Is Thomas Kohnstamm Going To Hell? A Travel Writer’s Real Take On Travel Writing
Monday, February 8, 2010
An interview with travel writer and author Thomas Kohnstamm
According to his website bio, Thomas Kohnstamm is a “writer, traveler and seeker of all that is odd, adventurous and ridiculous.” In his first book, Do Travel Writers Go To Hell, he takes readers through a healthy fixing of ridiculousness as he embarks on a debaucherous journey through Brazil as a Lonely Planet writer.
Before opening the book, I thought it would be akin to a Do They Serve Beer in Hell for travelers — a fun, shallow read. What you´ll find is more. The book is fun. It is ridiculous. It is, as the cover proclaims it to be, “A Swashbuckling Tale of High Adventure, Questionable Ethics & Professional Hedonism.” But under the surface of all the fun, Kohnstamm offers a philosophical depth and commentary on traveling, travel writing and the drive that draws people to the road. The characters he describes are real, and for everyone who has spent time in hostels, they are all people we have met. Likewise, the questions he raises: “What am I doing and why?”, are questions travelers grapple with frequently.
All this makes Do Travel Writers Go To Hell not just an enjoyable read, but an important read that will likely stand the test of time and weigh down traveler´s packs from Brazil to Botswana.
Continue reading TheExpeditioner.com´s exclusive interview Author Thomas Kohnstamm as he relates his experience as a travel writer and admits his unhealthy obsession with Scary Spice.
The Expeditioner: I was going to start by asking you what your favorite country and color is, but since my editor requested that I not ask any “lame” questions, why don´t we just start with: What is the most unquestionably immoral, sexually perverse, and ethically astonishing thing you have ever seen in your travels?
Kohnstamm: Brazil and the color green, but moving on . . . prior to becoming a travel writer I worked for a law firm on Wall Street where I saw immoral and ethically astonishing things that made everything from my travels pale in comparison. As for sexual perversion, the sex tourism in Northeastern Brazil and in Cuba ranges from creepy to tragic.
The Expeditioner: Your book takes the halo off guidebook writers (and in your case the most revered of all guidebook writers, the mythical Lonely Planet writer). Something I took away from the book was: the only difference between guide book writers and travelers is that after a night of partying the guide book writer needs to turn on his laptop to make some sense out of their previous day of chaotic debauchery. Did you get any negative backlash from Lonely Planet editors when the book came out?
Kohnstamm: There in is the conundrum of the guidebook writer in a place like Northeastern Brazil, where you are covering lots of beach party towns in a hedonistic environment. You can be a dispassionate observer, running around, taking notes about night life and not really understanding what’s going on . . . or you can immerse yourself in the culture and come up with some deeper insights, but you must then walk that fine line between business and pleasure. I am sure that it would be less of an issue if you were covering museums in Italy or castles in the UK.
I got plenty of backlash from Lonely Planet including a campaign to make me look like a terrible person and a threatened law suit. They’re not really open to criticism.
The Expeditioner: Why do you think guide books so often contract-out writers who are just passing through a place for a short period of time, instead of finding a local or expat who has spent a considerable number of years getting to know a place? What are the advantages of outsiders writing insider´s hints and tips?
Kohnstamm: We could discuss this for a while as there are a few different issues at play. I’ll try to keep this short though.
1): The guidebook publisher can save money and time by contracting someone to cover many different places. It takes a while to learn how to write in a company’s style and to learn all of the formatting stuff. So, once a writer is up and running and fulfilling the company’s needs, they want to use them as frequently as possible. Searching out and training new writers is a huge time suck. Managing hundreds of writers for hundreds of destinations would be practically impossible. There is always user-generated content, but it comes with a loss of editorial standards.
2) An outside writer tends to be more independent. A local or expat will have many ties to local business and will recommend businesses that compromise their content.
3): It is often good to have the outsider perspective as the audience for the guidebook is 100% outsiders. I am from Seattle and while I can give you a lot of insight on Seattle culture, I don’t know shit about hotels in town and public transportation from the airport, etc. . . I also have a very calcified view of how my city is and how it works (much of it formed during my teenage years). Maybe it is best from someone else to write the Seattle guide and pick my brain for detail when needed.
The Expeditioner: Travel writer critic Edward Marriot thinks that we have “reached the moment when travel writing [cannot] go any further.” He goes on to say that “[w]ith many young writers of travel turning to history, biography or fiction, the genre has never felt so redundant.” What do you make of Marriot´s comments? Has travel writing really reached a critical mass? Is all travel writing the same surface with different paint? (Man arrives in new place. Man is taken aback by strange customs. Man comes to grips and is inspired by these new things and writes about the experience.)
Kohnstamm: There is a lot of lame travel writing out there, but there is always good stuff too. If you look at travel writing as writing with a focus on place, then I think that it is really limitless. Sure, big book publishers are afraid to take a risk to publish something that isn’t similar to a past success and, therefore, they narrow the genre. But, overall, I disagree with Marriot and think that he’s really being more provocative than genuine.
The Expeditioner: From your book, it’s a given that you have traveled extensively. But you did not start off writing about these travels. Do you bring a different mentality to a place when you know that you are going to have to write about it?
Kohnstamm: I much prefer to travel when you don’t plan to write about it. Writing — especially reporting-based writing — is essentially work (even if it is creative work) and distorts how you can relate to your actual experience while in a given place. In my book, I say that it must be a bit like the difference between having sex and working in porn. Both are enjoyable, but going pro eventually perverts and corrupts your original interest in the subject.
I like the point where I am at now: I travel and garner different experiences and write about them at a later time if the experience or character inspires me or serves my writing needs.
The Expeditioner: Your book begins when travel becomes an escape from a mundane routine of a modern life. Do you foresee a time when you escape from escaping? A time when you will that you have had enough, and all you want now is to sleep on the same bed every night?
Kohnstamm: It has already happened. I am now married and live in Seattle and have two dogs. I hit a point where I was fantasizing about not having to dig through a backpack to find my toothbrush at night. I could envision opening a mirrored cabinet in the bathroom and finding my toothbrush ready-to-go behind it.
I still travel a lot, but I do it more on my own terms. My wife is from Rio and now I return as part of a sprawling Brazilian family rather than an outside observer. Marrying into a culture is a strange pinnacle of interaction. All of these travelers and travel writers think they’re so “extreme” because they visited this place or that place or ate this or bungee jumped off that, but — in my experience — there is nothing more challenging than truly learning language and culture to the point that you can have a genuine relationship with your mother- and father-in-law. That is some crazy shit . . . trust me.
The Expeditioner: Is there another book in the works for you?
Kohnstamm: I am busy working on screenwriting right now, but have other books in the works.
The Expeditioner: And finally and most importantly, if you were stranded on a desert Island and could only take one Spice Girl, which would you take?
Kohnstamm: Oh man, Spice Girls? Really? What is this, 1995? If I really have to take a Spice Girl, I’d say Scary Spice (pre-Eddie Murphy fiasco). Thanks for not asking Britney or Christina Aguilera, at least.
About the Author
Luke Maguire Armstrong lives in Guatemala directing the humanitarian aid organization, Nuestros Ahijados. His book of poetry, iPoems for the Dolphins to Click Home About (available for sale on Amazon.com) is especially enjoyed by people who “don’t read poetry.” (@lukespartacus)