Interview with Thomas Kohnstamm
By- Rick A. Griffith
Walking into Überbier Tavern in North Seattle, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Sure I’d read 300 pages about this guys life and travel experience in Brazil, but I still didn’t quite know what kind of guy I was going to be meeting. Would it be the successful author with the Masters degree from Stanford? Or the denounced Lonely Planet author whose exploits in his travels earned him a slew of bad press? The answer is both. Sitting anxiously at the bar, I peaked around noticing that it was just me the bartender and a loyal patron.
I ordered a tall Franziskaner and waited. While I may often show up just in time or a bit late to things such as work, school or other ideas I’m not so fond of, I was there early and eagerly awaiting this meeting. I was leaving for South America in just a few weeks and was looking forward to hearing stories and firsthand knowledge of my destination. Just as my beer was delivered Thomas came in and approached the bar, introducing himself and asking what I was drinking. He quickly ordered the same and paid for our drinks before I could resist. “So much for your journalistic integrity”, he said with a grin. He wasn’t a burn out backpacker or an uppity Ivy League type, just a travel writer who told it like it is, something I always appreciate. Below I’ve included an excerpt from “Do Travel Writer go to Hell?” By Thomas Kohnstamm. Enjoy!
The WorldCom spreadsheet sits open on my screen: miles of grids chronicling business decisions alongside the dates of potentially incriminating e-mails. I look at my convex reflection in the middle of all my Post-it notes. I appear tired, aging, bored and, worse, boring. Blood fizzes in my veins, Churning and popping. Bubbles race toward my brain as I start typing an email.
I am not going to be able to finish the WorldCom project tonight. Or ever.
I’m off to embrace spontaneity, imagination and other stuff that doesn’t exist around here.
Don’t worry about the WorldCom spreadsheet. No matter how many charts we make, they are still guilty.
I hit SEND. My mind starts collapsing inward like the fancy building demolitions that they show on PBS. Blasting points on all major support columns. It tumbles in upon itself, com-pacting into the ground and belching forth a plume of dust.
I don’t bother to shut down my computer and I don’t sign out at the front desk. It is much easier than I thought it would be. I simply grab my jacket and walk out the door. The three female temps nod to me and go back to knitting their black wool scarves. Hunched over her floor buffer, the Guyanese cleaning lady gives me a wink. No one tries to tackle me or hold me there− I just walk out. The most effective fences exist only in our minds or, at least, that’s what I’ll tell myself until the next time I have to confront my finances.
My stomach convulses as the elevator races toward the ground floor. Vomit perches itself at the base of my throat, a feline waiting to pounce.
The security guard in the lobby doesn’t even bother to look up. I can’t breath until I pass through the building’s glass doors and the sober air washes over me. Suddenly the office is just one little set of rooms in a honeycomb of an office building, in a city of such buildings.
I get two calls to my cell from Anna, then a series of calls from Marilyn. The phone is easier to ignore once I throw it into the East River.
Here is the interview with Thomas
As a travel writer you have seen many amazing places. What have been your favorite destinations?
I’ve enjoyed every place I’ve been. Obviously certain places might be safer or more scenic than others, but how you enjoy each place is a matter of perspective. I’ve been to some pretty amazing places but even being at a train station in Calcutta seeing flames rise out of garbage cans like something you would see in the movies was a surreal experience that I covet. These kinds of experiences are always memorable and discovering them is really what travel is about. It is important when traveling to not limit your beliefs or enter any place with preconceived notions. Not necessarily throwing caution to the wind and being reckless, but seeing things outside of the normal tourist trail and creating memories through unconventional experiences.
You received some backlash after the release of your book “Do Travel Writers Go to Hell”, particularly from the LA Times and from Jason Wilson(editor of Best of American travel writing). What is your response to this criticism?
