WRITING

 

May 30

Outpost, a Canadian travel magazine, is looking for a new columnist. Good gig, right? Until you read the fine print and discover that they expect 800-1000 words every couple of weeks for $50 a column. Even ten times that amount is a marginal fee.

That's always been the knock against Outpost: Rather than pay their contributors, they pretend that the free press trips a travel writer on assignment can get is payment enough. While that sounds ok if you're 22 years old and looking for fun and a few bylines to start your career, and have some other source of income, no professional writer works under that sort of arrangement. It's the equivalent of the bottom feeders who ask photographers for free photos and grandly argue that the artist will be getting "exposure". When I get that sort of request (and we all do, periodically), my stock answer is, "People die of exposure."

Incidentally, Canadaland, a media criticism podcast, has an episode this week about the ethics of travel writing that's worth listening to.

March 17

In celebration of St. Patrick's Day, here's a little Irish fairy tale I once wrote:

                                                            An Irish Lilt

One June day Victor "Paddy" O'Sullivan, a retired shillelagh whittler out gathering shamrocks in a country field, had a sudden idea that led him to a cache of leprechaun gold. Now, sure and it wouldn't be fair to tell ye what he did, for it's a simple trick that anyone might apply, and if I let it out of the bag there soon wouldn't be a single glittering nugget left in the whole of the Emerald Isle.
            Does my accent sound phony? You can bet it does, for I am about as Irish as Victor "Paddy" O'Sullivan, an immigrant Pole who had shortened his name from Osylyvnchwzsky. However, for the sake of the story I ask that you try not to wince too much if and when, periodically, I give into the temptation to lay on the blarney in brogue.
            Back then, o'er the Big Drink, to the paddocks and leas of Ireland.
            When the leprechaun who owned the pot of gold discovered it was missing, he flew into a rage the lake of which was never described even by Sean O'Faolain, James Joyce or Frank O'Connor. He tore out great handfuls of his long white hair and flung them about. As soon as they touched the ground, the hairs turned into worms and wriggled out of sight. His piercing cries, which sounded more like a banshee's than a leprechaun's, struck terror into not a few of his comrades.
            "Have thee gone mad?" they exclaimed from their shelters behind mushrooms, knolls and carbuncles.
            "Ithic!" he wailed in leprechaunese. "Ithic lander lll!" (Free translation: "My gold is gone! Gone!")
            "Gone?" they cried in one voice. Whereupon these pint-sized misers, fearing that their own hoards may also have been plundered, went dashing away to check, leaving their poor dispossessed fellow to continue his lamentations.
            Paddy, meanwhile, having turned in the gold for paper currency, was leading the life of Riley. He went around with a colleen on each arm, and one elsewhere. He drank only the best whisky; his feet were always well shod. He cut the figure of a fine elderly country gentleman, swathed in green from tip to toe. His neighbors, being Irishmen, were secretly envious of Paddy's sudden wealth, which he had told them came from an inheritance. Sucking on their long stem pipes and crooking their hoary eyebrows, they would ponder among themselves the weighty questions of luck and justice whenever Paddy strolled by, his three buxom colleens in tow.
            Leprechauns see more than they are seen, and so know more about others than others know about them. They knew, for example, all about Paddy's non-Irish ancestry, despite the infinite pains he had taken to conceal it. Also, it did not take much leprechaun magic to infer from Paddy's newfound finery that he was the thief. I should mention that while men regard leprechaun gold as fair game, belonging, like pirate treasure, to whoever finds it, the leprechauns themselves do not subscribe to this belief. Each of them spends thousands of years amassing his hoard, and its disappearance is a setback of no small import. Reclaiming Paddy's ill-gotten gold was obviously impossible, since it had already been converted into coin of the realm. But the fear of every leprechaun was that Paddy, after using up his fortune, would seek to replenish it from another store -- for while they knew his trick for calculating the hiding place of their gold, they were powerless to do anything about it. Now leprechauns, though they be but wee folk, have a giant-sized thirst for revenge. So one night at a secret gathering place, all the leprechauns from miles around put their heads together and came up with a plan that they hoped would avenge the theft and ensure that it would not be repeated. To help carry out the details they even hired a poltergeist, who was better-versed in such matters.
            First, through the vehicle of one of his colleens, they gave Paddy as fine a dose of the clap as y'd e'er expect to see. Next, they put it into the head of Mrs. Murphy, the local gossip, that Paddy was not, as he'd maintained all these years, a full-blooded Irishman but Pole from Cracow. Now, Mrs. Murphy had a truly fearsome gift o' gab, and before long this rumor was bruiting through the county. It dashed a mortal blow to Paddy's hopes of being chosen Head Shillelagh for the St. Patty's Day parade, an honor he had coveted for three decades and for which this year he had considered himself a shoo-in.
            These two were the first in a series of greater and lesser misfortunes to afflict the apostate Pole: everything from slipping in some good Irish cow dung to being creamed with a roundhouse by the middleweight pug Rourke O'Rourke. Leprechaun revenge is slapstick in style, not vicious but exceedingly trying. Soon Paddy was a laughingstock; now whenever he passed by his neighbors, they would as before discuss the weighty questions of luck and justice, but this time with winks and jocular pokes of the elbow.
            It did not escape Paddy's notice that the mishaps were flying a wee bit too thick and fast to be coincidences. He had studied Irish lore at one of the top o'universities in Dublin soon after emigrating, and so had a good grounding in leprechaun mentality, which he recognized at work here. He recalled, however, that a fresh shamrock had inimitable value in warding off the little men's whammies. So he got into his trap and rode down to the county nursery, where he purchased a bulk supply of the fine clover. This he scattered about his person, his house and his colleens. "Now sure 'n I'll be as safe as a green frog in green grass," he thought confidently, still with an eye to being chosen the Head Shillelagh for next year.
            But Paddy's countermeasure came too late to halt the leprechaun's supreme vengeance, which was already on its way. That very afternoon who should come hobbling down the lane but an auld woman, garbed all in black. Her back was stooped, her head bowed, but even from a distance a vague familiarity played about her withered form. It was Paddy's long-abandoned mother, Mariewschka Osylyvnchwzsky.
            "So I've found ye at last!" the old woman cried in her Polish tongue.
            "Faith and begorra," Paddy said out loud in Irish. "Sure and that couldn't be my old Mamawicz. Why, she must be at the far end of her eighties by now!"
            The ancient Pole did not understand a word of Paddy's brogue but immediately recognized her own nickname, which Paddy had inadvertently uttered. Seizing her son's ears, she shook his head long a vigorously. Paddy squirmed and struggling but could not twist himself free, for despite her age and some stiffness in the joints, Mama O's physical powers were still awesome.
            "Faith, Mamawicz, faith! Sure 'n begorra! Bladdaboushsky takawicz obstrepchevsky!" Paddy protested. In the heat of the moment he was relapsing into his native Polish, which had not crossed his lips for thirty years. Hearing this, Mama Osylyvnchwzsky redoubled her shaking, accompanying it with loud scoldings and imprecations which could be heard for miles around and set many neighbors' tongues to wagging. "Sure 'n what be this ungodly speech concernin'?" whispered one and all.
            Mama O, it turned out, had been combing the globe for Paddy since that bleak winter day thirty years ago, when he had slipped off without a word. Her travels had taken her from Bangkok to Buenos Aires, Shanghai to Seattle. Single-handedly she had carved her way through the malarious forests of Cameroon, scoured both banks of the Irriwaddy for her son's footprints, searched New York house to house. Quite a life she had led since Paddy's disappearance. But it was only last week that the collective telepathy of numberless leprechauns reached across the world to Java, where her search had taken her, and put her on the right track to her wayward son.
            Mama O wanted Paddy to return with her at once to Cracow, a prospect which horrified Paddy. It was from her iron rule he had fled in the first place. To go back now would spell the end of his carefree dissolute existence -- his colleens, his shindies, his topes of whisky, his tam o'shanters. But Paddy had never been able to argue down his mother, and years of hard living had made her even more formidable. Besides, the jig was up on Paddy's Irish identity. The few Irishmen who had doubted Mrs. Murphy's gossipmongering would surely have been convinced by Mariewschka Osylyvnchwzsky's incomprehensible shouts. So in the end Paddy bowed to the storm and returned to Poland, much to the glee of the leprechaun community, whose remaining hoards of gold were now safe.
            Today, Victor (as he now prefers to be called) lives with his mother in the family home in Cracow. His shillelagh whittler's pension has, of course, been stopped, but he still has enough of a fortune to live on its interest in comfortable retirement. Victor doesn't dwell much on his memories of Ireland, so he tells me. Instead, encouraged by his mother, he is working hard to reestablish himself as a pillar of Cracow society, in the hope of one year being chosen Cabbage Roll King during the St. Wojciech's Day festival in April.

