Over the last 30 years Eric Hansen has traveled throughout Europe, the Middle East, Australia, Nepal, and Southeast Asia working as a writer and photojournalist. He is the author of Stranger in the Forest, Motoring with Mohammed, Orchid Fever, and The Bird Man and the Lap Dancer. His articles have appeared in the New York Times, Travel + Leisure, Conde Nast Traveler, Outside Magazine, Men’s Journal, and Natural History Magazine.
How did you get started traveling?
My grandmother sent me to study art history in St. Petersburg in 1968. Later, when I was drafted in 1971, I left the U.S. for eight years during which time I lived in northern Spain, Morocco, Greece, Israel, Afghanistan, India, Nepal, Indonesia, and Australia for extended lengths of time. The craft of writing is similar to dancing. If you want to get good fast, learn slowly. And practice. If you don’t master the basics of storytelling and writing in the beginning you will suffer by making the same mistakes over and over again.
How did you get started writing?
By writing long letters to friends when I was living overseas — and by keeping extensive travel journals. Also by living with people in the third world who have mastered the art of storytelling. The oral tradition of recording personal history is the very best way to frame a story. It’s all about engaging the listener and making your story their story. My professional career started with the publication of my first book — Stranger in the Forest — which is an account of living with groups of nomadic hunters and gatherers in the Borneo rainforest. I have never studied writing and rather than the usual approach to getting published via magazine and newspaper work, I just sat down and wrote a book with the help of a very good editor who brought out the best in me as a person and as a writer.
What do you consider your first “break” as a writer?
My first break took place when Stranger in the Forest was taken to the Frankfurt Book Fair, where 12 British publishers got into a frenzied bidding war for the book. The result of that sale allowed me to write full time. A blessing, really.
As a traveler and fact/story gatherer, what is your biggest challenge on the road?
Getting on the road is the big challenge. The planning and concept phase can take years. Like a dog circling a blanket, waiting for just the right mood before settling in. Once I am on location everything just happens effortlessly. Nothing is more natural for me than to immerse myself in strange and new places. It is a process that I refer to as ‘throwing myself into the weirdness of the world.’ More a state of mind than anything else. It is all about suspending judgment and absorbing what ‘is’ rather than ‘what I think it is,’ if that makes sense.
What is your biggest challenge in the research and writing process?
Winnowing down the endless number of subjects that interest me. But once a topic and a destination have been selected the biggest challenge is the fact-checking process. I am a demon for getting the facts right. My book Orchid Fever took me six years to write because of all the legal and scientific details.
What is your biggest challenge from a business standpoint? Editors? Finances? Promotion?
Finding a good agent and a good editor — and a good publishing house. Making sure that the contract is mutually beneficial to both the author and the publisher. Granting of rights can be very complicated and tricky. The contract is the foundation of all the financial benefits that follow — or don’t follow as the case may be. Never sign a contract that hasn’t been closely examined by a literary agent that you trust.
Have you ever done other work to make ends meet?
After the successful publication of Stranger in the Forest in 1987, and with all the foreign editions and continuing high sales, I have never had to take other work, although from time to time I will do magazine assignments just for a change of pace and to get out in the world or see a place that interests me.
What travel authors or books might you recommend and/or have influenced you?
Many books and authors, but to just name a few of the very best that are essential reading for all aspiring travel writers or armchair travelers:
Eric Newby — A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush Robyn Davidson — Tracks Bruce Chatwin — In Patagonia Ted Simon — Jupiter’s Travels Bill Bryson — The Lost Continent Evelyn Waugh — Remote People Thor Heyerdahl — Kon Tiki
What advice and/or warnings would you give to someone who is considering going into travel writing?
Write the truth of the experience. Exaggerations and fabrications cheat both the writer and the reader. My favorite quote about writing comes from John Steinbeck: “The discipline of the written word punishes both stupidity and dishonesty.”
What is the biggest reward of life as a travel writer?
That I can lead the life I feel I was intended to lead. It allows me to find my place in the world over and over again. The destinations change and the writing evolves, but the essential experience of finding truth, humor, meaning, and new and unexpected ways of thinking and being remains a constant.