Peace Corps Writers
Talking with Tom Bissell (page 6)
 Talking with Tom Bissell
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Tell us a little more about the short story collection.
The collection is called Death Defier and Other Stories from Central Asia,
and it will be published by Pantheon next September. The title story grew out of my experiences covering the war in Afghanistan. I’m really proud of it, as I consider myself a fiction writer first and foremost.
Where do you live?
I live in New York City, about a block south of Ground Zero, of which I have a nice — if that’s the word — view. I moved here post-9/11. An interesting place to write from, that much I can tell you.
  Escanaba, Upper Peninsula; East Lansing, Michigan; Tashkent, Uzbekisstan; and now Ground Zero, New York! What does that tell us about the journey of Tom Bissell?
Perhaps that I’m attracted to places of loneliness and upheaval. And that one’s journey will never be anything like what one imagines.
And finally, what qualities are most important for those in adventure/travel writing? What suggestions do you have for those who want to do what you are doing?
In Patagonia

I think a good travel writer is, above all else, someone who is open. Open to new people, new cultures, new experiences, and yet who retains a sense of his or her own cultural limitations when confronted with a new one. I have a hard time believing those writers who claim to be able to (or even want to) “go native.” Going native is impossible, except in the most extreme Robinson Cruesoish cases. (It’s also a pretty offensive phrase, come to think of it.)
     I also strongly dislike travel writers who disparage “tourists.” We’re all tourists somewhere, after all, and there are many different ways to travel. Some of them might not be my way, but what right do I have to dismiss the contours of another’s journey?
     But the most important part, for me anyway, is coming away from the journey with something human. Otherwise, why bother? Travel books should not be psychodramas. Rather, they should tell readers, “This is an amazing story about a place you might not have thought you were interested in, but I’m going to make you interested in it.” And they will be, if you tell the story well.
     And never sell short the fact that we all are limited by our cultures. In the gaps of these limitations is the best chance to capture something strange and real. The greatest travel books are usually idiosyncratic and rather odd, aren’t they? In Patagonia is one of the strangest travel books I’ve ever read--and it’s great for that reason. Oddness, joy, surprise, openness — those are the qualities that, for me, make travel writing an almost holy endeavor. The world is made smaller and more understandable, one reader at a time.
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