It was disappointing to hear about this. I feel like some people didn’t read between the lines and understand what my book was really about. It also felt a bit like the publishing company edited the book and painted me to be a cocky guy, bragging about how I succeeded in my journey in Brazil, when really I was trying to show more how I messed up and how it was nearly impossible to get all the facts of a country correct in a mere 6 weeks. I originally didn’t want to include Lonely Planet’s name in the book but that was vetoed by the publisher as this was one of the points that would create press for the book. For the record my intent was not to put down guidebooks, but to explain how the travel writing profession isn’t the dream job it is made out to be and is actually a low paying position with very tough deadlines to keep. It seems like some people just read the reviews or back cover without actually reading the book to make their judgments on the book which gives quite a skewed point of view.
In less than a week I’ll be starting my South American adventure, traveling to Lima, Peru, down the coast to Santiago, Chilé and then on to Buenos Aires, Argentina. Do you have any advice or must see places, I should check out along the way?
Definitely check out Cuzco and Machu Picchu if you get the chance, the ruins sit atop a saddle back mountain and it is an amazing experience. Also, if you’re going to tour Chile, you might want to stop in Pucón, it is a very scenic city. There is a lake to the West of the city and to the East is a snow covered volcano which you can see the top lit up red at night from the spewing lava. We would know whether we could snowboard or not by looking at the smoke rising during the day. If it was heading straight up we were good to go, but if it was blowing sideways we knew it was too windy.
Also be sure to allow enough time to settle in to the city in Buenos Aires and enjoy yourself. I spent time there in 1998 as an exchange student and this was when the Argentine Peso was still pegged to the dollar. I found the city to be very nice, much like Manhattan but also very expensive. Now that the exchange rate is much better for Americans after the economic crisis they experienced in 2001-2002, I would imagine that it would be a very fun city to visit and settle into for a few months.
So what are you up too these days, anything in the works?
I’m actually transitioning into doing some screen writing for a new show based in Seattle. I’ve never necessarily considered myself a “Travel Writer” as I feel my stories are based on characters in the locations I’m writing about. So it’s a natural progression for me. I’ve thought of writing a follow up to “Do Travel Writers Go to Hell”, but I don’t want to just rush it out. So for now I’m content to work on screen writing and doing a bit of freelance on the side.
You experienced a similar economy when you graduated and came into the workplace in the midst of the post 9/11 slump. For young people who are finding their current job prospects to be less than desirable, do you have any tips or recommendations?
Pre 9/11 I had been working on finishing my Masters degree from Stanford in Latin American studies while living in Costa Rica. Many of my college friends were stepping into very high paying jobs in Silicon Valley as it was the height of the dot com bubble. After 9/11, the dot com bubble had burst and I finished up my degree and returned to the US. I checked out New York City in December of 2001 and decided to move there a month later. I figured a Masters degree from Stanford would land me a lucrative position in no time. I was surprised to learn that I couldn’t even get a call back on most resumes I turned in. I ended up taking a temporary job at Club Monaco (A high end version of the GAP) before eventually landing a job at a corporate Law firm after the economy had bounced back a bit.
It is hard to imagine being a young person without a profession right now as it is a scary time to be in that position with the economy in this big of a recession. Thinking unconventionally and setting yourself apart from other job seekers is essential
You made what many people would consider a brash decision in leaving your stable job, girlfriend and apartment all in one night to jump head on into a low paying writing job with Lonely Planet and leave on a plane to Brazil. What drove you to make this decision and how do you feel looking back on this?
I obviously could have gone about things a bit differently and set things up a bit better. However, I don’t regret it as cutting these ties sure made things a lot easier while I was gone. Having achieved success as a writer, it seems that following in pursuit of my dreams worked out pretty well. If I could do anything differently I guess it would have been learning a universal skill or trade that I could use while on the road to make extra money and enable me to enjoy my travels without the constant worry of a shrinking bank account. Whether it be an iron smith or a bartender, it would have been nice to have something to fall back on.
Where do you see the genre of Travel writing going in the future and where might some of the opportunities lie?
I think it will only get bigger. People are only going to travel more in the coming years and the world is shrinking with technology enabling us to sign on the internet and see places half a world away in seconds. I do think that shorter stories in online travel sites and blogs will become increasingly more popular, but will always be those who prefer to go to the book store and have a book in their hands to read. All signs point to it becoming more popular.