March 15

This Saturday, Alexandra and I will be in Calgary to take part in Adventure Canada's Northbound II evening. We (mainly Alexandra) will be telling the story of one of our close encounters with polar bears during a kayak trip along the Labrador coast. Information below:

January 18, 2017

In high school, I played chess seriously for about a year and a half. You do weird things at that age. I played in clubs, though not in a lot of tournaments, and studied openings and end games. I seemed to be pretty good, competing with the better players in Montreal.

Eventually I fell out of love with the game. You had to give it so much to remain at a high level, yet in the end, it was only a game. There were so many other fish to fry.

A couple of years ago, by chance, I took up chess again. A local tournament took place in Banff, which I won. The organizer, from Calgary, was a nice guy. This was remarkable, since my memory of chess players from Montreal was less than complimentary. So many strange Asberger types, plus a smattering of old men. Who wanted to be part of that crowd?

Since that first Banff tournament, I've continued to play intermittently. Partly, I was motivated to see what my strength is. Recently, I've reached a Master rating. This surprises me: Masters are all serious players, and I don't consider myself serious, just curious.

I've always wanted to write about chess. Writers love weird people, and oddballity abounds in chess. Besides the obvious Bobby Fischer tales, there was Nimzovitch, who used to stand on his head in a corner between moves, and Paul Morphy, the nineteenth century U.S. chess prodigy, who suffered a psychotic breakdown and was obsessed with women's shoes. Of the current top ten players in the world, only one can drive a car.

The eccentricities of non-elite players might not be as storied but they are sometimes as wacky. Nevertheless, I've not managed to convince an editor to bite on an article. One of my beefs with journalism is that editors always ask, "Why should we do this now?" My answer is usually, "No reason, except that it's a good story." It's not the 50th anniversary of Fischer's birth, or death, the Prime Minister doesn't play chess, and it's no more newsworthy than usual. It's just a timeless, engaging tale. Alas, this isn't playing the journalism game properly. Clearly, I'm not a Master pitchman.

December 24

Some random outdoor factoids collected over the years. All came from natural history books. As tidbits, they're diverting, but I jotted them down mainly because the symbolic potential of some of them.

- The survival rate of tree seedlings in a forest is 1 in 500.

- A raindrop strikes at 20mph.

- Lightning strikes oak trees more than any other species in the forest.

- Tracking dogs can't distinguish between identical twins.

- The minimum echo distance is 55', as the ear can't separate sounds less than 1/10 second apart.

- Cows secrete 200 liters of saliva daily.

- A baby blue whale can grow 8 pounds in an hour and imbibe 130 gallons of milk a day. The tongue of a blue whale is as large as an elephant.

