Q&A: Rolf Potts Went There

Monday, April 11, 2011

Q&A with Nomad Rolf Potts, Author of Marco Polo Didn´t Go There

It is easy to forget that when it comes to “travel writing,” traveling is the easy part. These days, anyone without the last name “Bin Laden” can buy a plane ticket and go just about anywhere.

But turning a trip into a compelling narrative that speaks to an audience as fickle as travelers in a way that packages reality into something readily digestible (deep breath), is where travel writing and great travel writing diverge. To execute great travel writing effectively requires an artist´s attentiveness. Like anything worthwhile, it involves hard work. Sometimes (cue Beethoven’s 5th), it even requires getting a college degree.

Now cue Rolf Pott’s book Marco Polo Didn’t Go There. Open the pages and find a book that takes you from this corner to that corner of the globe via compelling narratives on a quality level that even few fiction writers inhabit. And fiction writers get to make shit up.

As a traveler who has reported from over 60 countries, Rolf Potts understands that so much of a story depends upon how it is told. The book manages to inform without boring and inspire without being trite. The stories have a keen sense of place, juxtaposed with the author-admitted “placelessness.” All this creates a pleasant unfolding of informed discovery.

Potts tells his stories in such a way that at times you to feel like you are sitting in a bar over a beer listening as a fellow traveler exchanges tales. At the end of each chapter, Potts includes a commentary of endnotes that provide context and elucidation for each story. Much of these endnotes provide a window into Potts’ writing process and cause the book to be just as relevant for aspiring writers wanting to improve their craft as it is for travelers seeking inspiration from “One of the finest travel writers working today” (Pauline Frommer).

To expound on his book and travel vision, Rolf Potts fielded questions for The Expeditioner about his book and life as a vagabond. Marco Polo Didn´t Go There is available from his website along with links to his essays and articles.

The Expeditioner: Your intro mentions that some social critics say that “Real Travel” is dead. I think your book is a sufficient rebuttal to this negative assertion. But why are such negative assessments out there? Was there an “ideal” time to be a traveler? Is it past or present?

Rolf: I think it’s normal for people to fret that “real travel” might be dead, especially as they get older, or as society changes. The whole “death of travel” issue has been debated for generations, and has gone through countless variations. When railroads and steamships made travel faster and more efficient in the early nineteenth century, some people claimed that this destroyed the kind of travel one experienced on stagecoaches and sailing boats.

When Thomas Cook started doing continental group-tours for middle-class Englishmen around the same time, the old aristocratic Grand Tour elite claimed that this ruined the experience of travel in Europe. Other people claimed that “real travel” ended with the Age of Exploration. In truth, real travel has always been an expression of the present day.

There are occasions when I’m tempted to think that travel was purer before the ubiquity of smart phones and social networking (which have a tendency to chain your travel experience to certain aspects of home), but I have to remind myself that travelers have always made use of whatever technology was available, and that I can’t base my prejudices on how I traveled 10 or 15 years ago. I’d imagine travel will always be “real”; serious travel writers just have to know how to slow down and maintain their awareness, even as the manner in which we travel changes.

The Expeditioner: Your book is more than just a travel memoir, it offers a lot on the subject of travel writing. You say that, “When you enter into an experience with the intention of writing about it, you tend to travel the world more creatively and observe it more thoughtfully.”

Does the expectation that you have to turn every trip into something someone wants to read put a strain on your travel? Do you ever take a vacation from this sort of travel and go somewhere deliberating deciding you will not be writing about the experience?

Rolf: I’d imagine the compulsion to turn all of one’s travel experiences into narrative would be a strain, but it’s rarely been that way for me — at least when I’m out vagabonding. When you’re out wandering on your own, in an open-ended way, the intention to write does make you travel more creatively, but you always end up having far more experiences than you could ever write about.

In the year 2000, for example, I spent nearly five months in the Middle East, and I wrote about ten stories about the experience. Add those ten stories together, and you’re only accounting for about two cumulative weeks of that five-month experience. The rest was just general travel — experiences that were enjoyable (or perhaps on occasion dull), but not worthy of a story. Traveling as a writer need not confine or overwhelm your on-the-road experience; ideally, it just heightens your awareness and makes you bolder than you otherwise might have been.

