Motionsickness Interview

Larry Habegger, executive editor of Travelers’ Tales Books, publisher of the popular line of travel narrative collections, answered email questions from Motionsickness editor Steve Wilson.

Motionsickness: Whose idea was it to go into the travel publishing business and why did you decide to publish collections of narratives instead of say, guidebooks?

Larry: The idea really came from Tim [co-founder James O’Reilly’s brother] and James looking for ways to work together, and for James and me to move beyond the freelance scramble. Tim was very successful as a technical book publisher, and James and I were traveling a lot and writing about it. Tim wanted to have some of the fun we were having, and we, of course, wanted some of the financial success Tim had found. We all wanted to give travelers/readers more useful information than could be generally found in the publishing industry, whether it be books, magazines, or newspapers, and we felt that the best way to accomplish this was through stories, real stories of real people and the extraordinary things that happened to them in their travels. We’ve always felt that information is communicated far more effectively through stories. You connect with them, team lessons, and absorb information in ways that you simply can’t when it’s obtained from practical sources. Apart from this belief that nothing like Travelers’ Tales existed, that what readers needed was a series of books of true stories by travelers, we didn’t want to enter an already crowded field and go head-to-head with other guidebook publishers. Our concept was a very different kind of travel book, one that would create and fill its own niche.

Motionsickness: What was the public’s response to your first travel book?

Larry: They loved it. It sold well, it won the Lowell Thomas Award for Best Travel Book of the Year from the Society of American Travel Writers Foundation, and we received lots of fan mail, even from native Thais living in this country, one of whom said the book made him homesick. It was about Thailand, of course.

Motionsickness: Since then you’ve published many books themed around destinations, either countries or towns. Do you feel like you’re running out of places to theme books around?

Larry: There’s no shortage of places, but perhaps there is a limited level of reader interest in more remote countries, at least at a scale that would make the book worth doing financially. We could easily do more countries, more regions, like our book on Central America that your story is in. For instance, there’s Scandinavia, The Andes, The Himalayas, Southeast Asia, The Amazon, The Sahara, West Africa. The regional list goes on and on. There’s also the great cities of the world, of which we’ve only covered three. And of course we haven’t covered places like England, Germany, the central European and east European countries, vast swaths of South America and Africa and Asia. The more I think about it, we have dozens of books yet to do that would find a good readership.

We also have several lines of books that are not based on destinations. These are humor, women’s travel spiritual travel food, adventure, classics, travel narratives, travel advice, family, and gift books. We have lots of title possibilities within these themes.

Motionsickness: Does it seem like the travel book market still has room to grow?

Larry: Right now is a difficult time for travel publishing. The economy is in a funk, Americans are not traveling in the numbers they used to, September 11th really hurt sales of all travel books, we’ve even heard of bookstores reducing the size of their travel departments to stock other kinds of books because travel isn’t selling. We hope to weather this storm, but it’s too soon to know if there’s room to grow.

Motionsickness: Do you see Travelers’ Tales out into publishing book-length narratives?

Larry: Steve, you need to visit our Web site. We’ve been publishing such books for two or three years, starting with Laurie Gough’s evanescent Kite Strings of the Southern Cross to Mikkel Aaland’s transcendental The Sword of Heaven to Brad Newsham’s endearing and inspiring Take Me With You to Richard Sterling’s riotously funny The Fire Never Dies. Having said that, I have to add that we have suspended this line of books because of slow sales. We feel that these kinds of books are an obvious extension of our core tides, but we’ve had a tough time making them successful, so we’re going to take a break for a few seasons.

Motionsickness: Which of your books has been your favorite?

Larry: It’s unfair to ask someone to pick a favorite child, but if forced I would say Travelers’ Tales India because of the subject and the time we did it. It was our third book and I have fond memories of working on it. The material was so rich and deep and immersing myself in the wild cultural stew that is India was a rare pleasure.

Motionsickness: Do you have a favorite classic book of travel? A favorite author?

