Interview: Rolf Potts

Interview: Rolf Potts

If Always Twirling were to have a godfather, it would be Rolf Potts. When I spent 4 months working and traveling in India with Susana, I took along a copy of Rolf’s [amazon_link id=”0812992180″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel[/amazon_link]. In the book, Rolf explains the ethos of long term travel as he lives it; unstructured, honest and open to experience. It argues in favor of prioritizing life and the freedom of time over the needless gathering of excess money and shows it’s reader through simple tales and insights how joyful and free the life of the independent traveler can be. Little did I know how potent this literary cocktail would be.

Indeed, three years after reading it the first time, Always Twirling was born and Susana and I were traveling the world, fueled in great part by Rolf’s compelling words. If you have not yet read the book yet, I cannot recommend it enough. But be warned. Reading [amazon_link id=”0812992180″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]Vagabonding[/amazon_link] may very well cause you to change your life plans for the better.

When I first started interviewing people for Always Twirling, I knew exactly who I wanted to reach out to. Lucky for me, Rolf was kind enough to answer a few questions. I hope you enjoy.

You’ve been a professional travel writer now for over a decade. How has your writing evolved over that time? How have you focused on improving your writing?

I think my writing has evolved with my intellectual interests. Travel is always at the heart of those interests, but more and more these days travel gives me access to writing that isn’t about travel itself, necessarily, but things I have discovered through travel. These days I write as much journalism, criticism, and personal essay as I do travel narrative. That’s also something that’s age-specific. When I was in my late twenties I threw myself into wandering around and writing about everything I saw. Now I’m slowing down, digging deeper thematically.

My best way to focus on improving my writing has been to write and read as much as possible — and that’s the same advice I would have given ten years ago. I read more than travel writing, too — fiction, criticism, poetry, journalism; it’s good to be versed in it all.

Your bio says that you’ve reported from over sixty countries. Having traveled so extensively and for so long, there is no denying that you’ve acquired an incredible skill at traveling. However, are there aspects of your traveling skill set that you still want to improve?

I’ve gotten to the point where I can be physically comfortable almost anywhere. But I wish I was better at languages, and that’s something that will only improve if I focus on studying languages. I’m in France right now, and I wish I knew a lot more French than I do. Guess I’d better get to work.

Your book, [amazon_link id=”0812992180″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]Vagabonding[/amazon_link] is counter-cultural in many ways, the most striking being that it advocates for the value of time over money. North American society clearly favours the opposite and this is reflected in the small amount of vacation time that workers in North America take. As a writer whose work doesn’t particularly fit into the typical 14 day vacation or the “36 hours in Such and Such” mould, do you find it difficult to pitch your stories? Do you receive feedback from editors asking, for example, to modify your stories to fit in with the modern 14 day traveler?

Yes, it can be hard to write for a market that favors short, relatively expensive vacations — and I touch on this in the endnotes to my latest book, [amazon_link id=”B0085G4SRC” target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]Marco Polo Didn’t Go There[/amazon_link]. It’s a weird situation: You spend all this time becoming a travel expert, and then you have to write for the sensibilities of readers who hardly travel at all. And that’s fine — not everyone needs to travel half the year — but there comes a point at which you start to forget what it’s like to only travel a few days each year, you lose touch with what it’s like to not be interested in independent travel. And then you find yourself on assignment, doing some organized hiking trip in Switzerland that feels so confining and unimaginative, yet you have to think, “How would I experience this trip if this was my only vacation all year? What if I was 50 years old and didn’t know how to use a compass?” So you have to humble yourself to write these kinds of articles; you have to think about who the reader is.

And this is the reason why I’m doing less consumer-oriented travel writing these days, writing less for glossy destination magazines. You can only do that for so long before you’re faking it, so now I only do those assignments a couple times a year, focusing instead of the journalistic and essayistic kind of writing I was describing earlier. Eventually I’d like to get to the point where I’m only writing books. Though books are a shrinking market these days, so I guess I’ll play things day to day, year to year.

Again from [amazon_link id=”0812992180″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]Vagabonding[/amazon_link], you talk about the challenges of “reentry”; of returning home after the adventure and how strange it can feel. You must have made a number of such “reentries” over the years. Do they become less disorienting over time? Do you remember any one “reentry” that was particularly challenging?

You’re right that reentry gets easier the more you do it, and in fact it has become a part of my routine. That transition from the far side of the world to my house in Kansas isn’t as jarring as it used to be. This in mind, I think my most difficult reentry was when I came back to the U.S. after having lived in Korea for a couple years. I’d been so immersed in my life in Korea that I actually suffered a kind of culture shock, a kind of anxiety, when I came back to the day-to-day details of life in America.

It’s not just a cross-cultural thing. On my very first vagabonding trip I spent most of my 8-month journey in the United States, but there was something jarring about ending that journey and returning to settled life. It wasn’t just the change of daily rhythm; it was the fact that none of my friends could relate to (or were really interested in) what I’d just done.

Beyond being a successful travel writer, you have been teaching creative writing at the Paris American Academy for a number of years now. As such, you must be exposed to a great wealth of work by aspiring travel writers. Do you have any common criticism of either the travel writers you work with or perhaps just works of travel writing that you read these days?

In my writing classes in Paris and elsewhere, the recurring challenge is to get people to think about the needs of the audience. Countless people have experienced travels that transform them personally, but writing about those travels in such a way that the reader can vicariously experience that transformation is not always easy. So I spend a lot of time focused on story structure, explaining why structuring the story is so essential. There’s also the matter of conflict. Oftentimes people want to write about their favorite trips, the trips where they had the most fun, but usually the journeys that were the most enjoyable to experience are the most boring to read. Misadventures are more interesting to read about, because they reveal people in a more vulnerable and human place, they show people trying to cope with difficulty — and that engages the reader’s interest and imagination.

You’ve often mentioned that it’s critical to have a unique writing voice. Could you tell us more about your voice and how you came to find it. Was it particularly difficult finding and settling into your voice?

I think it’s easier to talk about authorial voice than to find and develop it. Seeds of my writing voice can be found in things I wrote when I was 14, but of course it has become fine tuned over time. Oftentimes beginning writers write in a voice that “sounds like writing,” and that rarely makes for good reading. Better to relax, and find a voice that conveys your personality, your unique sensibility about the world. This takes time, and the more you write, the better your chances of growing into your unique narrative voice.