Episode 18: Travel Writing with Tom Vater
Trevor kicks off the episode by explaining that he’s been primarily employed as a freelance travel writer for going on a decade now and that its been a great ride: He gets to travel to exotic places, immerse himself in local cultures and nature, and both experience and learn as much as he possibly can about a particular destination. The job is exciting but not nearly as glamorous as some might think, he explains.
Scott says that he’s been lucky enough to know a number of travel writers over the years –some of the world’s most famous – and, depending on project, it seems to be a much less glamorous job than people would think. He explains how, when writing guidebooks, writers have very limited time and budgets, seem to have to see about 20 guesthouses in a day, and really move. It’s not lying on a beach, enjoying drinks at a bar – it’s hard work.
Trevor agrees that, to be fair, travel writers do actually spend a lot of time on the beach and in the bars, but the work certainly can be challenging. He talks about how the budget is certainly one aspect of that, as writers are generally given an advance and have to try to figure out how to see and do so many things on a relatively limited budget. That said, he explains, this forces them to become very savvy travelers.
Outside of guidebooks, Scott suggests that there are few writers who manage to turn-out some really great books about aspects of the regions they live in and also make a living from it, offering Philip Cornwel Smith, Joe Cummings, and our guest Tom Vater as rare examples. His point is that, in a day an age of blogging when everyone online is a ‘professional writer’, there are few people that really are experts in what they’re writing about, spend the proper time to craft a real work, and can be trusted.
Scott then asks Trevor if he ever thought of writing a novel or topic-specific book and if so, what’s kept him from doing it. Trevor talks about finding the time and motivation to write in his free time when his job is to write. He explains how the most successful writers he knows are the ones most passionate about it, including their guest, Tom Vater, who he then goes on to introduce.
Trevor introduces Tom Vater, a writer and publisher working predominantly in Asia. Tom has written for The Wall Street Journal, The Times, The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph and a number of other publications, including Penthouse. Tom is also the co-author of several documentary screenplays, most notably The Most Secret Place on Earth, a feature on the CIA’s covert war in 1960s Laos, and he has published several non-fiction books, including the highly acclaimed Sacred Skin and the more recent Burmese Light. He has published three novels; two with Crime Wave Press, a Hong Kong based crime fiction imprint, of which he is the co-owner.
Trevor had the pleasure of meeting Tom in Kratie, Cambodia while he was researching the National Geographic Cambodia guidebook and Tom was researching the Moon Travel Guide to Cambodia, which is now offered as the Handbook to Angkor Wat, Siem Reap, and Phnom Penh.
Tom greets our hosts from his home in Bangkok and gives a bit of background on himself, including where he was originally from, where he spent his formative writing years, and how he ended up living and working in Asia. He explains that he’s been primarily employed as a Bangkok-based correspondent for the largest German independent travel publisher for the past eight years. He says that he also moves around the region a lot, primarily in Southeast Asia.
Trevor comments that Tom writes diverse content and how the genres are different, to which Tom replies that travel writing can be a hard grind, particularly in the Internet age. He explains that the biggest change nowadays is the financial aspect of travel writing and therefore he must diversify his concentration in order to make a living from the trade. He believes if he specialized on any one genre, he would really be struggling to make a living.
Trevor asks what, specifically, draws Tom to travel writing, given all the different things he writes about, and why he continues to focus on travel related work. Tom says it was what he first started out doing, writing about indigenous music in Asia and then fell in love with the region, compelling him to stay in the area and continue writing about it, calling it the pay off for all the other work.
Scott asks what was Tom’s first foray into travel writing after the music stint, and Tom replies that it was something completely different, a job for Rough Guides, who hired him in 1998 to write the Thailand chapter of their first Southeast Asia guide. This was followed up by a job with German television: writing documentary screenplays about Indian Hindu celebrations. He then moved over to Cambodia to research and write about the Angkor temples.
Trevor then asks Tom what he thinks are his biggest challenges as a travel writer. Tom reiterates the financial challenges, explaining that he’s pretty adept at the nuts-and-bolts of the trade and that the work itself isn’t a challenge. He thinks aspects of the jobs can be routine and tedious but that the perks, even traveling back to places he’s been many times, outweigh any downsides.
Trevor brings up a panel Tom recently participated in with Nick Ray and Greg Bloom -the co-authors of the Lonely Planet Cambodia, the topic of which was Travel Writing in Southeast Asia. He asks, aside from promoting his latest book on Cambodia, Cambodia – A Journey through the Land of the Khmer, what were some of the insights Tom shared at that event. Tom says they talked about some of their adventures but also about the business end of the occupation.
Scott asks, with the advent of digital technology and the massive upheaval it has caused in the travel publishing industry, what’s Tom’s opinion of those who say that the death of published books is simply a matter of time. Tom thinks it’s not really true: that people will always want physical books. He doesn’t think books are going to die, even though travel guidebooks are under attack from websites like Trip Advisor. He feels that, while this online information is at your fingertips and free, it’s often written by non-professionals and is frequently inaccurate, whereas travel guidebooks are written by people who know what they are doing and know the countries well.
