which you were quoted, pray tell about that time you were “pistol-whipped.”

It’s kind of a long story, but I was robbed while researching nightlife (aka walking around drunk at night) in Caracas, Venezuela a few years back. A guy came out of a doorway and hit me in the temple with the butt of a handgun. A number of others descended on me and tried to steal everything on my person (shoes, pants, belt, etc). Two cops arrived on a motorbike in the middle of it (with a Kalashnikov) and made them all strip naked and then started beating them with a bamboo pole and a crutch. When the police found my ATM card on one of the guys, the officer informed me that I would have to give them my PIN so they “could be sure that the card is mine.” I told him that the PIN was 1, 2, 3, 4. The whole thing was a big fiasco. Fortunately, it was the only time I was robbed in a whole lifetime of travel. Knock on wood.

Plans for a follow-up book? What’s going on with your tales of “international illegitimate fatherhood?”

I am hard at work on it right now. I’ve been dabbling in screenwriting for the last year, but am now back and refocused and busy writing about my erstwhile Patagonian love child. I don’t want to write a re-tread of the last book, so I am planning to pull some mindblowing literary tricks out of somewhere. We’ll see…

  • April 19, 2009

    Totally want to read that now. on my next vacay!

  • April 19, 2009

    I must be living in a hole because I haven’t heard anything negative about this book. As a matter of fact, its been on my list for a few months and now I must read it!

  • April 19, 2009

    Read the book last year, after finding it in a travel bookstore in Rhode Island. Loved it, and was happy to read the interview. Thanks!

  • April 19, 2009

    This guy sounds like a cheap imitation of Tucker Max in his memoir I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell. And I don’t see how the Worldhum interview set his image straight. I cringed at this part:

    “Have you ever plagiarized?
    No, what I have done is, places I was unable to visit to update information on, I did updates over the internet and tried to corroborate information with local contacts, people in the know. I always got multiple sources together.

    That was your approach for all the books you worked on?

    Compiling the ideas of “multiple sources” and even paraprasing them is still plagiarism, buddy. Really, he sounds like he has the spine of a jellyfish. Last but not least, a book about “International Illegitimate Fatherhood” sounds like a joke to me – or yet another publicity stunt.

    I like the REAL Tucker Max better. At least he acknowledged he was a tool.

  • April 19, 2009

    Now now let’s play nice unless we’ve actually had to assemble 35 chapters on Central American “hotspots.” The experience is illuminating.. Particularly when it is an update to existing text.

    And dude! Did you go to Hell to get that last picture or what?

  • April 19, 2009

    I’m heading for Amazon right now. But I cheated and read the interview. Very well said, by both of you.

    Any “dream job” has it’s downs and ups like any other job. Being a National Park Ranger is like that. It’s something I do with a passion, but not for the big dollars. The best part, I love my job. Most of the public can’t say that.

    Thanks for sharing this.

  • April 19, 2009

    Thomas Kohnstamm! I love him! One of your interview questions should have been whether he’d buy me a drink the next time he’s in San Francisco. HAHA. I kid, I kid. But that reminds me: I still have your copy of this book!

  • April 20, 2009

    Ooh I’ve been looking for a book to take on the plane with me next month when I go to New York (via Switzerland!), so I’m off to Amazon right now to order this!
    Thanks Kristin!

  • April 20, 2009

    he did one for my site too……and i too was surprised when he actually wrote back….

  • April 20, 2009

    I’ve never read the book, but I’m excited to now. Emailing you the rest of my comment…

  • April 20, 2009

    I love travel books so I am definitely going to pick this one up. Can’t wait to read it!

  • April 20, 2009

    I read the book last year, and loved it. (I didn’t really think that I would either, I thought it was going to be more “ranty”, but it was a very easy read). Thanks for the interview!
    ps: the pictures are hilarious, I love the first one compared with the last one.

  • April 20, 2009
    stevie b

    “ummmmheyyyy” –
    what you said about plagiarism makes sense for a novel or memoir or even a newspaper article, but guidebooks are essentially a round-up of public information (is Yelp! a plagiarist?). I am a former attorney and have to say that, no, that doesn’t sound to be plagiarism. Sounds more like expediency in an underfunded industry (am looking forward to seeing an internet writer do a book like this on the realities of their job). Moreover, it strikes me that you’ve only read an article about this book and not the book itself. I have read both Kohnstamm and Tucker Max and see almost no similarities other than they’re both guys of about the same age and discuss sex in their books (much less so in Kohnstamm’s book). Tucker Max “acknowledged he was a tool”? I am getting the sense that you didn’t read that book either.

  • April 20, 2009

    I’d been looking for my next good read. And now I’ve found it. Thanks!

  • April 20, 2009

    Oooh! I’m so going to read that book!

    I can understand, sort of, since I worked in the “glamorous” world of professional sports. People think it is the GREATEST! JOB! EVER! When, a lot of times, it isn’t. And it is always a job. Yes, it has some added perks, but it has a lot of politics and a lot of down sides.

    But it also has half-naked athletes as an upside! 🙂

  • April 20, 2009

    This is awesome! Yet another book I need to read this summer…

  • April 20, 2009

    Love it! I devoured his book while in Oz last year. I want to meet him, well, actually travel with him, so badly now. 🙂

  • April 21, 2009

    I’m going to have to check that book out now. Thanks for the suggestion of a good travel book!

  • April 23, 2009

    This was fun!
    I couldn’t believe all of the negative publicity he got when the book came out. Overreaction fed overreaction.

  • April 23, 2009

    This is the book I’m taking on vacation with me in May. Travel writing is definitely not for everyone. I sold an article to a magazine in Asia (who markets itself as a ‘luxury specialist’) but they paid me a measly $100 for both text AND photos!!! But writing is a passion, so what can I do?

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