Rolf Potts is an American travel writer, essayist and author. I discovered Rolf’s work, when I read his most famous book Vagabonding after it was relentlessly recommended by Tim Ferriss. If you haven’t already read it, I recommend you do – it’s a real paradigm breaker, allowing you to view the world and how it works in a very different light. On top of his other book, Marco Polo Didn’t Go There, Rolf Potts has had his travel writing appear in prestigious publications such as National Geographic Traveler, Outside, The Guardian and World Hum. He has reported on his travels from more than sixty countries. On top of this, Rolf Potts has also written in a non-travel capacity for The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine and the digital versions of The Nation and The Atlantic. Each Summer, Rolf Potts also directs a creative writing workshop for the Paris American Academy. If all of that isn’t enough, Rolf also teaches nonfiction writing at Yale University. Famous for rarely staying in one place for more than a few weeks at a time, Rolf Potts says that he feels most at home in Bangkok, Cairo, Pusan, NYC, New Orleans and north-central Kansas – where he has a small farmhouse. I was excited to talk books with one of my favourite writers, and present it to you guys. So please enjoy my interview with the one of a kind, Rolf Potts…
When someone asks you ‘what do you do for a living?’ – How do you respond?
I usually tell people I’m a travel writer. That’s not entirely true, since about thirty percent of what I write these days is non-travel reportage and cultural criticism. Plus I’ve done a fair amount of teaching over the past decade, both at an annual writing workshop I run in Paris, and at the university level. But travel writing is my core professional focus, so I call myself a travel writer.
I’m on the road in Africa at the moment, and I have several books going at the same time — one of which is Macbeth by William Shakespeare, which of course has nothing to do with Africa. Nor does The Ambassadors by Henry James, which I’ve just started. I’m reading the wonderful Africa memoir Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller, which I just finished, which is location-appropriate — as is Tony Park’s potboiler murder-mystery The Hunter, the story of which begins just down the road from where I’m staying in South Africa.
I’ve recently become a fan of reading location-specific pulp-fiction as I travel. This started late last summer, when I was traveling in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides, and I read a murder mystery called The Blackhouse by Peter May, which really captured the feel of the Isle of Lewis. Park’s book similarly evokes a strong sense of place in this well-touristed part of southern Africa, even as its plot covers the typical crime-genre bases.
What’s your earliest memory of reading?
I recall plowing through 84 children’s books for my school’s Multiple Sclerosis Read-a-thon when I was eight years old. This created a problem for the teachers, since the event was meant to raise money for charity, and — despite having read so many books — I was only able to raise about ten dollars. I think they gave the main prize to the kid that raised the most money, and I got a “special mention” for having read so many books. Obviously my instincts for the written word were much stronger than my instincts for fundraising.
If you could encourage young people to read one book in particular, what would it be?
I think it’s important for young people to read in general, and I can’t say I would narrow my recommendation to one book. I think kids should read whatever excites them. I recently wrote a blog post about how a merchandise catalog — the 1976 Sears Christmas Wish Book — was one of the most important books in my life when I was first learning how to read. Later, in my early teens, Stephen King’s horror fiction helped me realize I wanted to be a writer. I never did publish any horror stories, but I don’t think that mattered. The fact that I was excited about King’s novels led me to other books, and my tastes broadened from there. So I think that any book a young person reads — no matter what the subject matter — is a good thing.
What is the worst job you’ve ever had?
Probably stocking shelves on the graveyard shift at Dillon’s supermarket in my hometown of Wichita, Kansas in the summer of 1991. I was filling in for various full-time guys who were taking vacation, and I worked with a rotating series of co-workers, all of whom seemed to hate the job and each other. It was such grim, mindless work, and it made me realize that any job done purely for money — even a job certified by a college degree — was going to be just as grim if I didn’t pursue it out of passion and creative engagement. It also made me realize that I needed to get out into the world and travel while I was still young. Three years later, flush with funds from several other working-class jobs (most notably landscaping work), I embarked on my first vagabonding trip around North America. I have since discovered that one doesn’t need to be young to travel long-term — it’s your mind-set that counts, not your age — but the sense of urgency I felt that summer was key to getting me out and on the road at a key time of life.
Do you read as much as you’d like to?
Most people would probably say they don’t read as much as they’d like to — but for the most part I feel I’m able to read quite a bit. This is by design, really, since I’ve simplified my life to the point that I have a decent amount of free time for reading. That said, I’m a horribly slow reader, and I tend to take lots of notes as I read, so there are always more books that I feel I should be reading (and my “to-read” list is impossibly long). But for the most part I’m able to read far more than, when I was younger, I would have predicted at this point in life.
Though I read more books each year now than in most previous phases in my adult life, the most affecting books from my life are the ones I read in my late teens and early twenties. These are the books I tend to go back to again and again. Cannery Row by John Steinbeck is not, for many readers, at the top of the Steinbeck canon, but I’ve re-read it four or five times now because I enjoy the way it evokes the simple feeling of human joy in this little flophouse fishing community on the California coast. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller is another early favorite — a delicious (and hilarious) bit of war satire that I return to again and again. A more recent book to which I’ve returned is The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. It’s technically classified as a young-adult novel, yet having read it as an adult I find it incredibly moving and insightful.
