Ayun Halliday, a Hoosier New Yorker, is the the sole staff member of the quarterly ‘zine, The East Village Inky, which is as much a guidebook to New York City’s under-reported attractions as it is an illustrated record of Ayun’s thrilling true-life adventures with two children under the age of six. Before becoming a mother, she was an international shoestring gadabout, as chronicled in her recent travel book, No Touch Monkey! And Other Travelers’ Lessons Learned Too Late. She looks forward to the not-far-off day when she and her young sidekicks will be more mobile — not that motherhood isn’t akin to traveling in a foreign land. Ayun covered that ground in The Big Rumpus: A Mother’s Tale from the Trenches. You can find her in Brooklyn with Inky and Milo and their father, Greg Kotis, the man responsible for Urinetown (The Musical), foreign productions of which will take the family to Japan, Korea, London and Madrid in the near future.
How did you get started traveling?
Right after college, I got cast in a couple of plays this sham theater company was presenting in the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. The company consisted of two underwhelmingly talented men who scrounged up parts for every auditioner, then exacted a travel and housing fee to cover their own expenses for a summer in Scotland … perhaps other artistically-inclined, financially challenged would-be-travelers can take this scam and run with it! After the festival, I bullied a boyfriend into what I imagined would be a highly romantic Eurailing adventure — we had something like $800 to last us two months. Crabby and unwashed, we slept on a lot of train station floors, a couple of beaches (including rocky Nice) and a leaf pile in a Portuguese public park where we were narrowly escaped death by early-morning mulching.
How did you get started writing?
Allow me a 3-part answer:
As a spectacularly unathletic child, writing and storytelling were part of my survival instinct, second only to the drawings with which I entertained my more coordinated classmates.
When I was in my mid-20s, I joined a Chicago theater ensemble whose most notorious offering was an ongoing, ever-changing attempt to perform 30 plays in 60 minutes — each week, audience members rolled die to determine the number of new plays the ensemble would write for the coming Friday. Whenever I wasn’t traveling, I was in Chicago, banging out three-minute plays and performing in that show. It was excellent practice for a writer, even if some of the product was doo. After nearly nine years, I packed it in, three weeks shy of giving birth to my first child, India (“Inky”).
In Glasgow for a performance workshop in which it was virtually impossible to participate given the constant company of my one-year-old sidekick, I realized that if I was to keep my wig on straight, I needed to find a solo creative outlet that could come together during Inky’s unpredictably timed naps. The solution was my hand-written, illustrated quarterly zine, The East Village Inky. Amazingly enough, this project, which looks like the work of a talented fifth-grader (who sucks at kickball) is what led to my first book contract, my “Mother Superior” column in BUST magazine, and the happy misconception that I’m some sort of diehard punk rocker!
What do you consider your first “break” as a travel writer?
I wrote two autobiographical essays specifically hoping they’d be included in the Seal Press anthologies,
Actually, before all that, I wrote an autobiographical full-length solo performance for myself called Farang, which recounted some traveling I did in Southeast Asia whilst gripped in the jaws of a dying relationship. It ran for three weeks in Chicago and then I went back to Asia!
As a traveler and fact/story-gatherer, what is your biggest challenge on the road?
Frankly, the children trump everything, as far as complicating my life. Writing No Touch Monkey! was a wonderful opportunity for mental vagabonding. Real-life journeys must coexist with the needs of a three-year-old and a six-year-old who, adaptable, people-loving and good-humored as they may be (I hope I’m not tempting the devil by saying that) still have suspicious taste buds, different gear than I do, and a tendency to get bored, whiny and nauseous when riding in vehicles other than the New York City subway for more than half an hour. I think things will open up in a few years when Milo learns to read — until he does, the idea of a second-class rail journey between Varanasi and New Delhi is unthinkable.
It was a rude awakening that everyone over two pays full fare. I have a fantasy that when everybody’s walking, reading and amusing themselves well, we’ll have saved up enough to “homeschool” by rattling around parts unknown for a year or so.
Having recently spent a month motoring around California with the feral young, story-gathering seems no more difficult than it ever was. At the end of the day, it still takes discipline to jot down a few memory-sparking details as well as contact information for that ostrich farm we stumbled across. When I was working on No Touch Monkey! it was sobering to crack open old journals and see that I had been too busy analyzing romantic relationships to record the name of the Chinese hotel in Singapore , a crucial element in an anecdote about me accidentally blowing off the American ambassador’s wife. Fortunately, the hotel’s name and some nice descriptive details show up in one of my blurry, crummy snapshots. For any publication requiring photos to accompany the story, I have to travel with someone who knows his or her way around a camera.
