Rolf Potts on Marco Polo Didn’t Go There and Travel Writing

| | Writing

The TBS Community recently had the honor of being joined by travel writer and author, Rolf Potts. As part of our second book club slack chat, Potts, who has written two books and been published

As part of our second book club slack chat, Potts, who has written two books and been published in World Hum, Outside, National Geographic, and more, was on hand to answer questions about his collection of short stories, Marco Polo Didn’t Go There.

The book includes endnotes for each short story that provide details and insight into the process of travel writing, making it a must-read for aspiring tale tellers. This gave us the opportunity to not only discuss the stories, but to dig deeper into the process of creating travel narratives that captivate audiences and editors.

We’ve condensed our discussion to provide you with the nuggets of wisdom presented by our generation’s most revered travel writer, Rolf Potts.

In Road Roulette, you say to your hitchhiking friends, “I just want to keep a laid-back attitude and go where fate and chance take me. That’s the best way to discover things, I think.”

Have you been able to maintain this attitude while traveling  professionally? How do you keep that spontaneity alive when you’re on assignment?

Rolf Potts

Sometimes, but it can be really hard to do that while on assignment. For example:

I once went to the Falkland Islands for a story I’d  pitched about wildlife, but I found the people of the islands far more interesting. I tried to write about the people, but the assigning publication’s editors didn’t want people. They wanted animals, since that’s what I’d promised them.

In many ways I miss my original gig at Salon (when it still had a travel department, edited by Don George). I could just wander wherever and stumble into experiences and write about them.

I think there is a big gap between well-paid writing and serendipitous writing.

You get paid well for “destination-oriented” assignments that typically result in more structured and less spontaneous travel experiences. Whereas the best experiences (and the best stories, IMHO) catch you by surprise and rarely pay all that much.

In “Seven (or So) Sins”, did you come up with the “sins” angle before or during the trip or is that something you pieced together after your experiences revealed that narrative? Do you often go on trips with specific story angles in mind like this one?

That was an in-between kind of assignment — it wasn’t pitched and it wasn’t on spec. I was friends with the editor and she sent me to Grenada to write about whatever I found there.

The problem was that the magazine had financed the story through the local tourist authority, so I had to follow their itinerary. I also had to work with a very neurotic photographer, whose goals were counter to mine.

It was so boring to ride around on all these prescribed, pre-funded, painfully tourist-oriented activities. So I came up with the Seven Sins idea as the trip was happening.

It was a way of trying to salvage what felt like an awful trip. It’s probably the least interesting of the 20 stories in Marco Polo Didn’t Go There, but I included it because I wanted to illuminate this conundrum in the story’s endnotes.

I think this is a challenge any time someone else is paying for your travels. It ends up being counter to so much of the spontaneity that makes travel interesting.

What is the best way to find a fresh angle on a standard press tour that’s packed morning till night?

Apart from going meta or escaping the group, I’d say it’s a matter of finding some conceptual or historical angle to make things more interesting.

One thing to keep in mind for destination stories is that your reader often just wants a hypothetical trip full of tourist options, not a literary investigation. So you have to humble yourself and write about things from that perspective.

Staying longer by yourself and spending some of your own money can help.

For which publication did you write The Art of Writing a Story About Walking across Andorra and what inspired the unique format you used to convey that story? This was also the only story without endnotes. Why did you choose to leave them out?

I wrote that for World Hum.

I was inspired to go meta by reading the fictional work or Lorrie Moore, a great short story writer. I decided to make my Andorra experience into a meta-satire about the art of generic travel writing.

In a way, the story comments on the kind of editorial frustrations I encountered in Grenada. Editors want certain kinds of tropes because many readers just want consumer information in a narrative format. So the Andorra piece was a sendup of generic destination writing.

I didn’t have endnotes on that story because the whole story more or less consisted of endnotes.

Looking back, which of the 20 stories in Marco Polo Didn’t Go There did you find the most challenging to write, and why?

Probably Death of An Adventure Traveler, because it was so personal, and because it ended up commenting on some of the hypocrisies we come up against as Western travel writers.

We categorize adventure travel in a kind of consumer way, whereas someone like Mr Benny is forced into a kind of “adventure” just to make ends meet.

It’s easy to forget that refugees do way more hardcore travel than we ever do. Between that and the fact that I didn’t know what happened to Benny, that was hard to write.

Which story in Marco Polo Didn’t Go There are you most proud of, and why?

Probably the Andorra piece, for its form. But also Storming the Beach, since that was my real breakthrough story, career-wise.

Tantric Sex For Dilettantes was also fun — and it tends to be the first piece people read because, you know, sex. (Even though it’s more about longing than sex.)

Storming the Beach had an advantage in that it was pegged to a movie everyone was talking about.

So if you can find a way to peg a travel story to say, 50 Shades of Grey (or the sequel) and be philosophical about it, that could be your breakthrough, too!

With magazines paying less and less money per word, where do you see the market for longform writing going? 

The market for longform is great, with all the internet outlets; the paying market for longform isn’t. Still, longform allows you to write well and showcase your strengths, so it’s worth the effort.

You’ve done lots of radio, TV, and other media segments to offer commentary on subjects you would be considered an expert on. Has this kind of exposure led to any unexpected work or business opportunities? Besides the cool factor of it all, would you consider it worthwhile?

All media appearances are worth the effort, I think. It’s part of your “branding”.

Sometimes I have to turn down the opportunities that arise. A high-profile network news program recently contacted me to talk about adventure sports, but they were thinking about outfitter-type adventure sports, whereas  vagabonding is more about indie travel. So I opted out, despite the exposure it offered, because the producers weren’t all that interested in the kind of non-guided, non-”extreme-sports” adventure travel I find most interesting.

Where do you find inspiration for stories when you’re not traveling?

I think inspiration comes from your interactions with a place, and that happens whether or not you’re traveling. I have a house in Kansas, and Kansas has ended up being the inspiration for a number of stories, including stuff I’ve written for Sports Illustrated and The Believer.

Where can we find your latest work and what else have you been up to other than travel writing?

Recently I’ve been teaching college at Penn and Yale, so my writing output is less than before. I’ve also been writing about non-travel topics, like a book about the gangsta rap group the Geto Boys for Bloomsbury’s 33 ⅓ series, or the  investigative

I’ve also been writing about non-travel topics, like a book about the gangsta rap group the Geto Boys for Bloomsbury’s 33 ⅓ series, or the  investigative piece I did for Sports Illustrated. So teaching and speaking augment my income, and Vagabonding is an evergreen book that has done well year after year.

I don’t want to write standard-issue destination pieces forever. I prefer to write about topics that really interest me. So I do fewer actual articles and make up for the income via teaching and speaking.

There are people who really crank out service and destination pieces and can make a living in NYC, but it’s a tough haul. You can burn out that way.

Travel blogging is similarly hard to sustain for years and years without burning out, I would think.

Have you read Marco Polo Didn’t Go There? Share your thoughts on it or Rolf’s comments below.