After ten years at Lonely Planet, where he specialized in southern South America, Wayne Bernhardson moved to Moon Handbooks, where he first wrote Moon Handbooks Guatemala (2001). His new Moon Handbooks Chile appeared in November 2002, Moon Handbooks Buenos Aires will appear in October 2003, and Moon Handbooks Argentina is in the works. He has visited every Chilean region and Argentine province, and also worked extensively in Uruguay, Paraguay and Mexico. Chile’s El Mercurio, the country’s largest circulation newspaper, has called him “the gringo who knows Chile best,” while Buenos Aires’ Clarin, the largest circulation newspaper in the Spanish-speaking world, says that “Wayne Bernhardson knows our country deeply.” Currently residing in Oakland, he was born in North Dakota, grew up in Washington state, and holds a PhD in Geography from the University of California, Berkeley. He has taught at Berkeley, George Washington University, the University of California at Santa Cruz and California State University at Hayward, and has done research in Peru, Chile, Argentina and the Falkland Islands, where he spent a year as a Fulbright scholar.
How did you get started traveling?
My earliest memory is crossing the Montana and Idaho Rockies with my parents when, in the early 1950s, they moved from Minnesota to Washington state. In fact, they were headed for California, but ran out of money near Tacoma, where they found jobs at McChord Air Force Base. During my childhood, we made this trip across Idaho, Montana and North Dakota almost every year, to visit family that remained in Minnesota.
The first foreign trip I ever made was to Vancouver BC (again, my memories of this are a little dim, as I was very very young). When I was older, about 13, we finally made it to California and, briefly at least, across the border into Mexico. In retrospect, that may have been a turning point that spurred my interest in Latin America.
How did you get started writing?
I have always been interested in language but found that when I was younger I expressed myself better in writing than speaking because of shyness. Now, though I’m very comfortable in front of audiences, I’m still more confident in the precision of my writing.
What do you consider your first “break” as a travel writer?
Let’s state that I am primarily a guidebook writer, which is a subset of travel writing, though I do occasional magazine and newspaper pieces. I had actually done some of the latter before getting into guidebooks, however, with research from my grad student travels in Chile, Argentina and the Falklands.
When I was finishing grad school at Berkeley (PhD in Geography, 1989), there were very few academic jobs available and I was looking for alternatives that would let me continue to work in my region of choice (southern South America). One day, when I was in Cody’s Books in Berkeley, I chanced upon this enormous proliferation of guidebooks and, when I saw Lonely Planet had no book on Argentina, I decided to propose one directly to publisher Tony Wheeler (I knew very little about LP at the time). Shortly after I sent my proposal off, I returned to Cody’s and found that LP had come out with an Argentina title, so I pretty much wrote that off.
A few weeks later, though, I got what amounted to the most encouraging rejection letter I’ve ever gotten in my life, from Tony himself. While LP obviously had no need for an Argentina book at that moment, they were impressed with my qualifications and would keep my contact information on file.
As it turned out, that LP Argentina was not very good, there was a dispute with the author, and they soon decided to redo it from scratch. As Tony was coming to the Bay Area to visit the Oakland office (at that time a skeletal operation), I met him in his San Francisco hotel. We discussed the shortcomings of the Argentina book, and agreed that I would write a more detailed proposal that would include Uruguay, Paraguay and the Falkland Islands as well. Tony liked the proposal and we soon signed a contract that let me spend most of a year in Argentina and then write it up. My wife Maria Laura (an Argentine) also participated in the research and writing, but I did about 80 percent of the work.
As a traveler and fact/story-gatherer, what is your biggest challenge on the road?
I could say Argentine drivers, but so far I’ve managed to survive them. In terms of labor, it’s the fact that I cover a great deal of territory — Argentina is only slightly smaller than India, so updating it is a big job for a single person. Of course, Argentina lacks the enormous population and cultural complexity of India, so that can be a misleading comparison. Chile, of course, is substantially smaller but still large enough.
That said, I visit southern South America for several months every year, have extensive contacts there, own an apartment in Buenos Aires, and some of the most popular areas overlap in my Argentina and Chile titles.
Physical fatigue can be an issue for a guidebook writer. In my recent five-month research trip to Argentina, for instance, I never spent more than four consecutive days in the same location. This can obviously be stressful, and of course guidebook writing means that sometimes you have to visit places you don’t particularly care for and can’t stay as long in some places that you really like. Because guidebooks have to be comprehensive, you can’t pick and choose as much as you might like.
What is your biggest challenge in the writing process?
At this point in my life, though I still enjoy both writing and traveling, I actually enjoy the writing more, when I can bring a place to life with my words. One problem is that, in writing new books for Moon, I have to be careful to avoid self-plagiarism of my former Lonely Planet titles, as LP has the copyright. (In my opinion, the appropriation of author copyright by guidebook publishers is nothing less than scandalous.)
Another challenge is to know what to leave out when you’re writing about a place, to decide what is the optimum amount of information that a reader needs. Also, as a guidebook writer, there’s the need to balance formulaic practical data with the cultural, historical and other background information that’s much more interesting, and fun, to write about. This is especially true with sidebars, which allow you explore certain topics in greater depth, but they generally have to wait until you’ve finished all the practical information and, since deadline is approaching, something always has to be left out.
