Gary Buslik writes essays, short stories, and novels. He teaches literature, creative writing, and travel writing at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is the author of A Rotten Person Travels the Caribbean, and The Missionary’s Position. His new novel, Akhmed and the Atomic Matzo Balls, is scheduled for launch this spring. His shorter work appears in many travel and literary anthologies, often in Best Travel Writing.
How did you get started traveling?
One night shortly after we met, when my future wife and I finished making love, she sighed, “There must be more to life than this.” So she bought a travel magazine, pointed to a picture of a hammock strung between palm trees, and said, “Buy it for me.” She meant the Caribbean, not the hammock, because that’s how the woman thinks. I was just starting out then, so I couldn’t afford to purchase the entire region, but not wanting her to think I was a piker, off we went on a one-week cruise, during which she decided we should buy our own cruise ship. I thought she had money, so I married her. But after a while I began to notice that I was the one who kept paying for our trips, so we are no longer married. If you want a slightly different version, I’ll give you her e-mail address, and you can interview her.
How did you get started writing?
For the first three years of college I lied to my parents, telling them I was in pre-law. When I finally got outed as an English major, my mother couldn’t stop sobbing, and my father strode around the house shouting, “Big man! He knows the parts of speech!” So I wound up homeless, hanging around the airport reciting Rudyard Kipling for spare change. It was there I met a veteran travel writer, who took pity on me and showed me how, by making hotel and restaurant owners naively believe I would write good reviews about them, they would give me free rooms, meals, and drinks. So I went on to forge a useless degree into a rewarding lifestyle.
As a traveler and fact/story gatherer, what is your biggest challenge on the road?
Because I don’t like foreigners or new experiences, traveling is not my idea of a good time. For me, a dream destination is any place where they serve macaroni and cheese, show Celebrity Apprentice in English, and the taxi drivers aren’t so inbred they can’t remember where they left the brake pedal.
I especially dislike going to countries that have children—which, unfortunately, are many. Once, on a flight I took from San Juan to St. Kitts, the plane, suffering from instrument trouble, had to make an emergency landing in Antigua, where mechanics found a Puerto Rican kid wedged behind the altimeter. This is my typical experience with children. Also, they like squirting me. Don’t ask.
Also—and you may find this difficult to believe— many other cultures actually treat their children better than their animals. This is definitely a challenge for me. I love meeting stray dogs, giving them a good scratch, and telling the locals to shut up and mind their own business when they try to shoo the dogs away. Last December I found a sweet cat on a beach in St. Kitts, and every morning we had breakfast together in the hotel lobby cafe, with me sitting in front of one plate, she another, her dirty little butt on a placemat. It drove the manager stark raving nuts, so it was a double pleasure.
I also dislike mosquito nets. Any membrane that gets between my bladder and the bathroom at two in the morning—and I include pajamas here—is never my friend.
On the plus side, I am somewhat tolerant of the Dutch because they are funnier than other people when they’re drunk. They climb things for no apparent reason and fall on their heads. I suspect this is because they have to dig up tulip bulbs every fall and replant them in the spring.
What is your biggest challenge in the research and writing process?
Making things up and presenting them as “facts” in such a way that it’s not obvious. And stealing from other writers without getting caught.
What is your biggest challenge from a business standpoint?
My father still being alive. Being the cheapest human being on earth, he’s managed to put away a tidy sum in his old age. So I spend my days being really nice to him (there’s the challenge) in order to try to convince him to make me his sole beneficiary. I have three siblings, but two have real jobs and pensions. So it’s just a matter of, as the income-redistribution folks like to say, fairness. Although my third sibling struggles financially, when we were kids she wouldn’t let me ride her bicycle, so hello, karma. I keep telling Dad she’s only after his money, so he hasn’t talked to her in eleven years. And because he hasn’t been feeling well lately, I’m optimistic.
Have you ever done other work to make ends meet?
I’m a university lecturer, but this doesn’t really qualify as work. I get to make my students read Proust and memorize long passages from Paradise Lost and Joyce’s Ulysses. It’s great to torture young people, including my all-time favorite: telling foreign students how much their families will be ashamed of them. Plus—get this—we only have to show up for seven months but get paid for twelve. The rest of the time we get to travel and write at taxpayer expense. Unions are great.
What travel authors or books might you recommend and/or have influenced you?
Travel writing of the Great Depression. I recommend it to all aspiring and even established travel writers. It will make you grateful for what you have. I have an essay on this subject coming out in Best Travel Writing 2012. Go to www.abebooks.com and search for Depression-era travel writing. You can buy terrific books for a buck or two each, so quit whining.
What advice and/or warnings would you give to someone who is considering going into travel writing?
Read all the Vagabonding interviews. It’s the best, most focused source of wisdom, experience, and advice in the business.
What is the biggest reward of life as a travel writer?
For one thing, because the industry—magazines, books, blogs—is always thirsty for new material, it’s the easiest genre in which to break into (and flourish) as a published writer. I consider this not just a reward of career but, indeed, of life. And, let’s face it, it’s not brain surgery. If goofs like Buslik can do well, what more do want? Of course you have to display a reasonable amount of professionalism, but it’s not exactly like writing for Scientific American. Also, as a hybrid of journalistic writing and so-called creative nonfiction writing, it gives us a certain amount of room to flex our imaginative powers (warning: always delete cliches such as “it’s not brain surgery.”). The essays in such stellar anthologies as Best Travel Writing are second to none in literary brilliance, but even more transitory writing has its opportunity to shine—and much of it does. If not, well, OK. We learn as we go and keep getting better. Of course, if you dig traveling, the world is a great classroom. No kidding.