AMY BROWN quizzes American travel writer Thomas Kohnstamm ahead of the Auckland Writers & Readers Festival. His first book, Do Travel Writers Go to Hell?, is published this month.

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1) At the end of Do Travel Writers Go to Hell you share your Lonely Planet Author Performance Feedback Form, which is a glowing report that suggests you are indeed a natural travel writer (despite – or because of – the setbacks, confusion and disorganisation recounted in the rest of the book). Do you have an Achilles’ heel, as a travel writer – is there something you’d like to improve?

Travel writing is pretty far from being an exact science. Speaking specifically to guidebooks, I’d say that you can run around like a madman and try to get every little nitpicky practicality detail right and lose sense of the big picture or you can immerse yourself in a place to understand its greater character, but miss out on some of the smaller data that is desired for the guidebook. It is always a balancing act between the subjective and the objective.

I am better at learning the big picture themes and issues about a place than I am at gathering phone numbers, prices of meals etc. I am probably better suited for prose than for guidebook reviews. I am not a journalist and function best in a subjective writing situation.

2) Who, alive or dead, would be your ideal travel companion (to a destination of your choice), and why?

I’d like to go to Iran with Salman Rushdie. Bosnia with Hillary Clinton. Camping with Bear Grylls. Amsterdam with Rick Steves. Yachting with Ari Onassis. Skiing with Scot Schmidt. Surfing with Duke Kahanamoku. Mustique with Jagger. New York (or Italy) with Anthony Bourdain. San Fernando Valley with Linda Lovelace or Charles Bukowski or maybe to Brazil with Hunter S. Thompson (he lived there for a bit) or Caetano Veloso. I could go on from there, but will cut myself off.

3) Why don’t guidebooks use locals to write about their own countries, rather than sending a foreigner on mission almost-impossible? Granted, a foreigner will see the place from a traveller’s perspective (and lack bias). But, as a tourist looking for an “authentic” or “off-the-beaten-track” experience, I’d probably prefer the advice of a local.

Not only do they use foreigners, but they are almost all white, middle class Americans (myself included), Brits and Aussies with a few Canadians and New Zealanders. One of the things that I discuss in the book is the sense that the “backpacker trails” created by guidebooks are tinged with neo-colonialism.

Administratively speaking it would be difficult to maintain sources in all of the different destinations, but I imagine that new technology will make that more feasible for the future of travel information.

4) Tourism is obviously a double-edged sword. Once you’ve weighed up the good (education, hedonism, economic and cultural growth in favour of locals) against the bad (pollution, hedonism at the expense of people and places, economics in favour of corporations) do you think travel writing is an ethical pursuit? You pose this question in your book – when you’re reluctant to write about Atins because it’s too nice to be swamped with tourists, but later you wonder whether globalisation might benefit it – but never really answer it, perhaps because it’s too complex.

When I was a graduate student, a professor once said, “If you are here for answers, you are in the wrong place. The deeper you get into any question, the more questions you will find.” There is no singular, correct answer to the dilemma. I think that a lot of travel literature tends to fall to one side or the other in an oversimplified “travel is a panacea” or “encroaching Westernized development is evil” approach. I wanted to present both sides of the issues and let people think about it on their own, rather than trying to posit a heavy handed solution.

5) In your book, you mention that travel writing is for the young and able-bodied; what do you imagine yourself doing when you grow out of travel writing? Will you do a more sedate version of it (à la Michael Palin or an older Paul Theroux)? Or, is there somewhere in the world where you’d be happy to settle down?

I am actually living back in Seattle now and am somewhat settled (at least between trips). I am currently working on my second book. I imagine that I will always have an interest in international themes, but I’d also like to branch out into other genres: maybe mass-market romance, chick lit or political biography.



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