The Scrumptious Lies of Travel Writing

We talk with travel writer Chuck Thompson about his new book, Smile When You're Lying: Confessions of a Rogue Travel Writer.

(Soundbite of song, "Kokomo")

BEACH BOYS (Rock Group): (Singing) Bodies in the sand, tropical drink melting in your hand, we'll be falling in love to the rhythm of a…

MIKE PESCA, host:

Makes me want to not go away if I hear that song in a Club Med.

Travel magazines are everywhere, enticing us with glossy pictures of white sandy beaches and beautiful blue water. Their headlines urge us not to miss out on exotic escapes, one-of-a-kind adventure, hidden cultures. And who would want to?

STEWART: Travel writer Chuck Thompson spent years writing these stories of fascinating cities, charming locales, golden days and purple nights, and he hated it. He says the best travel stories are the ones left out, you know, the great places to get drunk or find - shall we say - friendship for the evening, or staying in hotel rooms that double as ant colonies. What I'm describing him is, is what Anthony Bourdain did to the world of restaurants, Chuck is doing for travel journalism. He's the author of "Smile When You're Lying: Confessions of a Rogue Travel Writer."

Chuck, you've written for a ton of magazines: Maxim, Atlantic, Esquire, National Geographic.

Mr. CHUCK THOMPSON (Author, "Smile When You're Lying: Confessions of a Rogue Travel Writer"): Geographic Adventure, I don't want to upset the people at…

STEWART: Oh. Sorry.

Mr. THOMPSON: …the famed yellow book.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. THOMPSON: One of their lower titles. But…

PESCA: Their down market friend, yeah.

Mr. THOMPSON: Yeah. No, yeah, I've done a lot of travel writing for some in-flight magazines as well, and just sort of made my way around the world, letting people pay me to go write about these places.

STEWART: So when did you notice - or did you maybe notice right away that maybe travel writing was not what it appeared to be?

Mr. THOMPSON: Probably about a year or two into it. You know, I got into it because I wanted to be, I think, like most people, a writer and you think travel writers sounds pretty cool. But what you'd find out pretty quickly into the game is that you're not so much a writer as you are sort of churning out glorified ad copy.

I mean, you're basically there to satisfy the needs of the advertisers because that's who really keeps - (unintelligible) travel magazines - I'm talking about of travel books right now. We can talk about that, if you like. But for magazines in particular, what drives the editorial is basically the advertisers.

PESCA: But a magazine like, including the magazine like Esquire or even Maxim, don't they want, you know, wild debaucherous things?

Mr. THOMPSON: Yeah. Well, I would say that the best travel writing you're going to find this is going to be in magazines that - on a travel magazine, the best travel magazines. The best travel writing is not in travel magazines because they're not necessarily beholden to those advertisers. Now if you want to talk about men's magazine or women's magazines, I would probably trust them for my travel information, but not my information about cars or lipstick or things like that that they're trying to…

PESCA: Right. Well, look, who takes out the most ads and then take a grain of salt.

Mr. THOMPSON: Basically right.

PESCA: But what about big, respectable newspaper travel sections? I mean, I know they don't, for instance, like some of the magazines do who the travel writers get everything paid for. The New York Times will never allow it. It would have take a junket. Does that help in the quality of the writing?

Mr. THOMPSON: Yes and no. I can't speak for the New York Times because I've never written for them. But for a lot of daily newspapers, they don't pay very much money to their travel writers, so for one thing you get sort of a lousy writing, which is my other beef about travel writing, it's just kind of junk writing, you know.

PESCA: Yeah.

Mr. THOMPSON: And one of the problems is newspapers don't like paying for it. And a lot, what a lot of dailies do, again, I'd rather exempt The New York Times because I don't have no knowledge on this, but what a lot of dailies do rather than pay a travel writer to go turn out their feature story on Jamaica or Norway, one of their staffers might get an extra couple of days vacation on his trip - his or her honeymoon or his family trip back there - and then crank out the piece.

But it's interesting that you bring up the idea of - there are magazines and newspapers that very sanctimoniously say we'll never accept comps no matter what. We're not going to take freebies from these things and that keeps our editorial content pure.

But the fact is, for the really large ones, they don't have to take comps because they're getting so much money in advertiser revenue. And if you want, you know, we'll talk about some travel magazines so that I can show you.

