Patrick Smith is an erstwhile pilot and air travel columnist. His book, Ask the Pilot: Everything You Need to Know About Air Travel, was Amazon.com’s choice for Best Travel Book of 2004. Patrick has visited more than 60 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives near Boston.
How did you get started traveling?
My passion for airplanes came first, and in time came to drive my love for going places. In the sixth grade I knew that Dhaka was the capital of Bangladesh, for no greater reason than an article I’d read about Biman Bangladesh Airways. I wound up learning geography as vigorously as I learned about airplanes.
Later in life I would visit India. Because I grew up with a fascination for ancient Sanskrit? No, because I grew up with a fascination for Boeing’s iconic wide-body jetliner, the 747. The process was logical and direct: The 747 became Air-India. Air-India became a line on a route map between New York and Delhi. Delhi became India. India became a place I wanted to see. So I saw it. I’d never have traipsed off to sixty countries if I hadn’t fallen in love with aviation first, and if I rely on a single relentless tenet, it’s appraisal of the airplane as intrinsic to the journey. That’s lost on most people nowadays, but I try to encourage them to rediscover flying as part and parcel of the experience, and not just a means to an end. Air travel is no longer glamorous by any stretch, but it can still be dramatic. Consider that you can step onto a plane in New York City, and sixteen nonstop hours later step off that in Singapore or Bangkok, halfway around the world. That’s pretty incredible when you think about it.
How did you get started writing?
I’ve always had a mostly directionless creative streak and a latent interest in writing, dating back to some mid-‘80s efforts as a punk rock fanzine writer and, a few years later, publisher of a poetry ‘zine (circulation 400), but it was never anything I considered vocationally.
What do you consider your first “break” as a writer?
When, in 1994, a friend of mine became an associate editor at Utne Reader, and asked me to contribute some music and magazine reviews. The first thing I ever made a dime for was, suitably enough, a critique of a travel magazine called Escape. But more realistically, my break came years later, after losing my job as an airline pilot in the downturn that followed September 11th. The sobering combination of unemployment and the public’s relentless focus on air travel compelled me to write more devotedly — and for money. Not to sound like a war profiteer, but I had some very exploitable expertise. In November, 2001, I sold my first article to Salon.com. One article became two; two became semi-regular; semi regular became regular. By the following summer, I was writing a weekly column.
As a traveler and fact/story gatherer, what is your biggest challenge as you travel?
Remembering that what is compelling and important to you isn’t necessarily compelling and important to everybody else. You need to step outside yourself to get an impartial enough grasp of which observations and nuances people will find meaningful. You are not a “traveler” so much as an eyewitness — an observer.
What is your biggest challenge from a business standpoint? Editors? Finances? Promotion?
There’s that rather pungent moment the first time an editor eviscerates one of your stories prior to running it, or gives it a title you can’t stand. But for me, the most heartbreaking experience was selling the manuscript of my book, only to have the publisher neither market nor promote it. Then the big chains got hold of it, and stashed it into dusty corners of their stores next to books about kite-making and 19th century ballooning. It was supposed to be a book for airline passengers and frequent travelers, not a “flying” book for hobbyists, but nobody would listen. They wouldn’t even sell it at airports. The whole experience was a nightmare.
Have you ever done other work to make ends meet?
Yes, I was an airline pilot. I suppose my career as an author has been somewhat inverted.
What travel authors or books might you recommend and/or have influenced you?
This might sound heretical, but I avoid travel books because they have a terrible habit of making me desperately want to go somewhere, and that isn’t always practical. My favorite writer a seldom-cited author/poet named Stephen Dobyns. In any event, I have a problem with labels like “travel author” or “travel writing.” Traveling comes from the heart, writing successfully comes from the head, and isn’t genre-specific.
What advice and/or warnings would you give to someone who is considering going into travel writing?
Until you’re lucky and get a break, you can’t afford to think emotionally or philosophically about your writing. In the beginning, 99.9 percent of everything you submit will be rejected out of hand or, perhaps more correctly, never looked at to begin with. Be succinct and think like a reporter: your job is not to tell people what you saw; your job is to make what you saw sound interesting and important — perhaps even a bit more interesting than they really are!