What is your biggest challenge in the writing process?
Oh god, getting away from those creepy little kids for a couple of hours! Actually, now that Milo logs a couple of hours a day in nursery school, the challenge is to not piss away that precious time checking email. Writing the autobiographical travel essays, I occasionally found myself astrally projecting into the shoes of old boyfriends, traveling companions I haven’t seen in years, wondering how I would feel if I only found out by accident that someone from my past wrote a book that made extensive mention of my constant diarrhea or how I had burst into tears in the Munich train station, my hair frozen into little soapy points. Hey man, that’s what pseudonyms are for! My husband Greg is the other major character in the back half of No Touch Monkey! and his reaction to the parts he’s read swings from “How do you manage to remember so much?” to “I never said that!” (Plus the poor guy has to slog through a hundred pages of his predecessors before he gets to himself.) I figure if I mock myself at least as much as I mock my former traveling companions, the truth has been served.
Sometimes it’s hard to trust the comic instincts of my editors, particularly mainstream magazine editors who say my references are too obscure and try to change ‘heinie’ to ‘butt’. When I wrote my essay for The Unsavvy Traveler, about traveling with a low-budget adventure trucking company through Tanzania, Rwanda and Kenya in 1988, I freaked out because the editor red pencilled every hindsight reference to the Rwandan civil war, as well as scenes of me witnessing desperately poor villagers digging up our buried garbage as we rolled away from camp. I worried that I was going to come off as the quintessentially blinkered Ugly American, crashing along without any awareness of anything other than my own played-for-laughs discomfort. Finally, just to shut me up, I was allowed to keep a line about hoping that all the children in my pictures are alive.
Leslie Miller, who edited The Big Rumpus and No Touch Monkey! is very simpatico and I’ve learned to go with her instincts, whacking things that ACTUALLY HAPPENED so that the comedy can stay on track. It’s a pretty tall order trying to get yuks with a narrowly averted rape outside a monastery in Thailand, especially when you factor in differences of skin color, socio-economic standing and cultural mores. I was glad to have Leslie pick-axing her way through the raw material on my behalf, suggesting that I shorten and shift focus from the attack, get back to the crowd-pleasing stuff about the lapsed-Episcopalian-with-Buddhist-tendencies (me) versus the atheist Jew (Greg) and take it out on a high note. In the end, she’s almost always right.
What is your biggest challenge from a business standpoint? Editors? Finances? Promotion?
Promotion. Seal Press is great, but their advertising budget could use more air in the tires. I do enjoy the thrill of the hunt when it comes to guerilla marketeering, but unfortunately, time spent trying to get the word out is also the only time I have to write and before I know it, the kids are home, clamoring for juice, Band-Aids and that infernal Alvin and the Chipmunks record. I find myself envying people like the guys from Found Magazine and Jen Leo, the editor of Sand In My Bra, who tour the country in beat-up old cars, squeezing all sorts of adventures from the necessity of promoting their work. Given my responsibilities to Inky and Milo, it’s like jumping through flaming hoops just to figure out how I’m going to get to a reading in Baltimore. Am I starting to sound complain-y, to use the term made famous by Spiritual Midwifery? The East Village Inky is a great source of promotion. Not only do I give myself limitless free ads, the subscribers bowl me over with their willingness to follow instructions to give my books to everyone on their Christmas list. I’m such a cavewoman when it comes to the Internet that I’ve got an old friend from my theatre days who I pay to help with my website. I write the content and tell him what photos to grab from my Snapfish account; he slaps them on the site and doesn’t think twice about interject ing his own sick commentary, such as headlining the sneak preview of the book cover “Special Advance Load of Hot Monkey Poop”. I’m sure that blogging would be a good way to keep fanning the flames, but between the zine and every other damn thing I write, I feel like I spend a lot of time talking about me me me. I’d rather use my online time Googling other people’s blogs to see if they’re mentioning me.
Do you do other work to make ends meet?
Sorry, Milo got the keyboard away from me.
