This is an interview of mine with Rob Savage, editor of the St Christopher’s backpacker e-Zine in late 2007.
This month I caught up with John Malathronas – who you might have become familiar with through our book reviews over the past three months. Here’s what happened when I asked him a selection of travel-orientated questions.
One of the key obstacles in our search for young, talented, backpacking travel writers is the blurring of that line between ego-stroking blogs and entertaining, hands-on travel tales packed full of useful advice. What tips would you offer to our aspiring writers who want to cut the dead weight on get on with the real deal in writing?
Other than getting a good editor, experience, I suppose. Remember that people don’t want to read about you, but about the country and the people you meet, so mix with them, make friends and tell their stories not your own. Sift through your diary and only include what is relevant; not every moment has to be accounted for – in fact, very few should. Finally, offer something new to the readers – they want to know something about the country that they won’t find in a travel guide.
Out of your published work so far, is there one particular encounter or experience that always comes to the forefront of your mind when you think about your accomplishments?
Well, certainly my greening experience in the Pantanal which I describe in Brazil: Life, Blood, Soul. I have never been a great pet person and my interest in animals was more cerebral than felt, but living in the Pantanal and observing closely its astonishing wildlife, somehow transformed my outlook. Maybe it would all have come to nothing long term though, if I hadn’t visited immediately a zoo in Santa Cruz, across the border in Bolivia. It was a tipping point. When I saw the same animals I had observed roaming free all caged up and in obvious distress, I felt very upset, indeed. Empathising with the natural world makes us more fundamentally human. Animals, flowers, trees, always appear in my books, because their stories are as important as ours and are rarely told.
How much of what you experience doesn’t go into the books and what is your cut off point in that editorial process?
I will readily admit that in my books I am divulging more of myself than other travel writers, but I believe that in order to be able to talk frankly about a country and its people it is important for this process to be mutual. The reactions of Brazilians, South Africans and Singaporeans – the subjects of my three books – have all been extremely positive even to the occasionally critical remarks. I think this is due to the fact that I am also part of this dialectic: I expose my character, warts and all, along with the country I am writing about, and this makes it easier for the locals to accept criticism; it sort of disarms them. However, the cut-off point is clear enough to me: if it doesn’t fit the book’s mood, or the chapter’s purpose, it doesn’t go in.
It’s something of a tradition for me to ask travel writers like yourself – what their favourite five reads are – so what are the books that have had the greatest impact on you?
I am a big fan of American literature. When I was a college student, I came across William Burroughs’ The Naked Lunch, and I was shocked and mesmerized at the same time. There is no other book like it. Not long after, I read Desolation Angels by Jack Kerouac (and went on to read his complete works). In terms of my character, you can safely say that these two books have had the greatest impact on me. I also like Mark Twain; I have read and re-read his Adventures of Huckleberry Finn several times and annotated the book with my comments. Some people are under the misconception that it’s a children’s book but it isn’t, it’s actually a travelogue through the American South. It’s a masterpiece, and I am particularly angry because it is being ignored nowadays, as it pushes some highly sensitive buttons in our easy-to-offend times. A big inspiration has been Kurt Vonnegut. His writing style is simple and direct, lacking flamboyance; I remember reading The Sirens of Titan and thinking that, hey, you don’t need fancy words to write a novel! As far as travel books go, I reckon that Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia is unsurpassable. I am a big admirer of Chatwin’s. I actually travelled to the Punta Arenas museum, and sought out myself that mylodon skin he was after in the book.
You mentioned that you were recently out of the country on a travel writing commission – what can you tell us about the next big project in the John Malathronas travel writing pipeline?
This one is not a narrative travelogue. The commission was for a Wildlife Guide to Brazil that describes the country’s biomes and ecosystems and recommends representative National Parks for each one. There are extensive sections on the animals and birds of the country, but I tried to filter the boring facts out of the guide. Did you know that the armadillo is the only other animal that can catch leprosy? That the Brazilian cock-of-the-rock changes its sexual behaviour as it grows up? That the grey short-tailed opossum is a marsupial without a pouch – an exception to the exception so to speak? The research for this book was great fun.
Imagine that on the way back from a trip your plane crashes and you’re stranded on an island with just Peter Andre and Katie Price for company. How long before you crack and what are the consequences?
As long as Peter Andre commandeered my workout regime on the island, I’d have no problem at all. If he could help me attain abs like his, the only crack you’d hear would be coming from my limb stretches. What, with the lack of food and all, I’d be modelling swimwear in no time.
The Rough Guides are branching out more than ever into the world of film, Phillip Pullman, ancient Greece and a whole variety of not so travel related topics. If you were to go down the same route, what topic would you most like to focus on?
This Wildlife Guide is a departure by itself. I also used to be the London music correspondent for two publications, and I might return to it at some point in the future.