An exception to this is traveling on a short-term magazine assignment, when you have something very specific to cover. In these situations you have less of a chance to wander, and the dictates of your story can be a bit of a strain sometimes. But these assignments can be great for paying the bills and funding more open-ended adventures.

The Expeditioner: At the end of each story in your book you provide a “Commentary Track” of notes and clarifications. It made my job of writing questions rather challenging, since you essentially answer most questions and clarify doubts within the narrative itself. What made you decide to include this?

Rolf: It’s something I always wished other nonfiction writers did when they collected their stories and essays into book form. Any lived experience is going to get reduced to the size of a story when it comes time to write it, yet that doesn’t change the fact that so many things happened in real life that would never fit into the story itself.

My endnotes are an acknowledgment that life is always bigger and more complex than anyone’s ability to write about it. Any nonfiction story is the result of a decision-making process that boils the anarchy of moment-by-moment life into a narrative-sized chunk that hopefully entertains and conveys meaning, and I wanted to give readers a window into this process.

The Expeditioner: Despite making my job harder, I appreciated your commentary at the end of each story. It added a revealing dimension to your writing that is rarely present. It showed that non-fiction writing (specifically travel writing) sometimes needs a slight reworking of reality make the story compact and digestible.

It is something that all writers do, but I think it is sort of seen as a dirty little secret: don’t ask, don’t tell. How has the feedback been in including a commentary of endnotes? Have you received any negative criticism and if so what has been your response to it?

Potts: People have appreciated the endnotes, especially aspiring nonfiction writers, who enjoy the peek they can get at the inner workings of a story. The few people who’ve been negative about the endnotes have tended to be pretty naive in their assumptions about how stories work.

When my book was reviewed by the San Francisco Chronicle, a website commenter said something along the lines of, “Well I could be a big-shot travel writer too, if I edited all the boring details out of my experiences.” I was kind of flabbergasted when I read that, because everyone — not just nonfiction writers — edit out the boring details when they tell stories. If you see a fight at a bar and you go home to tell your roommates about it, you don’t start by describing the songs that were playing on the radio on the drive over, or what brand of urinal cakes were in the toilets, you cut straight to the most relevant and dramatic parts of what happened. That doesn’t mean you’re fictionalizing the events and details, it just means you’re sticking to the most relevant ones.

So the process of storytelling is invariably reductive — you have to take all the details of what happened, and boil them down to the size of a story. The catch here for non-fiction writers is that while you can subtract, you cannot add events and details. You can skip over certain things that did happen, but you can’t make up things that didn’t happen. That’s when what you’re doing becomes fiction. As a non-fiction writer I’m obligated to only include events and details that happened, and my endnotes reflect that.

The Expeditioner: Do you have a favorite travel story you’ve written either in the book or elsewhere?

Potts: I’ll always have an affinity for “Storming ‘The Beach,'” since it was my first big breakthrough story, and it opened the doors to so many great writing opportunities. But that story was kind of a “stunt,” and while I love doing stunt-stories, they aren’t as emotionally resonant as the stories that arise more organically.

“Death of an Adventure Traveler” has the strongest emotional association for me, not only because it deals with the disappearance of a man I deeply respected, but also because it symbolizes so much about the kind of travel that relatively privileged Western wanderers like myself often overlook.

I’m also keen on “The Art of Writing a Story About Walking Across Andorra,” since it afforded me the chance to employ a meta narrative technique to satirize the conventions of generic travel writing.

The Expeditioner: What projects do you have in the pipeline?

Potts: I’ll be pitching a new travel book to publishers this spring, the details of which I probably won’t announce until it’s closer to completion. When that book is finished I hope to get back to my vagabonding ways for a bit — to just get back out into the world and wander with no particular goal in mind.

By Luke Armstrong


About the Author

LukeArmstrongLuke 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)

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