Not long ago, Richard Grant left his Tucson home for new digs in the Mississippi Delta. But before departing, the London native left us with American Nomads, a book revealing the curious world of our restless wanderers—from counterculture devotees to RV retirees—and God's Middle Finger: Into the Lawless Heart of the Sierra Madre, detailing his own intrepid journey through northern Mexico's narco-laced Sierra Madre mountains. Grant's latest book, Crazy River: Exploration and Folly in East Africa, charts his headlong dive into a chaotic continent, replete with hard-drinking ex-pats, an iron-fisted dictator and one crazy croc. Now Grant brings his skills back to Southern Arizona for a travel-writing workshop from Aug. 30 to Sept. 2. More information can be found at his website: http://www.richardgrant.us.
Why does travel writing matter?
First we must define terms. The travel writing most people know is where-to-go what-to-eat, and that doesn't matter at all. I say that as someone who has written it for a living. There's another genre of travel writing—travel literature, as some call it—that tries to understand other cultures on a much deeper level, and engage the reader's emotions like a good novelist does. I'm thinking of Rory Stewart's recent book about Afghanistan, The Places In Between, anything by Ryszard Kapuscinski, or Redmond O'Hanlon, who can be hilarious and enormously learned at the same time. The world is still a big, strange, baffling place. The future is out there happening in many different places. Travel writers go forth with their notebooks, experience it firsthand, try their damnedest to understand and interpret what's going on for the rest of us, much like journalists. At their best, they refresh our sense of wonder.
What distinguishes fine travel writing from all the crap out there?
It has to come from a place of deep curiosity about others and otherness. Inevitably, the writer/protagonist will undergo some kind of internal journey while he or she is traveling in unfamiliar terrain, and bad travel writing often gets too wrapped up in this. Usually though, it's just bad writing. Clumsy, clichéd, lacking in narrative tension, wearily predictable. The keys to good travel writing are fresh observations, a finely tuned awareness of one's surroundings, a storyteller's knack for delivering a narrative and dropping a salient detail right on cue. It helps to be funny, as in most forms of storytelling. And if you happen to have gone on a truly remarkable life-changing journey, it's usually more interesting to read about than say, a yoga retreat in the Caribbean.
What was your most notable travel adventure?
I was always afraid of Africa, for the usual reasons. Then a magazine asked me if I wanted go down the Zambezi river in a dugout canoe with a group of guides and professional adventurers. It sounded terrifying: hippos, crocodiles, lions and hyenas prowling the riverbanks, disease-carrying insects. But I plucked up my nerve, got my shots, flew to Africa and had the most wonderful time. Nothing bad happened. I fell in love with the incomparable African wilds. A year later, I heard about a river in Tanzania— the Malagarasi—that no one had ever gone down in a boat before. I decided to make the first descent of it, partly because it sounded like the opportunity of a lifetime, partly because I'd felt so happy on the Zambezi. This time everything went wrong: bandits, poachers, swamps, waterfalls, sickness, betrayal. I did get a book out of it called Crazy River, and a nasty case of dengue fever.
Does good traveling—and good travel writing—always involve a whiff of risk?
I'm not averse to the element of risk, as people who have read my books know. It was one reason why I decided to travel through the Sierra Madre for God's Middle Finger. Mainly though, I just couldn't believe that this lawless Wild West was sitting right on America's back doorstep, growing our drugs for us, and no one was writing about it. Risk does perk up the senses. It forces you to be fully alive in the moment, and it's a good way to keep the reader interested later. But it's certainly not necessary. There's almost no risk in The Songlines, or In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin, and those are great travel books. They don't have any plot either. You keep turning the pages because his thoughts are so interesting, and the writing is so good. Ultimately, the best travel writers have the most talent.