Aaron Smith is an Australian freelance journalist and author of Shanti Bloody Shanti: An Indian Odyssey, a travel memoir published in Australia, New Zealand, UK and USA. His travel articles have appeared in airline inflight magazines, adventure sports magazines, and literary journals, including Australian Traveller, Outer Edge and Diver magazines. He is a regular contributor to Australian Geographic Magazine and often talks on Australian radio. Aaron has a MA in Journalism from the University of Tasmania and lives in Hobart (sometimes).
How did you get started traveling?
My first traveling memory was as a kid bumping around Europe in a combi van for six months with my family. I have vivid memories of drinking orange juice at Octoberfest in Munich, getting lost in the red-light district of Amsterdam, and watching Dad steal corn from a farmer’s field in France. He said it was OK because the French only gave it to their livestock; not sure how sound that logic was but the corn tasted great. I guess that trip instilled a love of the road in me for life and the more I travel the more insatiable my appetite for it grows.
How did you get started writing?
I started writing in 2001. An out-of-work actor trying to crack the theatre scene, I wrote a play. It ended up being performed at a couple of international comedy and arts festivals in Melbourne, and I realized writing may have been my forte, rather than acting. Then a messy divorce and a shady past catching up with me (you’ll have to read my first book for more), “inspired” me to hit the road — to disappear off the grid for a while. I already knew I wanted to write and as I was traveling; travel writing seemed the logical genre to pursue.
What do you consider your first “break” as a writer?
Writing is a hard nut to crack, and I guess it was a series openings that led to finally breaking into the world of writing. I started by writing short pieces gratis for travel websites, then a couple of print magazine articles. All of this helped hone my craft. But it was the failures that really made me grow. The manuscript for my first book was knocked back by hundreds of agents and scores of publishers, which lead to several rewrites and pruning out the extraneous fat until I pared it down to a tight, punchy narrative and something which I consider my ‘brand’ of writing today. Then I finally got an agent in California after two years of trying, and he helped me tweak and refine it further. But then the global financial crisis kicked in and my agent couldn’t sell my book. I forgot about it for another year, then a writer friend told me of an independent publisher who might be interested, I sent it to his slush pile and had a contract within a week — he is now editing my second book, due for release early 2014.
As a traveler and fact/story gatherer, what is your biggest challenge on the road?
Traveling is such a visceral, in-the-moment experience; it can be hard to make time to write, but it is essential. I don’t usually bother recording the day-to-day events and do not keep a journal in the regular sense; instead I’m an incessant note taker, recording the smells, tastes, sounds and colours I experience. These seem to be the first to slip from memory, and are often the best way to set a scene for a reader. It bottles that visceral ‘nowness’ and can be pulled out once you’re tapping out your manuscript or article. I also record the names of foods, hotels, bus companies, soft drink cans, cigarettes and whatever other curios I come across that will add authenticity to the narrative, especially spellings in foreign languages. I also research an area before I go, to place my first-person experience in a greater context — historically, economically, politically, culturally and environmentally.
What is your biggest challenge in the research and writing process?
For the research side of things Google and Wikipedia are wonderful tools, but it is vital to cross-reference. It’s easy to be lazy using the Internet and it’s really important to dig deeper.
On the road I am looking for characters to drive the narrative, similar to a novel, so I interview people to build a fuller picture of them if I need it later. I do not include everyone I meet in my writing, and even very occasionally morph a couple of people together into one character. That may sound like cheating, but it is because there are so many people you meet on the road, to introduce and exit so many characters from a story can disorientate a reader. It can be hard to decide which characters and quirky digressions to leave out. As I often write about folklore stories and belief systems of people in different regions, it can be tricky to verify the ‘facts’, to get the story right. Many of these stories are passed on by word of mouth and a Google search will often leave you high and dry. I always try to get more information than I need and usually only use half of what I gather.
As far the writing process goes, there is just one vital ingredient needed — glue bum. That is dedicating time to stick your ass on a chair and write, even if you do not feel inspired. Making that time and committing to it can be a challenge in a world suffering from the ‘in-a-hurry disease.’
What is your biggest challenge from a business standpoint?
My biggest challenge is making enough money to live comfortably as a writer. Although I frequently write freelance for magazines, universities, the private sector, and government, it comes in spurts, and there are often lean periods. Freelance also requires dedication in thinking up ideas and pitching them to magazine editors. It’s about reaching a tipping point, which I am not quite at yet, but not far off. However my first book is due for re-release in the US and the UK and my second book is due for release in 2014. I also have a couple of other book ideas on the back burner, so hopefully that tipping point will not be too far away.
