Your book, Do Travel Writers Go to Hell?, has caused a worldwide media storm, due to allegations you plagiarised and accepted freebies while working for Lonely Planet (LP). Were you surprised? I didn’t expect anything on that level. I knew that LP would have some objections, but I think that a big part of what happened is that nobody had actually read my book when all this went down. The book is really about my own experiences. It’s a humorous memoir. It does talk about my experiences as a LP writer and about some of the realities as I experienced them. A lot of things were taken out of context. Next thing you know you have admissions of plagiarism and stuff that’s not grounded in reality.
But you cut corners on the research due to a lack of time and money? Yes, the book plays through some of the mistakes I make along the way. It’s looking at the trials and tribulations, I do believe that the way the guidebook industry is working right now and how competitive it is that the fee is very low relative to the expectation. My point is not that guidebooks are without value but that a lot of the information that makes it in is somewhat arbitrary. A guidebook is not the only way to appreciate a destination. Maybe the hotel next door is worth checking out too. Maybe the writer didn’t get a chance to set foot in the place next door. You don’t need to go from guidebook-recommended hostel to guidebook-recommended hostel. I think people can be a little more adventurous.
So you think travellers should avoid treating their guidebooks like bibles? The people writing the books are very good and generally experienced travellers, but it’s still a subjective work. Travellers should put the guidebook down sometimes and see what they can find on their own. Up until recently you’d crack open the LP and it would say, “down the beach a couple of blocks there’s an area of good Indian restaurants”, or something along those lines. It was able to be more loose. Now it’s got to be: “Restaurant A, opening hours, telephone, website, air-con.” The competition in the industry is such that everyone has to outdo each other, being more and more comprehensive, meanwhile the fees for the writers has fallen. Something is amiss in that equation.
Is life as a travel writer as exciting as many people think? That’s one of the struggles I experience. When I’m trying to really travel and have fun I get further away from being a successful travel writer. You’re in this peculiar limbo between work and pleasure, right? If you’re running around as a mad data collector, are you really getting an appreciation for the place beyond the opening hours of a restaurant? It’s a very difficult balance to strike. It’s fundamentally a job, it’s a job in pleasure in certain ways, which can be strange to explore. I got it right sometimes and sometimes I clearly didn’t get it right.
You wrote that a restaurant had “good table service” after you shagged a waitress on a table there. True story? Everything in the book did happen. It wasn’t in exchange for a positive review. It was one of those crazy unexpected experiences that you have while travelling and I just related it to myself in the book as a private joke.
What about accusations of plagiarism? LP is holding this sort of unrealistic image that everybody is sampling the soup and tasting the pizza at every single restaurant. The practical reality is that sometimes you’re gathering info second-hand from contacts on the ground, you get a phone number off the internet here or there, you get an address out of a brochure, a lot of it becomes a research job. Is that plagiarism? No. Is it different from the image the company is putting forth? Yes. I think that in terms of freebies and second-hand research, there’s been a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.
But they loved your work at the time? I had nothing but the highest marks on everything I did. One thing to keep straight here, I wasn’t somebody who was just skirting by in there. I was told when I left: “We’re going to be sorry to lose you, you’re one of our star authors.” One of the frustrations I had as a guidebook writer was I felt I was in a situation where I was more or less set up to be a hack. I still worked my ass off and put in the best I could. This first book about my experiences in Brazil, I made more mistakes than I did on later guidebooks, but I still turned in material which was competitive with the best other guidebooks out there. I’ll stand behind that.
Would you write for LP again? If they rang? Ha ha, that’s clearly not going to happen. Again I have nothing against LP. I think that as guidebooks go LP is one of the best out there, if not the best. When I’m about to go on a trip I almost always pick the LP, but I don’t know that there’s any guidebook writing in my future.
Do Travel Writers Go to Hell?, published by Pier 9, costs $29.95.