Jeff Greenwald is the author of four books: “Mister Raja’s Neighborhood” (John Daniel), “Shopping for Buddhas” (Lonely Planet), “The Size of the World” (Ballantine) and “Future Perfect: How Star Trek Conquered Planet Earth” (Penguin). His travel essays appear in numerous anthologies, including “I Should Have Stayed Home,” “In Search of Adventure” and eight volumes of the award-winning Travelers’ Tales series. Jeff lives in Oakland, writing full time and contributing travel and science articles to a wide variety of publications-including The New York Times Magazine, National Geographic Adventure, Yoga Journal, Sierra, New Scientist and Outside. He also writes for Salon.com, and serves as a columnist and digital video producer for AZN.com, the Adventure Zone Network. He is also working on a non-fictional novel set in Nepal during the democracy revolution of 1990.
How did you get started traveling?
Two movies I saw as a teenager — “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Lawrence of Arabia” — made me long for the other-worldly, for vistas far removed from the Long Island ratlands of my youth. As soon as I got out of high school, I traveled alone to Europe — but I was too young, really, without a shred of street smarts or sophistication, and the trip was a disaster. My first actual “travel” assignment — no expenses, and very little pay — was covering the launch of Apollo 17, the last of the six successful Moon landings, for my college newspaper. Boy, that put my eyeballs on straight. What an experience. It was like the rocket and my career got launched at the same instant.
How did you get started writing?
I’d always loved writing, from the time I was about eight and won an essay contest in my Hebrew school. (Time passes.) At 21 I moved to the west coast, and enrolled a year later at UC Santa Cruz. During that time I wrote satire pieces for the weekly paper, under the enlightened editorship of Buz Bezore. In 1979 I took my first real trip — to Europe, the Middle East and Asia — where I fell in love with Nepal and began my first, never-to-be completed (?) novel. On the way home (my ticket went Athens, Cairo, Bombay, Bangkok) I stopped in Thailand, just as the civil war in Cambodia began. The situation was dire; my girlfriend and I volunteered to work at Khao-I-Dang, largest of the refuge camps on the Thai/Cambodian border. When I returned to the U.S., I wrote “Very Alive,” a story about my experiences at the camp. The Santa Barbara News & Review published it; the piece was so well received that they offered me a position as Cultural and Features Editor. The pay was shit, the staff was nuts, and I lasted exactly six months. Soon after, a photographer friend asked me to collaborate on a piece for “Santa Barbara” magazine. That was my first full-color gig: a story about Amtrak’s Coast Starlight, the train that connects from SB with LA.
What do you consider your first “break” as a travel writer?
In 1983-1984, I moved to Kathmandu armed with a Journalism Fellowship with the Rotary Foundation. That was a great break, as it positioned me to query some national magazines. While in Asia I wrote about Sri Lanka for “Islands,” visited the Ellora Caves in India for “GEO,” and began (unbeknownst to me at the time) writing my first book: “Mr. Raja’s Neighborhood: Letters from Nepal.”
As a traveler and fact/story-gatherer, what is your biggest challenge on the road?
Taking the time to write, every single day. Life on the road is so rich and manic that it’s easy to put off writing for a day. That turns into two days, or a week, and next thing you know you’ve lost your edge.
What is your biggest challenge in the writing process?
Just doing it. Writing. Doing the work, day by day. Staying alive and interested with the material, and being willing to fuck up, to make all the necessary mistakes. It all boils down to something Henry Miller once said. To paraphrase: “Writing first, last and always. Friends, cinema, snack runs to Trader Joe’s, all these come later.”
What is your biggest challenge from a business standpoint?
The biggest writing-relating problem, as a freelancer, is finding good editors: people who are well read, and appreciate my style and rhythm. Don George (formerly of Salon.com Wanderlust) and Mark Jannot (at National Geographic Adventure) are such editors; so is Dean Robinson at the New York Times Magazine. So were John Battelle and Pete Leyden, my editors at Wired before the Condé-Nast buy-out.
As an author, the biggest challenges are editing and promotion. My last book fizzled, in large part because of promotional screw-ups.
As a human being with a mouth and body, the problem is eternally finances.
Do you do other work to make ends meet?
I consider freelancing “other work.” I also sell photographs with mystories, and shoot digital video for a streaming media website.
What travel authors or books might you recommend and/or have influenced you?
Most of the “travel” writing I read is science fiction. I’ve been a sci-fi fan since I was a kid, and love the genre still. Some great contemporaries: Kim Stanley Robinson (his “Mars” trilogy), Greg Egan, Vernor Vinge, Iain Banks, Michael Blumlein, Neil Stephenson, and the ageless Ursula K. LeGuin. I love the worlds these writers create, their descriptions of non-human races and societies.
In more of a mainstream vein, I’ve recently (and not-so-recently) drawn inspiration from C. J. Koch’s “The Year of Living Dangerously” (Indonesia), Peter Maass’ “Love Thy Neighbor : A Story of War” (Bosnia), Douglas Adams’ “Last Chance to See,” Stewart Lee Allen’s “The Devil’s Cup,” Joe Kane’s “Savages” (the Amazon), Allen Noren’s “Storm” (the Baltics), Gina Nahai’s “Moonlight on the Avenue of Faith” (Iran), Beryl Markham (Africa), the short stories of Hemingway and Bowles, and just about anything by Mark Twain, Peter Matthiessen or Jan Morris. Two up-and-coming writers to watch: Tanya Shaffer, and Linda Watanabe McFerrin.
What advice and/or warnings would you give to someone who is considering going into travel writing?
Travel writing is very competitive; especially for magazines (it’s actually easier to get a good book published). It’s essential to have a clear, distinct style and/or a specific point of view. Nurturing a style takes practice; it’s no easier than developing a style on the saxophone. A specific point of view means working within one’s pre-existing interests or skills; I think of travel writer Elliot Neil Hester, who is also a black flight attendant, or Michael Shapiro, who specializes in travel and the Internet. I’ve often used my fascination with science as a springboard for books and articles; e.g., my Wired features, “Future Perfect,” and my Salon.com features about the solar eclipse in Iran.
What is the biggest reward of life as a travel writer?
I get quite a few letters from people — mostly in their early 20’s or late 30’s, it seems, no one in between — who have read my books and been inspired to complete ambitious journeys or pilgrimages of their own. That kind of feedback is very gratifying…. sometimes even literally so. A couple of years ago, the casting director for an NBC sitcom called “News Radio” (no longer on the air, except in reruns) wrote to tell me how much she enjoyed “Size of the World.” We corresponded for a while, and she ultimately cast me on the show! It was a one-line role, but hey — those residual checks keep rolling in.