What two pieces of advice would you give to someone who is tempted to adopt a life of travel?
My two bits of vagabonding advice might seem a tad contradictory, but they are part of the same ethic. The first bit of advice is that the journey begins now. Even if the reality of long-term travel is still several months or years away in your life, the vagabonding journey begins the moment you resolve to make it happen. Even while still at home, the task of simplifying your life, saving money, and dreaming of faraway places is a vital part of the vagabonding process; it is, in fact, what makes long-term travel so meaningful in the long run.
The other bit of advice is to take things slow, and be patient. The world can seem so big and amazing, so full of possibilities, that one can be tempted to rush through one’s travels in an effort to tick things off a “bucket list.” In practice, the slow, meaningful experience of a single country is more satisfying than the superficial accumulation of forty countries — and the more you travel, the more you master the skills and instincts that allow you to keep traveling. Even if your first vagabonding trip is limited to a single country or continent, the journey itself will, with the right amount of patience, teach you how to travel to further horizons for the rest of your life.
Is there an author whose writing you’re such a fan of, that you’ll read everything they release?
Pico Iyer is a big travel-writing influence, and I’ll read most anything he puts out. But oddly enough my most prolific fandom is attached to non-travel writers — and, specifically, a couple of Midwest-born male writers around the same age as me. The first is North Dakota-born pop-culture writer Chuck Klosterman, whose insights about things like rock music, professional sports, and pop-philosophy feel like an ongoing conversation with a smart, funny, outspoken friend. The second author is Ben Lerner, a fellow Kansas native, whose poetry, cultural criticism, and roman-à-clef novels are entertaining, mind-expanding, and frequently hilarious.
I don’t think digital books will completely replace real books, and in fact there is a kind of aesthetic pleasure to interacting with paper books. For example I spent the first three weeks of this month traveling through southern Mozambique, which proved to be really rainy. Hence, the books I brought on that trip (Fuller’s Africa memoir, Richard Todd’s The Thing Itself, Richard Ford’s Rock Springs, Marc Augé’s Non-Places) are now water-swollen and disfigured in a way that immediately reminds me of the journey. An e-reader could never evoke the same associations.
That said, I find myself drifting more and more into an electronic direction with my reading. This began with the Instapaper app, which is a terrific way of compiling and curating long-form articles and reading them as simple text on my smartphone. The Blackhouse by Peter May, which I mentioned earlier, is the first book-length work I read entirely on my phone’s Kindle app. I found this app convenient for reading –not just in terms of always having the book on-hand, but also because cutting and pasting excerpts into my “notes” file was easier than transcribing them by hand. I have plans, when I return to the United States, to get an iPad and try reading more books via the Kindle app (a practice my 77-year-old father has come to swear by).
What is the book that you feel has had the single biggest impact on your life?
I typically tell people Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman, since it did such an amazing job of cluing me in to life’s ecstatic possibilities when I was still young. To this day I return to the pages of Leaves of Grass to feel inspired and enriched. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention The Bible, since, as a member of a churchgoing family growing up, I began to study it as soon as I learned how to read. I grew up Lutheran, and (unlike more ritual- or emotion-based Christian sects) Lutherans emphasize comprehensive study of The Bible — particularly the Gospels — and this was important to my way of thinking.
So much shoddy theology gets attached to the political agendas of modern Christianity, yet, having familiarized myself with its source text, I often find myself returning to the Gospels to reflect on human compassion, or — just as frequently — to the bluntly existential wisdom of Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament. “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the grave, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom. …The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all.” That resonated when I was young, and it resonates with me still.
You appear to have a big fan in the form of Tim Ferriss – how did that come about?
Tim read Vagabonding not long after it was published in 2003 — and it influenced both his global travels and the time-wealth philosophy that went into The 4-Hour Work Week. He contacted me when he was writing the book, and I gave him an early blurb (he also wrote several articles for my blog in the months before his book was published). I had a sense early on that Tim’s writing and philosophy would strike a chord with readers, but I had no idea just how incredibly successful he would become. I think it’s great, and I wish him continued good fortune.
What books or subject matter do you plan on reading in the next year?
Despite the fact that I’ve read a ton of travel writing over the years, there are a number of travel classics that I have yet to read. I’ve been collecting iconic travel books for years, but for some reason I’ve never been able to get to them all. Hence, before I left for Africa last month, I made a big stack of them in the middle of my living room, and I hope to chip away at them when I return home later this spring. I can’t even remember all the books in the stack, but I know it includes:
West With the Night by Beryl Markham,
The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux,
A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush by Eric Newby,
Road to Oxiana by Robert Byron,
The World by Jan Morris,
Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo,
The Way of the World by Nicolas Bouvier,
Mississippi Solo by Eddy L. Harris,
Passage to Juneau by Jonathan Raban,
Tracks by Robyn Davidson,
Eothen by Alexander Kinglake,
and Adventures In the Unknown Interior of America by Cabeza de Vaca.
No doubt when I read through all these books I’ll realize I’ve missed out on another few dozen travel classics and head back to the bookstore. It is — and always will be — an ongoing process.