Robert Moor is an award-winning essayist and journalist living in British Columbia. His first book, On Trails: An Exploration, was published in July 2016. His writing has appeared in Harper’s, New York Magazine, GQ, and many other publications.
How did you get started traveling?
I think I caught the bug fairly early. My parents got divorced when I was seven, and shortly after, my mom began to undergo something of a personal awakening. (Or perhaps it was a mid-life crisis?) Instead of our usual domestic vacations to quaint eastern seaboard beach towns, she began taking long trips overseas, and taking me along for the ride. On the first of these trips, to Bali, I was ten years old. I remember that the night we arrived, there was a cremation ceremony in some small town outside of Ubud. I was jet-lagged, and, y’know, ten, so I really wanted to stay in our hotel room and read comic books, but my mom dragged me outside, where men were carrying these towering, intricately rendered papier-mache demons down the street. It was truly dream-like. Once they reached the end of the street, they burned the statues — a notion (what a waste of paper and hard work! what an impolite recognition of universal ephemerality!) that was anathema to my Midwestern upbringing. I’ve been traveling and seeking skull-opening experiences like that ever since.
How did you get started writing?
I suspect this is a tough question for all writers to answer, because I feel like I’ve always been writing, or at least concocting stories. My first recognition that I might have any skill at word-smithing came when I was in third grade, when a poem I wrote about a mouse hiding under an aloe plant in the desert won a children’s poetry contest in our local newspaper. I remember the feeling of concocting the metaphor “plump spears of green,” which was the first time I can recall language being vividly tactile. It was like magic. That one phrase (which now seems so mundane) summoned in my mind the color, texture, even the smell and taste of its referent. That was probably the last good poem I ever wrote.
In high school, I wrote short stories, some of which won awards, and that gave me enough reassurance to make up my mind at a freakishly young age that I would be a writer, or nothing at all. (I lived by that old, not-entirely-true credo of Russell Baker: “The only thing I was fit for was to be a writer, and this notion rested solely on my suspicion that I would never be fit for real work, and that writing didn’t require any.”) In college, I delved farther and farther into the realms of experimental fiction and metafiction — at times I was taking two or three writer’s workshops simultaneously, a big mistake in retrospect — until I basically gave myself an allergy to fiction, especially postmodern fiction, the way they (apocryphally?) say that eating too many mangoes or whatever can give you an allergy to them. This was unfortunate, because I had committed myself to writing an honors thesis composed of interlinked short stories. Fortunately, I was taking a class in travel writing at the time, taught by a brilliant guy named Lawrence Stanley, which I found to be incredibly inspiring. I vividly recall reading In Patagonia in that class, and being astounded by how capacious the form was. Here was a form of literature that engaged with the world-we-live-in (however obliquely, since we now know of Chatwin’s liberal approach to factuality), but nevertheless managed to be experimental and mythopoetic and gorgeously worded. So I changed my thesis from a collection of short stories to a triptych of essays concerning the time I had spent, the previous year, living in a monastery in Burma. Ever since, I’ve exclusively written nonfiction.
What do you consider your first “break” as a writer?
Well, it’s funny. As soon as I graduated from college, my friend Sandra Allen and two of her friends founded a little literary online literary magazine called Wag’s Revue. They needed something for the essays section, so I wrote this long, semi-serious deconstruction of the word “douchebag,” which was being thrown around a lot at that time in a way that felt culturally significant. In that same issue, there was an interview with Mark Greif, a founding editor of n+1 (and a truly brilliant essayist), who liked my douchebags essay and decided to include a (radically abridged) version of it in a little anthology called What Was The Hipster? After that, I started writing a few more little online essays for n+1, which opened some doors. The next year, I quit my job (I was freelance editing for a travel magazine called Glimpse) and I went to hike the Appalachian Trail. When I got back, I began doing two things simultaneously: attending grad school at NYU, and working in a whiskey distillery in Brooklyn. My boss at the whiskey distillery was a guy named David Haskell, who was also an editor at New York Magazine. So I started pitching him things, mostly weird, short pieces for the front-of-book, and I eventually got a job fact-checking there as well. Meanwhile, someone in my class at grad school recommended I apply for this fellowship in environmental journalism that Middlebury offered, $10,000 to write one story. I had a story I wanted to write about a guy up in Maine who was trying to extend the Appalachian Trail all the way to Morocco, to trace the geologic remains of the ancient Appalachians that had existed back when the continents were fused into a mega-continent. So I applied for that — and got it — and through that fellowship I was introduced to my agent, and with her help I got a book deal. (This all happened with what felt like astounding rapidity.) This is a roundabout way of saying that it didn’t really feel like a ‘big break’ so much as a steady crumbling — one tiny break leading to another, and another — which accumulated, like a tiny avalanche, into something with ever-growing momentum.
As a traveler and fact/story gatherer, what is your biggest challenge on the road?
I still love the act of traveling, the feeling of untethered quest, so I don’t really have any challenges in that regard — besides the obvious one, which is financial. My biggest challenge as a storyteller and a fact-gatherer is that I am perpetually beset by a sense that I’m missing details, that there is a storm of information raging around me at any moment, and with my terribly slow hand-writing and my bad short-term memory, I’m failing to capture the relevant details. When I’m reporting, it feels like I’m in one of those glass tubes full of whirling dollar bills, frantically trying to grab as much as I can, but generally failing. It’s immensely stressful, and I never feel like I’ve come home with enough.
