Travel Writers on Writing

“You don’t go to Congo much, do you?” asked Paul Theroux.

He was speaking to Elif Batuman, staff writer for the New Yorker and fellow panel member of “Hit the Road,” a travel writing discussion that took place as part of the 2014 New Yorker Festival.  She and Theroux, along with Dinaw Mengestu and Gary Shteyngart sat in a row on stage at the Directors Guild Theater in New York City, discussing how and why they write and travel.

“Do you write as you travel, or experience everything first and then write it down?”

Moderator and New Yorker staff writer Philip Gourevitch had posed the first question, and with it a line in the sand was drawn.

Batuman said that she “obsessively records” everything while she travels, using a Magic SmartPen, a handy gadget that records what you hear and remembers everything you have written down with it.

“Electronics are fatal in travel,” Theroux said, not so much a technophobe but a man who perhaps recognizes the burdens of modern technology more than the blessings.

He writes things down immediately after they occur, he said, while details and dialogues are still fresh in his mind.

“But not everyone has a great memory,” Shteyngart pointed out. He had gone to Oberlin College, and said he left his power of memory there, in a haze of marijuana smoke. He expressed a total reliance on his iPhone to take down conversations as they were happening.

Shteyngart wore round glasses, slouched in his chair and refered to himself as a “hairy Jew.” His first memoir, “Little Failure,” was titled after the nickname his mother had given him as a child, but his status as a bestselling author proves he is anything but a failure. The laughs he got from the 200 audience members throughout the 90-minute panel discussion suggested he might have a future in comedy as well.

“Memory can be made stronger,” argued Theroux. “If you delegate the job to a machine, it erodes your memory. Using electronics makes you complacent.”

“I couldn’t disagree with you more,” replied Batuman. Her directness and honesty clashed gently against Theroux’s sage-like one-liners, and established a little bit of an old school versus new school vibe.

“Are the stories you write about a place about you? Or are they about the place?” asked Gourevitch.

Shteyngart answered by comparing travel writing to memoir writing. While writing “Little Failure,” he said that he was completely steeped in himself as he wrote it. On the other hand, travel writing, he said, “gets me out of my Shteyngartiness.”

Gourevitch wanted to know then, “Are your trips defined by a sense of escape, or by the sense of going toward something?”

The writers could relate to the notion of escape. Mengestu’s family left Ethiopia when he was two years old and his country was at war. Shteyngart recalled his childhood in Leningrad, and how his mother once visited a friend in Warsaw. When she returned, the KGB grilled her about her experience, wanting to know if the food was better there, the people more prosperous.

“The idea that you have to escape from somewhere is ingrained in me,” he said.

How long, then, does a writer have to spend a place to write well about it?

Mengestu, whose newest novel “All Our Names” came out in May, and who has written about the conflicts in Darfur and Uganda, thought that it depended on the intensity of the experience.

“Three weeks in Congo are very different from one week in Paris,” he said.

“If you go someplace where there is instability,” Shteyngart added, “like when I went to Bangkok and there was a coup, it doesn’t matter how long you stay. That stuff writes itself.”

Coming back around to the high-tech versus low-tech method of gathering information, Theroux pointed out how, if you’re traveling to certain parts of the world, for example, Congo, “you are existing in a heightened state of awareness. And nervousness,” he stressed, “helps you remember details.”

Theroux’s  newest novel “Mr. Bones,” a collection of 20 stories, came out in September.

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