Talking with . . .

Joe Cummings

An interview by John Coyne (Ethiopia 1962–64)

    I FIRST READ ABOUT JOE Cummings in the March 1993 issue of Outside magazine. It was a feature on him entitled “Farang Correspondent,” part of which also appeared later in Travelers’ Tales Thailand, the first book in the Travelers Tales series, as well as in Michael McRae’s book Continental Drifter. Joe got in touch with me when he read the Talking With interview with Tom Brosnahan (Turkey 1967–70), another RPCV travel writer for Lonely Planet.
         Joe has been an extremely productive writer, especially on South East Asia, and later, Mexico. He is winner of major travel writing awards, including the Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Gold Award 1995 (for Lonely Planet Thailand); the Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Gold Award 1993 (for Travelers Tales Thailand); and a Thomas Cook Guidebook of the Year finalist in1991 (for Lonely Planet Vietnam, Laos & Cambodia) and 1984 (Lonely Planet Thailand). We caught up with him, via e-mail, several months ago.

    Where were you a Peace Corps Volunteers and what was your job?

      I served as a PCV from early 1977 to late 1978. My assignment was teaching English at King Mongkut’s Institute of Technology in Bang Mot, a couple of hours southwest of Bangkok.

    How did you get started writing — really publishing — your material?

      My first professional break came when I started writing the “Asia in Print” column for the monthly Asia Record in 1979. I wrote for them through 1982 while I was a student at UC/Berkeley. At UC I wrote a paper on tourism in South East Asia, as seen through the eyes of communist insurgencies in Thailand and Malaysia. During that period I read every book published in English on SE Asia, including travel literature and guidebooks. My first travel feature, on Ko Samui, was published in 1982 in the San Francisco Examiner, and my first guidebook (Lonely Planet Thailand) was published that same year. It was an exciting moment for me because this was the first Thailand guide written in English and devoted entirely to Thailand since the 1928 Guide to Bangkok with Notes on Siam by Erik Seidenfaden. There were a couple of French and German guides available in translation, but they were very much geared towards hiring your own car and driver and staying in first-class hotels all along the way — culturally insulated travel.
           I just complete the 9th edition of the Lonely Planet Thailand guide, which has remained in print for 19 years now.

    What’s important about a travel guide book? Really accurate information? Obscure facts? Or a good prose style in the narrative?

      A good guidebook strikes a balance between all these elements. A competent writer ingests mountains and mountains of information about a place, then evaluates and filters it on behalf of the reader for usefulness and accuracy, and finally organizes it into comprehensible text. It’s sort of a cross between writing a how-to manual (“here’s how Thailand works”) and a restaurant/hotel review-and-rate guide (“for the best green curry, go to Thanom’s”).

    Did you travel much while a PCV?

      I traveled every chance I got. When I first had to write a sample guidebook entry for Lonely Planet, I wrote about one of my favorite PCV getaways, a little-known island near Bangkok called Ko Si Chang.
           I don’t know what policy might be these days, but when I was a PCV you weren’t allowed to leave the country except for emergency reasons. Then once you finished your service you had to leave the country within 72 hours. I stayed in Thailand a month or so afterwards, so Peace Corps staff came by my house one day and took away my no-fee passport. Luckily I had another passport with me — albeit without a Thai visa in it — so I was able to continue on to India and Nepal, then back to Thailand. I didn’t return to the US until three months after completion of service.

    What’s the worse mistake that you made as a travel writer?

      Once I got a letter from a reader praising some sumptuous mural paintings inside a temple in northeastern Thailand, one that I’d never been to. I took his word for it and recommended the temple in the next edition of my guide. Later when I finally visited the temple myself, the murals were terrible, like bad cartoons! I learned a valuable lesson from that experience, and I always check readers’ recommendations personally before writing them up.

    Do you read many travel writers? If so, who?

      My favorite travel writers are the novelists: Jean-Louis Ferdinand Celine; Joseph Conrad; Graham Greene; Paul Bowles; Alvaro Mutis. Of contemporary travel essayists my favorites are Bill Bryson, P.J. O’Rourke and Rolf Potts.

    How do you gather material? Do you do all your research and then once you’re home, you write? Or do you keep a journal as you go?

      When I’m on the road, I do research, period. I know some travel writers do the writing on the road — to keep it fresh, I suppose. Me, I like to be out there getting more info for my readers rather than sitting in my hotel room writing. That’s for writers who are prose-heavy, data-light, i.e., most contemporary travel writers!
           However I can't say I necessarily write at “home” because home is usually a temporary spot where I rent a house or apartment for a month or three, and that’s where I write the material up. I do have a home, or rather two homes (one in Thailand, one in Mexico), where I do a fair amount of writing, but at least half of my work is done at temporary digs between homes.

    What would you suggest to someone who wants to be a travel writer?

      Read a lot, write a lot. Take courses in travel writing — they can really help. The most successful travel writers are those who are driven to do it and who don’t give the money much thought. Which is just as well, since there really isn’t much money in it for 99% of most writers! Rolf Potts has some excellent tips for would-be travel writers on his website, Rolf is one of the best new talents out there, and may become the next Paul Theroux.