Tony Horwitz is the author of Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before (Henry Holt 2002), Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War (Pantheon 1998), Baghdad without a Map and Other Misadventures in Arabia (E.P. Dutton 1991) and One For the Road: An Outback Adventure (Random House 1988). He has also been a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, and a staff writer for the New Yorker. His awards include a Pulitzer Prize for national reporting, and an Overseas Press Club award for coverage of the first Gulf War. Tony is currently a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, where he is completing a book about early European explorers of America.
How did you get started traveling?
As a teenager, I had wretched summer jobs in Washington D.C. and day-dreamed about fleeing the humid city for the wide open West. So one summer when I’d saved a few hundred bucks, I quit and hitchhiked to California and back. That hooked me on travel, and on hitchhiking; I later thumbed across Europe and Australia.
How did you get started writing?
By accident. In my early twenties, I worked as a union organizer in rural Mississippi and found myself in culture shock. As therapy, I started writing every day, just stray observations and impressions, and also interviewed and photographed the characters I met. Eventually, I turned some of this material into a profile of a one-armed, one-toothed preacher from Its, Mississippi, and submitted it to a now-defunct newspaper in Jackson, which paid me $50 for the piece. That was my first clip.
What do you consider your first “break” as a writer?
As a book-writer, my first break was in Sydney, Australia, where I worked as a newspaper reporter. One summer, I hitchhiked across the outback and sent stories about my trip to the Sydney Morning Herald. When I returned, I found a letter from an Australian publisher suggesting I turn my stories into a book, which became One For the Road. My advance was $1000 Australian (about $750 U.S.), and I’m not sure I earned out, but I had the experience in my twenties of writing at book length, and was lucky enough to be published.
As a traveler and fact/story gatherer, what is your biggest challenge on the road?
Wearing down, mentally and physically. Travel comes from the French word, travail; it can be hard work. Much of the travel I’ve written about is to difficult places, and I tend to head off with little or no plan. Improvising in strange places makes for the best stories, but it’s also exhausting. You’re never really off work; everything that happens from the moment you wake to the moment you fall asleep is potential material. You’re also planning ahead — where do I go next, how do I get there, what will I do there? — while trying to milk the most out of the place you’re in. Being a bit manic, I have difficulty pacing myself and tend to hit the wall after a few weeks on the road.
What is your biggest challenge in the research and writing process?
Making a narrative from the mess I come home with. One For the Road was the only book I’ve written that told of a single continuous journey (actually, there was one break; a bad car accident). The others have been woven together from many separate trips. When writing, I have to find connective tissue and a story line so that the book doesn’t read like a collection of magazine pieces.
What is your biggest challenge from a business standpoint?
The biggest challenge, for awhile, was finding the time to write books around my day job as a newspaper reporter. Now I write books pretty much fulltime, am well-paid, and love my publisher. I’ll ride this pony as long as I can.
Have you ever done other work to make ends meet?
For a brief moment in my twenties I tried writing fiction, and did things like picking berries and donating blood one summer in Oregon while discovering that I had no fictive talent whatsoever. Since then, I’ve had steady work as a journalist or author, so haven’t had trouble making ends meet.
What travel authors or books might you recommend and/or have influenced you?
Jonathan Raban is probably my favorite, and Old Glory was one of the books that inspired me to try travel writing. Open any of Raban’s books to almost any page and you’ll find wonderful prose, humor, and wisdom. When I’m feeling flat, a few pages of P.J. O’Rourke’s Holidays in Hell or Hunter Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas get my blood flowing again. In truth, though, I don’t read a lot of travel. For research, I’m usually reading history, and for pleasure I almost always read novels.
What advice and/or warnings would you give to someone who is considering going into travel writing?
Take risks. Not necessarily physical risks, though that often comes with the territory. Rather, personal and professional risks. And do it while you’re young. Travel is potentially punishing: to your body, to your relationships, to your bank account. The older and more settled you get, the harder it becomes to take off for weeks or months at a time, on some harebrained adventure. If you do it young, the worst that can happen (apart from death, dismemberment, or chronic dysentery) is that you’ll suffer for awhile and find something else to do, which is better than being filled with regret years later over never having tried.
What is the biggest reward of life as a travel writer?
Seeing the world at someone else’s expense, and having something to do while you’re out there. Writing about travel makes you pay closer attention, and it gives you a way into whatever place you’re visiting. It makes you a traveler rather than just a tourist, or a vagrant. As Raban puts it, taking notes on the road “gives me occupation and identity when I might otherwise recognize myself as an ageing unkempt drifter without visible means of support.”