Larry: Paul Theroux’s Great Railway BaZaar was partly responsible for launching me on the path of travel writing, so it stands as a personal favorite. Also The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen. Like Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance, it helped me understand how a travel book could be so much more than a travelogue, how writing a book about travel is really writing about life and all its complexities.

Going back a bit farther, thinking about simply great travel romps’ I’d say Eric Newby’s A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush (one of the funniest books I’ve ever read) and Richard Haliburton’s The Royal Road to Romance. Halliburton is the predecessor of all American backpacking travelers of the 20th and 21st centuries. In the 1920s he left Princeton and the straight-laced future he faced and fled out into the great wide world looking for “romance,” in essence, looking for life. The book is so whimsical and funny and inspiring that we brought it back into print as a Travelers’ Tales Classic. If you haven’t read it yet, you must.

Motionsickness: What makes a good travel story?

Larry: A compelling story, smooth writing, and some sort of deeper meaning for the author and the reader. The writing has to be accessible and must stylistically stay out of the way of the story. The story must have some inherent suspense or drama or humor, and the reader must get something out of it, some lesson about life that he or she can hold up and say, yes!

Motionsickness: What makes a bad travel story?

Larry: One that has no meaning. And obviously, poor writing, overblown with too many words, relying on adverbs and adjectives instead of strong verbs. A writer being too self-absorbed and not bringing me into the world around him or her, but just telling his own story at the expense of the place or some deeper meaning. You see that sort of laziness all the time, and you don’t continue reading very long. There are so many ways a story can be bad that it’s hard to enumerate.

Motionsickness: Have you ever considered writing a book-length travel narrative yourself?

Larry: Of course. I still have a fat folder of notes and outlines from the late 1970s about the book I was going to write on the World Traveler circuit, the Southeast Asia trail from Bali to Kathmandu. The Beach is a novel I had envisioned way back then but never got around to drafting. Mine would not have been fiction, though. There was enough real stuff to make the book entertaining. But that’s so far in the past I wouldn’t go back to it, unless I took that journey again and wrote about it from the perspective of 25 years later. I have a number of other ideas but have not yet explored them deeply enough.

Motionsickness: Who would publish it?

Larry:Who knows? If TT was back in that line we would. Otherwise, Vintage Departures is the first place I’d want to see it. After that, well, there are lots of choices.

Motionsickness: What is your travel history?

Larry: It took me forever to break free of my landlocked Minnesota childhood and see my first ocean and mountain, which I did with my parents when I was 14. 1 wanted to see as much of the U.S. as I could so I went to New England to college, traveled up and down the eastern seaboard then, and headed west when I graduated, making a pilgrimage of sorts through the western states to San Francisco. From there I headed to Mexico and Central America and after getting that taste of the outside world I planned an around-the-world trip as soon as I could. That really turned me into a traveler. I spent about a year on the road, mostly in Asia, and after that I traveled as much as possible, to Europe, Africa, South America, Australia, and back to Asia. I got overseas several times a year but never did do another long around-the-world journey. Now that I have children I’d like to do it with them, show them the world beyond our borders.

Motionsickness: What was the trip that everybody made during your 20s, and did you make it?

Larry: There were two, one of which I made, the other I didn’t. Everyone wanted to go around the world. Back then it had a very different ring to it because very few people actually did it. People would travel to Europe, or Asia, or South America, but not that many would travel around the world. Travel was rougher then and the world seemed so much larger. ‘Around the world” had an almost siren-like quality to it, the mere utterance of the phrase could fill your soul with all the magic and wonder of life and infinite possibilities. That’s the trip I took. The one I didn’t take was the Europe to Asia overland journey, typically from London to Kathmandu on a bus like the Green Tortoise. My first girlfriend in San Francisco had done it the year before I met her and I knew many others who did it as well. Most people flew to London, took the long and winding road with a busload of new acquaintances, and then flew home from Kathmandu or India. It was a sort of hippie bus tour, but wild and wonderful from all I’ve been told.

Motionsickness: What’s your travel schedule? Does being a publisher allow you any time to travel?