Trevor agrees that books are handy while you are traveling as, for example, they can be read while on a bus, but brings up the fact that Tom also develops coffee-table books on travel that previous guest Gary Arndt might call ‘travel porn’. Tom laughs and replies that he likes doing those kinds of book. He has done three such books and does them in large part as diversification to continue to make a living as a professional writer.
Scott asks how guidebooks will remain relevant in the next five to ten years. Tom talks about how the German publication he works for is now publishing much smaller guides, focusing on cities or small regions rather than large comprehensive travel books. This new generation of books is more visually attractive, he explains, and, because the nature of travel has also changed, these less expensive, smaller books are selling very well.
Trevor agrees, talking about his travels pre-internet and how he used to rip certain pages or just the maps out of the guidebooks he picked up. But he thinks that the books he writes are still superior to the material available on the Internet. Tom thinks both formats have pros and cons, but that website content is written by laymen who typically know nothing about the destinations and that the sites can contain personal vendettas, etc. that make the advice found on them questionable.
Trevor then brings up the inherent biases he has after having seen and done so much, saying that it’s sometimes hard for him to be impressed by a given beach when he’s comparing it to those in Hawaii, for example. Tom states that he understands the challenge, as first time visitors to Thailand are more likely to be impressed by Thailand’s beaches than he might be. But he says that he doesn’t now go to Patong Beach in Phuket, choosing to seek out and write about other destinations. But he also thinks that different people want different things.
Scott asks Tom if he ever gets tired of traveling, to which Tom replies that, while it can be tiring, he doesn’t get tired of traveling. He talks about how often he’s traveled over the past few months and how it’s nice to be home, but that, while the work itself can be tiring, he’s always excited to travel.
Scott then asks Tom what his first published, non-guidebook was and how that project differed from producing a guidebook. Tom says that his first was a novel called The Devil’s Road to Kathmandu. Still, he explains, it was a reflection of ten years of travel, based on the stories from a trip that he then describes. Tom states that the book features observations on his experience with travel but that the skill to write a novel is different. One of the problems he finds, writing such, is that his default writing style can be too journalistic for a novel.
Trevor then asks which style of writing he is most passionate about. Tom says that he enjoys writing fiction the most. That the process of writing such stories is more intriguing and that, while he wouldn’t choose to stop travel writing, he enjoys the diversity. He concludes by saying that fiction writing is a longer, more solitary process that requires different discipline than writing other forms of content.
Scott asks Tom what advice he would give someone who came up to him and asked him how to become a travel writer. Tom wouldn’t discourage anyone, although he concedes that the market is much more difficult nowadays. He thinks that if people are passionate about it they should practice regularly to develop their skill. He feels writers who have passion and endurance are likely to have things work out for them. Scott follows up on that, saying that he likens it to exercise: something that needs commitment. Tom thinks it’s more like a skill such as carpentry: each box that you build will get better and better if you keep building them for years.
Trevor asks what are Tom’s favorite destinations to write about and Tom states that his favorite place in Thailand is Mu Koh Surin National Park. He has written extensively about it. He says that otherwise, after 20 years on the road, there are almost too many to choose from. Trevor then asks if Tom could write about any place what would that be. Tom replies that it would be some place he’s never been before: some place out of his comfort zone, and offers Mongolia and Papua New Guinea as places he’d like to travel to either professionally or personally.
Scott brings up Tom’s latest book, Cambodia – A Journey through the Land of the Khmer and says its description of Phnom Penh in the morning was excellent. He asks how Tom can capture such a moment like that in words. Tom says that he never sits in front of an empty screen, and that he’s been to the city so many times that the words are more the product of years of experience and memories that he draws upon. He says that he could write such descriptions fairly easily for eight to ten countries, but outside of those he would need to spend a few months in a location, immersing himself in the destination in order to understand it well enough to capture such feelings in words.
To wrap things up, Trevor asks Tom to give them some information about Crime Wave Press, the publishing company that Tom is co-founder of. Tom gives some history and information about Crime Wave and other projects he has on the shelves and available on the Internet, which you, dear listener, can check out through the links provided below.
Our Sponsor: Episode 18 is brought to you by Siem Reap Dirt Bikes. Siem Reap Dirt Bikes offers ‘off the beaten track’ motorbike adventure tours in the most remote areas of Cambodia, taking you to places others don’t go! Siem Reap Dirt Bikes does offer some day trip excursions but primarily they focus on multi-day adventures to the more remote areas of Cambodia focusing on fun terrain and awesome attractions.
Links to items discussed in this episode:
About Tom Vater:
- Tom’s new thriller: The Man with the Golden Mind
- Cambodia – A Journey Through the Land of the Khmer
- Tom’s blog
- Crime Wave Press publishing house
- Sacred Skin – The Movie. Soundtrack from Tom’s band: Pussy & the Lear Jets
- Moon Handbooks – Angkor Wat
Other Links Discussed on the Show:
To learn more about Scott & Trevor: