Taras Grescoe has written articles on travel for The Times, Independent, Condé Nast Traveller (U.K.), National Geographic Traveler and the New York Times. His bestselling first book Sacré Blues: An Unsentimental Journey Through Quebec won the Mavis Gallant Prize for Non-fiction and First Book Award, among numerous other awards. His newest book, The End of Elsewhere: Travels Among the Tourists, was called “one of the most original travel books to come out in years” by the Globe and Mail. He lives in Montreal.
How did you get started traveling?
My parents, who are also writers, were always moving around, following journalistic work to various Canadian cities. I suppose I was a bit of a magazine brat. All this shifting of bases got me used to being uprooted, wandering around new cities by myself. Good early training for later travel: learning to manage solitude, always being open to new encounters. It also made me an outsider, with a suspicion of cliques and crowds, and an affinity for other outsiders.
How did you get started writing?
As a kid, I was lulled to bed by the chattering of electric typewriters, and I killed time in the summer hanging out at magazine offices playing with Letraset and fact-checking service features, so writing wasn’t such a big leap.
I started on a novel when I was six or seven; some kind of time-travel opus, which never got beyond three chapters. It started with a scene in an airplane in which the main character made a point of going to the bathroom, while remarking to himself that characters in novels never do that.
What do you consider your first “break” as a writer?
I lived in Paris in the early nineteen-nineties and, between teaching doctors and accountants how to conjugate the present participle, I tried to string together travel stories for English and Canadian newspapers. I wrote a half dozen of them, and spent way too much time photocopying them and mailing them to anybody who published travel. I still have the red-wine stained rejection slips in a fat file folder somewhere.
Finally, the Globe and Mail, a national Canadian newspaper, published an article on the Parisian metro. It didn’t pay much — the fee barely covered all the postage I’d spent mailing the pieces off — but I proved to myself I could get published.
Even later on I wrote articles on spec and sent them off to the glossies. An editor at National Geographic Traveler, Sheila Buckmaster, liked one I’d written on a crêpe-maker in Brittany, and though she never published that particular piece, it was the beginning of a great relationship.
As a traveler and fact/story gatherer, what is your biggest challenge on the road?
Not losing my notebooks.
I seem to waste a lot of energy on otiose travel panic — convinced I’ve misplaced my passport or ticket, having nightmares about having to gather up my belongings, which I’ve left in ten different locations around some foreign city, before I board an international flight, which inevitably leaves in 5 minutes.
With that said, I’m learning to relax about misadventures, to the point that lately I’m beginning to think: the more things that go wrong, the better the story is going to be. The Zen of the Missed Connection.
What is your biggest challenge in the research and writing process?
Research is not a problem: I welcome it; it allows me to get out in the world and meet other people. When it comes to writing, the problem is not succumbing to solipsism. I get so wrapped up in writing, and so protective of the space I need to stitch together ideas, that when I emerge from the euphoric bubble of creation I find that I’m living in a vacant lot of my own making. If I didn’t have travel and research to balance writing, I’d be a babbling hermit.
What is your biggest challenge from a business standpoint?
My biggest challenge now is convincing people that some weird idea I’ve become obsessed with is going to turn into a fantastic adventure and they should give me lots of money to pursue it. (And they should.)
Have you ever done other work to make ends meet?
English teacher in Paris; newspaper boy, concession stand worker in a movie theater, video store clerk, delivery driver, researcher, all in Vancouver. When I started writing for a living I did lots of short pieces for magazines and newspapers. Now I just want to keep on writing books.
What travel authors or books might you recommend and/or have influenced you?
Not really the “they-made-me-laugh-out-loud-in-public-like-a-psychopath” types. Rather, I like people who know how to interweave narrative and analysis. Shiva and V.S. Naipaul, Bruce Chatwin, Ryszard Kapuscinski, Laurence Sterne, and Patrick Leigh Fermor, for example. The strongest influences during the writing of The End of Elsewhere came from the anti-travel tradition, which includes Régis Debray (Against Venice), Paul Nizan (Aden Arabie), Claude Lévi-Strauss (Tristes Tropiques), Baudelaire (Le Voyage). For some reason, they’re all French: cynical bastards, I guess.
What advice and/or warnings would you give to someone who is considering going into travel writing?
Advice: Beware of press trips, comps, and junkets. They are attempts to suborn you. There is no such thing as a free ticket.
Warnings: Travel is addictive. People will never offer any sympathy when you complain about how tired you are of traveling. Your circle of friends will grow, but they will be scattered all over the earth, and you will never be able to get them in the same room for a party. And if you don’t watch out, you may become the unbearably pretentious possessor of a spurious cosmopolitanism. Allow your friends to bring you back down to earth.
What is the biggest reward of life as a travel writer?
Is that what I am? Sounds like a verdict. Lately I’m thinking I’m just a writer who can’t sit still.
With that said, the reward of traveling and writing, of writing and traveling, is the ability to run away at will. Which is also, of course, its biggest drawback.
[Photo credit: T.P. Byrnes]