Larry:Being executive editor of Travelers’ Tales and a relatively new father (two daughters ages 5 and 2) has curtailed my travels quite a bit, but I get out of the country at least once a year, often twice, and in some lucky years three times. But I have many more responsibilities now, both professional and familial, that keep me closer to home.

Motionsickness: Is the experience of reading about travel and the experience of traveling at all the same? Could we compare it to reading about food and eating a meal?

Larry: Yes and no. In the presence of a great book, you can get a lot of the benefits of travel without leaving your bedroom. But to really make the experience part of you, part of your soul and your body, right down to the cellular level, you’ve got to travel. You’ve got to smell the peat, feel the fatigue, fend off the touts, crowd into the bus, crash exhausted into your crumpled bed in the middle of nowhere. You’ve got to be out there where you’re free to take in the whole fresh world.

Motionsickness: Why do you think travel literature has become so popular recently?

Larry: Well, until the economy imploded and the 9/11 attacks I think people were just really interested in the outside world. Now they are watching their spending, and many want to know more about the Islamic world but I don’t know if they want to leave home. So it feels to me that travel literature is in a slump right now. It’ll come back, but how much? By comparison, travel literature is very popular in the UK., and I think that just stems from the culture of Britain, where it’s almost obligatory for young people to leave the confines of their small island to see the world before getting serious about higher education or going into the job market. They have travel in their blood and they’re hungry for good stories about travel to help them decide what they want to do, where they want to 90.

Motionsickness: Do travel writers have any obligation to their readers? (for example, to be truthful, accurate, and more or less objective?) On the other hand, should they be motivated primarily to tell a good story, and not let all the facts get in the way?

Larry: If they’re not letting their facts get in the way they’re writing novels. Yes, travel books need to be truthful and accurate. They don’t need to be objective. Everyone carries a bias around, and a writer has to have a point of view, but if they’re making things up to improve their story, then they’re writing fiction.

Motionsickness: How do you think travel literature (from guidebooks to narratives) has changed the planet?

Larry: That’s a big subject. Not all good, not all bad. Guidebooks have created economic booms in small countries sometimes at the expense of local cultures. Travel narratives have brought the stories home to readers who either stay home or go out to have their own experiences. In any exchange between cultures something is lost and something gained. The one sure thing is that travel by it’s very nature, is an exchange between disparate peoples that allows them to get to know the other in a way that isn’t possible otherwise. Travel books have motivated more people out of their houses and onto the road, and allowed greater understanding to develop between cultures. All in all, a good thing.

Motionsickness: Do you feel that travel and tourism is primarily a benefit or a detriment to Destinations?

Larry: Depends on the individual, and the influence visitors have on “destinations.” In worst case scenarios, we from the West figuratively rape and pillage other places with our development and demands; in best case scenarios, local communities develop new economic and cultural independence through travel and tourism from the West. It’s not so simple that we can say one way or the other. I’m sure we could come up with numerous examples of both.

Motionsickness: If somebody reads another person’s travel story, do you think that limits the possibilities they are willing to experience in that place? So, does travel writing create a type of travel because even a travel narrative can be used as a guidebook?

Larry:If the individual only wants to replicate what a writer did in a book, then that person lacks imagination. Sure, I’d want to have some of the profound experiences Peter Matthiessen had in Nepal when he was searching for snow leopards, but I’d expect to make my own discoveries as well. Who wouldn’t? Travel narratives can act as guides just as any guidebook can, but it’s more a guide to the type of experience to be found there not to the precise experience to be sought. Anyone chasing someone else’s shadow will find only that, shadow and illusion. Soon they’ll discover that their only recourse is to open up and see what’s happening around them, and make the experience their own.

Motionsickness: Finally, where are you and Travelers’ Tales headed?

Larry: We’re hoping, as I said, to weather this storm in the industry, and then get back to publishing that long list of titles I already mentioned. Of course we’re still at it, still publishing the kinds of books we’ve always published, but we’ve scaled back a bit. This time next year we should have a better idea about the health of the travel book business, and if it has rebounded, we’ll ramp up our output and bring out more tides each season. M

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