A Conversation with Rolf Potts

Rolf Potts has been called the “Jack Kerouac of the Internet Age,” and for good reason. His international travels have taken him hitchhiking across Eastern Europe, traversing Israel on foot, bicycling across Burma, and driving a Land Rover from California to Argentina. He’s written for publications such as National Geographic Traveler, Conde Nast Traveler, and Outside, and has penned two books, Vagabonding and Marco Polo Didn’t Go There. He’s the kind of writer who’s not only a poster-child for independent travel, but the kind who can undertake a 6 week around-the-world with nothing but the clothes on his back. Check out Rolf’s site here!

You and I were both backpackers and taught English in Korea before ever really “making it” as travel writers. How do you think that long-term travel and working abroad influenced how you write and what kind of stories you wanted to tell?

Success in travel writing ultimately comes down to how well you can write — but that doesn’t mean one should underestimate the importance of traveling well. Vagabonding for the long-term as a backpacker, and living overseas as an expat, gives you experiences that you simply don’t have on shorter, vacation-type stints. This kind of travel forces you to go slow and immerse yourself, to make mistakes and learn from them. You begin to see the travel experience as something you live, as opposed to something you consume. So I’d recommend either — a vagabonding stint, or an expat stint, or both — to anyone who is serious about getting started in travel writing.

None of the stories I wrote during my years of living and traveling in Asia could have been conceptualized or pitched without having first experienced the region. These kinds of immersive experiences give you the instincts to write well. A lot of people tell me they want to become a travel writer so they can fund a trip overseas, but it doesn’t work that way. First you go overseas, on your own dime, and only then do you acquire the experiences and instincts necessary to become a travel writer.

You are best known for your Vagabonding book, which has sold well for years, plus you’ve put out a collection of your narrative stories that were published in various places. What are your future plans in this shifting media environment?

I’m in the midst of a transition, and I’d like to focus more on book projects instead of periodical or online articles.  This means less income in the short term, but hopefully a better platform for more travel writing in the future.  My first two book, Vagabonding and Marco Polo Didn’t Go There, have been a great platform for my career, and I believe that books (more than articles) have more staying power in taking your career to a new level. I realize this isn’t in keeping with the new media landscape, which is skewing even more towards online media  (and even video) but I think that in-depth, well-written and researched projects (like books) have a way of standing out, regardless of whatever new media becomes fashionable.

Tell us about the writing workshop you
teach in Paris. What can students expect to get out of it?

Students can expect to get an amazing, intensive, inspirational month that allows them to focus on nothing but writing in one of the most beautiful cities in the world. There’s such a wonderful energy to the program, and I look forward to doing it each year. It’s not exclusively a travel-writing course, either — I teach other nonfiction forms, like memoir and long-form journalism, and other teachers deal in genres like fiction, poetry, and screenwriting.  Plus we have seminars in topics like reading for a live audience, and submitting work for publication. Students can pick and choose which topics they want to explore, and most students elect to try everything. So it’s very intense and multidisciplinary, and a whole lot of fun. And did I mention it’s in Paris?

Knowing what you do now, if you were starting from scratch today to become established as a travel writer, what steps would you take to ensure success?

My advice isn’t that different from what I would have given ten years ago:  Travel a lot. Write a lot. Read a lot. Don’t to it for the money, because there are better ways to make money. Don’t even do it for the travel, because there are better ways to fund and facilitate travel. Do it because you love to write, and you love to write about travel. Do it because it is your passion and obsession. Don’t ever do it just because you think it will make you seem cool or sexy, because it will never match up to your expectations.  And above all, be patient.  Success doesn’t come easy in this field.

You probably gained a lot of new fans when you got filmed traveling around the world with no luggage for BootsnAll. What did you take away from that experience?

My immediate takeaway from the trip was how easy no-luggage travel is, and how little you really need to take on the road to have a good time. Before the trip I figured that my lack of luggage would create a lot of challenge and drama for the dispatches and videos, but in actuality it took me about a week to get used to my ultra-light routine. As a result, the trip was mainly about enjoying the journey and having interesting experiences. If there was a downside, it was that my itinerary took me around the world in six weeks, which meant I had to travel a lot faster that I would have liked. I had fun, but I was reminded of how slow, open-ended travel offers you more possibilities.

From a travel-writing standpoint it was an interesting experiment in real-time reporting. With the help of Justin Glow, my cameraman and all-around tech wizard, we were making 3 carefully produced videos each week, and uploading them from the field. I think the longest we went between having an experience and uploading the video of that experience was five days. Plus I was writing 4-5 blog posts a week. So the folks who were following our Bootnsall blog were getting a lot of information almost as soon as it happened.

This too can have its downside, since creating that much multimedia content in real-time can be exhausting. It also meant that we spent one day writing and editing video for every day we spent having travel experiences. That work-schedule has a way of altering your experiences when you’re on a tight itinerary; it means you can’t experience and report in as much depth as when you have more time to explore and report back. So while this method of sharing the journey was fun, I doubt it will be my primary way of doing things in the future.


Rolf Potts has reported from nearly 70 countries for venues like Salon, Slate, National Geographic Traveler, the New York Times Magazine, and the Travel Channel. His book Vagabonding has been through 12 printings and translated into several languages. His latest book is Marco Polo Didn’t Go There, a collection of travel stories with endnotes aimed at behind-the-scenes voyeurs and aspiring travel writers. He blogs at Vagablogging.net.

Interview conducted in April, 2011 by Travel Writing 2.0 author Tim Leffel and edited by Kristin Mock.

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