Tayler, a former Peace Corp worker, is the author of “Siberian Dawn” and “Facing the Congo.” He has published numerous articles in Atlantic Monthly, Spin, Harper’s and Condé Nast Traveler. He is a regular commentator on NPR’s “All Things Considered.” Two of Tayler’s travel essays were selected by Bill Bryson for the inaugural edition of “The Best American Travel Writing 2000”. He lives in Russia.
How did you get started traveling?
In my junior year of college I developed the conviction that, for me, truths of some exalted and liberating sort resided in foreign lands, and decided that my life would be better led elsewhere. I had been studying languages (Spanish, Italian, Latin, Greek) so, when summer (1982) came I took off first for Greece, where I spent a fairly miserable time trying to adjust to the dearth of Platonic ideals on Aegean islands, and then headed to Florence, where I studied a semester and passed some of the most content moments of my life in Tuscany, along the Arno, beneath the Duomo, and with an Italian family on Via Domenico Moreni. The spring semester of my senior year I spent studying in Madrid, living in a cramped apartment with a widow and her daughter. The daughter was training for some kind of sharpshooting event to be held at the Olympics of 1984. She had set up an air gun target range in the hallway, so coming out of my room I often found a gun pointed my way and bullets (or pellets of some sort) whizzing past my head. This was a dusty time of drought and air pollution (and bullets/pellets) that made me yearn for Florence, if I did enjoy reading Spanish verse at my university.
But even while in Florence and Madrid I yearned for escape. So it happened that I made my first forays into Eastern Europe, taking, one rainy October night in 1982, a dilapidated ferry from Ancona across the choppy Adriatic to Split in Yugoslavia, then visiting Sarajevo and Sophia, both enshrouded in mists, placid and untouristed, before looping south and stopping in Ohrid and Skopje. Later that autumn I traveled to Czechoslovakia. While in Madrid I headed off to Hungary, and eventually crossed through Checkpoint Charlie to East Berlin. Most of the nineteen years since then I’ve spent abroad, and I’ve never stopped traveling. (I did study Russian history in graduate school in the mid 1980s, however, which grounded me in Virginia at least during three academic years.) I’ve lived in Moscow since the summer of 1993. Russia has made me a writer (at least my professional career began while I was here), given me a wife, and at times nearly cost me my life.
How did you get started writing?
From my college years on I knew I was going to write, but I took a detour into photography for a while that delayed me. In fact I took quite a few detours, including serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco, then working as a Peace Corps staff member in Poland and Uzbekistan, then co-managing a Russian-American physical security company here in Moscow. I regret none of that, because in each case I learned a lot and met interesting people. But my first writing with intent to publish followed my trip across Russia and Ukraine in 1993. After recovering from that ordeal, I bought a computer, rented an apartment in Moscow, and started writing about what I had seen. The result was my first book, Siberian Dawn, a memoir of that journey.
My writing derived from the conviction I conceived during my college years: one should lead one’s life as if one were the protagonist of an epic novel, with the outcome predetermined and chapter after chapter of edifying, traumatic, and exhilarating events to be suffered through. Since the end is known in advance, one must try to experience as much as possible in the brief time allotted. Writing is a way of ensuring that you pay enough attention along the way to understand what you see.
What do you consider your first “break” as a travel writer?
My first break came in September 1996 when the Atlantic Monthly published “Vessel of Last Resort”, a story I wrote about ascending the Congo River aboard a cargo barge. (Eventually I wrote my second book, Facing the Congo, about both that trip and my subsequent attempt to descend the Congo in a pirogue.)
Since then I have not restricted myself to the subject of travel in my writing, but since I live abroad and write about other countries, “travel writer” has been the label often affixed to me.
As a traveler and fact/story-gatherer, what is your biggest challenge on the road?
I would say that the biggest challenges come before the trip, during the research and reading that helps me identify what I want to write about. That is, coming up with a proposal that will result in a strong, moving article or book. If in writing the proposal I see that there really isn’t a story there, I drop it and move on, or do more research.
What is your biggest challenge in the writing process?
All writing is hard work, and I don’t think I face any exceptional challenges in that regard. I have been lucky in regards to editors: I have had the best around. Good editors ask sharp, probing questions that expand the scope of a piece, make the writer explore areas that may not at first seem promising.
