Q&A: Tim Cahill
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Tim Cahill’s incredible travels have given rise to seven books and countless Outside Magazine articles over the past twenty-plus years, most recently “Everybody Loves the Assassin”, about his mission in Iran to visit the ancient castles of the assassins. We caught up with him last fall at home in Montana on a break between wanderings.
Outside Online: So we’re always curious to know what you’ve seen lately—where have you been recently?
Tim Cahill: I’ve actually been staying around home quite a bit more lately, so I’ve been in the mountains around my cabin, which is the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness area—my cabin is on the fringe of the wilderness area. I’ve been doing a lot of hiking and backpacking this summer, and a little less running around to foreign and remote destinations.
OO: Is that a conscious decision?
TC: Yeah, it was a conscious decision—I decided that I moved to Montana over twenty years ago so that I could do precisely what I spent most of this last summer doing, but the truth is I’ve spent most of the past 20 years in some time zone 180 degrees away from my own. I decided it was ridiculous to look out my window and see these mountains and realize, “I don’t know that mountain.” It’s ridiculous to know mountains 8,000 miles away better than the one you can see from your own window.
OO: So what’s the verdict? Are you feeling an itch to travel or have you found this pretty satisfying?
TC: I found it pretty satisfying, but I think that I would go nuts if I didn’t do some traveling. I’m just trying to cut down on that kind of rabid-rat nature of running from one place to another.
OO: What places are on your list to go to over the next couple of years?
TC: There are some places that I want to go back to that I liked—almost anywhere in Patagonia, especially anywhere in Southern Patagonia. I would like to look more closely at Central Asia—Uzbekistan, Turkistan. Afghanistan is out for the time being, obviously. Uzbekistan sounds fascinating to me.
OO: What is it that you find so intriguing about Uzbekistan?
TC: They have your basic wonderful mountains and rivers. They also have some of the biggest caverooms on earth, and the country is so little known. It was basically closed for most of the last century, and now it’s open and available for travel, although lord knows what the travel situation is going to be in that area of the world now.
OO: Can you tell me a little bit about how you write?
TC: I try to write a little bit every day. What I generally do first is try to write the pieces of the story that I know I’m going to want to write about anyway. It’s hard for me to start at the beginning and go right to the end. And I generally don’t have an outline except in my mind. I try to write 500 words a day but it doesn’t always happen. And yes, it ends up that you’re up late two, three, four nights in a row when the deadline approaches. I confess that I’m a deadline junkie—most writers that I know are.
OO: How would you define your perspective? How do you describe a place and time in a way that’s specifically Cahillian?
TC: Well, there are a couple of things that I do that might be different. I got a sort of backhanded compliment the other day—somebody said, “Tim, my cousin’s a writer and nobody publishes him, but he works so hard—you can see how hard he works on every page. But you, Tim, you just have fun and people publish everything you write.” Well, the secret is not letting them see you sweat. You don’t want them to see the work that you did to come into it. My style is an easy conversational kind of style. If I want to tell you about a certain breed of horse for instance, I assume you don’t care about it to begin with, so I’m going to present you with a situation in which it would be to your benefit to learn what this breed of horse is and why it’s capable of doing something. The research in this stuff should seem effortless and it should seem to flow very easily.
The other thing that I try to do is to take whatever it is that is happening and try to figure out what it means. I want to take it to a level above mere reporting so that I can say, “Well, this happened and this happened and this happened and that is true, but I want to think about those things that happened and see how it applies to my life and your life and most specifically, how the reader might want to be thinking about it.” I don’t often tell the reader, “Ha! Reader! You must think about this this way.” But I will confess that I try to gently guide readers into the direction that I want them to go.
OO: Do you keep a journal when you travel?
TC: Absolutely. Less than a journal it’s more notes that I take, and if we’re not moving really fast and frantically and I have time, sometimes I write whole scenes. Usually I carry two notebooks—one is a small reporter notebook in my back pocket and then another one that’s lettersize.
OO: Do you ever travel and not write about it?
TC: I haven’t to date. Not in the last twenty-some years.
OO: Wow, I imagine you’d feel a little lost. You’d probably still take notes.
TC: I probably would. It’s very funny because sometimes I’m interviewed about my life—when did you do this, when did you do that—and I didn’t take notes on that, so I don’t remember. I could tell you almost every single day of something that I took notes on—what happened and how I thought about it—and I suppose I do that so much in my work that I don’t do it in my personal life, so in my personal life I lead a largely unreflective life.
OO: You often describe yourself as the incompetent guy in the wilderness. Is that true or more of a device?