- Arctic flowers tend to be concave near the center like buttercups. This shape acts as a solar reflector and keeps the flower warmest where the pollen is.

- A diamondback rattlesnake is deaf.

November 19

JB MacKinnon's article about our Labrador manhauling expedition last year has just come out in Canadian Geographic Travel. Below, the opening layout.

 

October 22

Years ago, I led a photo tour to Botswana and we had the chance to photograph elephants at the same watering hole where Franz Lanting did some of his best work. Not only elephants, but ungulates, doves, and other animals drank from this small pool. You could have spent days or weeks here, as Lanting did. We shot for a couple of hours in the morning, then -- as you do in Africa --we returned to camp to wait out the heat and harsh light of a tropical day. In the late afternoon, I suggested that we return to the same spot, but the photographers on the tour felt that they'd already seen that highlight. Now they wanted to see something new.

Patience is one of the key differences between an amateur and a professional photographer. When faced with any subject, it is not enough to take one or two shots of it. You try everything. You work your way deeper into the subject. Sometimes, the first image idea is the best; other times, the first hour is merely a musician tuning his instrument. The good stuff comes later, when your eye has become more sophisticated and the obvious, cliche compositions have been tried and discarded.

Recently, I had a chance to visit Pangnirtung, the most photogenic community in the Canadian Arctic. (Grise Fiord and Pond Inlet rank two and three, in my opinion, but the walls of Pangnirtung Fiord create a more dramatic backdrop.) I was working as a resource person on a cruise ship, so I had only an hour and a half to myself. In that time, I scampered the hill behind town, looking for the best angle.

Despite its dramatic setting, Pangnirtung is not easy to shoot. From a photographer's point of view, the houses are in the wrong place. If they had been placed where the airstrip is, it would be possible to align the town view with the best part of the fiord walls. Some ugly white tanks in the center of town also have to be cropped out.

After an hour and a half, I had about a dozen angles on Pangnirtung. I'm not sure which is best. Sometimes a framing that looks great through the viewfinder comes out disappointing, while a fleeting composition you forget about until you see it on the monitor turns into a sleeper hit. My personal favorite is number 3; Alexandra prefers number 2. That doesn't mean that either is the one that art directors or the public will prefer.

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July 15

When I was in Chamonix, France last month to test Columbia Sportswear's 2017 gear, I took a few days afterward to visit a place I had not seen since university days. I discovered Lotschental, Switzerland by accident when backpacking around Europe for three months. The magic of what seemed like a Lost Horizon was so profound that I started studying German the following semester. Although I became fairly fluent with it, I had not used the language since then.

I was curious to see if years later, Lotschental would still have the magic. In other words, would I still have the magic to invest a place with poetry? Clearly, certain aspects had objectively changed. Lotschental now boasted a website, for one thing. I was able to book a flat in one of the villages through Airbnb. Finally, I was much better traveled now, although out of maybe 100 trips, 65 or 70 of them have been to the Arctic. So as a traveler, I still have a fresh perspective about most parts of the world.

The revisit was successful. The charm of the place began when I had to drive my rental car on a train, which ferried traffic through a dark mountain tunnel and disgorged us at the beginning of the valley. Half a dozen villages -- Ferden, Reid, Wiler, Blatten, Fafleralp, etc. -- bead the narrow valley bottom. They're so close together that you can walk from one to the other in five or ten minutes.

One of the distinguishing features of the valley was how narrow and V-shaped it was compared to the big U-shaped troughs like the Rockies valley I now live in. No level ground: Houses are built on steep slopes connected by narrow lanes. Many of the chalets are of distinctive dark-stained larch, with Christian homilies etched on their facades.

A traditional feature of the valley were the hideous masks of wood and horsehair that villagers hung outside their homes, supposedly to ward off avalanches. This has now become a shtick; perhaps it always was. Elaborate, artistic examples of what used to be fairly simple creations are now prominent in the more touristified locations, such as near the parking lot in Blatten: one of the few flat areas in the valley where (paid) parking is allowed.

Having a car, which I didn't on my first visit, I drove to Fafleralp, the last village in the valley, and hiked the World Heritage site beyond it to the glacier. Okay, Lotschental is a ski resort in winter. It has hotels and a tourist information office in Wiler. But it still feels remote, and in the end, remoteness is simply a feeling. Photos below.

June 5

Interview with Tim Cahill

When I was a young outdoor magazine editor, the highlight of my month was the arrival of Outside magazine; at the time, the standard we all aspired to. The first thing I always read was the monthly adventure column by Tim Cahill. These weren't just good, they were always good. Month after month for years, he turned them out. They were funny without poking you in the ribs with an elbow. They were moving but never schmaltzy. They were unforgettable.

He and science columnist David Quammen were the resident geniuses at Outside. Although we loved both, some of my fellow editors preferred Quammen; I was firmly in the Cahill camp. But the two of them taught me that journalism could also be literature, if it was good enough. This possibility had never occurred to me.

Years later, Alexandra and I met Tim and his late wife Linnea at the Banff Mountain Book Festival. Recently, I spoke to Tim again about language learning, which we both enjoy, and he generously agreed to be interviewed for this website.

Among other books, Tim Cahill is the author of Buried Dreams, Road Fever and several compilations of his outdoor writings, including Jaguars Ripped My Flesh, A Wolverine is Eating My Leg, Hold the Enlightenment and Pass the Butterworms. Here's the interview:

JK: You’re known as a travel or adventure writer, but I assume you’d prefer to be known as just a writer?
TC: That’s correct.

