Monday, June 7, 2010

Vivian Swift

Vivian Swift is a travel writer. Sort of. Her first book was a travel story, sort of; it was all about staying put: When Wanderers Cease to Roam (Bloomsbury, 2008).

Recently, I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
I recently read Travels with Charley (In Search of America) for the first time, to learn how to write a real travel narrative. I’m at work on my second book, a real, honest-to-goodness travel book about a road trip in France, and I thought I’d better find out how the “Masters” do it, but this book really annoyed me. I don’t know if it was the lack of humor in Steinbeck’s moralistic narrative (grandiose generalities are a traveler’s prerogative, but most travel writers have the good sense to temper them with a little self-deprecation) or if it was that passage about the niftiness of trailer parks (So spontaneous! So unfettered!) or the over-all skimpiness of his material (208 pages for a 10,000-mile journey??) but I read it as a cautionary tale. I recommend the book only as an excellent example of how not to write a travel narrative.

The Innocents Abroad, however, is the supreme achievement in the genre. In 1867 Clemens/Twain took a four-month cruise around the Mediterranean with inland jaunts to Europe and the Holy Lands; his 685-page book was published just two years later. Reading it, you could never tell that he wrote it under economic pressure to inflate the word count while rushing to meet a deadline. The tone of his narrative – in turns cranky, sarcastic, witty, and reverential – is easy-going and pitch perfect for his material, so well-matched to the Clemens/Twain droll take on life in general that even today the book reads much like a contemporary account of the foibles and grandeur of being a tourist in a foreign land. Let’s call this narrative tone the “voice” of the writer, and as such, it is the crucial element to a successful travel book. Because what makes a travel narrative, such as The Innocents Abroad, such a worthy alternative to the novel is that voice, unique to travel writing, that encompasses the tale of that one particular journey while also taking the reader on side trips, digressions into the writer’s life and experiences that go beyond the scope of that one particular journey. In Clemens/Twain’s case, his digressions are delightful, pertinent, and always entertaining. This book is the blueprint for writing a great travel narrative.

Which brings me to Eat, Pray, Love. Digressions being the life-blood of a great travel narrative, and voice being the compelling factor that keeps a reader tuned-in to the story page after page, Elizabeth Gilbert’s book is an irresistible combination of the best possible digressions (love, loss, and getting right with the universe) with a killer voice (humble, harried, smart, searching, and funny). When a writer gets it right, like this, readers will follow her anywhere. I, for instance, have no interest in traveling back to Italy ever again (a bad experience there when I was 20 has put me off the entire country forever), neither do I want to go to schlep to India and puh-leeze: you could not pay me enough dollars, euros, or gold ingot to go to Indonesia. (That’s not a value judgment; I just abhor long plane rides, humid climates, and crowds.) And yet I read, and re-read about Elizabeth Gilbert’s journey through Italy, India, and Indonesia in Eat, Pray, Love; me and ten million (20 million? 30?) other readers around the world. I could take the book apart for you sentence by sentence to show you how beautifully crafted the text is, but I won’t: because part of the joy of reading it is being carried away by how effortlessly it [seems] to come together as a marvelous, universal story for our age, and for all those women who watch Oprah who need to have their “voice” heard in the world. Don’t hate on Eat, Pray, Love just because some of its fans try to travel in the footsteps (literally) of Elizabeth Gilbert; read it because it’s an almost perfect non-fiction narrative that happens to be about travel. Which is, really, what the best travel books are about.
Visit Vivian Swift's website and blog.

--Marshal Zeringue