What is your biggest challenge in the research and writing process?
The most painful part of the writing process, for me, has always been getting started. Of course, that’s what every writer says. And there’s a good reason why. It’s hard. It sucks. I have yet to get over my habit of wasting countless hours crafting a ‘perfect’ first sentence, even though it almost invariably ends up getting cut anyway. I also tend to obsess about structure, so I will spend days and days worrying about how all of the pieces should fit together. I’ve heard that different authors use different techniques to deal with this problem: John McPhee apparently makes geometric diagrams. I’ve heard Lawrence Weschler uses wooden blocks. Erykah Badu apparently likes to put ideas in painted cardboard boxes. I prefer to lie on my back on the couch, head in hands, and make a soft sobbing sound. (I also use a program called Scrivener.)
What is your biggest challenge from a business standpoint?
This won’t come as a surprise to any aspiring (or, for that matter, established) writers out there, but the business seems to be continually contracting. Word counts, word rates, travel budgets — it’s all on a steady and continual decline. It’s even worse when you have a book contract, because then the full travel expenses are coming out of your own pocket. The days of writers holing up at the Beverly Hills Hotel on Rolling Stone’s dime are well and truly over. One trick that I’ve learned is that it helps to be able to travel on the cheap. On my reporting trips, I’ve hitchhiked, I’ve couch-surfed, I’ve borrowed friends’ cars, and I’ve camped out, all to cut down on my expenses. One of the great ancillary benefits of this technique is that it allows me to meet a good deal of local people that I wouldn’t normally meet. (One day I’m going to write an essay about my wild experiences on couchsurfing.org, a site I strongly recommend.)
Have you ever done other work to make ends meet?
Of course. (See above.) Although, fortunately, since getting my book contract — a two-book deal from Simon & Schuster — I’ve been able to devote myself fully to writing. If I’m lucky, things will stay that way.
What travel authors or books might you recommend and/or have influenced you?
I’ve already mentioned In Patagonia, but then, I imagine everyone here does. I’m one of those writers who has that Rogue-from-the-X-Men gift/curse of absorbing the voice of whatever author I’m reading at the moment. In my first book, On Trails, I wanted the voice to be as sleek and clean as possible, without losing the sinuosity that makes good prose surprising and alive. Two books that I read and re-read were James Salter’s novel Light Years and Peter Matthiessen’s travelogue The Snow Leopard. (Incidentally, I also recently read a collection of Salter’s travel writing, but he obviously considered magazine work beneath him, and it shows. The cover of the book features a quote from Salter which begins “Travel writing is something you do for the money,” which seems either like an act of ironic defiance on the part of the editor, or an act of shrewd expectations-lowering.) Add to that Ian Frazier’s brilliant and funny and daringly expansive Great Plains and Rebecca Solnit’s poetic and wildly digressive A Field Guide To Getting Lost, and you’ve got the precise celestial coordinates of my stylistic pole star. But of them all, the book that sticks with me the most is not a travel book, per se, but a travel novel: Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. I read it at much too young an age — I was going through a gloomy, not-quite-goth phase — and it nearly all went over my head, except for the final pages, with their quickening pace as the Grampus nears the South Pole, where the waters are inexplicably warm and the air is filled with fine ash. I looked back over it recently, and it remains one of the eeriest passages in all of American literature. It was sheer fantasy, of course, but the pacing and language are immensely vivid and real, while retaining a dream-like quality of languor and blur. The book ends on a profoundly evocative, deeply bizarre, haunting image, which has never left my brain. I hope to one day write something that makes someone feel the way that passage made me feel.
What advice and/or warnings would you give to someone who is considering going into travel writing?
Most of the advice I might have is nestled, like Easter eggs, above: travel cheap; accept the generosity of strangers; read the kinds of things you want to write, and then re-read them; expand the boundaries of the genre (because genre without expansion is just another word for cliché). When you travel to a new place, always have a question or two in mind, some mystery you hope to solve. It can be vague. The mystery can even be the place itself. But pursuing a mystery, rather than your own pleasure, will keep you from falling into the trap of never-enough. (Never new enough, never bright enough, never pleasant enough, never far-flung enough, etc.) Oh, and try to avoid starting a travel story with a description of you landing at an airport. You can write it, but be sure to go back and cut it later. Your story does not begin where your journey did. Your story begins wherever your questions do.
What is the biggest reward of life as a travel writer?
When you’re just a traveler, it’s all too easy to coast along on the paths of least resistance (the tourist trail, the backpacker route, the luxury cruise line). But it’s a writer’s job to go off the trail into the weeds. It’s a tangled place, intimidating to enter and often frustrating to bash through, but it’s ultimately more rewarding. Note how David Foster Wallace, even when he’s on a cruise ship, refuses to simply coast along. Instead, he incessantly explores the cruise ship, both physically and intellectually. We do this because it’s our job, but for most of us, it’s also our predilection and our most alive state of being. What a blessing: to be paid to feel tinglingly, terrifyingly alive!