STEWART: Yeah, please.

Mr. THOMPSON: All right. Like, here's some - this is a copy of Islands magazine, which is on the newsstand right now. And if you go through and look at some of the - what the ad content is, you'll see that this issue and right on their cover, is 15 ultimate romantic escapes. That's their big feature package for this issue, right?

And if you look at all the advertisers, they're all geared towards the romance of travel. Here's one from the Hilton Caribbean and, you know, pay attention to some of the language that's in this ad. They're talking about the sort of romance of their travel with sunrise swims, candlelight dinners and moonlight fun, right?

Here's another one from somewhere in Antigua that talks about the ideal romantic getaways with your own private beach. Here's one that's just photographed that you guys can't see - I'm sorry, we're on radio, but I worked at Maxim for a long time.

STEWART: Yes.

Mr. THOMPSON: That photo there would be…

STEWART: And should be, should be in Maxim.

Mr. THOMPSON: Yeah, right.

PESCA: Yeah, true.

Mr. THOMPSON: There's no question about what these couples get in…

PESCA: Two essentially topless people.

Mr. THOMPSON: Yeah. What they're going to do, right? So we've got the private beach, we got the moonlit fun, we got the candlelight dinners. All right, so now let's go back and look at some of the actual editorial content, which is what you're reading and figuring. That, well, nobody's taking comps here. This is all sort of aboveboard.

Here is an editorial letter. This guy is announcing the package and saying he's giving us his definition of what travel romance is. It's an incredible dinner to swim in the ocean at midnight. It's a candlelight dinner. We go back in these sort of features here, it's a beach for two or private getaway on a candlelight dinner under a blanket of stars. I'm reading…

PESCA: So basically you could take the ad copy and you could take the editorial copy, flipped them and no one would know the difference.

Mr. THOMPSON: It's the same words. It's the same buzzers. I mean, the ad, the advertiser content is pushing the editorial content, and what you get when the writers become aware this sort of this need becomes obvious to them, which you get are a lot of writers, you get words of writers groping for the language of advertisers. And so it's is all this hyperbole. It's what a couple of travel writers that these are my words, although, I wish they were, they come that through a witless puffery or the sun-dappled barf of travel writing. And there's a lot of that, you know, and that's…

STEWART: How many ways can you describe a sunset or a sunrise?

Mr. THOMPSON: Well, that's a problem…

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: I mean, it's not a problem when you get to the Caribbean like, there's nothing much to do, we just look at the sunrise and sunset.

Mr. THOMPSON: But, you know what? This is - we're getting into more of a question of writing. But there's ways to do it and not necessarily hyperbolize.

STEWART: Okay.

Mr. THOMPSON: I'll give you a few examples here in, here's in this package. These are just a few ways that travel writers just go way over the top in trying to sell, sell, sell, right? Keep in mind, this is all edit copy. I'm not talking answers, but in this package right here, you can see a mark just about every page, right? This woman talks about a bathtub in her hotel room that is so deep she might drown in it. Okay. If there's one or two…

PESCA: Ooh. How did they come up with that one?

Mr. THOMPSON: Well, but once - yeah, right, but no one's going to drown in the bathtub, right? And this guys talks about this vacation where he is literally -he's in fear that he's going to quit his job and run away for his life and live on this island. Well, that's not…

PESCA: Did he actually use the phrase chuck it all?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. THOMPSON: Yeah, probably, last month. Here's a guy snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef on an adventure that would make Jacques Cousteau green with envy. Again, it's not bad to see one or two of these things.

STEWART: Right.

Mr. THOMPSON: but it's every freaking paragraph.

STEWART: I think that happens in all specialized writings because when you listen, right - when you read music critics, everybody's got crunchy guitars…

Mr. THOMPSON: Oh, the crunchy…

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: You know what I mean? So I'm wondering if this is just, is it the writer's fault or is it the editor's fault? Should the editors be pushing back and saying, hey, give me a more descriptive picture.

Mr. THOMPSON: Well…

STEWART: Hit the Thesaurus, buddy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. THOMPSON: Well, I think they got that crunchy out of the Thesaurus.

STEWART: Probably, you're right.

Mr. THOMPSON: Part of it is, you know there's a lot of good writers out there, and I complained a lot about travel writing in this book. It's not exclusively what it's about, but I do bitch about it.

