Peter Moore, a travel author from Sydney, has been described as “The Australian Bill Bryson.” His books include The Wrong Way Home, which saw him traveling overland from London to Sydney, Swahili for the Broken-Hearted, an account of a journey from Cape Town to Cairo, and Vroom with a View, where he went in search of Italy’s dolce vita on a 1961 Vespa. At last count he had visited 95 countries and written six books. When he is not traveling he can be found in either Sydney or London.
How did you get started traveling?
My dad is a plumber and a Seventh Day Adventist and when I was 19 he was asked to go to a mission school in Vanuatu to build a toilet and shower block. It was university holidays, so he asked me to come along to help as a laborer. After we finished building the amenities block the headmaster decided to take us to a nearby island as a treat.
The island was called Malekulu and it had two tribes who lived pretty much the same way as they always had — the Big Nambas and the Small Nambas. The only clothing the men in both tribes wore was a red cloth wrapped around their penises. The only difference was that the Big Nambas believed a big penis is preferable, and hence used a lot of red cloth; the Small Nambas believed the opposite and used a lot less cloth.
As you can imagine this trip had quite an impact on me. I realized that the world was a very strange place and I wanted to see as much of it as I could. So every university holiday I was off traveling around Asia and the subcontinent. I’ve been traveling ever since.
How did you get started writing?
I always loved writing, and after finishing university I fell into advertising and became a copywriter. It was fun for a while but I soon got sick of writing what other people wanted me to write. That’s when I had the brainstorm of trying to combine my two loves — writing and traveling. If only it were that simple!
What do you consider your first “break” as a writer?
My big break came when the Internet appeared. I’d spent a number of years trying to get published as a travel writer but kept getting told the same thing — you’re not famous enough, no one knows you. I’d self-financed a big trip around the Equator and written a book, but nobody wanted it.
So I used the 1mb of free web space provided by my ISP to start up a travel web site called “No Shitting in the Toilet”. All the stuff I’d found on the web about travel seemed very po-faced and serious, and didn’t reflect travel as I found it — a crazy, maddening, hilarious experience. (Hence the name — taken from a sign I saw on the toilet door at Jack’s Cafe in Dali, China that seemed to sum up my philosophy of travel. It’s illogical, it’s irrational but it’s all the better for it.)
So every fortnight I’d put up a new chapter and top ten, taking the piss out of conventional travel guides but still full of useful nuggets of advice. The site became famous, won a few awards and I took the idea of publishing it as a book to a publisher and they went for it. It was my foot in the door. The book did well enough for me to do what I really wanted to do — go on grand trips and write about it.
As a traveler and fact/story gatherer, what is your biggest challenge on the road?
I like to treat my research trips as a holiday. I pick a start and finish point – like Cape Town and Cairo for Swahili for the Broken-Hearted for example – and basically let fate take me where it will. So I guess it’s just the usual challenges — buses plunging over ravines, border guards trying to rip me off, and dreadful food. But to be honest they’re also the essential elements in my stories!
What is your biggest challenge in the research and writing process?
Writing a book is a massive project — it just keeps going on and on. Quite a shock to the system when you’re used to knocking out ads in half an hour or so. I enjoy the process, but to be honest it doesn’t take long before my mind starts thinking about the next trip. I get really excited about my journeys (unfortunately, this happens about a third of the way through writing about the previous one).
What is your biggest challenge from a business standpoint?
I’m in a pretty good position in that I can live (and travel!) off the royalties from my books. Still, I’m not published in the US, so that’s probably the biggest challenge ahead of me. American publishers keep telling me that my ‘voice’ is too alien for Americans, or that Americans don’t travel. I disagree — I’ve met Americans everywhere in my travels. I’ve just got to figure out how to convince them otherwise.
Have you ever done other work to make ends meet?
I taught English in Japan for a while and wrote for a PR company there as well. Other than that I had to keep doing freelance advertising stuff until my book sales got to the point I could live off them. Nothing too horrific or soul-destroying though!
What travel authors or books might you recommend and/or have influenced you?
A lot of people compare me to Bill Bryson, mainly because I take a more humorous look at my travel experiences. But I’ve got to say my biggest influences have been Paul Theroux and a guy called Ed Buryn.
I like the way Paul Theroux travels with a very loose framework and lets his experiences and the people he meets form the narrative drive of his books. (I also like the bit in The Great Railway Bazaar when he says that he knows that he has hit rock bottom when he finds himself in the company of Australians — it’s a source of national pride that we are such insatiable travelers).
Ed Buryn, on the other hand, wrote this fantastically idiosyncratic book in the early seventies called Vagabonding in Europe and North Africa. It was full of such great homilies as ‘The Age of Discovery is never over when you are the discoverer’, and peppered with hippie-speak like ‘Can you dig it?’ But it was the humanity of the book I loved, the way he saw good in everyone and gave them the benefit of the doubt — forgiving the arseholes because they couldn’t help it if they succumbed to human frailties. I’d like to think I travel with that same kind of spirit.
What advice and/or warnings would you give to someone who is considering going into travel writing?
My advice is to persevere. It’s an extremely competitive field, but if you keep plugging away you’ll eventually get your lucky break.
My warning is that it takes a while before you can earn enough money to live from it. To start with you’ll have to pay for your own trips, so I often tell aspiring travel writers to treat it like a holiday. Then if nothing comes of it career wise they’ve at least had an amazing trip.
What is the biggest reward of life as a travel writer?
The people I meet, the experiences I have and getting paid for a job I’d happily do for free.