Tom Bissell is the author of Chasing the Sea: Lost Among the Ghosts of Empire in Central Asia. Born in Escanaba, Michigan, he attended Michigan State University before teaching English as a Peace Corps volunteer in the former Soviet republic of Uzbekistan. He returned stateside and worked for several years in book publishing, first for W. W. Norton and later for Henry Holt & Company. Among his editorial endeavors was the restoration to print of Paula Fox’s novels and editing her memoir Borrowed Finery, conceiving and editing The Collected Stories of Richard Yates, and conceiving A Galaxy Not So Far Away: Writers and Artists on Twenty-five Years of Star Wars. His criticism, fiction, and journalism have appeared in Agni, The Alaska Quarterly Review, The Boston Review, BOMB, Esquire, Harper’s Magazine, Men’s Health, Men’s Journal, and Salon. He is currently finishing a collection of Central Asia-themed short stories entitled Death Defier. He lives in New York City and has returned to Uzbekistan four times since completing Chasing the Sea.
How did you get started traveling?
Like many American travel writers, I got started traveling as a United States Peace Corps volunteer in Uzbekistan. This was right after college, when about the farthest I’d gone had been London (when I was thirteen) and Chicago. And even today I remain fairly poorly traveled: the only two regions I have been to are Central Asia and the Canadian Arctic, though I’ve been all around both. There are, I have been told, two sorts of travelers: those who go everywhere, and those who keep going to the same places over and over again. I seem to be the latter type. Both approaches have benefits and deficits, of course. Neither is better than the other. But travelers need to figure out which one they are.
How did you get started writing?
I had wanted to be a writer since I was fourteen or so. No other vocation really seemed possible, though I did work as a book editor for a few years. I started out as a fiction writer — and remain one — and came to travel writing rather accidentally. Indeed, I’d like to think that any success I’ve had as a nonfiction writer or a travel writer has been because of that fiction background.
What do you consider your first “break” as a travel writer?
The first big magazine piece I did was for Harper’s, about my hometown in Upper Michigan. That came up because I interned at Harper’s after the Peace Corps, and one of my fellow interns later became a Harper’s editor and thought I had some non-fiction in me. He took a big chance, needless to say, as former interns did not, at that time, write for the magazine. It was sort of an in-house taboo. But they took the Michigan piece, and I realized I wanted to write something about my Peace Corps country of service. The biggest story in Uzbekistan at the time was the Aral Sea disaster, so I proposed it and, again, a big chance was taken to send me there. That piece eventually became my first book, Chasing the Sea. As a fiction writer who never imagined writing nonfiction or even making a living off my writing, this was and remains all too good to be true.
As a traveler and fact/story-gatherer, what is your biggest challenge on the road?
Loneliness and despair are largely my biggest problems, as many of the places I am most attracted to have been the site of severe environmental and historical disasters. I love being in a new place, but actually getting there is usually a matter of some unease for me. Plus, I hate to fly. A travel writer who hates to fly? Welcome to my hell. I’ve also had numerous run-ins with the various intelligence and police apparatuses of the former Soviet states of Central Asia, and those collisions do not get any easier.
What is your biggest challenge in the writing process?
The more I write and publish — the more I learn, basically — the harder the actual writing gets. Sometimes just getting the words down is the biggest challenge. You begin to wonder, What’s the point? Why am I doing this? Writing for a living is both immeasurably great and incredibly stressful. You set your own hours, basically, and can take vacations as long as funds allow. A curse and a blessing. Also, I’m easily distracted — video games are a major lure for me, pathetically — and oftentimes I have had to go somewhere totally isolated to get any work done. The high Canadian Arctic is a splendid place to write, I’ve found.
What is your biggest challenge from a business standpoint?
Well, I’m only one book into my career, and so far I’m making a living at it. I have a wonderful, supportive editor, and I have no complaints at all about the job Pantheon, my publisher, has done marketing my book. I am blessed in this sense.
Do you do other work to make ends meet?
Between writing books and magazine articles (and book reviews and literary essays), I’m able to support myself. For now. From time to time I have thoughts about returning to book editing, which is a fine and noble way to make a living. Careers, I’ve learned, are short, but life is very long. I’m in a constant state of revision in determining what my life is supposed to be like as a travel writer.
What travel authors or books have influenced you?
David Foster Wallace’s essay “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” was a major influence on me. It is a piece of travel writing about a luxury cruise in which virtually nothing happens. It’s all just characters and details. The first time I read it I felt like I had been shown a completely new way to write about travel and real experience. The fact that Chasing the Sea opens with a thirty-page chapter of basically getting through customs in Uzbekistan is a gambit I would not have dared had Wallace not suggested to me that the details are often more important than the “story” you’re trying to tell — that the story might be in the details. Robert Byron’s great The Road to Oxiana is probably my favorite travel book. Patricia Storace’s Dinner with Persephone is another book I love. Redmond O’Hanlon’s No Mercy. Paul Theroux’s The Great Railway Bazaar. All extremely great and extremely important to me.
What advice would you give to someone who is considering going into travel writing?
First, I would say read a lot of history and fiction. Too few travel books, in my view, chose to get down and dirty with history, and too few read with the fluidness of, say, good fiction. You need that quasi-fictional propulsive storytelling in travel writing, both for texture and for pacing. This is not to say that one should write fiction, only that much can be learned and gained, I believe, from interbreeding genres. I tried to call Chasing the Sea a “travel novel,” for instance, but my publisher convinced me that that was nutty. They were right, but I still think there is a fourth genre out there somewhere to be explored. Second, I would say that travel writers should find the places and stories they have a real emotional connection with; otherwise, the journey will flag, and readers won’t care. You have to find the stories that only you can tell, or that no one else has thought to tell.
What is the biggest reward of life as a travel writer?
Seeing the world, experiencing other cultures, and then sitting down and banging it out and giving readers an emotional experience about what you saw and did — that seems to me like the closest thing to heaven available in this life.