JK: Why? Is the term “travel writer” pejorative somehow? After all, a physicist doesn’t balk at calling himself a nuclear physicist. It just identifies his specialty better.
TC: I don’t consider it pejorative, just limited. Imagine you’re a chef and you like to think you can handle the whole culinary world, but people classify you as just a pastry chef.
Almost all of us guys in the old school didn’t set out to be travel writers. We fell into it because we were good at travel writing. Earlier in my career, I did politics, investigative journalism, mass murderers…but at one point I was assigned a travel story, and apparently crushed it, so they asked me what other kind of travel stories I wanted to do. It was the best job in the world: go where you want to go, do what you want to do, write about it and get paid.

JK: Your narrative stance was often self-deprecating. You presented yourself as this naïve sod in over his head. David Quammen, your fellow columnist at Outside, often did the same thing. Eric Newby took that approach years earlier in A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, but it was still pretty new when you adopted it. Where did it come from?
TC: At the time, we were probably reacting to the dominant strain of adventure writing, which was what I call gratuitous chest-beating. The subtext of such a story might read, “I climbed this mountain and you can’t. You’re a jerk.” For a long time, I was interested in the concept of risk, and sometimes I was genuinely in danger. I could have made a big deal of it, but I wanted to avoid gratuitous chest-beating at all costs and to open up outdoor adventure to anybody who had a desire to do it. So the subtext of one of my stories, at least in the reader’s mind, might be, “Gee, if this clown Cahill can do it, so can I.”
So yes, a lot of my first stories about the out-of-doors were a rookie in the wilderness. After about 10 years, though, I’d actually developed some skills.

JK: Are you still interested in risk?
TC: I’m no longer obsessed with it. At 72, I feel I’ve examined the subject enough.

JK: David Foster Wallace’s nonfiction also had this innocent observer style. He said he approached these articles as a giant eyeball floating around something, reporting what it sees. Eventually, he began to tire of nonfiction because he said his pieces were becoming formulaic. If you write a lot in a certain genre, can you avoid this?
TC: I think it’s possible to avoid becoming formulaic, though I confess to a certain amount of that. I know how to put together an adventure story without thinking about it. But one of the beauties of travel writing is that you don’t know what the story’s going to be until you get there. This happens, and this happens, and this happens, and what I do is try to figure out how they all fit together, and what it means.
One of my early assignments was supposed to be on vampire bat caves in Venezuela. I went there and found a few bat caves but it was boring as shit. We were pretty near Mount Roraima, featured in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World. In it, they climbed this tabletop mountain and found dinosaurs and stuff on top. So photographer Nick Nichols and I decided to climb Roraima and have a look. It was completely different than the story we were supposed to come back with, but everybody loved it. Give all credit to Outside, and to editors like Mark Bryant and John Rasmus, for allowing that approach.

JK: So you wouldn’t consider yourself a high-concept writer, who starts with an idea.
TC: No. I used to say that if you can make them laugh and make them cry in the same piece, then you’ve created emotional depth. That’s what I aim for. And that’s how people remember stories: they remember the emotion.

JK: You often shared some very personal things about yourself  – splitting up from a partner, for example -- that made readers think they knew you.
TC: Every so often, I teach a writing workshop, and I try to tell students that if you go somewhere, you have to erase from your mind whatever is happening at home. Maybe the world looks bleak because your grandma passed away, but then you’re no longer writing about a place, you’re writing about home. Although I counsel against this, I don’t always follow my own advice.

JK: One of your books, Buried Dreams, is subtitled, “Inside the Mind of a Serial Killer.” For those of us who know you as an adventure writer, that’s an odd member of your canon. Is there any connection between that project and one of your very early stories, about the Jonestown massacre?
TC: Jonestown was a must-do because I had covered a couple of cults for Rolling Stone, and this was the ultimate cult story. After Jonestown, I never wrote about cults again. Buried Dreams was my first book. I set out to write a bestseller, and it was. In those days, when you had a bestseller, publishers asked you, “What do you want to do next?” I suggested a collection of my stories from Outside, and they said, “Sure!” Without that bestseller, it would have been very difficult to go in and pitch a book made up of a bunch of articles where all the action takes place in tents.
Both Jonestown and the serial killer book also had to do with the concept of risk, which I was continuing to work on. Diving into the darkest parts of the human psyche was a psychological risk that I was willing to take for the story.
Buried Dreams took me three years of living in the sewer of that man’s mind. It was not psychologically healthy for me. After this, I turned full-face to outdoor adventure. It was clean, it kept me fit and it was uplifting.

JK: Most of your books since have been collections of previously published articles. Do you consider yourself the nonfiction equivalent of a short story writer, sort of an outdoor Alice Munro?
TC: I’m probably best at shorter pieces. Also, I worked very hard on those stories, and it didn’t give me time to tackle books.

JK: Had you always wanted to be a writer?
TC: I had wanted to be a writer since I was 13, but I never told anybody. I graduated from the University of Wisconsin and went to law school for a year. I did pretty well, and it occurred to me that I could be a lawyer, and if this kept up, I would be a lawyer. So I thought, let’s try the writing thing. I was so naïve that I moved to San Francisco rather than New York. I didn’t know where to go, except it had to be somewhere other than the little town in Wisconsin where I grew up.
I did write a novel – it was my thesis for a Master’s degree in creative writing – and I published a couple of undistinguished short stories. When I fell in with Rolling Stone, it was the beginning of the New Journalism – that is, using the techniques of fiction to tell a nonfiction story. I had no journalism experience whatsoever. All I knew was how to tell a story, how to build dialog and construct a scene. I became a New Journalist having no idea that I was breaking the rules in a way that irritated the professional journalists of the time.

