Talking with . . .

Karen Muller
interview by John Coyne (Ethiopia 1962–64)

FOR SEVERAL YEARS I have been trying to find Karin Muller. I had heard about her first book Hitchkiking Vietnam; I knew her editor at National Geographic, and even had an email address, but still I couldn’t find Karin. The problem, of course, is that Karin is always on the go and seldom in the United States.
     Filmmaker, author, and photographer, Karin Muller has moved far beyond most RPCVs when it comes to living the adventurous life. She spent seven months along the Inca Road (Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, and Chile), and not only wrote about it, she filmed Lost Road of the Inca, a National Geographic adventure-travel documentary series.
     Before that, she hitchhiked around Vietnam, another seven-month journey, and produced a 400-page book, as well as a PBS documentary.
     And most recently, Karin has written and produced Japanland, a four-hour documentary series, and a companion book, published by Rodale Press in October 2005.
     Karin carries Swiss-American dual citizenship, is fluent in German, Spanish, Tagalog, Illongo, and Japanese. She is also a licensed hang glider, paraglider, and ultralight pilot. Karin scuba dives, sails, and is an instructor in judo (blackbelt) and jujitsu martial arts. And for a year, she carried a briefcase, wore heels, and had what our parents would call “a real job.” Then she started to travel and write about it as well as make films.
     Luckily for us, she found our Peace Corps site and she found me, and before she could disappear for another seven months of travel, I suggested an interview. Karin was all for the interview, but first she had to go on a book tour. So, what you are reading is the result of lots of emails.

Where are you from, Karin?
I was born in Switzerland (to Swiss parents) and was naturalized at 16. I grew up in the United States, Puerto Rico, and Australia. I went to Williams College and got a degree in — of all things — economics.

Where were you in the Peace Corps?
I was in the Philippines from 1987 to 1989, ostensibly as a marine fisheries Volunteer. Unfortunately the fishermen all thought that women were bad luck on boats, so I ended up digging 60 wells, building a school, and trying to launch about 80 other projects, almost all of them monumental flops.

Why did you join the Peace Corps?
To change the world, of course. I remember marching into my village and rolling up my sleeves, thinking we’ll put a school here and a medical clinic over there and would someone please tie up those pigs? I was 21 and righteous. I don’t know how my village survived me. Also I wanted to have a grand adventure before I settled down to a regular job and family. I still haven’t quite gotten around to the settling-down part.

Besides the Peace Corps — and before you started writing — where did you work and live?
Once I got back from the Philippines I decided — to my parents’ enormous joy — to join a management consulting firm — and I got engaged. I was miserable. Two years later — to my parents’ great disappointment — I quit that job to start my own company. Two years after that I sold the company and got disengaged. At that point I realized I was at a crossroads, and if I didn't take the plunge and follow my dreams, I was never going to do it. So I packed my bags and headed for Vietnam to become a travel writer.

What was your first published piece based on your Peace Corps experience?
The first thing I ever published was a short story based on the opening chapter of a manuscript (still unpublished) that I had written about my time in the Peace Corps. It appeared in an anthology and I think the payment was three copies of the book.

