Peter Rudiak-Gould’s first travel book, Surviving Paradise: One Year on a Disappearing Island, was published in November of 2009 by Union Square Press/Sterling. He is a doctoral student in Anthropology at Oxford University, conducting research on Marshallese reactions to the threat of devastating sea level rise caused by global warming. In the summer of 2007, he interviewed the President of the Marshall Islands regarding the effects of climate change. Proficient in Marshallese, the native language of the Marshall Islands, he is the author of the language textbook used by the WorldTeach volunteer organization as its official language manual for the Marshall Islands program. Originally from Berkeley, California, he now lives in Oxford, England.
How did you get started traveling?
I would say that I contracted the travel bug at the age of 17 when I read Rick Steves’ Europe Through the Back Door. Probably it was the idea of pure mobility — traveling alone with only a small backpack — that appealed to me most. After that, I was off: traveling around Europe when I was 17, studying in Granada, Spain when I was 19, teaching at a summer camp in Spain when I was 20, down to Baja California the same year, and then to the Marshall Islands when I was 21, and after that Corsica, England, arctic Norway, Ireland, Finland, and New Zealand. Sheer curiosity would always win out over any memory of previous traveling hardship.
How did you get started writing?
Probably with self-involved adolescent journal entries, in which I was anal enough to use semi-colons and egotistical enough to try for some sort of literary style. The first thing worth reading, though, was probably Surviving Paradise. I taught myself to write by writing it (with the help of Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird and John Trimble’s Writing with Style), and slowly, laboriously, turning these bad early drafts into something not as bad.
What do you consider your first “break” as a writer?
In terms of material, my first break was going to the Marshall Islands. I knew that I wanted to write a book, but I didn’t have anything to write it about, until I happened upon that curious little country. In terms of publication, my first break was when my agent, Andy Ross, took me under his wing. It’s been nothing but good news ever since.
As a traveler and fact/story gatherer, what is your biggest challenge on the road?
Being present in the experience while also taking notes for future writing. You have to be in two head-spaces at once. Travel writers and anthropologists have this challenge in common. It helps to have a good short-term memory, so you can quickly scribble down everything you remember from a conversation right after it happens, before the information gets lost in the ether.
What is your biggest challenge in the research and writing process?
Putting Surviving Paradise together was mind-numbingly hard — infinitely more difficult than writing an academic article or dissertation. One of the main reasons was that a travel memoir is simultaneously a story unfolding in time and a series of essays about the local culture. When one’s travels involve a lot of moving around, then each little essay is attached pretty clearly to one period of time, and so has an obvious place in the chronology of the book. But when one stays mostly in one place, as I do in Surviving Paradise, each cultural essay relates to the entire year, and so it has no obvious place in the book. To put it another way, I wanted each chapter to give part of the plot and tell about a certain aspect of local life. This structure did not come pre-made from the raw material of my experiences — it had to be wrestled out, over hundreds of hours of tedious work.
What is your biggest challenge from a business standpoint?
So far, publication has only been a pleasure. I’ve been blessed with a wonderful agent and editor. But I’m new to publication, and everyone tells me I’ll soon be bitter and jaded. So ask me again in a few years.
Have you ever done other work to make ends meet?
Does being in graduate school count as work? What about volunteering abroad? What about tracking down items for rich people, such as a tuxedo for an infant? Then yes, I have done other work. But my great fortune is to have had jobs weird enough that I get writing material from them, not just money to survive while I’m writing about other things.
What travel authors or books might you recommend and/or have influenced you?
Paul Theroux’s books (especially Riding the Iron Rooster) showed me that you don’t have to enjoy a place in order to be interested in it, that it is possible to be lucidly grumpy. Alain de Botton (The Art of Travel) showed me that traveling is a state of mind which is possible even at home. Nigel Barley (The Innocent Anthropologist; A Plague of Caterpillars; Not a Hazardous Sport) showed me that it’s possible to be a respectable academic and a popular writer, which gives me hope for my own planned juggling act between the two.
What advice and/or warnings would you give to someone who is considering going into travel writing?
I’m not in much of a position to give advice, but I would say that good writing comes from an experience that is not entirely resolved in your mind — something that fascinated and unsettled you. That gives the story its necessary conflict, and gives you the motivation to do all the long and hard work of writing it. Entirely pleasant experiences don’t make the kind of travel writing that I enjoy.
What is the biggest reward of life as a travel writer?
The satisfaction of a polished piece of writing after all of the work that goes into it. The opportunity to make sense of your experience by writing about it.