Matt Gross was born in Concord, Massachusetts, and raised everywhere from Brighton, England, to Williamsburg, Virginia. After graduating from Johns Hopkins University in 1996, he moved to Vietnam, then found his way into the media business in New York. He now writes the Frugal Traveler column for the New York Times travel section, and lives in Brooklyn with his wife, Jean.
How did you get started traveling?
I’ve been traveling regularly for most of the last 25 yearsï¿½though I didn’t really think of it as traveling at first. Basically, my family moved around enoughï¿½from Massachusetts to England to Virginiaï¿½that I learned how to adapt quite quickly to new geographies and new situations. And as a teenager, I was a skateboarder with a driver’s license, which meant my friends and I were roaming all over the mid-Atlantic in search of cool spots. And that’s what taught me how cities and towns are arranged, built and connectedï¿½essential education for traveling as an adult.
That said, my first real big solo trip was when I moved to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, in 1996, right after graduating from college. Didn’t really know anyone there or what I was doing, but it was the best experience of my life, and taught me that, yes, I can actually do adventurous things like that.
How did you get started writing?
I’ve been writing as long as I’ve been travelingï¿½that is, since I was little. Again, maybe it’s a family thing: my dad’s a historian, my mom’s an editor. Writing’s just something we Grosses all learn how to do. Still, throughout college and grad school, I figured I’d be a novelist. Then I realized that until I got that first novel out, I’d have to make a living. So, I became a journalist.
What do you consider your first “break” as a writer?
My first job in journalism was writing film reviews and copyediting for the Viet Nam News, the state-owned, English-language daily paper in Vietnam. One of the best jobs I ever had: come in at 2pm, edit for a few hours, eat some fresh yogurt from the company fridge, and at the end of the day raise a glass of snake wine with my boss.
Still, it was hardly real writing. My big break was getting hooked up with the New York Times. It was back in November 2004, and I’d just quit my job at New York Magazine to go travel around Vietnam and Cambodia and research a novel. Before I left, a friend who’d just started writing for the travel section suggested I contact his editor.
So, I did: I e-mailed her, told her what I was up to, and asked if there was anything I could look into for her. Not asking for an assignment or anything, just hoping to investigate something she might be curious about.
I got a response within two days. No thanks, she said. Have a great trip!
And so I went off to Southeast Asia anyway, trekked around, met people, saw what was going on development-wise, and when that editor finally, miraculously e-mailed me six weeks later to ask if I had any ideas, I had plenty. I sent her three pitches, and she wrote back: Write ’em, she said. Utter elation was followed by utter terrorï¿½now I actually had to write these stories!
Surprisingly, they turned out okay, and my editors asked me for moreï¿½eventually suggesting I take over the Frugal Traveler column by traveling around the world for three months and blogging about the adventure. How could I refuse?
As a traveler and fact/story gatherer, what is your biggest challenge on the road?
Focus. It’s easy to have a great time while traveling, but when you know you’re going to write a story, you want it to run along a certain theme, to have experiences that mesh into a unified, easy-to-write whole. At the same time, you want to allow for spontaneityï¿½the essence of travel. If you’re writing about Korean food in Seoul, do you accept that invitation to an innovative French restaurant in the Dongdaemun neighborhood? Will it accentuate your final story, or will it end up on the cutting room floor? Unfortunately, there’s never any way to know for sure, so I go with my gut.
What is your biggest challenge in the research and writing process?
Focus. In any trip, there are so many facts and anecdotes and experiences and memories and characters that they can’t all fit into the final story. I spend a lot of time mentally sifting all of these elements, trying to figure out which fit and in what kind of order, so that structurally, my story replicates the feeling of being on that trip. Sometimes it’s easy and all the big points flow together seamlessly, and other times I try out four or five openers and kickers before finding just the right one.
There’s another challenge that comes when you’ve written a ton of these stories and have to write a ton more: How do you avoid repeating yourself? Especially in newspaper writing, you have limited space to convey setting, characters, action, and it’s easy to fall back on the same shorthand travel-writing vocabulary. I’m sure I overuse words and on occasion resort to clichï¿½, but I try desperately not to.
What is your biggest challenge from a business standpoint?
There’s no way I could do this job if I weren’t married to a woman with a good, stable job. I’d be homeless. Seriously.
Have you ever done other work to make ends meet?
Not since I quit my last full-time job and decided I would write only what I really wanted to write. If things get really badï¿½and they could, of course, at any momentï¿½I might resort to freelance copy editing or proofreading, which I did for years. But I’d rather tend bar or deliver pizza.
What travel authors or books might you recommend and/or have influenced you?
William Vollmann’s books sent me to Vietnam. Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad is geniusï¿½a hilarious look at a travel writer learning how to be a travel writer. Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines captures the feeling of the wander better than anything else. As a writer, I love anything by ï¿½mile Zola. The precision of his vocabulary, the vividness of his settings, the simultaneous inevitability and unpredictability of the stories themselvesï¿½they’re what I aspire to.
What advice and/or warnings would you give to someone who is considering going into travel writing?
Go into travel before you go into travel writing. You should know how to cross a land border, book plane tickets in a language you don’t speak and befriend the old lady who squints evilly from the second-story window at everyone who passes by. In other words, if you’re just after paid vacations, then you’re going to have a tough time. But if you’re willing to put aside your ego, embrace the unknown and endure crushing poverty, then you might have a shot.
What is the biggest reward of life as a travel writer?
Duh: getting to travel!