How did you get into travel writing? I’ve never actually called myself a travel writer. I picture travel writers as blustery, pushy types with endless, well-worn anecdotes, houses full of exotic artifacts and wardrobes full of khaki. Travel writers, in my bitter and twisted mind, are pompous gits. They are the people I would least like to hear describe their most recent sojourn in deepest, darkest Tuscany. Which is probably why I find a lot of travel writing really, really boring. But maybe I’m just jealous.
What did you do for Lonely Planet? I started off as an editor in the late ’90s, working on guidebooks to South-East Asia. After about two years, I was editing guidebooks I had edited before and desperate for a change. I got it in the form of an author job – updating the Philippines guidebook. I think I got the job because I was one of the few people in the office who had actually been to the Philippines.
How did that go? The company broke it to me gently that this was no ordinary guidebook update. They wanted me to replace an author who’d been writing the guide for years. And he wasn’t keen about being replaced. My job was to write the bulk of the new guidebook from scratch – or risk being sued by one mightily-disgruntled author. In the process, I began to realise why there are so many disgruntled authors – and readers, for that matter.
Why’s that? I was continually struck by this feeling that guidebooks are never really what they appear to be. They have a strange kind of bogus authority. More often than not, the people who write them spend less time travelling than the people who read them. It’s kind of absurd. And it got me to thinking there had to be a book in it. And not a guidebook. I wanted to write a comic novel about the silliness of guidebook writing.
Did you enjoy working for LP? I enjoyed being let loose to travel for a living. I didn’t enjoy the guilt of trying, and inevitably failing, to cover an entire nation in two months.
Are guidebooks good for travellers? I think some travellers should never leave home without one. Guidebooks are like security blankets. They’re full of holes and often laughable, but for a lot of people they provide a lot of comfort. And if it wasn’t for crappy guidebooks, what else would travellers have to bitch about?
How come you left LP? I think Lonely Planet got wise to me. They stopped offering me work. Which was handy. Otherwise, I might never have got around to writing my novel.
What inspired Paradise Updated? Apart from revenge, you mean? (That’s a joke, Lonely Planet. Please don’t sue me. Sue my publishers – they’ve got money.) I wanted to write a proper, and hopefully amusing, reply to all those people I met on the road who wanted to know what it was like to be a guidebook writer. Summing up: It’s hell! But it’s a funny kind of hell.
How close to reality is your novel? So close you can smell it. It’s a mixture of sun cream, stale beer and wet socks.
Are any of the characters real people? Most of them are combinations. Coming up with characters is a lot like mixing cocktails. There’s definitely a shot or two of me in the two main characters – Mithra, the naÃ¯ve young author and Rind, the cranky old duffer. I’ll never forget the creeping terror of being a first-time guidebook author… or the fear, years later, that I was on the brink of becoming a cynical old travel bore.
Where do you love most in Oz? I love the Otways, the Blue Mountains and the Flinders Ranges. But drop me pretty much anywhere – with the possible exception of Canberra – and I’m happy.
Mic’s book, Paradise Updated, is out now through Affirm Press. Follow him on http://www.twitter.com/miclooby