Ryan Murdock: Author Profile

by Travel Writing World
Ryan Murdock

Ryan Murdock stops by Travel Writing World to answer a few questions about his career as a writer. He is the author of Vagabond Dreams: Road Wisdom from Central America (2012).

How did you first become interested in writing travel books?

I’ve written for as long as I can remember, but I couldn’t relate to the usual advice to “write about your immediate environment.” Mine just seemed so small town dull. I didn’t seem to have a talent for fiction, either. And then a friend in uni passed me Paul Theroux’s Happy Isles of Oceania and Chatwin’s The Songlines, and I realized I could follow my curiosity, go to distant places, and come back and write about what I’d learned. 

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

I started with magazines. I didn’t want to work my way up by writing anonymous front page filler material, I knew there had to be a way around it. I was living in Tokyo at the time, and through a combination of thwarted goals and good luck, I stumbled across a small window of opportunity to get into North Korea. It was 2001, a month before 9/11 changed the global security situation. The costs were high — all my savings from teaching English, a thick envelope of cash I had to hand over in Pyongyang — but I knew getting a glimpse inside the world’s most reclusive country would give me something unique to write about. 

I leveraged that trip into a newspaper column. It was just my hometown newspaper, but having my own column made it look like I had years of experience. I used the column to pitch a 12-page feature article to Outpost, Canada’s biggest travel magazine, about a camel journey I’d done with Uyghurs into the Taklamakan. It was rejected at first, but a change of editors and a gap in an issue led to someone calling me back. That article went on to be nominated for a National Magazine Award in Canada, and I got my first travel assignment a week later.

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?

I carry two notebooks on the road. I jot down quick notes throughout the day in a small notebook that fits in my pocket: impressions, sketches, sequences of events to help spark my memory, key phrases and conversations, inside jokes and deep discussions. 

The other notebook is larger, with lots of pages and small line spacing. I pull that out every night and rewrite the notes from my small notebook in as much detail as possible, using a fine point pen so I can cram a lot in. A doctor friend told me that small handwriting is a sign of high intelligence. I noticed my writing getting smaller and smaller after he said this. I like to think it was because I was getting smarter, but observer bias is probably closer to the truth.

I find a book-length first draft takes me about 3 months to write. I spend at least five times longer on the editing process. Up to 6 or 7 drafts.

What books or authors influence or inform your own work?

When I was first starting to write, I devoured the work of Lawrence Durrell, a writer whose style and worldview I admired. I read everything he published, right down to the most obscure collection in university libraries. Then I read his published letters. And then I read all the biographies that had been written about him. Finally, I read critical articles about his work to see if I agreed with the opinions formed by these scholars, or if I’d missed any nuances. I followed the same process with Paul Theroux, Henry Miller, and Jack Kerouac.

I also learned a lot from music. Steve Kilbey, lead singer of The Church, was the single biggest influence for me. Dissecting his lyrics taught me about the rhythm of words. I listened late at night with headphones, with a printed sheet of lyrics in front of me. I paid attention to how the inflection in the singer’s voice changed the tone of the images forming in my head. And I learned about how surprising connections between seemingly unconnected things could reveal something new.

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

I like Werner Herzog’s advice for understanding the world: “Read, read, read, and travel on foot.” 

Read the classics of the genre to understand why those books stood the test of time. That will also save you from writing something that’s been said a million times before but better, while thinking you’re incredibly original. Read poetry to understand how to create images. Read history to understand our collective past, and biography to understand motivations and how those motivations shape the total picture of a life. Write every day, and edit ruthlessly.

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

It can be so many things — autobiography, memoir, anthropology, prose poetry, cultural critique, history. The best combines elements of each.

Why write about travel?

I can’t think of anything more enjoyable than following my curiosity, traveling to a strange landscape, spending time among people who live very differently than I do, and coming back to share what I’ve learned.

Ryan Murdock stops by Travel Writing World to answer a few questions about his career as a writer. He is the author of Vagabond Dreams: Road Wisdom from Central America (2012).

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