Jack Hitt is not exactly a "travel writer"—no hotel reviews and Tokyo on a shoestring for him—but in the process of building a reputation as one of America's best nonfiction storytellers he has frequently written about travel, far-flung subcultures, and how people from particular places experience the world. A contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine and the public radio program This American Life, he has written about a small California town that was (wrongfully) paranoid about toxic waste, boated through an Arkansas swamp in search of the mythical ivory-billed woodpecker, and learned about Multi-Zap Zappers among the Serbian New Age enthusiasts who sheltered war criminal Radovan Karadzic.
His book, Off the Road: A Modern-Day Walk Down the Pilgrim's Route into Spain, has been made into a film that will be released in fall 2011, The Way, directed by Emilio Estevez and starring Martin Sheen. He is currently finishing a new book that will look at Americans at work—mostly amateur work, freelance work, garage work, side jobs, outsider interests, and improvisational careers—entitled, Bunch of Amateurs: A Search for the American Character.
Here, Hitt discusses how technology has changed how we travel, why a travel journal isn't the same thing as real travel writing, and 15-year-old Indonesian online poker players.
What do you say when people ask you, "What do you do?"
I'm a reporter. That word covers a lot of bases, ridiculous and sublime; and all the other words, when they come out of one's own mouth, sound pompous.
What new idea or innovation is having the most significant impact on how people are thinking and writing about travel?
Facebook. It used to be that at the end of any travel day, you found a few friends or some strangers, and then on them, you'd try out the earliest beta-narrative of that day's events. Now, I see that people end their adventures at a computer, and those five or six folks at dinner are now 500 hemi-semi-demi-friends. And pictures included.
What's something that most people just don't understand about travel writing?
Daily diaries and journals are merely chronologies, about as useful to a story as an index is to a book. It's impossible to know what happened on any given day until the whole trip is over, forgotten, and then remembered.
What's an emerging travel-writing trend that you've been noticing?
Absolutely live, real-time travel blogging. It's amazing how much fun it is to read rough unpolished accounts of actual events.
What's a travel-writing trend that you wish would go away?
Absolutely live, real-time travel blogging. It's amazing how much I miss reading tightly edited, polished accounts of powerful emotions recollected in tranquility.
What's a place you became fascinated with while pursuing a story but that ended up taking you off track?
Patagonia. I once sailed through the area in search of the last few speakers of the Kaweskar language and had no idea there was a vast region left on earth that looked like it belonged on some James Cameron-conjured exo-planet.
Who are three people you'd put in the travel-writing Hall of Fame?
Okay, on this one, I am going to invoke the "I hate it when people ask me my top three movies" rule and just answer a different question that should have been asked. All good nonfiction narrative is travel writing since even visiting an idea or a moment in history is as good a place to prowl around as a town. So, I'd include Sarah Vowell, Rebecca Skloot, and I was amazed how quickly I got sucked into David Byrne's Bicycle Days the other day in a bookstore and managed to read about a third of it standing on one leg. I'll go back now and buy a proper hardcover, and pay retail.
What other field or occupation did you consider going into?
I was nearly a Latin professor, having spent most of my four years of college in a library basement translating Catullus to impress potential girlfriends. (Odi et amo, Terrell!) Upon graduation, my Classics teacher warned me that while I'd read the hundred or so greatest works of Latin literature, post-graduate work meant reading the 1,000 "eh" works of Latin literature, and he put his open flat hand in the air and rolled it slowly like a dingy on a mild and windless sea. I seized my diploma and I've never translated a line of Latin since.
What website or app most helps you do your job on a daily basis?
Live Hold'm. I can play poker on my phone with real people anytime, anywhere. This is the most dangerous app since, oh, fire—only tempered by the fact that most of those real people appear to be 15-year-old boys in Indonesia who've watched too much blustery America poker TV shows and so when they get their swagger on and claim to be "in your dome" and go all in, you can safely bet they are bluffing to just walk off with the blind, and so you more often end up winning.
What song's been stuck in your head lately?
Just stumbled upon the Magnetic Fields and I've downloaded everything they've ever recorded.
Image: Courtesy of Jack Hitt
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