Today I chat with the author of the new book A Voyage Long and Strange: Rediscovering the New World, what Booklist describes as 'a guide for those who are historically ignorant of the "lost century' between the first voyage of Columbus and the establishment of Jamestown in 1607". Right now, he's also blogging for USA Today. He's also the author of Blue Latitudes, One for the Road, Confederates In The Attic and Baghdad Without A Map, and in 1995 won a Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting, for his stories about working conditions in low-wage America published in The Wall Street Journal. Incidentally, his wife also won a Pulitzer Prize, so they must make other couples feel lame at dinner parties.
Where do you keep your Pulitzer Prize?
I gave it to my mother, who uses it as a paperweight.
What's been one of your favorite voyages, either for your new bookbook, for some other project or personal?
Bad voyages are the best for writing, and I've had a lot of those. While researching A Voyage Long and Strange, my favorite worst journey was a road trip across the Dominican Republic with a reformed drinker who fell off the wagon in the course of our drive. He also taught me the driving rules for the Dominican Republic--the d.r. for the D.R.--which include accelerating when a cop sees you speeding, so you can get a head start and outrun him. Not the safest country in which to drive.
A Seinfeld question: who is your favorite explorer?
Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca, who was second-in-command on a disastrous Spanish expedition to Florida in the 1520s. Of 300 men, only he and three others survived, by becoming faith healers to Indians and trekking across the entire continent over the course of eight years. His was the first great American road trip, and he wrote a stirring account of the journey that makes Lewis and Clark's much more famous crossing look like a Boy Scout outing by comparison.
Have you ever visited a place and just thought to yourself, even with the understanding that all cultures have their pros and cons, "What a horrible place to live"?
Saudi Arabia. No movie theaters, no bars, no mixing of men and women--even an amusement park I went to out of desperation was segregated by sex, so I found myself playing bumper cars with other adult males at Happy Land for Men. Then, of course, there's the Friday afternoon entertainment at "Chop Chop Square," where criminals lose their limbs or heads. After a month in Saudi Arabia I almost hanged myself from the shower rod in my hotel bathroom.
I gave travel writing a go one time and I was surprised by how difficult it was. What's your method for writing on the road?
My method is to have no method. Just see what happens, go with the flow. The best travel, and best writing about it, comes from the unplanned adventures and accidental encounters. That makes for a lot of terror at the start of a trip--Why am I here? What am I doing?--but inevitably, once I've talked to a few people, something strange and intriguing starts to emerges.
How does the rest of the world view America's Civil War, from what you've observed on your travels?
Many foreigners are as obsessed with the Civil War as we are. There are large reenactor communities in England, Germany, Australia, other countries, and you often meet them at Gettysburg. One reason is that their own wars are hard to reenact. I mean, if it's World War I you need tanks and poison gas, and if it's World War II someone has to play the Nazis. With the Civil War, they can inhabit someone else's conflict--and Europeans almost always want to be rebels, who seem more romantic. Blame Gone With the Wind.
Who is your favorite lesser-known luminary from the Civil War?
The Confederate general, A. P. Hill. He had venereal disease, wore a red shirt into battle, and was famous for mad, heedless charges, including the one-man charge that ended his career just a few days before Appomattox. On their deathbeds, both Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee allegedly called out deliriously for Hill to attack.
I read that you first started traveling by hitchhiking around the country. Any scary hitching stories?
No sociopaths, luckily, or I wouldn't be here. But a lot of drunks, stoners, and the occasional aggressive groper. One guy in Denver tried to rape me, and I walked twenty miles or so before getting up the courage to stick out my thumb again.
Have you ever gone on a destination assignment and faced difficulty coming up with the story for the piece?
Only in luxury destinations, which I rarely visit. I enjoy lolling by a hotel pool and drinking out of coconuts as much as the next person, but I have absolutely no idea how to write anything original or even vaguely interesting about that experience. So even in Bora-Bora and Hawaii, I gravitate toward the squalor.
Who have been some of your most difficult subjects to interview and why?
I once met Saddam Hussein's murderous son Uday in a nightclub in Baghdad. He wasn't very chatty, and I found myself strangely unwilling to ask him tough questions. Also in Baghdad, I interviewed the terrorist-in-hiding Abu Abbas, who engineered the Achille Lauro shipjacking. He wasn't hard to talk to but getting to him was--I had to be driven around blindfolded and strip-searched by thuggish bodyguards who poked AK 47s in my nostrils.
What part of history are you currently obsessed with?
The 1830s in America. It strikes me as a neglected decade that too often gets lost between the Revolutionary Era and the Civil War. What attention it receives is mostly directed at Jacksonian democracy. Yet there are all kinds of other great and significant stories in the 1830s, including the Nat Turner rebellion, Indian Removal, the rise of abolitionist and feminist and Utopian movements. And lots of weird little stuff like debate over dueling codes. I'd love to beam back to that era.
There are a few things, like Weird Al Yankovic or Playboy magazine, that, while I'm not personally attached to them, I'm fond of them because they seem to me quintessentially American. This is a broad question but what in your research (or even in contemporary life) has seemed to encompass what is most American to you?
My wife's Australian, and I've spent much of my adult life abroad, so I've had a lot of opportunity to compare other countries to my own. Very broadly--and unoriginally--what strikes me the most when I come home from overseas (other than rampant obesity, I'm afraid) is America's edge and dynamism. There are a lot of ways in which I wish we were more like Europe or Japan or Australia--health care, for instance--but what we have that many other countries lack is the belief (often delusional) that anything is possible, and the constant striving to achieve it. Societies that are more structured and stable and secure may be kinder and gentler places to live, but as a writer I find I miss the restless energy and creative tumult of America.
When was the most recent time you've been back to the Middle East? What from your immediate perspective changed since you wrote "Baghdad Without a Map"?
I haven't been to the Middle East in over a decade, so most of what I know comes from what I read or hear from friends. By far the biggest change is the rise of fundamentalism. It was certainly present in the 1980s and early 90s, when I was there, but not nearly so widespread and public as now. Another huge change is in communications. During my time in the region, dictators like Saddam could effectively seal their citizens off from the outside world by jamming radio signals, censoring all media, and tapping phones. With the internet and satellite TV, that's all but impossible.
What's have been some of the most memorable meals you've eaten on your travels?
Memorably bad ones include the chicharrones--basically, deep-fried pork skins with bits of gristle--I sampled on the street in the Dominican Republic. They looked and tasted like burnt ear. I've also eaten a lot of appalling food in the north of England, like a "chip buttie"--a buttered roll filled with French fries--and a turkey curry at a pub in Yorkshire that had gray clumps of stringy meat floating on a radioactive-looking orange pond. My dog wouldn't have touched it.
You found many lesser-known American legends for The Devil May Care: where do you discover extensive information on forgotten American characters?
In that case, the work was done for me, by the American National Biography, a compendium of 18,000 profiles of characters from every century and walk of life. My job was to pluck out fifty men and women to highlight. Generally, though, I just stumble on curious characters in my reading and then start digging. As with travel, it's usually while you're looking for something else in your research that you accidentally discover the best stories.
How do you spend the time on the flights from the States to Australia?
Counting how many hours are left. The only virtue of having done the day long flight between Australia and the States a few dozen times is that every other plane trip feels brief by comparison.
How does it feel to be the 207th person interviewed for Zulkey.com?
Better than being the 206th, I guess. It's been my pleasure.