Wednesday, 16 April 2008

Confessions of a Travel Writer

There's a bit of a to-do over a new book from a travel writer named Thomas Kohnstamm. In "Do Travel Writers Go to Hell?" Kohnstamm admits to various bits of trickery and corner-cutting while working on guidebooks for Lonely Planet. Among the allegations are that he gave a good review to a Brazilian restaurant after having sex with a waitress on a table ("the table service is friendly," he wrote) and that he wrote a Colombia guidebook without ever visiting the country. The former seems to be true, the latter not.

I haven't read his book, but Kohnstamm seems like kind of a smarmy guy, willing to take Lonely Planet's nickel and then diss himself, and by extension them. I was in the guidebook game for a while, rewriting most of the Fodor's travel guide to Washington when I was a freelancer in 1989 and then updating it for the next few years. I never got to have sex with a waitress on a table, though I did French kiss Ling-Ling, the giant panda, behind the National Zoo's snack bar. ("The pandas, a gift from China, are not to be missed," I wrote later.)

I think guidebooks are better now than they used to be. Fodor's, part of Random House, encouraged me to be quirky and conversational in my tone, to divide the city into walking tours instead of alphabetical lists of attractions. Other, narrower guidebooks are on the market now too, with Rough Guide, Access, DK and Lonely Planet earning fans. But there is a bit of sameness to any travel guide, as opposed to a travel memoir.

That's because the first thing you do when assigned a travel guide is read all the other travel guides, just to make sure you don't miss anything. If you think something's a waste of time--Hillwood in D.C. springs to mind--you can't just leave it out. Your travel guide would be lacking. Also, you're not paid that much--or at least I wasn't. I was a lowly freelancer, happy to get the job. I think I was paid $3,000 to write eight walking tours, update the entire front of the book, pull together a history of the city and compile a list of nightlife. My friend Jeanne did restaurants and hotels. I probably earned something like $5 an hour.

And I made some rookie mistakes. I wrote the book on a tight deadline in the autumn and it was published the following spring. I remember visiting some part of the Mall the summer after the book came out and noticing that a view had changed. I had said something like, "Note the uninterrupted vista from the memorial to the building off in the distance." Well when I wrote it was uninterrupted, but that was because there were no leaves on the trees. By summer you couldn't see a thing. I fixed it in the next edition.

There was one cool thing, though: I saw a family using my book, near the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. I wanted to walk up to them and introduce myself, but thought that would be weird. At least they didn't look lost.


SuburbanCorrespondent said...

Hillwood is not a waste of time. Did you go there in winter, also? Check it out in April or May.

Candadai Tirumalai said...

Seeing a family using your guidebook must have been cool.
A distinguished writer has confessed that he often checked if his book (well known and well received) was in the bookshops of airports he passed through.

mark from alexandria said...

Because I have spent so much time in London, I developed my own little London Guide that I give to friends and colleagues when they travel there for the first time. Its always a great thrill when they return home and tell me that it was better than the big boys.

John Kelly said...

I'm gonna have to disagree about Hillwood. I think there's nothing tackier than a Faberge Egg. And most of the rooms in the house look like you'd expect places decorated by a woman with lots of money and not a lot of taste to look. I was reminded of Hillwood after touring Leeds Castle, near Dover. It's a stunning castle, on a little island in a lake, and was supposedly a favorite of Henry VIII. But its last owner was an American heiress who in the 1920s changed a lot of the interior. Some of it looks like a bad Errol Flynn movie set, where she tried to recreate the Renaissance. And some of it looks like Hillwood. MAybe I just don't like American heiresses.