A Conversation with Rolf Potts

Rolf Potts interview by Tim LeffelRolf Potts put out his Vagabonding book around the same time I put out the first edition of The World's Cheapest Destinations book and we've been popping up next to each other on Amazon ever since. He has written several other books, dispatched articles from around the world for major magazines and online publications, and now runs a popular travel podcast. We circled back to update one of the first reviews I ran on this travel writing blog to get the scoop on where his content creator career is more than two decades later. 

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, both give 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 good travel writer.

It has been a long time since Vagabonding first came out and when I interviewed you back in 2011, we talked about the shifting media landscape. What was your content creation life like then compared to what it's like now?

Rolf Potts travel podcaster

When Vagabonding first came out in 2003 I was focused on making the transition from online magazines—venues like Salon and Slate—to traditional magazines like Conde Nast Traveler and National Geographic Traveler. By 2011 I had circled back to online venues, and while I occasionally wrote for non-travel magazines like The New Yorker, Sports Illustrated, and The Atlantic, much of my travel content was appearing on my website, or on multimedia projects like my "No Baggage Challenge" blog.

Vagabonding anchored my career back then, and it still does, both in terms of steady royalties and the opportunity for public-speaking gigs. I mothballed my blog in 2016, and I rarely write for travel periodicals any more, preferring instead to work on new book projects, as well as my podcast, Deviate. Because when I'm not traveling I am based in rural Kansas, where the cost of living is quite low, there is less pressure to arbitrarily take on projects just to make ends meet. That means I can focus on projects that interest me, like new books and my podcast.

Tell us about the other books you've put out since and about the audiobook version of Vagabonding.

Though Vagabonding proved successful from the get-go, Random House never made an audiobook version, so, when those rights reverted back to me in 2013, Tim Ferriss (of Four-Hour Workweek and podcast fame) produced the audiobook himself. This worked out great for me, since instead of working with a big corporation I was working with an influential individual who really liked Vagabonding and was great at promoting it.

My newest book, The Vagabond's Way: 366 Meditations on Wanderlust, Discovery, and the Art of Travel, is something of a spiritual sequel to Vagabonding, and this time around Random House didn't hesitate to produce an audiobook version—which I think speaks to both the success of the Vagabonding audiobook, and the rise of the audio format in general over the past decade.

Rolf Potts travel book author

In addition to those two books and my 2008 travel-essay collection Marco Polo Didn't Go There, I've also published a couple books with Bloomsbury Academic: The Geto Boys (2016), a part of their "33 1/3" series of music criticism, explores the psychogeography of gangsta rap in the context of a journey I took to Houston in the 1990s; and Souvenir (2018), a part of their "Object Lessons" series, mixes memoir with a cultural history of travel keepsakes.

There are probably new fans you have now that only discovered you because of the Deviate podcast. What do you like about that medium and how does it compare to the writing work you've done?

I started to listen to a lot of podcasts in the early 2010s, and I debuted my Deviate podcast in 2017 to join the conversation. I called it Deviate to give myself the pretext to go off-topic and explore non-travel issues—often topics that traditional publications wouldn't assign. So, while many of my podcasts episodes tackle specific travel topics, or feature travel-oriented writers like Paul Theroux or Pam Houston, others explore topics like the 1980s fear of "Satanic Backward Masking" in rock music, the science of dinosaurs, or issues of parental mortality.

I just finished the script for an essay-episode about my college-era Oregon grunge band, which was a lot of fun. So my podcast allows me to explore vagabonding-oriented travel issues, but it also allows me to try out a different kind of audio storytelling, and I think my audience gets a kick out of the non-travel content.

What is the writing workshop like that you teach in Paris? What can students expect to get out of it?

I've taught a variety of writing workshops in Paris, including month-long multidisciplinary classes, but since the pandemic I've settled on a series of one-week intensive classes that focus on travel memoir. The student cohorts are capped at 12 people, so it's an intimate and supportive environment for students to develop their travel memoir storytelling skills.

The great thing about hosting the class in Paris is that the city itself becomes a classroom, and we mix indoor writing exercises and workshops with outdoor activities and free-writes.

Paris memoir writing workshop

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

The travel-writing world has changed so much since I got my start 25 years ago. I was one of the first travel writers to get his big break with online writing—but even then I worked with traditional editors and gatekeepers. These days there is less of a barrier to getting out your content (be it articles, videos, or podcasts), but you end up responsible for your own promotion and business strategy.

Yet, keeping in mind that technologies and platforms will continue to change how we share travel stories, the core strategies for travel storytelling are the same as when I first got started: Travel a lot. Write a lot. Read a lot. Don’t do 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. Even if you don't achieve all of your travel-writing goals, you will at least have had some amazing travels in the process.

Rolf Potts is the author of five books, including the 2003 bestseller Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel. He has reported from more than sixty countries for National Geographic Traveler, The New Yorker, Outside, The New York Times Magazine, and the Travel Channel. His podcast, Deviate, debuted in 2017, and has been recommended by such venues as the New York Times and Washington Post for its counterintuitive travel conversations. Each summer he teaches travel memoir classes at the Paris Writing Workshops. He is based in north-central Kansas, where he keeps a small farmhouse on thirty acres with his wife, Kansas-born actress Kristen Bush.

Interview conducted in March, 2024 by Travel Writing 2.0 author Tim Leffel.

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