In a magnificent stroke of fortune, after years of menial day jobs and scrimping, my husband, Greg Kotis fell down the rabbit hole and wrote Urinetown, The Musical. This play has enjoyed surreal, unexpected success — won a bunch of Tony Awards on Broadway, foreign productions, a national tour, the whole schmear. So last year and this year, Urinetown has kept us afloat, although we still drink out of peanut butter jars and walk 20 blocks to use of a bus transfer in lieu of paying another fare. I have to say it couldn’t have happened to a more deserving guy and as long as he keeps laying those golden eggs, I ain’t going anywhere or resuming my waitressing career.
What travel authors or books might you recommend and/or have influenced you?
I am first and foremost a huge Somerset Maugham fan. His short stories are so economical, so engrossing and I love how he’s always a character himself, usually as a listener to someone else’s extraordinary anecdote.
I was fascinated by Karma Cola, Gita Mehta’s book about hippies in India.
Sand in My Bra made me laugh out loud, particularly the story about a fairly modest woman who finds herself on a river trip with a bunch of bare-breasted, gourd-shaking goddess worshippers who’ve given themselves pseudo-Indian river names.
As a New Yorker and a parent, I enjoyed my fellow Brooklynite Mark Jacobsen’s recent 12,000 Miles in the Nick Of Time, the true story of how he and his wife took his three kids, ranging in age from 16 to 9 on a three month tour of Cambodia, Jordan, India and Nepal because he saw them growing ‘provincial and stupid’ in front of the t.v.
In the politically-charged-complete-with-funny-illustrations arena, I really enjoy the work of Joe Sacco (Palestine, Safe Area Gorazde) and Ted Rall (To Afghanistan and Back). In these books, the traveling is secondary, but the details come through loud and clear! It’s also refreshing to see backpackers concerned with something far meatier than banana pancakes and the next full moon party.
I have a compulsion to read out-of-date guidebooks — I am constitutionally unable to leave a Lonely Planet from 1983 sitting curbside with the rest of the neighbor’s garbage. The names and the prices all tell a story, usually one that makes me think I should have gone bumming around this or that country in 1983 instead of spending four years and a lot of money getting a degree in theater.
My pal, Moe Bowstern put out a one-shot zine about her experiences as a commercial fisherwoman near Kodiak, Alaska (and getting to the fishing grounds from Portland, Oregon every summer). It’s gimcrack storytelling and I enjoyed the hell out of it, partly because because purse-seining and beach-seining for salmon is as exotic to me as the Hindu pantheon. Can’t remember where the Sam Hell I put it, but interested parties can email me and I’ll put you in touch with Moe.
It’s fun to read about where you’ve been … and almost as fun to read about where you haven’t been. Strange new worlds can lurk just below the surface of places we think we know well — the two weeks I spent with the newborn Inky in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit of St. Vincent’s Hospital in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village are proof of that. I love to read about others’ experience of New York City.
What advice and/or warnings would you give to someone who is considering going into travel writing?
View your every day life through a traveler’s eyes. For a while when I lived in Chicago, I had a job at a lame-ass art gallery in the Gold Coast, right by the Water Tower, a strip that few tourists leave. I kept thinking these people would have so much more fun if they had a chance to experience what I thought of as the ‘real’ Chicago — Quimby’s Bookstore, Reza’s Persian restaurant, the Heartland Café, the NeoFuturarium, the Indian restaurants on Devon, the Music Box theater, all the Value Village thrift stores… This was just before the age of the internet. Write an online guidebook to your hometown! You’ll get hits. In The East Village Inky, I really get off on telling people where to go. My view of New York is admittedly short on nightclubs but long on lesser-known museums like the Freakatorium and cheap ethnic restaurants with a tolerant attitude toward babies. Seeing your stomping grounds with the excited eyes of a traveler is a wonderful policy, with benefits that extend beyond your writerly ambitions.
Rather than trying to interest publishers in the traveling observations of an ‘unknown’, become the king or queen of your own publishing empire, if not the sun itself! Put out a zine about your travels! Or if you’re less of a Paleolith than I, blog your brains out! Eventually someone in the industry will take note and then you’ll earn your bonafide Girl Scout travel writing badge, but in the meantime, why wait?
On a personal note, I look forward to reading travel memoirs that prioritize the writer’s flabbergasted response to the toilets of Ladakh (It’s like using a litter box!) to his or her awed response to the pyramids / Machu Picchu / the mighty redwoods. In my book, funny and mundane wins the day!
What is the biggest reward of life as a travel writer?
I hope it’s more travel and more writing.