Travel books have sort of evolved into their own sub-genre, which is simultaneously good and a shame. It’s good because that means there are enough excellent travel books out there to create a sub-genre, and a shame because people who don’t venture into the sub-genre are missing out on a lot of fun reads, and the people in the sub-genre just keep sinking in deeper, venus-fly-trap-style, as the increasing compartmentalization of the arts claims another victim.
One of the few travel books with genuine crossover potential is Kristin Newman’s What I Was Doing While You Were Breeding (Three Rivers Press). Funny, poignant, bawdy, and sweet by turns, it chronicles the travel adventures of sitcom writer Newman as she searches for love — and herself — through a variety of mostly warm and steamy settings with a variety of memorable traveling companions.
We sat down with Newman and asked her about the process of travel writing and the joys and demands of travel.
What told you that you needed to write this down as a memoir?
I kind of did it by accident. I’m a sitcom writer, and had written a couple of funny autobiographical stories about my family a few years earlier that had gotten me a lot of jobs. Staffing season was coming up again, and so I sat down to write a couple of vacation romance stories … and suddenly had 60 pages in about a week. I had only written about three trips, but I started to see that together they were starting to tell a little story of my life, and how I was changing from trip to trip — often because of the trips. This all happened the same month I met my new boyfriend’s two kids (who would eventually make me a stepmother) and my own stepmother died, leaving my three young half-siblings behind. So my life suddenly felt like it was going to change dramatically, and I think I felt a real need to get my old life down before I forgot, like you’d make a scrapbook.
Did you travel to these places saying, “Oh, yeah; I’m going to write all this down in a book someday?”
No! Everyone around me who enjoyed my stories told me to, but I had no idea I would do this crazy thing of basically publishing my journal. Plus, the bigger life story that is told through the individual trip stories wasn’t apparent, obviously, until after a nice juicy hunk of it had been lived. Now that it’s written, I realize I could never have written it if I was still in the middle of it. I think you can only have the perspective you need to understand and, in my case, make fun of the choices you made if you are looking back on them, versus being smack in the middle of the craziness wondering how the story will end.
There are so many others — although the number of dream destinations that I have covered is definitely the thing in my life that makes me the proudest. Still high on my list are Antarctica, Turkey, Alaska, Croatia, Myanmar, I gotta go see polar bears … so many places. All of Africa! How have I never been to Africa?!
A lot of the action, so to speak, in the book takes place in warm climates. What role did some of these more exotic settings play in your expedition?
Good food, music and the slinky wardrobe that comes with hot places definitely change the vibe of a trip. But there is something to be said for finding ways to keep warm when it’s cold and dark outside, too.
Does this book really describe all the ways travel changed you, or are there more?
It certainly covers most of them. What I think but is maybe not spelled out explicitly is how important I believe travel to be in developing a sense of humility and empathy. There is more than one way to live. Your right way is not everyone’s right way. Coming at every interaction in your life with that frame of mind makes the world a better place.
You had a variety of traveling companions who played a variety of roles. Describe the perfect traveling companion.
I’ll just give you an excerpt from the book to answer this one:
A few thoughts on what makes one a good traveler. I probably should say that this is what makes you a good traveler in my opinion, but deep down I really think this is just universal, incontrovertible truth. There is the right way to travel, and the wrong way. And if there is that can come from this book, maybe it can be that I teach a few more people how to do it right. So, in short, my list of what makes a good traveler, which I recommend you use when interviewing your next potential trip partner:
- You are open. You say “yes” to whatever comes your way, whether it’s shots of a putrid-smelling yak-butter tea or an offer for an Albanian toe-licking (how else are you going to get the volcano dust off?) You say yes because it is the only way to really experience another place, and let it change you. Which, in my opinion, is the mark of a great trip.
- You venture to the places where the tourists aren’t, in addition to hitting the “must-sees.” If you are exclusively visiting places where busloads of Chinese are following a woman with a flag and a bullhorn, you’re not doing it.
- You are easygoing about sleeping/eating/comfort issues. You don’t change rooms three times, you’ll take an overnight bus if you must, you can go without meat in India and without vegan soy gluten-free tempeh butter in Bolivia, and you can shut the hell up about it.
- You are aware of your travel companions, and of not being contrary to their desires/needs/schedules more often than necessary. If you find that you want to do things differently than your companions, you happily tell them to go on without you in a way that does not sound like you’re saying, “This is a test.”
- You can figure it out. How to read a map, how to order when you can’t read the menu, how to find a bathroom, or a train, or a castle.
- You know what the trip is going to cost, and can afford it. If you can’t afford the trip, you don’t go. Conversely, if your travel companions can’t afford what you can afford, you are willing to slum it in the name of camaraderie. P.S.: Attractive single people almost exclusively stay at dumps. If you’re looking for them, don’t go posh.
- You are aware of cultural differences, and go out of your way to blend. You don’t wear booty shorts to the Western Wall on Shabbat. Conversely, you do hike your bathing suit up your booty on the beach in Brazil. Basically, just be aware to show the culturally correct amount of booty.
- You behave yourself when dealing with local hotel clerks/train operators/tour guides/etc. Whether it’s for selfish gain, helping the reputation of Americans traveling abroad, or simply the spreading of good vibes, you will make nice even when faced with cultural frustrations and repeated smug “not possible”s. This was an especially important trait for an American traveling during the George W. years, when the world collectively thought we were all either mentally disabled or bent on world destruction.
- This last rule is the most important to me: you are able to go with the flow in a spontaneous, non-uptight way if you stumble into something amazing that will bump some plan off the day’s schedule. So you missed the freakin’ waterfall—you got invited to a Bahamian family’s post-christening barbecue where you danced with three generations of locals in a backyard under flower-strewn balconies. You won. Shut the hell up about the waterfall.
One of the things I absolutely love about this book is you get the idea that great travel writing is people writing. As a result, I get a greater sense of place from your book than I would if I was just reading about a place like Bahia in a travel magazine.
I just went to Positano for my honeymoon, and my husband noticed that when we would go swimming, he would swim way out to look at the view, and I would swim close to shore, to look at the people. Nothing gives me more joy than observing the weird species we are a part of. In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin really changed travel writing by focusing more on the people than the places… which I read in my Spanish teacher’s bed in Patagonia! But the writing was good enough that I would have enjoyed it elsewhere, too.
What would you say to someone who reads your book and says, “Oh, yeah. I want to do just what she did”? Do you get people who said that?
I do — and I think they should. Remember that thing I said earlier about learning via travel that your way is not the only way? I take that all back. I’m really great at traveling. Do it like I do, and you’ll be very happy. The one thing I’m terrible at, that I suggest everyone do differently, is that I set incredibly high expectations for magical moments that make me deeply depressed if those moments don’t come. But the other side of that coin is I find an awful lot of magic with that kind of motivation. So do with that what you will.
Is there a sequel in the works? If there is, how is it going to be different from What I Was Doing While You Were Breeding?
Oh, boy. That’s a hard one. I’m newly married to a man with two kids. It’s one thing to write about a Russian bartender you’ll never see again. It’s another to write about the three men with whom you share a roof. Maybe I’ll make my mother happy, and do what she begged me to do the last time: make it a novel.