JK: So you had to learn interviewing techniques and all the stuff they teach you in journalism school.
TC: I developed my own techniques for doing it. At Rolling Stone, when Ben Fong Torres interviewed Tina Turner, he wrote down his questions as if it was a radio interview. I just listen to what people say and try to get them to tell me a story I can tell. So they say something and I give them a little story from my life which relates to what they are saying. So when I was interviewing movie stars, I’d tell them, “I know you don’t want to talk about your divorce. It’s a terrible thing. I got divorced not too long ago. Here’s what the bitch did to me.” The natural response is to try to top your story.

JK: Do you have a favorite article among those you wrote?
TC: A friend of mine’s daughter had to go to Minneapolis from Montana for life-threatening surgery after a riding accident. (She competed in dressage.) My wife and I took in their dog and we were in touch with them the whole time. I eventually did an Outside column about my dog, their dog, the Fourth of July and the young girl’s surgery. I was late with the column, and as I was getting these frantic calls from the editor, the young girl’s mother phoned to say that the surgery had gone so well that doctors felt she could be up on a horse again in six months. That’s the way the story ends. It’s an emotional story. People laugh, people cry. It’s called Trusty and Grace. It’s the last piece in my book Hold the Enlightenment.

JK: Although the world is smaller and better known now, of course it’s still possible to write travel pieces. But can a traveler still write about such well known locations as Paris or New York? One of Roman Polanski’s early movies, Frantic, made Paris seem alien and discomboobulating. I’m not sure that’s possible any more.
TC: I don’t either. But I’ve seldom written about urban areas. More to the point for me is, what about remote areas? In the 1970s and 80s, it was very difficult to find out what life was like in West Papua, for instance. Now you can look up lots of information about it.

JK: What do you think of the criticism in some academic circles that travel writers are appropriating something that only locals should be able to give voice to.
TC: I know what you’re talking about. It’s literally the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. Give me someone who wants to make that argument and we’ll have a debate.

JK: Do you think that the Golden Age of travel writing is over, at least for magazines?
TC: Sure is.

JK: I wonder if it’s even possible to make a living as a travel writer any more. In the US, good magazines pay – or used to pay -- top writers $3/word. You can make a living at that. In Canada, the best magazines were paying $1/word in the 1960s and that’s still the ceiling here.
TC: Say I used to get X dollars for a story. Today, I get at most 1/3X and generally 1/10X.

JK: I know that online stuff is 1/10X, but print??
TC: It wasn’t the way I saw the end of my career going. I thought you work and work at your craft and get better and better, so instead of traveling like an hysterical monkey, as I did for many years to make ends meet, I’d only have to do three stories a year because they’d be paying me more as I got better and more well known. In fact, it’s worked precisely the opposite.
Recently I’ve done two semesters at two different colleges as a visiting writer and I’ve made some money from that. Every writer whose work we studied was someone I know personally, so if a student said, “I don’t think the writer meant that,” I could say, “Maybe not. Let’s call him up and ask.”

JK: Like that classic scene with Marshall McLuhan from the movie Annie Hall.
TC: Exactly.

JK: Several people claim that The Road to Oxiana is the best travel book ever written, but I much prefer Arabian Sands and Wind, Sand and Stars. Do you have a favorite travel book?
TC: Not really, it depends on the mood I’m in. I like Lawrence Millman’s Last Places. But the book that really changed my life was Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire.

JK: It’s a wonderful book, although I’m not sure whether you can classify it as travel or adventure.
TC: There’s a story in Desert Solitaire called The Dead Man at Grandview Point. When I read it back in college, I thought, “Holy shit! You can do that in nonfiction?”

JK: Recently you’ve developed a passion for studying Spanish. Why Spanish?
TC: Many of my stories took place in Latin America. Apart from two years of Latin in school, my background in language is nil. In high school, they had a Spanish club. I thought they were nerds. I was a typical Midwestern kid: I played football and figured that anyone who didn’t was a nerd. It never dawned on me that I would spend a lot of time traveling, and that other languages would be useful.
After at least 20 trips to Latin America, I’d picked up a bit of Spanish and was able to communicate, though not very well. I wanted to learn Spanish, but I was traveling hysterically then and my next trip might be to Africa, where my time was better spent brushing up on Swahili. Now I’m not traveling much any more. About six months ago, I was planning to go to Mexico and took up Spanish again. When I got home, I just never stopped.

JK: So it’s not that you found a Spanish-speaking girlfriend.
TC: No.

JK: What goals have you set for yourself in Spanish? For example, would you like to write anything in that language, like Beckett did in French or Conrad in English?
TC: I had that fantasy a while ago, but no, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to do that in a way that would satisfy me. I could probably write a straightforward article about the Five Best Beaches in Chile, but not a nuanced story. My goal is to be able to converse with native speakers and understand at least 80 percent of what they say.

JK: What are your favorite language tools and books?
TC: The most valuable tool that I have is the pimsleur system. They ask you questions in Spanish, one after the other, and you have to respond very quickly. Then they give you the answer and you say, “Oh, that’s where I mispronounced,” so you say it again. I’ve been told my accent is pretty damn good. It’s not street Spanish, but sort of educated college Spanish. I know the dirty words but I don’t use them, unless the person is a friend.

JK: You also recommended to me Gabriel Wyner’s book, Fluent Forever.
TC: He’s much more of a computer nerd than I am, but I have used Anki, the flash card system he writes about. But I’m still working on various aspects of grammar. I don’t know what the present participle is, for example, but it turns out that it’s handy to know these terms when you’re learning a language.
I also use duolingo, which is okay, but I prefer Memrise. Memrise is a flash card system with an algorithm, so if you screw up on a word, it remembers, and feeds it back to you at regular intervals. It also covers grammar more than duolingo. There’s a decent Netflix comedy drama in Spanish called Club de Cuervos that I watch. Oh, and I joined the Spanish club here.

