"In travel writing it's simple. Tell me a story, don't sell me a destination."
My Perfect Adventure
To many of us, he’ll always be the kid in St. Elmo’s Fire in love with his best friend’s girl. But Andrew McCarthy has, over the decades, evolved out of his Brat Pack acting phase and into high-caliber travel writing that’s won him heaps of awards and gotten his byline into publications like The Atlantic, The New York Times, and National Geographic Traveler, where he’s an editor-at-large. His book, The Longest Way Home: One Man's Quest for the Courage to Settle Down, is about his solo journeys to places like Patagonia and Kilimanjaro in search of the courage to marry his fiancé (he eventually finds it). In this interview, he reveals how a Vietnamese kid on a scooter turned him into a travel writer; the wonders of grapefruit-seed extract; and that his perfect day would involve writing, hiking, acting, and Maui.
Describe your perfect day, from dawn 'til dusk. Where would you be, who would you meet, and what would you do?
I'd get up before dawn in Keihi, Maui, and kayak south, into the swell. I'd have my flippers on, snorkel and mask ready, and when I saw the turtles, I'd slip in and swim with them. I'd get all the way to La Perouse Bay and swim with the porpoises for a while. The sun would come up over Haleakala and I'd let the current help me back. Eat some fresh mango from the tree, maybe some pineapple. Then I'd write for several hours. In the afternoon I'd be teleported to Wyoming’s Absaroka Mountains, where I'd hike for a few hours and set up camp. Once the sky got dark, I'd teleport to New York City, go to the theater, and perform in a great play.
If you could travel someplace you've never been, where would you go and why?
Since Burma is opening up, I'd love to get there before McDonald's does. I had an amazing experience in Angkor Wat 20 years ago. There was no one there, though I understand it's much different now. I think the same may be said about Burma in a short time, so now seems the moment.
What’s the best place you've ever visited?
That's very difficult to say. I've had amazing times and terrible times and the variable seems to be me and my attitude or mood, not the place. That said, I'd always wanted to get to Patagonia, and when I finally did, it was better than I’d imagined. I'm plotting to get back. I went with my son to the Sahara Desert and we had an incredible experience. And let's face it, Rome and Paris aren't bad either.
If you could have lunch with any adventurer, who would it be and why?
I'd love to talk with Ernest Shackleton about the Endurance expedition, and the unbelievable journey he undertook to get help without losing a man. I'd want to hear Fraya Stark talk about her exploits in Persia; she had a wonderful solitary spirit. We could do a week of long lunches—I’d like to hear about Richard Burton's African insanity. The Irish writer Dervla Murphy has had some amazing jaunts. The list goes on.
What’s something you can’t travel without?
I hate to say it, but my computer. For writing. But if I were relieved of that, and if I relieved myself from the illusion that I need to be connected, I'd say that I don't need much. I like to travel with a small bottle of grapefruit-seed extract. A few drops a day and stomach problems are not a concern.
When you arrive at a new destination, what’s usually first on your agenda?
I like to get out and start walking, doesn't really matter where. The rhythm of walking is very stabilizing. And I like to ask for help fairly quickly, which relieves me of the illusion that I've got it all covered and connects me to the people, which prevents isolation from building up.
What motivates you to keep writing?
To be the best version of myself, I need to feel like I've been creative in some form every day. It was one of the reasons I felt such great relief when I began writing, which I came to fairly late in life. As an actor, I always wait to be given an opportunity to create. It's part of the reason I’ve acted in things that I shouldn't have—I just needed to ply my trade. I don't feel that need with acting so much anymore, especially since I can now get my kicks out with the writing, and I can write what the hell I want.
As a child, what was your dream job? If you gave up that dream, do you have any regrets?
The first time I walked out on stage at 15, I felt like myself fully for the first time and that was that. It was done. There was just a knowing. No decision to be made, no conversation to be had. It was what I was going to do.
When and how did you first venture into travel writing?
I'd been traveling quite a bit, solo mostly. When you travel alone for an extended period, you can become quite untethered, so I tried to keep a journal. But I was a flop at that; it was indulgent, silly, and repetitive. One day in Saigon, a kid on a scooter asked me if I wanted a ride. So I hopped on his scooter and he showed me the city from his perspective. When I went back to my hotel that night, I wrote it down as it happened. I'm an actor, so I know a scene, I know dialogue—I've said so much bad dialogue in my career that I know good dialogue when I hear it. I know story arc and all that. That's what I'd been doing my whole life. So I started writing down scenes every time I traveled. This went on for 10 years or so, on every trip I took, with no real intention other than as a way of grounding myself while on the road. Finally I approached an editor. He heard what I was saying and was able to see beyond stereotyping and he took a chance. It took off from there.
What advice would you give to an aspiring writer?
In travel writing it's simple. Tell me a story, don't sell me a destination. That's something I inherently knew from my years of acting: "It's the story, stupid." Another reason I’ve been successful at the writing is because I believe in what I'm writing about. "Travel changed my life, it can change yours." That message is underneath every story I write. It's rarely overt, but it's the energy underneath. And that energy transmits. That, and learn how to use a semicolon.
Who have been your most influential role models?
Paul Theroux's travel books had a profound effect on me. They opened my eyes to a way of travel that I had not considered—namely, go, go alone, go far, stay gone awhile. His power of observation and willingness to be who he was made great sense to me. As a young actor, I was quite enamored with Montgomery Clift, perhaps not the best role model.
Do you have a life philosophy?
Say please and thank you.
Have you ever made a mistake in your travels that made you think twice about going out again?
I've made lots of mistakes on the road. Usually they turn out well because then I need to ask for help and then I get into some interesting adventures. The road can be lonely. You ask yourself why you are so far from home and the people you love. It's a strange push-pull.
If you had to choose a different career, what would it be and why?
I'm not really qualified to do that much. I took a few NOLS courses a long time ago, and I've fantasized about being an instructor, but I don't think I have the patience.
Name three things you still want to cross off your bucket list.
Since I'm such a bad flyer, I think I'd like to learn to fly a plane. I'd like to cross the Sahara, not in a car. I'd like to speak a language other than English fluently.