Author Q&A: Don George, by Ajay Singh
Don George first discovered his innocence in France - and then in Greece, Tanzania, Japan and more than 80 other nations. A lifelong travel writer, he's the editor of An Innocent Abroad: Life-Changing Trips From 35 Great Writers, an anthology of travel literature released by Lonely Planet.
Innocence is the handmaiden of worldliness, George argues, and his anthology is proof of that complex relationship. From youthful adventures in Europe to tales of war, the book is a rich mixture of original, previously unpublished stories, varied in theme, location and style of writing. A resident of the San Francisco Bay Area, George spoke with Ajay Singh about his wanderlust and the joys of travel writing.
What does innocence mean to you as a travel writer?
I've always been extremely innocent when I've travelled and the book's theme of innocence is a powerful one for me. Innocence is something that's inexhaustible and as long as we have innocence and bring it to our interactions with the world, truly transformative, alchemical connections can take place. Innocence is also an important theme for people to read because it kind of liberates us from worrying about making mistakes or not knowing everything about an unfamiliar culture or people. It's OK to make mistakes - it's what happens after we make the mistakes that the magic can really set in.
How did you go about selecting the writers in this anthology?
I made a wish list of my favourite, iconic writers and contacted about a third of them by email or through their publicists or agents. About a third or more of the writers in the book I had worked with for a long time in my career as an editor. And six or so stories were from people I didn't know at all but whose unsolicited stories were so good that they deserved to be in the book.
Who are your favourite writers in the anthology?
That's a little bit like asking a parent which is your favourite child. I like all the writers in the book [but] Richard Ford is a writer I've revered for a long time and I was thrilled to have a story by him. The same for Ann Patchett, Dave Eggers, Cheryl Strayed, Jane Smiley, Mary Karr - these are all people who I think are distinguished literary writers. And some of my favourite friends and people in the world are there, such as Simon Winchester, Pico Iyer, Jan Morris and Tim Cahill. It's hard to pick any one story in the book, but one that surprised me is by David Baldacci, a mega-bestselling author who wrote a magical story about going back to his ancestral roots in Italy, where he encounters an entirely unexpected celebration.
What do you think is the difference between a travel writer and someone who writes about a place or its people or culture while travelling?
For me, travel writing is an attempt to capture a place and illuminate something important about it in a way that educates the reader who hasn't necessarily been to that place. It's writing that's full of evocative details and enticing analyses that get to the heart and soul of a place. And I think you can do that on the spot or after you return from your travels. But I think great travel writing has a certain amount of reflection and absorption of the experience, followed by a shaping of the experience into something artful readers can digest and understand to the point that they feel as if they've been to the place. A lot of on-the-spot travel accounts published as blogs seem extremely superficial to me. They lack the depth of the kind of travel writing I'm looking for - stories that are usually written after the person has come back from a trip and reflected on it.
How did you develop a love of travel?
It started with my parents, when I was a child. They loved to travel and we would go to different places in the US during summer vacations. For some reason, I had a penchant for France. So I studied French, English and American literature in college, and in the summer between my junior and senior years I went to live in Paris on a "work abroad" programme. The world really opened up to me after I graduated. I went back to Paris and then taught at a college in Greece. That's when I fell in love with the world. I had been planning to go to graduate school to study comparative literature and become a tweedy professor, and then I realised the world is the classroom where I wanted to study.
Were there moments when you also felt like a teacher in this global classroom?
One of the fascinating things I've learned is that we're all ambassadors - we're all teachers. When I go to a place, I am a moving education about the US, just as the people I encounter are teachers about their own place. So, I bring the US with me - I'll go to a place where there aren't many Western visitors and people will say to me, "Oh well, America's just like in the movies, right? Everyone has mansions and big cars." And I am able to say that's not so - that I don't have a mansion and that I drive a tiny car. Then I tell them about life in the US while they tell me about life in their country.