April 7

Earlier I've written about the importance of trail notebooks to enrich travel stories. Another type of notebook that I draw on is a quotebook, in which I jot down interesting lines and phrases from the books I read. Some of these quotes I work into my own stuff. In Arctic Eden, it seemed suitable to open a chapter on glaciers with a line from Mark Twain: "A man who keeps company with glaciers finds himself tolerably insignificant by and by."

Many quotes, however, are not there to be reused. They're just intriguing thoughts, worth remembering and reflecting on:

John Ruskin: "As I go to my work at the British Museum, I see the faces of the people become daily more corrupt."

Castiglione: "When our enemy is in the water up to the belt, we must offer him our hand and lift him out of peril; but when he is in it up to the chin, we must set our foot on his head and drown him outright."

George Orwell: "Saints should always be judged guilty until they are proven innocent."

Hemingway: "People may possibly be divided into two general groups: those who...identify themselves with animals, and those who identify themselves with human beings."

Then there are the quotes that are really just delightful snatches of verbal color or quaint ways of saying things: "an elasmobranch fish" [Nabokov]; "fillets of striped stuffs and five bladders of ambergris" [1001 Nights]; "She was from Iowa, by way of Oregon" [Joe McGinnis]; "Helotage, cuissage, prelibation and pucelage were not unknown" [Richard Francis Burton].

Some writers are adept at including one-liners or phrases from other thinkers in their prose. The Outsider, a mid-20th century book by the prolific but somewhat forgotten English intellectual Colin Wilson, is a grand example: Even in his early 20s, Wilson was able to incorporate others' thoughts without making it seem like he was name-dropping or dragging the lines in by the hair.

Others are themselves exquisitely quotable. In pop culture, Yogi Berra, Mae West and Winston Churchill were so celebrated for their one-liners that they are given credit for many aphorisms they never actually uttered. In literature, the Bible, Goethe and Shakespeare have supplied thousands of heading quotes.

It's easier to type these lines on a laptop than to write them in pen in a notebook, but the notebook gives portable access to them and adds a cultural aspect to solitary walks. In recent years, I simply transfer quotes from the laptop onto my phone, but I have many handwritten notebooks from the pre-smartphone era that I consult intermittently, to reacquaint myself with lines worth remembering.

January 8, 2016

Stumbled recently on a 3,000-word academic review of my book, Arctic Eden, in something called the Journal of Ecosophy, which seems to be a publication about the deep ecology movement. Reading a review of one's book is like looking at a grad student's sketch of what you purportedly look like. Is my nose really that big? Often reviews, including this one, try to establish their authority by pointing out one or two small inaccuracies, then spend most of their time complaining that a dog is not a cat.

Some writers don't read their reviews. I don't mind them, although I don't indulge in the masochistic game of checking out online reader reviews. Some negative or partly negative reviews are actually quite interesting. A southern Florida newspaper reviewed The Horizontal Everest when it came out. The author acknowledged certain positives but concluded that the book made the High Arctic sound hellish. Of course, that wasn't my intention, but it's debatable that anyone could have made a typical Floridian look upon the Arctic with anything but horror. The reviewer was just speaking for her audience, which is fair enough. At best, you can debate why the newspaper chose to review my book rather than a travel yarn in which someone buys a vinyard in Italy or restores a castle in the south of France.

When Lady Chatterley's Lover first came out in the United States in 1959, the hook-and-bullet magazine Field & Stream published a wonderfully tongue-in-cheek review of it. It's my favorite dog-is-not-a-cat book review:

"Although written many years ago, Lady Chatterley's Lover has just been reissued by the Grove Press, and this fictional account of the day-to-day life of an English gamekeeper is still of considerable interest to outdoor minded readers, as it contains many passages on pheasant raising, the apprehending of poachers, ways to control vermin, and other chores and duties of the professional gamekeeper.

Unfortunately, one is obliged to wade through many pages of extraneous material in order to discover and savor these sidelights on the management of a Midlands shooting estate, and in this reviewer's opinion this book cannot take the place of J. R. Miller's Practical Gamekeeping."

November 13

In the magazine biz, the slush pile refers to those stories that haven't been commissioned, that writers, usually amateurs, have sent to the editors in the hope that they will get published. It's very rare that they do, because the stories are almost never good. When I was editing an outdoor magazine, we received many hiking articles. Hiking is a deceptively hard subject, because it's rare that anything interesting happens on a trip. Tim Cahill, whose Outside magazine columns were some of the best outdoor writing I've ever read, once said that when travel writers have nothing to say about a place, they get spiritual. That was the case with many of the slush pile entries I screened.

One hapless fellow often submitted. He was an outdoor educator and traveled a lot. One day, I received an unsolicited article from him that seemed vaguely familiar. I went through the slush folder and found two other hiking articles that he had previously sent in. One of them began, "Look! A caribou!" The second: "Look there! A whale!" The most recent: "Look! A moose." He had begun each piece with the same bad lead, mistakenly thinking that this was the ideal entree into the story. But as the head editor pointed out, "Quote leads went out with hoop skirts."

May 30

When I started writing magazine articles, occasionally I'd bog down in the middle of the piece and not know how to proceed. My notes didn't point the way out of these dead ends and I'd find myself blue skying it -- writing off the top of my head. This doesn't work with nonfiction, and the problem eventually became clear: I hadn't done enough research to support the article through its twists and turns.

I haven't had that problem in years, because I know now to gather enough material. Sometimes, of course, you bog down and have to work your way out of it, but with enough research to draw on, there is always an exit.

May 21

On June 2, I'm giving a talk on Risk and Adventure, and then taking part in a panel discussion about it at The North Face store in Banff, Alberta. Details here.

March 29

Check out this profile of Jerry in the online adventure magazine, Limitless Pursuits.

