How did you become a travel writer?
I don’t look at travel writing asbeing much different from any other kind of writing. I’ve done a little bit ofeverything, some political stories and more character-driven stuff. I tend toapproach travel writing pretty much the same way that I do any other kind ofstory. I really try to find a narrative instead of just describing a bunch ofhollowed trees or plates of pasta.
There are great travel pieces bywriters whom I admire a lot. Joan Didion wrote brilliantly about Newport, RhodeIsland. That’s not exactly a travel piece but it’s a piece with a sense ofplace. John McPhee. Ian Frazier is a writer I admire who’s done some stuff thatmaybe counts as travel writing. David Foster Wallace did brilliant travelessays. I suppose his boat piece or fair piece fit into the travel story.George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London reads like a travel book to me.
Where do you get your ideas for trips?
The Venice trip came from amagazine ad. Generally, I try to find my way into places that most people wouldnot ordinarily seek out. Greenland was an interesting notion for a story (seeMeltdown from the April 2008 issue.) Itjust seemed like the kind of place that would leave an indelible mark on theconsciousness whereas maybe shopping in Paris would not. Generally I try to gosomewhere that leads to awkward experiences.
My Dad and I began taking a trip every year togetherafter he beat cancer. My brother and I hadn’t done a whole lot of traveltogether. I’ve sort of written about our squabbles enough that it’s become alittle tiresome. We were literally going through the fact-checking on a pieceI’d written for GQ about our relationship when he called up and said, “I talkedwith the guy and that’s cool you’ve written about our childhood but it’sgetting a little wearying.” I said, “That’s totally cool. I’m not going to doit anymore.” And right when I was on the phone with him, I got an email from Outside asking if my brother might want to go to Italy withme. I called my brother back and said, “Hey man, I know we just had thisconversation and I’m certainly not trying to push this one way or the other but,you know, if you want to then there’s a free trip to Venice in it for you.”
He said, “Cool, great.”
I said, “You know it’s going to be us doing that samething where I write about us bitching at each other, right?”
He said, “That’s totally cool, man. No sweat.”
It was funny with the Vogalonga story. At the outset, wewere legitimately anxious that we’d get along so well there wouldn’t be astory. But, uh, that ended up not being the case at all. We were at eachother’s throats in a genuine sort of way.
The Vogalonga story (see Vogalooooonga from our April 2010 issue,) discusses an ongoing feud, sometimesphysical, between you and your brother Dan. If you were a WWE wrestler, whatwould be your nickname and why?
Oh God. Um, I don’t know. Probably “theSweater”. It seems that when I travel with my brother, I’m the guy worryingabout the details while my brother is telling me to chill out and get over it.I think my super power would be logistic anxiety.
What’s in your emergency travel kit?
I don’t think I have one. I justgot back from Amsterdam last night. I had to go through the whole rigamarolewith the bag because I’d left a tube of toothpaste in there. I still haven’tgone to the trouble of getting travel-sized toiletry containers. I’m such adesperately disorganized traveler that there is no kit. But let’s see...Usually, I like to bring a pair of tweezers and some dental floss. That mightbe it.
In the July 2007 issue, you wrote about how to extract a tickfrom your genitals. Was this rooted in personal experience from your youth inNorth Carolina? Why is whiskey a better anti-adhesive than, say, tequila?
It’s a drag when that happens. It’sunfortunately common in my neck of the woods in North Carolina.
The whiskey is a southern thing.Generally, you have a bottle of Wild Turkey lying around. Giving the tick somereasonably good brown liquor before you set it on fire just seems like thedecent thing to do.
You biked along the Mississippi River levee in the March 2007 issue, tubedFlorida’s Wekiva River in the April 2009 issue, and kayaked Venice in thecurrent issue. Why water sports?
I don’t know. The Mississippi thingwas a holdover from my time in New Orleans. At the end of each workday, I’dtake my bike to the levee and ride for an hour or two just because it was acongenial thing to do. It was also the only way you could get a look at theMississippi. The river was all around you but you could never see beyond thelevee.
You’re right. There has been a fairamount of water stuff. There was water action in Greenland too. I guess it’smaybe because doing anything on the water seems like it will be easy. A kayaktrip just sounds easy. You don’t have to go up any hills or anything like that.You can put all your stuff in the boat. It seems like sort of a cheat to getsome outdoorsy cred. I’d done a couple boating trips where you just put in atthe top of a river and cruise for a day or two. I thought the Vogalonga wasgoing to be like that. Really simple. A leisurely cruise around some islands.But man, we didn’t train for it or anything. I guess I’d been going to the gyma fair amount and thought my upper body was in reasonable shape but good God,I’ve never had upper body fatigue like I did at the end of that thing. Everytime I pulled the paddle I would literally whimper like a frightened kitten. Itwas a bad scene. That head wind was just absolutely outrageous. It was acrusher. If I hadn’t felt it would be a terrible humiliation to turn around—ifI hadn’t been writing a piece about it—I’m sure I would have bailed. Paddlingfor hours straight into a headwind is a pretty easy route to despair.
What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
Don’t be afraid to destroy yourwork. Don’t get too attached to the early drafts. Don’t treasure a sentence ordescription just because it took you 45 minutes to write it. Go back, be cruel,and revise it.
Wells Tower’s short story collection Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned was recently released in paperback. He received two Pushcart Prizes and the Plimpton Prize from The Paris Review. He divides his time between Chapel Hill, North Carolina and Brooklyn, New York.