Thomas Swick: Author Profile

by Travel Writing World
Thomas Swick

Thomas Swick stops by Travel Writing World to answer a few questions about his career as a writer. He is the author of several travel books, including, most recently, The Joys of Travel: And Stories that Illuminate Them (Skyhorse 2018).

How did you first become interested in writing travel books?

After college I went to France for a year with the vague idea that I wanted to be a travel writer. In Paris, on my way to language school in Provence, I picked up a paperback copy of Evelyn Waugh’s When the Going Was Good. I had read Waugh in college, but none of my professors had mentioned his travel books (typically). The taste for eccentric characters and the eye for the absurd that I loved in his novels inhabited his travel stories, and the book showed me that travel writing could be literature. 

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

I had the good fortune to live in Poland in the early ’80s when the country was front-page news because of the Solidarity movement and then martial law. When I returned home, I wrote a memoir of my time there, but with the focus more on Poland than on me. I placed a couple excerpts in literary magazines but finding a publisher was difficult; many wanted the story to be more about me and my Polish wife. Eventually I got an agent who, after 41 rejections, found a good home for it. 

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’ve never written a travel book the traditional way–picking a place, traveling around it, and then writing about it. My last two books were collections. For stories, my process involves extensive research. I read a lot, not just travel and history books but novels, memoirs, poetry, newspapers. I also watch movies and listen to music from the place, and go to a local restaurant serving its cuisine. My server may have a cousin back home who’d love to meet me. I gather as many contacts as I can.

When I get to the place, the first thing I do is walk, taking in all the new sights and sounds and smells while they’re still fresh. Then I sit, which allows me to observe the people better. Sitting, I can also jot down notes–taking notes is an invaluable part of the process–and, if I’m at a café, eat a local delicacy. Finally, I try to meet some people and, if possible, participate in the life of the place. 

I don’t write the story till I’m back home, though sometimes the lede, or the structure, will occur to me while I’m traveling. I edit as I write, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, and repeatedly read over what I’ve written. Writing is hard–coming up with something where there was nothing–but editing is a joy, changing a word here, deleting a phrase there, chipping away at the material until it feels right. 

What books or authors influence or inform your own work?

It’s probably wishful thinking, but along with Waugh there’s Vladimir Nabokov (an honorary travel writer). I also love the old humorists like James Thurber and S. J. Perelman (a sometime travel writer). As for full-time (mostly) travel writers, Patrick Leigh Fermor, Kate Simon, Jan Morris, Jonathan Raban, and Colin Thubron stand out from a large crowd. 

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

My advice to aspiring travel writers is always: Don’t just travel but live in a place, get to know the language, the culture, the prejudices, the jokes. The books that result from sustained, immersive experiences are often more insightful than those by people just passing through. 

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

It contains elements of most of the others. A good travel book has the narrative arc of a novel, the substance of a history book, the digressions of an essay, the lyricism of poetry, and the (often inadvertent) self-revelations of a memoir. 

Why write about travel?

To learn about the world–and its inhabitants–and to pass that knowledge on to others. I would add that travel writing’s importance grows in direct proportion to the self-regarding tendencies of the country in which it appears.

Thomas Swick stops by Travel Writing World to answer a few questions about his career as a writer. He is the author of several travel books, including, most recently, The Joys of Travel: And Stories that Illuminate Them (Skyhorse 2018).

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

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