March 28, 2015

On every expedition, I spend about an hour a day making notes, usually in the lull between soup and supper, when I'm melting water for the Thermos. The stove warms up the tent enough that I can usually write with bare hands or liner gloves. In the cold, where ink freezes, I use a mechanical pencil, insulated with moleskin.

I start with the basics: how many hours we went, how far we made, weather, travel conditions, any wildlife sightings. What was the terrain like? Did it change from the day before? How do my partner and I feel? Any good jokes between us? Any phrases or metaphors that popped into my head during the day that describe some aspect of the journey well? Those are particularly useful; I include them in my blueprint when I'm mapping out some future story or chapter. For example, the Quadruped Principle: four-legged animals haul more strongly than two-legged ones, and one of the technical aspects of manhauling (which few beginners grasp) is that ski poles function not for balance or as feelers but as third and fourth legs. The longer the journey, the more you use your arms. (At first, they're just not strong enough.) By the end of an expedition, your triceps should be as well-developed as your thighs.

On this latest expedition, my partner James MacKinnon is also a writer. (Here's a link to a recent piece of his in The New Yorker.) We had the usual writerly conversations about how hard it is to make a living, and had a good laugh about the cattiness of writers gatherings. About his bestselling The 100-Mile Diet, one author asked him, "So, did you set out to write a middlebrow book?" James also diligently recorded his impressions, and every evening, the conversation died for an hour as we scribbled.

For me, my notebooks form the basis of articles and books. They refresh my memory, add detail and enrich the language. In a disaster, if I could only save one thing from our house, it would be them.

November 23

The definition of "writer" is muddy and idiosyncratic. Is someone who writes software manuals for a living a writer? By definition, yes. But to those of us for whom writing continues to have romance and mystique, the club of writers is much smaller.

Journalists can be good writers, but most are not. Often their main skill is research, which they then write up in an organized way. Covering outdoor sporting events, I've bumped into this group. They're good at networking sources, but their resulting stories suck.

Others are intelligent people using words in the service of well-researched ideas. A book concept, a magazine story angle. The concept is fine, the angle imaginative; but their rendition in words is rather...flat.

So what constitutes a writer from this elitist point of view? I'd have to say: richness of language. By this, I don't mean using a twenty-five dollar word when a two-dollar one will do. It is combining words alchemically into something more than a sentence. In all good writing, meaning is highly compressed. Just add thought, and the flower unfolds.

There are many good writers whose language does not sizzle but whose quiet prose runs deep. But some of us readers prefer the sizzlers, whose odd juxtapositions and vocabulary can make even prosaic objects unforgettable. Consider some examples from Blaise Cendrars, a French writer and traveler from the early twentieth century: "the elongated hull of a steamer of average tonnage"; "Neither counterbraces nor T-irons reinforce these daring constructions"; "A bird of supreme elegance with wings at variable angles streamlined like a glider"; "A sou's worth of chips in a paper cone or a saucerful of winkles"; "retorts in which the weirdest broth was macerating".

You get the picture. Through his simple but slightly askew choice of words, he's turned descriptions of matter-of-fact items into poetry. I first read these phrases thirty years ago, but have never forgotten them, the language is so vivid. Sometimes, while sledding across an arctic snowscape, I find myself repeating like a mantra, "the elongated hull of a steamer of average tonnage."

October 29

Current events don't usually intrude on this website but one recent Canadian story has a relevant aside. This week, CBC radio star Jian Ghomeshi was fired, presumably because he enjoyed kinky sex and some of his ex-partners were claiming that the bedroom abuse wasn't consensual. Shortly after the firing, Ghomeshi posted a long Facebook mea culpa, reproduced here, to get ahead of the expose that would appear in a major newspaper a few hours later.

The raunchy subject matter gave this small Canadian scandal international play. Setting aside the core question -- consensual or no? -- some legal observers pointed out that you can't consent to assault, any more than you can waive your right not to be murdered. Incidentally, you also can't waive your right to search and rescue -- something I investigated years ago. A populist criticism of expeditions is that when they get into trouble, they put rescuers' lives at risk. So perhaps the responsible approach is to decline the search and rescue service during certain extreme endeavours. However, you can't. Apart from doing your adventure secretly, you don't have the choice to decline.

What intrigued me about the Ghomeshi story was a single sentence in his Facebook posting: "I've been fired from the CBC because of...false allegations pursued by a jilted ex girlfriend and a freelance writer."

Before the scandal broke, Ghomeshi hired a crisis management firm to help spin his side of the story. The word "freelance" here smells of spin. Virtually every writer is a freelance writer, but to the public, "freelance" often suggests "would-be". Over the years, I've had this conversation often:

"What do you do?"

"I'm a writer."

"Who do you work for?"

"A variety of publications."

"So you're freelance?"

"Yes."

"You don't really have a job."

Sometimes this last line is actually spoken, sometimes it's understood from the expression on the interlocutor's face. So in the Ghomeshi sentence above, "freelance", like "jilted", is there to diminish credibility.

September 4

I've taken the summer off from this blog while I work on other things -- sorry to regular readers -- but now it's back to normal. Yesterday a writer friend sent me the following link about travel writing as it pertains to the controversial issue of the freebie, also called the familiarization tour or press junket. I've been on quite a few of these, although more frequently I try to convince government tourism departments to support my own trips to their region on the premise that I'll be writing about them. It usually works with magazine stories, as long as you can show an assignment letter from the editor, but these departments typically do not support book projects.

The sort of press junket that Frank Bures, the author of this piece, refers to is a different beast. Here, writers from various publications are herded together on a brief tasting menu of a place. The writers on these fam tours are a mixed bag. You might get a staffer from a major daily newspaper who is doing a bit for the paper's travel section. These sections are usually dogs -- terribly written booster pieces -- and the reporter probably works for another department and got this perk because he/she is friends with the editor of the travel section, who fields these invitations all the time.

