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Interview: Lonely Planet founder Tony Wheeler
He'll probably kill us for referring to him as the grand daddy of all travel, but when it comes to travel - of all kinds - there are few people more knowledgeable about our planet than Lonely Planet founder Tony Wheeler. So when we heard he was the chairman of the judging panel for the 2012 Dolman Travel Book of the Year which is announced in September, we simply had to ask him what makes a great travel tome.
You're a judge on the Dolman Travel Book of the Year award - how soon do you know that you're hooked on a book?
Pretty quickly. I'll persevere with a book, always hoping that it's going to get better. But at the end it always seems that the good ones, you knew were good almost from the start.
What makes a good travel book?
Covering a place which hasn't been covered, that is, somewhere I'd like to read about because it has been neglected. And then good writing. Put the two together and you're on to a winner. I want to be dragged along, I want to be racing to get there with the writer and at the same time thinking 'I want to go there'. Even if only in my armchair! Travel writing really should provide travel inspiration, even if it's for an experience you really don't want to duplicate.
I'm not overly keen on gimmick travel writing - such as hitchhiking across Ireland with a fridge under your arm.
Are there any no-nos? (Paul Theroux famously says that no one wants to read about illnesses or delays) Since Theroux's books are said to be most popular when he is most disgruntled and unhappy I'd have thought illnesses and delays would have been right up his alley. He did do an article once on sickening infections and injuries he'd suffered.
I'm not keen on the Across the Andes by Frog (Michael Palin's definition, I think) school of travel writing, that is, hitchhike around Ireland with a fridge under your arm, although some great travel books are built around near impossible quests. Radio Congo which I've just read, for example.
My biggest no-no is writers who go on about how wonderful and daring and brave they are. I think it's a spin-off from reality TV where it's all about shouting loudly how you're so terrific and you're so hyped by whatever it is you're doing. Even when what you're doing is no big deal at all.
What are your top three travel books?
In complete contrast to today's enthusiasm for chestbeating, the classic travel books were all 'danger? I don't see any danger', as the bullets zipped by. Or 'hungry? Well, I was a little peckish' - after a week without so much as a chocolate bar.
Brilliant classics include Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor, Short Walk in the Hindu Kush by Eric Newby and most particularly Peter (Ian's brother) Fleming's News from Tartary.
Among my top favourites, however, let's start with Swallows and Amazons. Yes it's a children's book and a novel, but it certainly travels and the maps are great.
Moby Duck, a wonderfully educational trip in pursuit of the rubber ducks that escaped from a shipping container full of them when it fell off a container ship during a storm. And Unexpected Light, a magical book about Afghanistan, which brought the country alive and made you realise why so many people have a love affair with the place.
Who gets it right as a travel writer?
Paul Theroux for being jaded and dyspeptic, Bill Bryson for being madcap and hilarious - although neither have written books which are on top of my personal podium. From Heaven Lake, Vikram Seth's pitch perfect one-off travel book. And then, once again, proving that some of the best travel writing is fiction rather than fact, all William Gibson's dystopian science fiction, much of which seems to be about places which you're sure you've visited, but you can't remember precisely when or where.
Do you think it's easy for a writer to get jaded, and what's the best antidote?
Go somewhere! And preferably somewhere weird. The weird places are always more fun to write about, and that can be places that are way over the edge; I'm always amazed how the Congo and Afghanistan have both inspired so much really good writing. But equally quite sane places which somehow have a weird edge to them. California!
The untouched territory aspect is important in a travel book, but the writing has to be good.
What have you seen change in travel writing in the last 20 years?It's faster paced, trying to put more comedy into the writing and then all the artificial contrivances, the impossible quests, crazy pursuits, making travel difficult purely to make a story out of it.
Are you an eBook or a paperback man?
I'm a recent convert to eBooks. The portability is a big factor, I don't want to be carting all those books around. The ability to search things, to get instant definitions of words. The fact that so often the book I want is the one I left somewhere else. So right now, if you asked me about one of the Dolman entrants, if it's paperback it's probably at my place in London, if it's an eBook it's right beside me.
On the other hand eBooks are definitely a work in progress and so many of the potentialities in the format are simply not yet accessible. Linking from an index for example. Or linking directly from something in the eBook to Wikipedia or another online source. Illustrations and photographs are generally handled very poorly. And given that you can so easily enlarge a map why include the map in at such low resolution that enlargement is pointless?
What advice would you give to an aspiring travel writer?
Travel. You really can't write until you've had lots of travel experience. And travel to somewhere other people haven't been to. Go into a bookshop, scan the shelves and look for what's missing. Daunt's would be a good place to do that. It's amazing how many places are untouched.
I think of two travel books which had real success because when something happened they were the only recent book available - Baghdad by Bus (Iraq invasion) and The Places in Between (Afghanistan invasion). One of the books in this year's Dolman entries, Wild Coast, covered three countries (the Guianas) which I don't think I've ever read about before - as a travel book that is. We all know about don't-drink-the-Kool-Aid Jonestown and Papillon's Devil's Island.
What qualities does a winning book need to have?
That 'untouched territory' aspect is certainly important, but also good writing counts for a lot. It's intrigued me how the books I really enjoyed in the Dolman entries generally featured one or other of those strengths and very often both. Even what would seem quite mundane or familiar territory can suddenly be very interesting when you look at it from a different angle or examine a different part of the picture. And terrific nature writing can bring very ordinary creatures alive.
The Authors' Club awards the 2012 Dolman Travel Book of the Year.