Matthew Power is a contributing editor at Harper’s and The Virginia Quarterly Review, and his work has also appeared in GQ, Men’s Journal, National Geographic Adventure, Outside, Wired, The New York Times, Slate, The Atavist, Granta and elsewhere. He has been anthologized in Best American Travel Writing three times (2007, 2008, 2010), and has won two Lowell Thomas Awards. He was a 2010-11 Knight-Wallace Fellow at the University of Michigan. He lives in Brooklyn.
How did you get started traveling?
I grew up in a small town in Vermont, and went to college there as well, so by the time I graduated I was more than ready to experience the larger world. I spent the following summer in a friend’s farmhouse in the mountains of Andalusia. It was an extraordinary experience, the place had no running water or electricity, and it was the first time I’d ever lived alone. I’d brought a suitcase of novels — this was 1996, long before Kindles existed — and I spent the summer working my way through them. Though I never cracked the two-volume hardcover Remembrance of Things Past. Over the summer a college friend showed up in Spain, who had been traveling around Europe and busking for spare change. We hitchhiked from southern Spain to Istanbul and then Prague, sleeping on the streets or in fields by the highway. Over a dozen countries and thousands of miles, the kindness of random people was extraordinary, from Italian nuns to Turkish truckers, and we were often invited into people’s homes or driven far out of their way. I witnessed a sort of kindness that’s at the core of what travel means to me, and I really hope that that sort of serendipitous and open experience is still available to young travelers setting out into the world. I think everyone should hitchhike at some point in their life.
How did you get started writing?
I was absorbed by stories from the time I learned to read, and knew from a pretty young age that I wanted to be a writer. At first it was (very bad) poetry, and throughout college I wrote the sort of short fiction that is really thinly-veiled memoir. A year after college I moved to New York to attend Columbia’s MFA fiction program, but I knew pretty quickly that I had no interest in going into penurious and crushing debt to be accredited. And I found myself often sneaking across the quad to listen in on lectures at the journalism school, so it became clear that as a writer I’d want to be engaged in the realm of the real. So I applied for an unpaid magazine internship at Harper’s, reasoning that not being paid to live in New York was a better deal than paying for the same. It was probably the smartest decision I ever made. New York was of course very different then — I rented an Upper West Side room from a very nice cat-lady for $325 a month — so living on next to nothing wasn’t that onerous. After the internship I got a lot of short-term gigs as a fact-checker for monthly magazines: Discover, Spin, National Geographic Adventure, Talk, Lingua Franca. Several of the magazines no longer exist, but I met a lot of writers and editors, and the production cycle allowed me to work a few weeks a month and spend the rest of the time traveling. In the summer of 1999 I hitchhiked and rode freight trains across the country in between fact-checking jobs.
What do you consider your first “break” as a writer?
It actually came out of that same period of early travel, which is why I generally advise young writers not to shackle themselves with freedom-restricting grad-school debt if at all possible. While traveling around out west I was introduced to a group of eco-anarchist forest defense activists living 200 feet high in a threatened old growth forest outside Eugene, Oregon. That, and the experience of riding freight trains from Vancouver to Toronto formed two of my first published pieces (In Blue, a really great adventure travel magazine, and FEED, a really great web magazine, neither of which exists any longer.) A couple years later, I moved to New Delhi, and that’s when things really took off, and I published long pieces in National Geographic Adventure and Harper’s. Harper’s in particular let me really expand and experiment with my voice, and is still one of the very few venues that will give a writer the space and freedom to tell a story the way it deserves. I think my first piece for them, on a village in rural India poisoned by pesticides, ran 11,000 words. And since then I’ve written probably 70 long feature stories for various magazines.
As a traveler and fact/story gatherer, what is your biggest challenge on the road?
Living in New York, particularly in the overwhelmingly immigrant neighborhood of Brooklyn where I do, often feels like a foreign country, so in some ways I always feel like I’m traveling. I tend to work abroad about 3-4 months a year—in the last year and a half I’ve reported from India, Mexico, Colombia, France, England, Australia and Papua New Guinea. Probably 60 countries in the last decade. It’s actually very comforting to get back into that foreignness, and the sort of physical and psychological problem solving that it entails. The logistics of arranging travel, finding good translators and fixers, and reporting stories through a filter of language and culture can be difficult, but it’s absolutely never boring. The biggest challenge is likely internal, in one’s own self-criticism: am I asking the right questions? Am I doing justice to this story, and to this person’s experience? In some ways you can never fully comprehend the experience of another person, and to even achieve a simulacrum you have to be really, really open and attentive. I try to know as much I can about political and social context when I’m in a place, but I also try very hard not to push my own assumptions onto people or make them stand for some larger thing. And it’s crucially important to give yourself the time — lots of extra time, time with nothing to do but sit around and stare at the landscape — in which you can start to notice all the small and large details that will bring a place roaring to life on the page.
What is your biggest challenge in the research and writing process?
Often it’s what happens later, wading through absolute mountains of reporting and source materials. I usually have to work myself up into a lather of dread before I can climb up that mountain after a reporting trip. The ubiquity of digital recording devices has become the bane of my existence in that regard; on a recent story I found I’d transcribed 27,000 words of interviews. But I love talking to people, and some of the most candid moments occur when you just leave the recorder running and forget it’s there. It’s of course always frustrating to only realize after the fact what a perfect question would have been, but the only way to counter that is to try and know as much as possible before setting out. My work is most often structured around scenes I’ve witnessed personally. I always fantasized about being the great sort of archive-diving investigative reporter who finds a trail of clues in some trove of documents and reconstructs a riveting narrative — think David Grann digging up all the amazing source material for The Lost City of Z — but I’ve found I’m not really temperamentally suited to that. Though I’m trying to learn. I’ve always found my best details come from just being in the right place at the right time and remembering to look around. Once I get to a point where I’ve got all my notes somewhat organized in a huge sheaf, the writing itself is usually quite pleasurable. It’s just getting to that point of stepping off into the blank page that’s a bit exhausting.
