Rolf Potts: Vagabonding at 42

by Austin Weihmiller /
Austin Weihmiller's picture
Sep 04, 2013 / 0 comments

Summer. Everyone has their own tradition. Many travel to exotic destinations 'round the globe. Others like to soak up the sun with pool parties, long days with friends on the beach, BBQs, and maybe an occasional moonlit party, topped of course with that godawful summer pop playlist you only listen to for those few months. For Rolf Potts, Julys are spent in the City of Light, teaching creative writing at the Paris American Academy (PAA). From snagging croissants on his way to class to dancing along the Seine, and teaching in between, Potts considers Paris, among other cities, a home city. A place he knows well enough to feel like a local. Potts has written two books over the course of his vagabonding career: Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel and Marco Polo Didn't Go There. Vagabonding is to be released in an audio book format in the coming year.


On one particularly hot July afternoon, I found the vagabonder himself at a cafe on Rue Claude Bernard, in the Latin Quarter. Though it isn't the prettiest of streets, it serves host to a myriad of options: the Luxembourg Gardens are only a few minutes walk away, as is PAA, an RER stop, a few metro stops, Rue Mouffetard Market, and the Midnight in Paris steps. A little street cut off from the bustle of Claude Bernard into the labyrinth of zig-zagging alleys and streets framed the dome of the Pantheon.


Rolf Potts: Vagabonding at 42


I sat down with Potts at a perfectly French Brasserie to talk about his life on the road, what it's been like to teach at universities, and what's next on this traveler's agenda.


Growing up, did you have any heroes at all - any people you looked up to? Anyone from Superman to Hemingway?

Sure. It really depends which age you’re asking about. When I was six, it was the guys on the tv show Emergency. Have you heard of it? Yeah, yeah. It rings a bell. And then my grandfather was my hero for a while. He was a farmer. And then my dad. I'm trying to think. When I came into my own as a teenager, I came to really admire the writing of Kurt Vonnegut. Are you familiar with his writing? I am not, actually. He's really worth picking up, and you're at about the perfect age; it's when I discovered him. As a writer, I really admired his writing. He's really satirical and fun. After feeling compelled to read serious stuff, suddenly here's this wonderful satirist. In one book of his books, Breakfast of Champions, he decided to only draw pictures. And it's actually very serious satire, but it's really funny too.


Does he remain your hero today?

As a writer, I don't get back to him as much. I've talked with other people about how when you're 14 to 24 years old, you have a relationship with books you wouldn't have later on in life. And so when I read Vonnegut now, I'm less impressed. It's like 'Oh, hm. This isn't as exciting to me as it was when I was 17'. But I think it's because it was the perfect age to be reading what he was writing. And so even though I may reread his books and I'm not as excited about them now, they still have had a huge impact on me, if that makes any sense. They hit me at a certain age. It's kind of sad actually, but that I'll never get to read a book the way I did when I was 17, and have it be just so amazing. I've read so many books now that individually, they're less effective.


Talking about your father and grandfather ties into my next question. Where is home for you? I know you were born and raised in Kansas, but you spend a month here in Paris teaching, and a few months on the east coast, and then a few more traveling. Where are your roots?

Home was a big mystery for a long time. I was traveling so much and I had a little bit of a connection to Kansas and a little bit of a connection to Asia and the Middle East and Paris.

In 2005, I got a house in Kansas. And that has really become my home. Sort of my heart home. There's a Spanish term called Querencia and that's... How can I define Querencia? It's like the place where you return to, to be your most natural self and to gather your energy. And for me that's my house in north central Kansas. I'm not sure, but I think the word comes from the bull fighting rings. There's a part of the ring where the bull goes after he's been stabbed a few times to gather his energy and to get ready for another charge. Somebody could have made that bit up, but I heard that and thought it was kind of nice. And I'm wounded, not that I am wounded by my travels (chuckle), but it's nice to go back to a place where I can relax and be myself. And so, there are maybe a dozen places around the world, including New York and Paris and Bangkok, where I feel at home. But none of them compare to Kansas.


I've done a little research. You started writing when you were 14, but you didn't start making money on travel writing till you were 27. What's changed in the industry since you began your career?

Well, I say that whatever I tell you now will be different tomorrow, but I think that the barriers to entry and getting your writing out there were higher. Now with blogging, so much social media, and so many interesting online venues, you're less beholden to going through a central authority to get your writing published. You had to find a newspaper or magazine or publisher to publish your stuff in the mid to late 90s when I was getting started. Whereas now, if you have some pretty interesting travels and you're writing pretty well about it, you can blog about it. My nephew is 14, and he writes comics. He would have had to use photocopy machines and try and send it to the newspaper. Now he has a comic blog. So the barrier to entry is easier, which is nice. You can find an audience earlier and you can use social media to build your audience.