How did you get your book on Vietnam published? 
When I got back from Vietnam I put aside my cameras and wrote the manuscript over a period of five months. I then started to send it out. Again. And again. And again. Eventually I found an agent — a 21-year-old intern who had yet to sell her first book. She started sending it out. Again. And again (between the two of us it was eventually submitted to 72 agents and publishers before it found a home).
     One day I looked at my footage and thought, if I can just get ten minutes of my footage on local television, it will help sell the book. So I took a course at a university (to get access to the equipment.)
     I went to Vietnam with no videomaking experience, a tiny home-video (hi8) camera, and no expectations of a career in documentaries. Sure, I may have fantasized from time to time about actually seeing a ten-minute cut of my stuff on local T.V. (I also fantasized about winning the lottery and having Robert Redford come knocking on my door) but I never thought anything would actually come of it.
     Shortly before I left for Vietnam I called a cameraman friend of mine and said, “how do I turn this thing on and what do with it then?” Bless his heart, he answered me with a straight face. I jotted his dozen “rules” down on the back of an envelope, learned them on the plane and tried never to break them. For the next seven months I shot 52 hours of footage, took 5000 slides, kept detailed notes for a book, learned Vietnamese, and generally figured out how to get around, stay healthy, well-fed, and suitably housed.
     When I returned to America I wrote the manuscript, logged the tapes, and sat down at an ancient editing system to make a rough cut. I called the same cameraman friend and said, “okay, I’m back from Vietnam. How do I turn this thing on and then what do I do?” 
     He suggested I look at a few documentaries I liked and try to figure out what made them compelling. I took my favorite adventure series — The Ring of Fire — and completely deconstructed one of the episodes. I then did a forty-minute rough cut of my own footage.
     Not surprisingly, some of the word choice and a lot of the style of The Ring of Fire wormed its way into my demo tape. By the time I was done editing I had fallen in love with the music from The Ring of Fire and decided to use it — steal it — for the theme song of my demo. Who was going to know?
     I then sent 27 copies of the tape out to PBS stations. Most of them lost it, or sent it back, or wanted to know if I had any money to give them so that they could rent me equipment to keep working on it. A few smaller stations made offers to do a local co-production. One of the stations was kind enough to forward it to a man named David Fanning, the executive producer of Frontline at WGBH in Boston.
     By coincidence David Fanning was also the executive producer of The Ring of Fire. When my tape landed on his desk he stuck it in the VCR, watched a bit of it, and called me. I was mortified. I knew he must have recognized the music and the style. I spent ten minutes babbling to him about how plagiarism is the sincerest form of flattery. He hung up the phone and must have decided that I had a point because a week later he called me back and offered to executive produce a final cut of Hitchhiking Vietnam and ask PBS to fund the post-production — which they did. 
     I spent the next twelve weeks sweating blood in the editing room (with a real editor this time), utterly convinced that I would never be able to produce and write a broadcast-quality documentary, that everyone would realize it sooner or later and I would be revealed for the impostor I was.
     But I squeaked through. Once we were done, PBS online agreed to fund the website. REI came on board as an underwriter and a small promotion budget started getting it reviewed by some of the larger newspapers. Eventually the overseas rights were sold to National Geographic.
    So I’ve learned two things from this experience. The first is that plagiarism works. The second is that . . . Anything is possible.

Then how did you publish the book itself?
Just before the documentary aired, PBS online called me up and asked me if I wanted to do a website for them. The manuscript still wasn’t sold, so I said yes and spent the next 12 days (all we had until our airdate) putting together an enormous website in which I buried about a third of the book.
     The documentary was a success. The website won lots of awards and got over half a million hits a week. The manuscript remained unsold.
     Then shortly after the documentary came out I went to the Outdoor Retailers Expo to see if I could pick up some corporate sponsorship. While there I was introduced to a member of the Outside Magazine staff by a friend, who introduced me (briefly) to the (then) CEO of Backpacker magazine. He put in a good word with Globe-Pequot Press (who had already turned me down four times) and someone from their marketing department called me up and asked me to submit again. They took it, published it, and sent me on a huge book tour.
     Which is all just a long way of explaining how fickle the publishing industry is. Luck is definitely a factor, but the more tenacity you have, the less luck you need. And if you are not Martha Stewart (or someone equally famous), and you want to be a travel writer, you had better pick a country that is extremely interesting, make sure you finish (and polish!) your entire manuscript before submitting, and have a superb proposal (which will hopefully get you a superb agent) with a rock-solid marketing plan. I wish it were as easy as writing a great book, but nowadays that is only a small part of the process. Lots of great books out there never get published. You have to be able to sell it (and yourself) or your book will never see the light of day.

Why the Japan book?
I wanted to improve my judo, and also to get a fresh perspective on the meaning of my life. I wanted to understand Eastern ideals as ritual and tradition. I wanted more than an understanding of the tea-serving etiquette or the historical importance of the shogun. I was in search of wa: a transcendent state of harmony, of flow, of being in the zone.
     So, I spent twelve months traveling from one end of the country to the other, living at the host country level, speaking the language and trying to open the door to the secret side of Japanese life. I speak Japanese, and have studied judo for nine years, so I had some understanding, but very little really when it came to actually being in the country. I joined a samurai mounted archery team, for example, and learned how to handle a longbow on a galloping horse. I made a 900-mile pilgrimage, and helped to light ten thousand floating lanterns during Obon, The Festival of the Dead. I did what any good PCV would do, I immersed myself as best I could in the local culture.

What’s next for Karin Muller?
Oh, I don’t know. Nothing solid yet, since I have to sell the film idea before I can commit to the journey. My publisher really wants me to go to Cuba, and that’s at the top of the list if a broadcaster buys into it. We’ll see in 2006!

Thanks, Karin, and good luck on this book and whatever comes next. Keep in touch.
Thank you, John. And I will try not to disappear for too long.