But there are a lot of really good travel writers out there, right? But the problem is there are a lot of bad writers out there. And the problem with editors is, for the most part, it's like everything else, they're overworked and underpaid, right?

They're on deadline and they got to crank out eight stories in the next two weeks. I mean, there's not just time off and to go back and just really rework the stories.

PESCA: Well, I think your point is also that it's not that editors really want to have this great copy. Everyone knows where their bread is buttered, and it's fine to just turn out drivel. Now there's a good piece of travel writing I read called "Smile When You're Lying…"

Mr. THOMPSON: Yeah.

PESCA: …which is your book.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: And the difference isn't that just that you avoid cliches or have better adjectives, it's the content of the things you write about. It's the stories you tell us, they said in stripes, which will never get anywhere like when you go to - how could anyone go to Thailand and even if they don't take partake in any of it, not noticed that there are a lot of hookers around. And you never read that in the travel writing.

Mr. THOMPSON: Yeah. You know what? And I went to Thailand and saying I had no intention of getting involved in that circuit, and I didn't really get I guess we should define get involved, right? But I mean, I didn't go over there on the sex-tour trade. But I was curious about it. I wanted to see what it looked like and so I just sort of looked out. I've gotten a lot of grief about it, even describing that in this book.

PESCA: It's called reporting…

Mr. THOMPSON: Yeah, I know.

PESCA: …which is supposed to be what travel writing…

Mr. THOMPSON: Yeah, I know…

PESCA: …is a version of.

Mr. THOMPSON: I called the misogynist for just sort of noticing that…

STEWART: Yeah, that's like there's that guy - somebody on Amazons got a problem with you.

Mr. THOMPSON: Yeah, I know. Yeah, there are, well, look it's a very, we live in a really weird - we're a sexually repressed country, right? I mean, it's - well, look it's the big issue. It's funny to me that I'd say that the story about the prostitute in Thailand and there's a sort of encounter with this gay guy in the Philippines. Those two stories may be account for whatever nine pages of this book, but I'd say they appeared virtually every sort of…

STEWART: Sentence.

PESCA: Well, I highlighted…

STEWART: Because it's unusual. The point is that no other…

Mr. THOMPSON: Yeah.

STEWART: …travel book…

Mr. THOMPSON: Yeah, right.

STEWART: …would write about it.

PESCA: It upsets someone and the one highlighted phrase I have in the whole book is, quote, "my brush with gay machete sex, not withstand."

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: But you won't get that in Islands magazine, unless you will and I miss something. But before you said, hey, if you want to talk about travel books, I do. You have a great riff on "The Lonely Planet" in particular.

Mr. THOMPSON: Well, I just don't, The Lonely - look, first, I'll say this my caveat - I - "Lonely Planet," what they do is excellent, probably the best in the business. I mean, they cover locations like nobody else. I think, you can totally rely upon the information in there and the veracity of it, 100 percent, no problem with that.

What I don't like is this really pompous, arrogant, self-righteous air they take. They're really preachy with their readers, you know. They sort of tell you how to behave. I think I mentioned in the book the, there was a piece in one of their London books that was instructing their readers not to stare at locals on the train as if we're a bunch of third graders, you know, out on a field trip.

And that they kind of pepper that - those books and their copy with that sort of stuff over and over…

PESCA: With an exclamation points, and clean up your trash after yourself.

Mr. THOMPSON: Yeah, right. They're constantly berating you for not respecting the wildlife or the locals or something. It's just an incredible…

PESCA: And these are "Lonely Planet" travel readers. These are the people who bought the books. As you said, it seems like they hate their readers.

Mr. THOMPSON: Well, the other thing they do is they bitch about tourists constantly and one thing that really annoys me are tourists who bitch about tourists.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. THOMPSON: We're all tourists to some degree, right?

PESCA: Yeah.

Mr. THOMPSON: I mean, you could call yourself a traveler or an adventurer or whatever. It's all basically some version of the same thing and that's the thing that I like, I'm not complaining about it. But it really drives me nuts when it's either, you know, the backpackers squatting for two weeks in a hut in Cambodia, turning up his or her nose at the guy in the five-star resort upon the hill, and it works the other way, too, of course.