One disadvantage of that is there's less discipline. You can write poorly and put it in a blog when you're 22, and after a year, you can have some really embarrassing writing there. When I look back on it, when I was 22 I just wasn't ready to be a writer or to be published. It wasn’t until I was 27 did it start to fall into place. Another disadvantage is the fact that it's easier to get your writing out there; the world is saturated with writing. So making money isn't harder, but making a living is, unless you are business savvy and use social media and sell ads on your blog.

I think a freelance writer has always had to be a businessman not only to figure out how to write, but also how to manage finances and where to publish. And that's even truer now: that writing well is one thing, but you can't just be some crazy genius with no financial management, unless you're already rich. You have to write well and be savvy enough to manage your finances, and that means taking care to spend money in a wise way - and to make money.


Rolf Potts: Vagabonding at 42


With all that content that's being generated in today's day and age, how do you get your voice to be heard above all the poorly written and mediocre stuff? How do you get yourself out there?

Writing well helps, or writing with voice. If you can write about the same thing as everybody else, but in a really funny way or a really distinctive way, it helps. And that's an advantage, I think - I had a fairly humorous voice early on.

Finding a specialty and being an expert. So if you're writing about travel, then find a place that you know well and that you can write about with expertise. For example, if you've been coming to Paris for several years, you can be writing about this neighborhood in a way nobody else is. If you're into wakeboarding, or backpacking or whatever, you'll be the person people go to because you have the best advice or you have the best way of stating things.

Another thing is building a following through social media, which means interacting with your audience. I think some writers take issue with that a little bit, because it should be about the writing, but now a lot people with big online followings are people who will reply to their readers and get into the comments of their own blogs. They'll network with other writers and they're very generous with building a community. And with social media--do you have a Twitter account? I do, but I seldom use it. I didn't use one for a long time, and I still don't use it very much, but using Twitter and Facebook and other social media apps is a rather new, and very effective way, of building an audience and being somebody people listen to. So I guess voice, expertise, and being interactive and being engaged with your audience. Those are probably my big three for advice.


Perfect! With that advice in mind, let's say one takes that advice out into the field and does something that is so extraordinary and so moving and so awesome, one doesn't know how to put that into words. How do you cope with this?

Hm. Well I guess one thing is that when things are so awesome and extraordinary, they're less story worthy than things that are horrible. (Chuckle) As a travel writer, the telling moments are the difficult ones. The difficult moments sort of force you into an action and awareness that is different. Because sometimes an amazing moment, unless it's hard won, is a passive experience. Like a beautiful sunrise or a nice dinner you were invited to nobody expected you to attend; it's less earned than these hard experiences that make better stories. I think people can write beautifully about beautiful experiences, it's just more difficult.

Specifically, you have to write about something universal and the world of universal behind bad experiences is pretty big, whereas the universe of good experiences is much smaller and there's less to learn.  I guess as humans, we instinctively like to solve problems to deal with hardship, in stories, and as well as real life. For some reason a story that has a big challenge is more interesting than a story with just a lot of beauty.


To that extent, you were robbed and drugged in Istanbul. It's one of my favorite stories from Marco Polo, and it got me thinking: have there been any other embarrassing or difficult situations that you haven't written about, or have but haven't published?

If you travel long enough, you're going to get scammed. I was in Cuba six years ago and got suckered into a money exchanging scam. The same thing happened in Chile about a year later. I was a really experienced traveler at this point, but I think that if you're pushing yourself, you're going to get pushed into situations where things like that happen. In both situations, very experienced con artists tricked me into giving them more money than I should have.

I've gotten malaria twice. I haven't written about that. I think I got it in Laos once and Burma another time. I did write about getting cholera, but not malaria. And that was pretty intense. It's been a long time ago now. I'm trying to think if something has happened more recently. I think I've been teaching more. A year at Penn, a year at Yale, my travels have been a little more contained. Getting scammed. Getting sick. Those are inventible to an extent.


Rolf Potts: Vagabonding at 42


You talk about teaching at Yale. That's a really different route from the whole vagabond lifestyle you embody. How is it being anchored to the schools, and not traveling as often? Do you still consider yourself a 'vagabond' in that regard?

I do, but I consider it a passive vagabond/vagabonder phase. I just can't commit myself to travel extensively at the moment, as some can. If you're going to wander the earth some more five years from now, you're still a vagabonder. It's a mindset just as much as it's an action. It's true that I'm certainly traveling a lot less. I was at Penn for a year, and Yale last year. At Penn, I was a writer in residence and they gave me an apartment and stuff, and it almost felt like it would be rude of me to accept a writer in residence gig and then be gone half the time. And then I was teaching a semester, so it was impossible.

I've never taught both semesters of a year because I want to keep it open to writing and travel. I wanted to try my hand at teaching and they're both Ivy League schools, with good reputations. . . I guess the readiest metaphor is bucket list. I've traveled the world, but I didn't get a chance to go to an elite school when I was younger. It's a privilege and an honor and I have the chance to learn a lot about myself. In a way, I'm vagabonding through a higher education - and these experiences are an adventure in their own right. Living on the east coast has been exotic. I've never been an east coast guy. I enjoy it, and I enjoy visiting New York. I don't think I could live on the east coast full time. I'm more of a middle of the country/west coast kind of guy. I've ended up being there in the winter, and I'd rather be in the tropics, or someplace warm. But again, it's a unique experience and not everyone gets the opportunity to teach at such a fine institution.

