Jordan Salama: Author Profile

by Travel Writing World
Jordan Salama

Jordan Salama stops by Travel Writing World to answer a few questions about his career as a writer. He is the author of Every Day the River Changes: Four Weeks Down the Magdalena (Catapult 2021).

How did you first become interested in writing travel books?

I’ve always been fascinated by traveling tales, probably because I grew up hearing stories about my own family’s wanderings throughout history. My ancestors were Arabic-speaking Jews in the Middle East, who then made it to Latin America and the US. As with most travelers of their time, they were driven by circumstances beyond their control—religious persecution, economic opportunity, political strife—and yet they hadn’t failed to pass down traces of the enlightening experiences that they’d encountered on the road. My grandfather grew up in Buenos Aires and spent many years as a young doctor backpacking and training in the Argentine countryside before eventually moving to New York. Abuelo told me of his father, my great-grandfather, a Syrian Jewish immigrant to Argentina at the turn of the twentieth century who worked as a traveling salesman in the Andes. On my mother’s side there was the great-great-great-grandfather who led a caravan of one thousand camels along the Silk Road; other Baghdadi Jewish ancestors made it as far as Shanghai and Mumbai. In college, I devoured more of these kinds of stories in the pages of classic travel books—like Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia, John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley, Paul Theroux’s The Great Railway Bazaar—and imagined what it might be like to have such an adventure of my own, especially in the Middle East or Latin America.

How did you manage to get your first travel book published?

I’m still not so sure myself. It was a series of extremely lucky events. Every Day the River Changes was originally my senior thesis project while I was a student at Princeton University—I’d received research funding to travel along the Río Magdalena in Colombia and spend time with the people who live along its banks. Then, when I finished writing the thesis—which at that point was still more of a loose collection of river-bound stories and encounters at best—I had to present it in front of various panels of professors from different departments as a kind of defense process. One of those was a colloquium of journalism professors, and after my presentation one of them—the late, great Jim Dwyer of the New York Times—came up to me and offered to introduce me to my now-agent, Andrew Blauner. Andrew and I hit it off right away and he started submitting the manuscript to publishers shortly following my graduation. And how grateful we are to have found Catapult and my brilliant editor there, Megha Majumdar, who was precisely the right person to help me expand and adapt that thesis, that loose collection of stories, into the more cohesive and sensitive narrative of a place that is now the book people will (hopefully) be reading very soon.

What is your writing process like, both on the road and at home? And how long does it take you to write a book inclusive of the research, travel, writing, and editing phases?

Probably the strangest part of my writing process is actually my note-taking process. When I’m on the road, every night, no matter how late I finish with whatever I am doing, and no matter how many bullet-points I’ve jotted down, I take at least an hour to write longhand everything that happened that day. Sometimes that means staying up until 1 or 2am, and often I fall asleep with the notebook still open on my bed, but I try to write as much as I can. Then, when I get home from my trip or reporting outing, I type up the notes from my notebook into my computer. It’s my way of processing all the information and serves almost as a very early edit. You wouldn’t believe how many passages from my book come, in full, from those longform notes scribbled down late at night. But turning it all into a single piece of writing that makes sense is a lot more difficult and, of course, involves many more steps. In this case, I traveled down the Magdalena in mid-2018. Every Day the River Changes is to be released on November 16, 2021. So from start to finish, more than three years.

What books or authors influence or inform your own work?

What’s your definition of a “travel writer”? Pico Iyer and Paul Theroux are two of my favorites in the traditional sense of the genre. Ian Frazier and John McPhee have been profound influences as well. But there is also a really exciting new generation of writers who I think are helping to redefine what “travel writing” is, and what purpose it can serve. The journalist Devi Lockwood, for example, traveled the world by bicycle in search of everyday stories about climate change for her book 1,001 Voices on Climate Change. I’m also a big fan of the Argentine writer Javier Sinay (one of his best crónicas, The Murders of Moisés Ville, has recently been translated into English and will soon be published). 

What advice would you give to someone interested in writing a travel book?

Make every effort to stay with ordinary people who live in the places you’re visiting (i.e. not in hotels). And when you are with those people, have conversations! Be open and sensitive and respectful always. Allow their voices to inform the story as much, if not more, than your own. 

What is so appealing about the travel book as a literary form?

My favorite travel books move fast! In a couple hundred pages you can meet so many different kinds of people, and have so many encounters—the possibilities are endless, because the world is filled with stories. You can also learn a lot, and this is the direction where I hope more travel writing is heading: using the historical and sociopolitical contexts of a place to better understand everyday life there, and vice versa.

Why write about travel?

I think that journeys have a special ability to connect people who are different, fostering more cross-cultural understanding, and bringing us closer together as a global community. There will always be tremendous value in people writing respectfully about cultures and places that are not their own, so long as it’s done in an empathetic and inclusive way. And also, for me, there’s hardly anything more exciting than a good adventure.

Jordan Salama stops by Travel Writing World to answer a few questions about his career as a writer. He is the author of Every Day the River Changes: Four Weeks Down the Magdalena (Catapult 2021).

If you enjoyed this interview with Jordan Salama, you might enjoy our author profiles section for more behind-the-scenes interviews with authors of travel books.

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