Travel Writing is the Art of Good Conversation

Christine O’Toole is a fine writer who traveled to Belfast with me in December. She sent me an essay by one of my favorite authors, Robert D. Kaplan, on travel writing vs. reporting, that ran in the Columbia Journalism review.

Just listening to people, to their stories — rather than cutting them off to ask probing, impolite questions — forms the essence of these and all other good travel books. I learned this over two decades ago while trying to interview a refugee in Greece who had just escaped from Stalinist Albania. I had a list of questions to ask this refugee, but instead he preferred to tell me the story of his life. It was only after listening to him for several hours that the information I sought began to slip out.

But such a leisurely approach goes against the grain of journalism as it is commonly practiced. Reporting emphasizes the intrusive, tape-recorded interview; travel writing emphasizes the art of good conversation, and the experience of how it comes about in the first place. It has long been a cliché among correspondents that in Africa 10 percent of journalism is doing interviews, and 90 percent is the hassles and adventures of arranging them. But while the former fits within the narrow strictures of daily news articles, it is the latter that tells you so much more about the continent.

The travel writer knows that people are least themselves when being tape-recorded. You’ll never truly understand anybody by asking a direct question, especially someone you don’t know very well. Rather than interrogate strangers, which is essentially what reporters do, the travel writer gets to know people, and reveals them as they reveal themselves.

After being with a battalion of marines for several weeks in Iraq, I noticed that they suddenly stopped using profane language when some journalists arrived and turned on their tape recorders. Whatever the marines were in front of the journalists, they were less real than they had been before.