As far as editors go, I have learned to not be precious about my writing. More often than not an editor’s red pen is for the best and I usually relish the opportunity for them to “murder my darlings.”
Don’t rest on your laurels nor rely on your publisher to do all the work. I always have a copy of my book in my ‘man bag’ and I am always looking for opportunities to self-promote. You’ve got to have a thick skin; in a word be tenacious.
Have you ever done other work to make ends meet?
I went from musician, to actor, to writer — I must be a sucker for punishment, moving to progressively harder industries to crack. So I guess it would be better to ask what I haven’t done to make ends meet. Consequently I am a jack of all trades. I have painted houses, mowed lawns, washed dishes, grifted as a card shark, driven trucks in London, taught English in Brazil, and been a barman in Barcelona.
What travel authors or books might you recommend and/or have influenced you?
Wow, I’ll have to give just a sample of my favorite authors. To be a writer you need to read as much as you can – good stuff, bad stuff, old stuff, new stuff, stuff you are into and stuff you are not, even the back of cereal boxes and the fine print on advertising. Soak as much up as you can.
I have a pretty loose definition of travel writing. For me it can span elements of fiction, philosophy, as well as exploration of the inner universe. This list is by no means definitive, but provides a good spread of influences.
Contemporary: A Death in Brazil, by Peter Robb, Shantaram, by Gregory David Roberts, One River, by Wade Davis, Breaking Open the Head, by Daniel Pinchback and The Bone Man of Benares, by Terry Tarnoff.
Classics: Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad; The Odyssey, by Homer; Don Quixote, by Cervantes; The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge, by Carlos Castaneda; The Yage Letters, by William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg; On the Road, by Jack Kerouac; Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, by Hunter S. Thompson; Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert M. Pirsig; The Killing Fields, by Christopher Hudson and Kon-Tiki, by Thor Heyerdah.
What advice and/or warnings would you give to someone who is considering going into travel writing?
I wouldn’t wish being a writer on my worst enemy, and in many ways travel writing is the underdog of the literary world. That said, I love to write and I love the genre of travel writing. I do it because I have to, because I have burning desire to tell a good story; it’s something I feel I have no choice in doing.
If you want to make lots of money, travel writing is not for you; if you want to be famous, travel writing is not for you; and if you think being a travel writer is glamorous, you may well be in for a rude awakening. Travel writing is one of those occupations that sounds great at dinner parties, but the reality is that it’s a hard graft, and only a very lucky and talented few ever get published, and even less make a good living out of it.
Still want to be a travel writer? Good for you. My advice, as previously mentioned and in one word, is tenacity. Get used to rejection letters, make them your teachers, get critical feedback (not just from your mum), and if an editor/agent/publisher spares some of their precious time to review your work be grateful, especially if it’s not what you want to hear. Be persistent but not a pest. And write — lots.
I have a theory that if you dedicate enough time and energy to something you will get good at it. Ten years is a good rule of thumb, not because that’s how long it took me to go from thinking I wanted to be a writer to finally getting a book published, but because I believe it takes about that long to get good at anything, whether it be writing, football, quantum physics or knitting.
Use adjectives sparingly, avoid purple prose and hackneyed expressions. Find your own voice and do not try to emulate someone else. It’s one thing to be reviewed as the next Kerouac or Bryson, but it’s another to mimic their styles.
And lastly, be wary of becoming a travel wanker, we are all tourists, not travelers no matter how intrepid. Nothing annoys me more than people who gloat about their travel experiences. Remember it’s a privilege that’s meant to expand your mind, not your ego.
What is the biggest reward of life as a travel writer?
My writing is not for everyone, and there are plenty of travel writers out there that I do not like, not due to a lack of talent, but because it’s just of no interest to me. That said, having people I wouldn’t expect tell me they’ve enjoyed my writing certainly gives me a kick, as does getting published and paid.
Having traveled through a fair few countries for extended periods, I find just aimlessly wondering from country to country, from hostel to hostel, a somewhat vacuous experience now. But as a travel writer, I now have a mission to fulfill; what the mission is almost irrelevant, the more hare-brained the better. In short the biggest reward is to inform, entertain and inspire.