TC: Well, to some degree it is a device at this point. I mean, I’ve done a lot of stuff and really by osmosis have been able to absorb certain information. I don’t make the same mistakes that I made 20 years ago. I make other mistakes.
OO: You did forget your sleeping bag on that river trip just this summer.
TC: For instance. But that isn’t a particularly tragic mistake.
OO: Have you ever made a really tragic mistake? What is the dumbest thing you’ve done?
TC: I get lost—my sense of direction is a matter of great humor to my traveling companions. I suppose the dumbest thing was when I fell off a cliff in the Queen Charlotte Islands—I hit my head and hurt my back while I was bushwhacking in a temperate-zone rain forest all alone. It was difficult in my hurt condition to get back to the seashore where my kayaking partners were. I actually have worked with the search and rescue teams here in Montana and I know very well that you shouldn’t go hiking alone. I knew the rules I just chose to ignore them.
OO: Do you usually travel by yourself or with people?
TC: Normally, almost every place I go I go with a photographer who’s assigned to the story. So I generally have a photographer, and if I’m in a foreign country that I really need help in where I don’t know the culture very well, or don’t know the language, I often have a local guide I pick up along the way. So in remote places there is generally at least three of us, sometimes more.
OO: Do you think your presence affects the story? Especially when there are three of you?
TC: The ideal situation for writing would be to be by yourself. You can get lazy in meeting and encountering people and just talk with your photographer or something, whereas, when you are by yourself, the social nature of human beings will drive you out of a room and into social contact with people. But generally the photographers I work with are professional men and women and realize that we are not being paid to hang out together but to encounter the culture and the people in that place.
OO: What have you been writing about this summer while you haven’t been traveling?
TC: Actually, it’s very strange. This summer I felt like I had been hysterically running from one foreign assignment to another foreign assignment and this Missouri River piece is the first piece that I have written in six months. I just took the time off and I guess it’s probably my first vacation in 20 years. Since I’m a travel writer my idea of a vacation is staying home and not writing.
OO: You weren’t always a travel writer were you?
TC: No. I worked for Rolling Stone. I did rock and roll. I did a little bit of politics. I did the on-the-set movie pieces and movie star profiles and various types of investigative reporting.
OO: Is travel writing more or less the same craft but with different subject matter, or do you think that there are things about it that make it fundamentally different from other types of writing?
TC: Travel writing is writing. It’s a very forgiving genre in terms of its definition, because as soon as you step out the front door it’s travel writing. Personally, if you ask me what kind of writer I am I would just say that I am a writer and it just so happens that I also love to travel and encounter places and people and various landscapes. That is what gets my juices going and allows me to—I hope—write well. If I had to cover the doings of the local sewer board, for instance, I’m not sure that the stories would be as scintillating. But if—and I had to think about this when I injured myself in the Queen Charlotte Islands—the question was would I ever be able to travel again (it was answered in the affirmative—I had an operation and my back is back to about 90%), it occurred to me then that I don’t have to travel to write.
OO: Which do you think are your best Outside pieces?
TC: One of my favorite articles from very very early in the magazine was a piece about a company that was killing a whole species of marine sea turtles on the beaches of Mexico. At about the same time I wrote a piece called “Caving in Kentucky” that’s an upbeat encounter of an entirely different landscape, and I was probably rather hilariously incompetent in that one. Those are two early ones that I particularly like.
OO: Anything recent that you’re especially happy with?
TC: Yes—there is one called “A Darkness on the River” —another serious one about a friend’s son who was killed in Peru and we went down to find out about that. And there is a piece that was chosen for The Best American Travel Writing anthology in 1999 that was in Outside that’s about a trip I took on the Congo Barge, called “This Teeming Ark.” It mixed some funny information with some dark and, in the end, rather dyspeptic thoughts.
OO: What do you think makes a story good? Is it that combination of the dark and the comic or is it something else?
TC: I used to tell students that if you can make them laugh and make them cry in the same piece you have created an illusion of depth. The more I thought about it the more I realized—hey, if you can make them laugh and cry in the same piece you have created depth. But I have a theory that as human beings we see our lives through the lenses of stories. Stories are the way we organize the complete chaos of our existence into something that we can understand. And that is what I try to do—I try to tell stories that allow us to make sense of things. I don’t know if I have a coherent theory about it, but you know when you’ve put together some events in such and such a way that they form a story, and you know to some degree that you can manipulate the things—I don’t have to say this but I do need to say that. You know that you have created a story that is going to be satisfying to the reader.