Many of the junket writers come from small or regional publications. When I was starting in the magazine biz, many of them were retired ladies writing for god-awful sources in exchange for free trips. Their actual payment for the article was zero or minimal, they were just doing it for the vacation. These retirees weren't actually writers, they were a weird half-breed called travel writers whose copy was equally god-awful and so up to the standards of the publications they had managed to connect with. Frank Bures suggests that this is often still the case, which surprised me. He calls this sort of work not travel writing but tourism writing, because the writer is in an unspoken collaboration with the tourism officials to boost a place.

Wealthier magazines, such as Islands or Conde Nast Traveler, pay their writers' expenses themselves to ensure editorial neutrality. For the same reason, many daily newspapers used to accept proposals from freelancers only if the trips being pitched were not tainted by tourism support. Over the years, these standards have been relaxed. Canada's The Globe and Mail now accepts stories where tourism marketing departments have funded a writer's trip. One thing that hasn't changed is the payment for these travel stories: A writer might get $200 for a 1,500-word piece.

Smaller publications, both good ones and not-so-good ones, cannot afford to cover a writer's airfare and hotel, so they have always relied on support from local tourism.

Do any of these writers bite the hand that feeds them? ie, do they trash or poke fun at a place in print if they don't like it? Not often, although I've done so on rare occasions. Usually though, because I don't work the junket circuit, I only approach a tourism department if I actively want to go somewhere; in other words, when the story will likely be positive.

A couple of years ago, in Canadian Geographic magazine, I reviewed a book of essays from various writers. The book had come from a fam tour to Labrador's Torngat Mountains. The writers were good, but their book was not; fam tours are by their very nature superficial, and this book had pretensions of non-superficiality. Review below:

May 1

A piece I wrote last year for Explore magazine about a cruise along the south coast of Newfoundland has been nominated for a National Magazine Award.

March 10

A recent interview with ExplorersWeb about the cost of High Arctic travel.

March 3

More to do with photography than writing, but since Ukraine is so prominently in the news, here are some images from a month-long exploratory trip there a few years ago, including shots of the Crimea.

The Swallow's Nest, Yalta, Crimea: the world's most beautiful third-rate Italian restaurant.

Yalta, on the Black Sea, was a popular summer resort during Soviet times and still draws thousands every August.

Church, Crimea.

Sevastopol, home of Russia's Black Sea fleet. When I was growing up, Canadian geography textbooks called it Sebastopol, a common mistransliteration, since the Cyrillic "v" looks like an English "b". This same mistransliteration happened somewhere in the hoary past with my own name, which should actually be Kovalenko, but which has been Kobalenko for three generations. Likely, some Canadian customs official goofed filling out a form when my father's ancestors first immigrated here.

Lviv, in western Ukraine. It was hard to find an overview of this dead-flat city. Luckily, I got permission to climb a radio tower for this outlook. "Be careful," the official warned me, "because the radiation near the top of the tower can screw up your body's electrical signals." Life is hard and frustrating and more uncertain than ever in Ukraine, but no one cares about liability, and this is one of the freedoms they have and we don't. You'd need two months and a two million dollar insurance policy to get permission to do anything like this in North America.

Ivano-Frankovsk. Another informal overview, this time from a roof.

Ukrainian funeral.

A village in the Carpathian Mountains, in western Ukraine.

Monument to the founders of Kiev.

Steppe, eastern Ukraine.

February 12

The story of my 2012 expedition across Labrador with Noah Nochasak, which has already appeared in Explore and Reader's Digest, is now online at Perceptive Travel, the literary travel webzine.

There's also a profile of my arctic travels in the current issue of Expressions, a magazine for Acura owners. Don't ask how I ended up there: we drive a 12-year old CRV.

Categories of modern polar book:

1. Expedition book. A post-trip pr vehicle. With exceptions, little attempt at quality. Tends to be full of misspellings and incorrect history. Sponsors names dropped with a thud at every opportunity. Attempts to give the journey a prominent place in the adventure pantheon of the region. Usually a forgettable product, even in the case of genuinely impressive expeditions.

2. Labor of love. A talented person who is neither a professional writer nor an adventurer does a journey of love and writes a surprisingly moving book about it. It may be their first and only book, and/or their first and only expedition. Supports the truism that everyone has one good book in them.

3. Geezer's memoir. A vain old scientist or police officer recalls the six months or one year they were stationed in the Arctic 40 years ago. They are under the impression that they are making a modest historical contribution; most are not. Generally readable by speed-skimming in 10 minutes.

4. Guidebook. Can be exceptional or pretty useless, depending on who does it. The best guidebooks include little stories gathered about the region rather than mere inventories of plants, animals, rocks, etc. Trouble is that most guidebooks tend not to pay the writers very well, so there's little incentive to do more than a serviceable job. There are exceptions: a hoary classic like The Canadian Rockies Trail Guide has sold hundreds of thousands of copies.

5. Journalist's job. A journalist heads up north, hangs around the villages, chats up the scientists, and writes about a contemporary issue like climate change or arctic sovereignty. Tends to be dull and predictable: Polar bears in trouble, Inuit are victims. If you read to pick up a few facts, without expecting any original insights, you won't be disappointed.

6. Rare gems. A scientist who knows how to write, or a writer who knows how to research, gets a bug about the North and produces a one-off work of total originality. Differs from #2 on this list in that the author is a professional, and the book is not necessarily about a single journey; otherwise, similar.

7. Historical rehashes. Very popular, ever since the revival of interest in Shackleton as a model of corporate leadership. A mildly new take on some old explorer, with lots of background filler. The more dramatic the saga, the less impressive these new versions tend to be, because those classic tales have already been well-mined, and pending the discovery of new information, most of what can be said, has been said.

 

 

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