#TripLit: Interview with Don George
Each month, Traveler’s Trip Lit column introduces readers to recently published books that can add another dimension to their travel experiences. I caught up with our reviewer, legendary travel writer and editor Don George, to find out how he defines Trip Lit, why he became a travel writer, and what travel writing has inspired him along the way. This is what he had to say.
Rhett Register: What makes a piece of writing Trip Lit?
Don George: In Trip Lit we’re looking for great new books that transport readers. These can be fiction or nonfiction, travel narratives or novels, mysteries or thrillers. The one unifying factor is that they all evoke a place so vividly – the sights, smells, sounds, tastes, and textures; the history and character and culture – that reading them immerses you in the place and makes you feel like you have traveled somewhere.
RR: What are your criteria for choosing the book of the month? Do you simply need to have enjoyed it or are there more specific parameters it should fill?
DG: For the book of the month, I’m looking for a work, whatever the genre, that is compellingly well written, that entertains and goes beyond entertainment to convey some larger message about the human condition. I’m looking for a book that illuminates the commonalities that bind us whatever our country and culture – as the best travels do.
RR: How did travel become your focus as a writer and editor?
DG: I studied French, English, and American literature as an undergraduate, with a minor in creative writing. After living in France and Greece for a year after graduation, I returned to the States to get a master’s degree in creative writing. After that, wanderlust again moved my compass, and I went to Japan on a two-year fellowship to teach at a university in Tokyo.
As part of my graduate studies, I had written an account of climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, an adventure I’d undertaken the summer between Greece and graduate school. Before moving to Japan, I’d been able to meet with some magazine editors in New York, and I’d dropped off my Kilimanjaro tale as a writing sample. When I arrived at my apartment in Tokyo, a telegram from the travel editor of Mademoiselle was waiting for me. “A hole opened up in our November issue,” it read, “and we put your Kilimanjaro story in it. Hope you don’t mind.”
I didn’t mind! This was my first travel story, and suddenly it was being published in a national magazine. I weighed this against the dozens of poems I’d submitted to The New Yorker over the years, and the square, cream-colored form rejection slips they’d triggered. The potential of travel writing took seed.
After two adventurous years in Tokyo, I returned to the U.S., settling in San Francisco. Through an improbable string of serendipities, I was hired by the San Francisco Examiner as a travel writer. And suddenly the pieces of the puzzle of my life clicked into place: Travel writing became the outlet for my poetry and my wanderlust, and so it has remained.
RR: Why are you drawn to travel literature?
DG: Beginning in high school and then in my college years, I was intensely drawn to great literature: novels, poetry, plays. Then in my senior year at Princeton I took a very selective writing workshop that has become something of a legend: It was called “The Literature of Fact,” and it was taught by the great John McPhee, longtime staff writer for The New Yorker.
That course changed my life. For the first time, nonfiction writing was placed on the same lofty pedestal as the fiction and poetry I’d been studying for years. And I found that I was deeply drawn to the challenge of writing well – as well as the great poets and novelists I’d been studying – about real events.
This dovetailed with my wanderlust – and so I began to write and read literary travel accounts. The book that became totemic for me was The Snow Leopard, by Peter Matthiessen. In my second year in Tokyo, when I was trying to decide what to do with the rest of my life, my former college roommate sent it to me as a birthday present.
That book inspired me to take a very difficult leap – to leave an extremely comfortable life in Tokyo for an uncharted future in the U.S. It also showed me just how rich, sweeping, nuanced, and edifying – how transporting – great writing about travel could be. And it became a foundation and inspiration for the rest of my career – and for my lifelong love of travel literature.