What is your biggest challenge from a business standpoint?
Scheduling. Since I travel roughly six months a year, usually for a month at a time, often I need to arrange editing and fact-checking of articles for my stationary periods.
Do you do other work to make ends meet?
I live only by my writing.
What travel authors or books might you recommend and/or have influenced you?
Paul Theroux and V.S. Naipaul were powerful early influences. I also enjoy Eric Newby and Colin Thubron. There are so many others, but these are the main ones. Otherwise the most important writers for me have been Tolstoy, Chekhov, and Nabokov, along with Dickens, Paul Bowles, and Nikos Kazantzakis.
People aspiring to write should first of all read, and read the classics most of all. It makes no difference that Dickens was not a travel writer; what one can learn from him can be learned from no one else. From skilled writers of fiction one can see what it takes to put together a scene, describe someone’s look or feelings, or pace a book.
What advice and/or warnings would you give to someone who is considering going into travel writing?
The main piece of advice I would give is: know the place about which you propose to write, or know what you want to research there before you go. You can learn new things along the way, but you should start with a plan and be able to offer an insider’s perspective. Such perspective generally comes from experience in a country.
Incidentally, if I find a writer is misspelling place or personal names, or overusing, misdefining, or misspelling foreign words, or making factual errors, I find myself inclined to distrust him and his work. So, as with other kinds of writing, travel writers need to keep good notes and be accurate. They also need to refine their ear for language (reading the classics is the best way to do this), and be careful to avoid journalistic conventions, hackneyed expressions. A fair rule would be cut or replace any phrase that sounds familiar, or that you have seen elsewhere or used before yourself. That prominent author A in his travel piece in a national paper used a word to describe a place is a reason to eschew that word.
But back to the big issues, perspective and insider’s knowledge. This generally means knowing the language of the place. Imagine how little you would value, say, a Hungarian’s essay on traveling through America if the writer knew no English. It goes without saying that learning a language takes a lot of time and commitment, but the effort is repaid by the insights gained. Language is, however, a tool, and one must use that tool to gain access to things of interest, to have experiences worth writing about. The most moving kind of travel writing for me consists in the writer’s showing his connection to the place and people described, and how he has changed during his travel. Knowing the language is close to essential in this regard.
That doesn’t mean going native, necessarily. There is little that is phonier, more annoying, or more ephemeral that the memoirs of the traveler gone native. One frequently comes across this sort of thing in Peace Corps journals, when the writers vaunt having “assimilated” to their new cultures. To one degree or another, everyone adjusts to being in new places, but claims of conversion make me suspect the writer’s maturity and perspective: there is no superior culture, and people everywhere are flawed. If you travel in country X and just don’t end up liking something there, just can’t understand or accept something, you should say so, and say why, in your story. We are not all alike and we should be forthright about this.
What is the biggest reward of life as a travel writer?
Meeting and getting to know people from all over the world. I’m not sure being a travel writer is the operative factor here, though. Travel itself is. After a trip, news about the region visited resonates in a personal way, and friends made there can teach you much about life, give you a different perspective on things as you grow old. That makes life more interesting.
In another way, travel brings home some basic truths we tend to forget. While taking jitney cabs around Nigeria, for instance, I saw wrecked cars from recent crashes littering the side of the roads in many places, often with corpses. From the speed my drivers always maintained I understood that I could find myself sharing the ground with the corpses at a moment’s notice. Screaming with the other terrified passengers created common bonds between us.
But there are some negative sides to the traveling life. I have awakened in hotel rooms and briefly forgotten what country or city I was in, and that can be jarring. I have ended up with cravings for certain foods I’m not likely to taste again (fried palm grubs and pili pili for instance), and “ethnic” restaurants disappoint me after I’ve been to the country and eaten the food in situ. The sort of fat-free gyros sold in Greek snack bars in the States don’t compare to the real artery-busting article sold in Plaka or Pireas.
In sum, I took the decision to leave the United States and I’m happy with it. Living abroad, I only have the sensation that I’m traveling when I go somewhere completely new to me now, or when I return to the States for my annual visit, since so much there has changed, so many fads have come and gone. The America I left 1982 doesn’t exist any more, but then I have changed too.