What is your biggest challenge from a business standpoint? Editors? Finances? Promotion?
It’s a combination of the three. I’ve suffered my share of inept editors who went about fixing what wasn’t broke, or changing text that either distorted or completely reversed the meaning of what I wrote. It’s worse, though, when they do this without querying you about what you meant. A good editor knows when to leave something alone and, when something is unclear, he or she works in consultation with the author to bring out the ideas. (I’ve had some of these editors, and I appreciate them immensely, but they’re clearly a minority in the guidebook business.)
I have managed to make a living, though not an extravagant one, from guidebook writing. But if I had gotten into it only a little earlier, when Lonely Planet was still offering royalty contracts, I would have done much better. I calculate that, if my LP contracts had had the same terms as my current Moon contracts, my LP earnings would have been double what they were. That said, I’ll acknowledge that LP paid better than most other guidebook publishers, though I’m not sure that’s still the case.
I enjoy doing in-person promotions, speaking to audiences about my destinations, and I’ve managed to make some money doing that. I don’t think publishers do as much promotion of guidebook authors and their expertise as they could, and I’ve found that a bit frustrating. Promoting oneself is very time-consuming when you also have to write and do research (and the fact that I spend four to five months on the road every year makes it even more difficult).
Another complication, for US freelancers at least, is the lack of benefits that are very costly and difficult or sometimes impossible to obtain — particularly health care. I chose this work in part because I cannot imagine working in someone’s office, but at the same time the US tax codes are very discriminatory against self-employed people, at least those who are pulling in less than about US$100,000 per annum (which is almost everyone).
Do you do other work to make ends meet?
I have taught university-level geography and environmental studies in the past, but I really prefer research and writing, and I also think I’m better at research and writing than at teaching. I write occasionally for magazines and newspapers, with some semi-regular clients, but not as much as I might like. I’ve also not been as aggressive as I might have been in pursuing these leads. Photography has also made a contribution to my income, as text-photography packages are easier to sell and pay better.
I have also managed to parlay my destination expertise into additional income, arranging book tours with financial support from the Chilean Tourist Promotion Corporation. Over the last few years, this has been a significant supplement to my income and I would like to do it with the Argentines as well, but Argentina’s political and economic disorder, and lack of continuity in Argentine government policy, has worked against this so far. I remain cautiously hopeful as the Argentine economy recovers.
What travel authors or books might you recommend and/or have influenced you?
I think Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle is the greatest travel book ever written, and fortunately much of it falls within my geographical area of interest. I greatly appreciate Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia, even though Chatwin blurs the line between non-fiction and fiction. On the other hand, I really detest Paul Theroux’s patronizing writing in The Old Patagonian Express.
I really enjoy those authors who employ humor and irony, though it’s hard to sustain this in a guidebook context. One of the classics that everyone should read is Mark Twain’s The Innocents Abroad, which still elicits belly laughs even though it’s nearly a century and a half old; Roughing It is also great for its hyperbole. Of contemporary travel writers in this vein, I admire Bill Bryson for his self-effacing humor in books like A Walk in the Woods, and Thurston Clarke, whose Equator is probably better than Twain’s book on the same general theme. Tim Cahill also falls into this category.
I also get great satisfaction from authors who immerse themselves in their subject, such as Ted Conover, though he’s not a travel writer in the strictest sense. He’s really an anthropologist doing journalism in an on-the-road context, as in Rolling Nowhere (riding the rails as a hobo) and Coyotes (living and working among undocumented immigrants from Mexico and Central America). He does an extraordinary job of using small stories to illuminate the big picture.
Peter Mathiessen, in travel literature such as The Cloud Forest and in fiction such as At Play in the Fields of the Lord, is even more remarkable. V.S. Naipaul, though he can be difficult and even cynical, writes very challenging work about place and people in books like The Return of Eva Peron.
I would never have appreciated writers like Conover or Mathiessen as much, though, had I not worked as a grad student under the late Bernard Nietschmann, an academic who also knew how to write and speak to popular audiences; he also had an extraordinary sense of humor and an unmatchably eloquent empathy with the underdog. His book Caribbean Edge, dealing with his experiences among indigenous peoples and wildlife on and around Nicaragua’s Miskito coast, remains one of my prized possessions.
What advice and/or warnings would you give to someone who is considering going into travel writing?
From the first, pay attention to the legal and financial aspects of travel writing (or any writing, for that matter), as well as the creative ones. To be sure, you’re not likely to get a dollar a word on your first newspaper piece, but you shouldn’t be subsidizing the publisher with cheap labor. And stand up for your intellectual property rights.
Travel writing also requires a great deal of self-discipline, to set your own work schedules and deadlines.
What is the biggest reward of life as a travel writer?
The nearly total autonomy regarding work schedules and work burden, not being subject to arbitrary schedules, is important to me. But even more important is the pleasure of revisiting places and peoples I have gotten to know over the years, and to be able to appreciate the changes that have taken place. I no longer enjoy vagabonding as I did when I was younger, and have little desire to visit completely new places or even to travel without working, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. Given the choice, I prefer to spend another week to broaden my knowledge of the Atacama desert, for example, than to travel to the unknown (for me) Gobi.