Richard Grant is a freelance journalist based in Arizona and the author of three travel books. His first book, American Nomads: Travels with Lost Conquistadors, Mountain Men, Cowboys, Indians, Hoboes, Truckers, and Bullriders, won the Thomas Cook travel-writing award. It was followed by God’s Middle Finger: Into the Lawless Heart of the Sierra Madre, and most recently Crazy River: Exploration and Folly in East Africa.
How did you get started traveling?
I grew up mostly in London, England, and hated it there. The class system, the low grey skies, the grumpiness. I didn’t want a career. Wage slavery horrified me. I was desperate to escape. I worked as a security guard, saved my money, bought a plane ticket to New York. I found some odd jobs in New York and Philly and with some friends drove across the country and fell in love instantly with the American West, and the feeling of freewheeling on the road. That was 25 years ago and I’ve been traveling constantly since. Until this year, I never spent more than three consecutive weeks in the same place.
How did you get started writing?
When I was traveling around the American Southwest, I started writing long letters about my experiences to friends in London. One of those friends got a job at a magazine and told me if I cleaned up the language he could publish one of my letters as an article and pay me. This sounded like the perfect solution, a way to keep traveling and retain as much personal freedom as possible.
What do you consider your first “break” as a writer?
There wasn’t one. It was a slow steady process of selling articles, living on rice and beans, learning the craft, and gradually working up to the first book, then another, and another.
As a traveler and fact/story gatherer, what is your biggest challenge on the road?
My last two books have both had a strong element of danger, and the biggest challenge was staying alive. In the Sierra Madre in Mexico, I ended up quite literally running for my life through the mountains at night, pursued by two armed men who wanted to kill me for the sport of it. In Crazy River, the main focus of the book was my attempt to make the first descent of the Malagarasi river in the far west of Tanzania. No-one had ever gone down the whole river in a boat before, and the internet had barely heard of it. It was unexplored, in the sense that there was no written information available about the river. Again staying alive was the challenge, in the face of hippos, crocodiles, poachers, bandits, impenetrable swamps, waterfalls, rapids, disease-carrying insects. We all got sick with various unpleasant fevers.
What is your biggest challenge in the research and writing process?
My own restlessness and tendency to procrastinate. I’m such a nomad that it’s very difficult for me to spend long hours sitting at a desk. I can go about three weeks, then I have to change location and find somewhere new to sit down and write. The words seldom come how I want them to come, so there’s a lot of anguish and rewriting.
What is your biggest challenge from a business standpoint?
Getting paid in a timely manner. I’ve always been able to find work, but sometimes getting money out of magazines is like blood from a stone. Some won’t pay you for nine months after turning in a piece. Others give you the runaround, and pretend they’ve lost your invoice, or ignore your calls and emails chasing up the money they owe you. I once sent a box full of dead scorpions to a magazine editor in London who wasn’t paying me, saying the next one would be full of live scorpions if he didn’t send the check. It worked. I got paid within a few days.
Have you ever done other work to make ends meet?
No. I’ve lived solely by selling my words.
What travel authors or books might you recommend and/or have influenced you?
For me, Ryzard Kapuscinski is as good as it gets. People grumble about his factual accuracy, but I find his books so fascinating, wise and beautiful that I don’t care. Bruce Chatwin was an early influence. I really liked the Ian Frazier book Great Plains. One of my favorite travel books is Cabeza de Vaca’s Adventures In the Unknown Interior of America, penned in 1542, and the really the beginning of American literature. For more recent stuff, Geoff Dyer has been making me laugh a lot. I enjoy the way his mind works.
What advice and/or warnings would you give to someone who is considering going into travel writing?
Keep your overheads low. Never trust a cop and beware of whores who say they don’t want money. If you don’t love reading books, forget all about it.
What is the biggest reward of life as a travel writer?
Personal freedom and the hope of accumulating some wisdom about this astonishing world of ours.