There's the snooty guy at the Raffles Hotel in Singapore that wouldn't dream of, you know, putting on the flip-flops and walking through the neighborhood. That sort of bothers me too.

STEWART: I'm with him on some of those guides who - Rick Steves, I would see -on my honeymoon, when I was in Florence and I kept thinking, you know, there's just things in the guides that say things like, oh, don't go see the David, go to this park…

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: And I kept thinking the buzz.

PESCA: How would you want to see the David? Why would anyone see the David?

STEWART: It's (unintelligible), foosie(ph) galleries, fantastic, of course, you want to see the David. It's really great to the go see this little statue in the park behind the mosque and everything. But I'm sort of - I'm with you with the judgmental tourism bugs(ph).

Mr. THOMPSON: Yeah, that and "Lonely Planet" is the pinnacle of judgmental travel and, you know, I used the thing in the book, too, where their very first edition to Costa Rica, they talked about how unspoiled and wild and unpopulated and bereft of tourism it is, and they love that.

Well, they are one of the big people who helped market Costa Rica, as a sort of nature tourism destination. Well, if you look at their books now, all they do is complain every time about all these parks that they used to tell you were unspoiled, nobody's here, now they gripe about because all the people are here. Well, they made a lot of money off of it.

PESCA: Maybe you should have written a book about it.

Mr. THOMPSON: Yeah, no kidding.

PESCA: Let's set aside travel writing for a second. Let me just have - give me an overrated and underrated in terms of destinations.

Mr. THOMPSON: I like Panama quite a lot. I like the Philippines quite a lot. Panama, boy, a magazine called "Escape," which is no longer in business tried to send me down there for a couple of years and I almost never turned down work, man. I'll write the oral history of jock itch if you want to pay me to do it, man.

But I just, for some reason, I was kind of freaked out, didn't want to go to Panama. But when I went, the minute I got off the plane, I was like what kind of idiot was I to not want to come down here. It's fantastic. I mean, there's - talk about wildlife and the friendly people and the usual kind of stuff.

Overrated, I'm not a big fan of the Caribbean. I spent an entire chapter in the book outlining my complaints about it. I'm not saying that people shouldn't like the Caribbean. If they like it, they like it. But I don't, and that's part of the confessions part of the subtitle of this book, "Confessions of a Rogue Travel Writer" is.

You know, for a travel writer to come out and say that they think the Caribbean sucks is kind of suicide, right?

PESCA: Right.

Mr. THOMPSON: And I don't like Vegas much either. And if a lot - if there's a couple of travel magazines out there that are keep exclusively in business by Las Vegas advertisers…

PESCA: Well, here are the things that I like about the Caribbean.

Mr. THOMPSON: Okay. Yeah, let's do it.

PESCA: Are you ready? It's warm, I'm not working, and there's a beach. I mean, you know.

Mr. THOMPSON: Yeah.

PESCA: It's close to the East Coast, so…

Mr. THOMPSON: I can't argue with that, you know. And it is sort of I'm from the West Coast and, I guess, it is to some degree what Mexico and Baja and that sort of thing is to West Coasters, you know. It's a two-hour flight, or two and a half or whatever it is.

And I totally get that, man. But, you know, I'm not one of these people that is content to kind of slather myself with oil and lay on the beach.

PESCA: Yeah.

Mr. THOMPSON: I get really bored with that. I've never been that kind of guy. So that bothers me.

PESCA: Right. And people reading the books aren't that type of guy because you don't need to know that much if there's a beach and there's oil, you could be happy.

Mr. THOMPSON: Yeah.

PESCA: Yeah, yes. So they don't need that level of detail.

STEWART: It's called Galveston, Texas.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: It's called the sunlamp and a roof(ph).

Mr. THOMPSON: Yeah, right.

PESCA: Well, anyway, that, I mean, if you are interested in good travel writing, we recommend your book, "Smile When You're Lying: Chuck Thompson's Confessions of a Rogue Travel Writer."

Thanks a lot for being here, Chuck.

Mr. THOMPSON: Yeah, thank you.

STEWART: Hey, that does it for this hour. We appreciate your listening to THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT from NPR News.

We're available to you all the time online at our blog, in our Web site, npr/bryantpark.

I'm Alison Stewart.

PESCA: I'm Mike Pesca. This is THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT from NPR News.

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