J. Maarten Troost is the author of The Sex Lives of Cannibals: Adrift in the Equatorial Pacific. His essays have appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, the Washington Post, and the Prague Post. He spent two years in Kiribati in the equatorial Pacific and upon his return was hired as a consultant by the World Bank. After several years in Fiji, he recently relocated to the U.S. and now lives with his wife and son in California.
How did you get started traveling?
One of my earliest memories is taking the train from Holland, where I was born, to Prague, where my grandfather lived. I must have been three or so, and I can recall thinking something along the lines of Whoa, this is different. It was like stepping into some alternate reality full of soldiers and crumbling buildings and rusting Ladas. This was only a few years after the Soviet invasion and there was a heaviness to the air that we just didn’t have in Holland. Growing up, we moved around a bit — from Holland to Canada and then on to the United States. Summers were spent in Europe, where my father lived. It was an agreeable way to grow up, having one foot in North America and the other in Europe, and it made travel and movement seem very natural.
How did you get started writing?
As a wee one, I wasn’t particularly interested in writing journals or stories. I was, however, a voracious reader, and when you read Hemingway and Baldwin and Maugham and Henry Miller at an impressionable age, the idea of being a writer becomes very appealing. I envisioned a life of lively cafes and mysterious women. I would feel comfortable in a beret. And as I fiddled with other careers, I kept coming back to the idea of being a writer. Of course, my employers noted that I wasn’t particularly interested in doing the job and at a certain point I ran out of career options. So I began to write seriously. Sadly, lively cafes, berets and mysterious women — other than the mysteries of my wife, of course — haven’t figured very prominently in my writing life.
What do you consider your first “break” as a writer?
When I was in graduate school I heard about a new English-language newspaper just starting up in Prague. It was the Prague Post. I sent them a letter and shortly thereafter I received a postcard from Alan Levy, the editor-in-chief, who more or less said, sure, come on over, give it a try. And so I did. I have relied on serendipity ever since.
As a traveler and fact/story gatherer, what is your biggest challenge on the road?
Well, I’ve been lucky in that every few years one thing or another takes me to some unusual locale — Eastern Europe, the South Pacific — and I can just write about where I live. However, I have a two-book contract that’s going to get me out and about for fairly long stretches of time. The challenge, I think, will be to resist the inevitable mopiness that occurs when you discover you’ve acquired a new parasite, or your plans fall apart due to an insufferable bureaucrat, or you realize that you will be sharing a one-hole toilet with sixty other people, and all the while you’re thinking, I could be home right now, lounging in my easy chair, reading stories to my little guy.
What is your biggest challenge in the research and writing process?
The writing itself. I’m an awful procrastinator. But it’s funny how the words just seem to flow when you’re a month past your deadline.
What is your biggest challenge from a business standpoint? Editors? Finances? Promotion?
My editor at Broadway, Ann Campbell, is brilliant. And I certainly can’t complain about promotion. Finances, however, have been a mite problematic. My solution was to live in a Third World country with a very patient spouse who happens to earn a Western salary. Fortunately, The Sex Lives of Cannibals did alright, and now were able to live in the First World too.
Have you ever done other work to make ends meet?
When I returned from Kiribati I thought I was in pretty good shape to make it as a freelancer. I had had some success selling pieces to major publications. Editors were interested in what I had. But then a quick calculation comparing likely revenue with likely expenditures revealed that there was no way I could make a living at this. And so I took a job at the World Bank, which was fairly full on, and I more or less stopped writing seriously for two years, until, that is, we decided to return to a remotish island in the South Pacific, where once again I very humbly lived off my wife’s earnings. But at least this time I had a book to show for it.
What travel authors or books might you recommend and/or have influenced you?
Paul Theroux is always a good read. There have certainly been times when I’ve been left sputtering – I can’t believe he wrote that – but I keep turning the pages, marveling in particular at his descriptive prose. Very economical. Very elegant. And it always seems that is just exactly how it should be written.
Bill Bryson, of course, put the fun back into travel writing. I can’t abide he-man testimonials, and I’ll always choose reading a book by a bumbling wit over some testosterone-ridden account describing yet another heroic ascent. Redmond O’Hanlon too is quite the wit. And David Foster Wallace is someone I’d really like to see do more travel writing. His essay “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” is about as good as it gets.
What advice and/or warnings would you give to someone who is considering going into travel writing?
Read. Live. Write. Rather prosaic, but true nonetheless. On a pragmatic note, given the brutal fiscal realities of freelancing, I think it’s always helpful to relocate yourself to some interesting — and cheap – corner of the world and write from there. From Laos, for instance, you would have all of Southeast Asia to write about at very low cost to you.
What is the biggest reward of life as a travel writer?
Hmm… As I write, I’m on an island in the South Pacific on someone else’s dime.