What is your biggest challenge from a business standpoint?
After a decade of freelancing, the trick seems to be knowing how many hooks to have in the water, how to be working all the time without getting to a point where projects or deadlines converge in an untenable way. You can’t overpromise and under-deliver — and if you do the reverse, you may starve. I tend to have stories in several stages of development at any time — ideas in utero, pitches out, assignments made, reporting trips scheduled, drafts in to editors, then the final stages of production. By the time a piece goes through that whole process and is on the newsstand, it may take as much as a year. And since I work for many different magazines, I have to be able to keep track of all those commitments. This would all be a lot easier if I wasn’t also constitutionally disorganized. There’s a great video of Gay Talese giving a tour of his basement office, and he has files for every story going back to “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold.” I tend to put things in unmarked boxes and pile them in the basement like the Lost Ark.
So at the moment I have three finished 6000-word features in edits, and another three or so assigned, and several queries out. There’s a lot of little stuff that can fill the cracks — book and film reviews, or short Q&A pieces — but those are probably less than 10% of what I do. And of course as a freelancer you have to deal with your own finances and taxes. My wife, also a freelance journalist, is a genius at that, happily. The upside is that nearly everything, from home offices to magazine subscriptions to any travel expenses, is deductible. It almost makes up for having to pay for your own health insurance.
Have you ever done other work to make ends meet?
I’ve been fortunate to make a living just from writing for the last decade. I like the idea of teaching, and I’ve always enjoyed talking to classes, but I haven’t yet had to go that route to keep my life balanced.
What travel authors or books might you recommend and/or have influenced you?
I think the best travel books would never really be called that. There are so many that have had a really profound influence on my exploratory imagination, starting with the ones that overwhelmed me as a kid; I don’t think anything I’ve ever read had as much of an impact on me as My Side of the Mountain. Or From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. Stories of kids running off to be in the world — it’s a very powerful allure.
I really take issue with the “travel writing” label, and I think on some level travel writing no longer makes sense as a category. Travel is a multi-billion dollar industry, and it has never been as easy to get to the world’s most remote locations, or as easy to stay digitally connected to the familiar world and act as though you have never left home. Go into any cybercafé from Khao San Road to Cuzco and you’ll see what I mean. It’s the Lonely Planet paradox.
At the same time there has maybe never been a better time for great narrative non-fiction that is engaged with the wider world, that explores places and cultures that are far from our ordinary experience. Among contemporary writers, Ian Frazier does remarkable things with voice and narrative structure, the way a long essay like “Canal Street” can lead you through memoir, history, process piece, and back and keep you absolutely engaged the whole time. It’s very, very hard to chart out a structure like that, and he makes it look not only easy but the only logical way a piece could unfold. Likewise John McPhee — there’s so much care in his descriptions, you feel like it provides a blueprint almost for rebuilding whatever world he happens to be focused on, whether it’s sailing ships or cross-country truckers. And David Grann’s ability to spin out intricately plotted and meticulously reported stories that read like detective stories.
David Foster Wallace really cracked open the rules of what many people had thought was possible with the form. The work doesn’t even have to leave town to be an extraordinary exploration: think of a deeply immersive book about life in the South Bronx like Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s Random Family. Ted Conover has been a friend and mentor for many years, and I’ve always been inspired by his commitment to long-term immersion reporting projects, where he gives a culture and a story a huge amount of time, whether it’s riding the rails with latter-day hoboes or working as a prison guard at Sing Sing. In the same vein, Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers, based on years of extraordinarily empathetic and immersive reporting in a Mumbai slum, is perhaps the best work of foreign reportage of the last decade.
It really is a golden age for good narrative nonfiction right now; I could go on for ages about some of the writers turning out amazing longform work today: Burkhard Bilger, John Jeremiah Sullivan, David Quammen, Michael Paterniti, Susan Orlean, Tom Bissell, Wells Tower. And there are so many new platforms available to bring work to a broader audience. I could spend weeks digging into the vast archives on Byliner or Longreads or Longform. And e-publishers like The Atavist, which sent me on a gonzo journey to Papua New Guinea to report on an expedition, are really revolutionizing both the experience of reading narrative nonfiction and the means of making it economically viable.
What advice and/or warnings would you give to someone who is considering going into travel writing?
First thing, try not to think of it as travel writing. There’s nothing inherently wrong with going to a far-off place and crafting a first-person narrative, or being a character in your own writing, but if all you come away from on a journey is a sense of how it personally transformed you, and what it meant to you, then you haven’t really gone anywhere but inside your own head. It’s a huge and very interesting world, but a good deal of being able to see that has to do with letting go of as much of the cultural baggage you are lugging with you as possible. This has to do with giving yourself enough time, and talking to enough people to get a real sense of the place you’re in. Which is very difficult to do on a two-week vacation. You need to be as clear-eyed as possible, and it really helps to read deeply about the place you’re going before you get there. If you’re in a foreign city, read the local papers, maybe even take local news reporters out to lunch to get the lay of the land. The privilege of travel comes with a responsibility: if you want to create meaningful work, you’ll need to really be engaged and connected with the place you’re going.
Get extra pages put in your passport. Hep A and B and typhoid boosters are not optional. Don’t be afraid to get dirty, and don’t be afraid to be bored. And don’t expect to get rich doing it. It’s a huge logistical challenge to take care of a family. Other than that, it’s the greatest job in the world.
What is the biggest reward of life as a travel writer?
I haven’t worked in an office in eleven years.