It's been a part of my adventure. I guess now, it's a matter of finding balance. Being a vagabonder at age 42 is much different from being a vagabonder at 22. It's very life specific, and if I was traveling in a certain way, the way I was at 22, it might be a little sad. So, I guess there's an ongoing challenge to find the right balance at the right time of life. And so right now, it's involved a little less open-ended travel and a little more challenges of a different, professional major. But it's been fun. And I'm going back to Yale next spring.


Where do you see yourself in the coming years? Are you going to continue teaching at Yale, maybe other schools, or more traveling? Where do you see yourself?

I'm not opposed to the idea of teaching at Yale, but my house is in Kansas, and so I can't really see myself being permanently east coast. Again, I think it's trying to find the right balance. I really enjoy teaching at Yale, so it'd be a matter of taking those opportunities when it's good. I would love to explore traveling in new ways. There are parts of the world, Africa and central Asia in particular, that I haven't really experienced, and would love to see more of. And spending some more time in Kansas. Deciding if I want to embark on the ultimate adventure, which is parenthood.  As your parents know, it's a game changer. Teaching at Yale is its own kind of adventure. And settling down in a vagabonder style and having a family would be its own set of challenges. It's not out of the realm of possibility. If it did happen, it would certainly change my lifestyle.


That ties into my next question, which is, what's next? Vagabonding is being rereleased as an  audio book, I know. What's going to be different about that?

It'll be quite similar, just a different format. It's slightly updated. Maybe a little bit more dynamic and 21st century, in where you can absorb the book on your way to work. It's also going to have some different textures. The vagabonding voices are going to be recordings from other travelers. In fact, when I'm done here, I'm off to send out my emails to everybody who's doing that.

I have some writing projects. I'm a mid-career writer now, so there's less pressure to open certain doors. I can goof around a bit. I've been invited to write the introduction of Patrick Leigh Fermor's book. He died a few years ago at like age 100, but he had been a spy for the British in WWII and when he was 18, he decided to walk across Europe. So he wrote this amazing book called Time of Gifts. So I'll have the introduction for him, I'll be doing some more writing, more traveling. There's a screenplay I'd like to work on this fall. And is that travel related or...? It's more like young adults. It's set in high school. It's an idea I've been thinking about for a long time.


That's really exciting! Do you play around with other genres much, or are you strictly a travel writer?

No, I play around with other genres. Last fall, I wrote an investigative story for Sports Illustrated about a football murder in Kansas. I do some cultural criticism as well. I'm still probably 70-80% travel writing, but I really enjoy trying my hand at other types of writing. It mixes things up a little bit.


Why do you write? What drives you every day?

Probably to give people a window into another part of the world through my sensibility. I don't really believe one can objectively portray another place without an element of yourself in it. I never try to hide my point of view. A lot of traditional journalism is very omniscient; it never talks about the person writing it. I'm a big believer that the writing we do as travelers is going to be written from our point of view. I guess I try to show what is unique to these places and what is unique to me. One mission of the travel writer is to reveal the reality of some places readers will never go to. You're sort of a surrogate traveler for your reader sometimes.


What is the most astonishing discovery you've made about the human race as a whole? Are they kinder than we like to believe? Harsher?

I believe that in people's cultural context, we're the same the world over. That there's a core decency to everyone, and you see it again and again when you travel. But there's always going to be the town jerk no matter where you go. No culture is free of difficult people, as well. I think from travel, you learn encouraging things about people, but that doesn't mean that one should have a naïve notion about people. Because sometimes, yeah. People are difficult or bad or evil in their own ways, and every culture has that diversity. And culture shapes people, and sometimes you have to get past your culture to accept others.  But I think people are the best part of travel. The best lessons come from the people you meet along the way.


Do you have any advice for up and coming writers?

It's very unoriginal advice, but write a lot. And read a lot. Read well and write well. So really, writing is a process that improves through its own process. It's through writing that one becomes a better writer, and it's through reading where one sees the models and structures for good writing. If you're a travel writer, I'd add: travel a lot. And travel well. The more you travel, the deeper your expertise is. A good writer will be able to write about a walk down that street to the Pantheon better than a lazy writer would about climbing Mt. Blanc or whatever. So, read well, write well, travel well, but really focus on the writing part. And spend time in journaling and know it's ok to fail. And fail better, another phrase I didn't make up. Get used to rejection, and realize it's not personal. Be persistent. Continue to hone your craft, and to recognize good writing and why it is good writing.       





Austin Weihmiller is a member of the Youth Travel Blogging Mentorship Program


All photos courtesy and copyright Rolf Potts




An interview with author Rolf Potts, about Vagabonding at 42, writing advice, and more.

Posted by: