A slight book-tour deviation: Away to London for Travel Channel voice-over

Though you could never tell by looking at my book tour schedule for Marco Polo Didn’t Go There, I had a curious stop-off — London, England — slotted between book events in Kansas City and Chicago. I went there to record voice-over narration for “American Pilgrim,” my first-ever hosting gig for the Travel Channel.

Upon arriving at Heathrow Airport after a KC-Chicago-London transit, I was met at the arrivals gate by a burly Nigerian driver in a pinstriped suit, who chauffeured me via Mercedes to the London Olympia Hilton. That was about as glamorous as the experience got; after that it was all jet lag and hard work.

In fact, not only was it all work, for the most part I didn’t really feel like I was in England. Because it happened so quickly, I felt like my sound-recording experience could have just as easily happened in an underground bunker in Indiana. Apart from a couple of pub meals and a few rainy glimpses of London’s Hammersmith and Shepherd’s Bush neighborhoods out the window of my producer’s Citroen, I didn’t see much of England. Such is the reality of trans-Atlantic business travel. Indeed, after years of preaching (and practicing) slow travel, it was quite the jolt to try and experience a major world city in 48 work-filled hours.

Travel conditions aside, it was great to catch up with director Peter Wisdom and producer Jamie Broome and go into the studio to put the finishing touches on my debut TV hosting gig. Thanks to these guys, I had very a supportive and professional TV experience — both in shooting the episode in the United States in mid-August, and editing it in London several weeks later.
Though I mentioned in my last post that my journey into the world of television was due in large part to the Travel-Channel success of “qualified insiders” like Anthony Bourdain, I don’t think my Pilgrim show is going to make Bourdain nervous for his star status anytime soon. I mean, sure, my Thanksgiving-themed special looks great on the screen (and I did a decent enough job in front of the camera for a first-time presenter) but the subject matter simply isn’t hip and cutting-edge enough to, say, garner me sacks of mail from adoring female fans who want nothing more than to send me Polaroids of themselves in bikinis. Instead, this history-show about the travel conditions of the Mayflower Pilgrims is more likely to garner me mail from middle-aged male history buffs who take issue with my pronunciation of words like “Massasoit” and “Pokanoket.” In fact, as well-produced as it is, my show is a very old-school documentary rendering of American cultural history, to the point of being a tad sentimentalist in places.

And that’s just fine with me, actually. Instead of trying contrive something uber-hip out of my usual subject matter (vagabonding-style indie travel), I got to cut my TV teeth on a subject that — while fascinating to me — is not tied into some essential notion of who I am or what I’m supposed to represent. If I have any misgivings about the show, it would be (a) TV isn’t the best venue to communicate deep context or nuance (and hence it was hard to show how, while intrepid, the Pilgrims could really be intolerant jackasses sometimes); and (b) though we spent a day and a half shooting Indian perspectives on the Pilgrims, the initial edit didn’t contain much Native American point-of-view (though I’ve been assured that several minutes of Indian interviews were added in a second edit).

As for the sound-dubbing itself, it was actually a really cool process. I sat in a sound-proof booth across a window from my director, who cued me on when to lay in the narration, and how to give the words the right emotive energy. I’ve never worked with such high-tech equipment before, and it was wild to hear my own voice so crisp and resonant in the headphones as I tried to capture the right energy level for each section of the program. Sound editing is done by computer these days, and I could watch as the technician snipped little visual sound-wave chunks of my narration and placed them seamlessly into the show.

After a day and a half of this I was just getting over my jetlag and keen to get out and explore London — which was a shame, since I was due back in Chicago for more book tour events in less than 24 hours. So it goes!

If you watch the Travel Channel, keep an eye out for the debut of “American Pilgrim” on Thanksgiving weekend.

TV, staycations, and “selling out”: A short list of Rolf’s missed mass-media opportunities

Hours after completing the Kansas leg of my book tour I flew across the Atlantic for a whirlwind two-day visit to London, England. This had nothing to do with Marco Polo Didn’t Go There; I was there to dub voice-over for a Travel Channel special I’m hosting this fall.

I’ll talk more about this Travel Channel show in my next post, but for now I wanted to note that this TV hosting opportunity is the result of a long process of near-misses that goes back a couple of years.

In truth, I never set out to host a TV show, but I started to get attention from production studios in late 2006, when — apparently — the Travel Channel sent out a memo expressing a desire to have “qualified insiders” as show hosts instead of air-headed actors. This was the result, no doubt, of the fact that Anthony Bourdain — himself a qualified insider — had become a big star for the Travel Channel, and the network wanted to recruit more people who knew what they were talking about when it came to travel. Hence, thanks to my decade of experience as a full-time travel writer (and my pouty, cheek-boney author photo — an anomaly I’ll discuss in a future post) I got a lot of attention from TV production companies last year.
The problem was that, despite all this interest, I didn’t have much TV experience, nor did I have a “reel” of on-camera clips to show. One company flew me out to Los Angeles to shoot an audition tape (they didn’t cast me); another company wanted to put me under an exclusive “development contract” to create shows for me (the terms of which would have cut into my other pursuits as a writer, so I declined); another studio flew me to New York to shoot some “talking head” interviews (which can still be seen on Travel Channel shows like “21 Sexiest Beaches”).

Unfortunately, after tons of emails and flying around, nothing ever worked — until this spring, when Pioneer Productions of London (the company that flew me to LA to make the audition tape) decided I would make a good host for a travel-history show called “American Pilgrim.” The rest is, well, history — and I’ll talk more about that in my dispatch from London.

For now, however — having talked a few of my “near misses” from the TV world — I wanted to share some other media opportunities that never quite worked out for me in recent years. These are the kind of interesting opportunities that I never end up talking about because, well, they didn’t work out.

Here goes with a quick top-five:

1) Writing a TV segment of This American Life

Like many public-radio-loving Americans, I’ve been a fan of This American Life for years, and in fact I used to listen to shows on my dial-up internet connection when I was living in Thailand writing Vagabonding. I started pitching show ideas to TAL producers sometime around 2002, and I finally got a spark of interest in 2007, when they expressed a desire to use one of my stories on air. As it turned out, they didn’t want my idea for radio, but for their Emmy-winning TV series on Showtime. Last November I traveled to Ontario with a couple of TAL producers on a “scouting trip” for my story; unfortunately, the Showtime folks didn’t think it was “visual” enough for the show, and my idea got killed.

2) Talking about “staycations” on The Daily Show

Personally, I’m not a big fan of the “staycation” concept.

Earlier this year, one of my bloggers wrote a post about the “staycation” phenomenon, and how this stay-near-home approach to travel might be implemented from a vagabonding perspective. For some reason, this post attracted the attention of Jon Stewart’s Daily Show producers, who queried both me and my blogger about a possible guest appearance on the show. Personally, I’m not a big fan of the “staycation” concept — but, in keeping with the principles of Vagabonding, I am an advocate of using the attitude of travel to explore your home area. The Daily Show folks, who perhaps wanted a more earnest staycation-pundit to poke fun at, never called back.

3) Appearing as a travel commentator on Fox News

Two summers ago, while I was writing a weekly travel column for Yahoo! News, I penned a quick top-10 list of my favorite USA travel destinations for a July 4th column slot. This list was unambiguously and unapologetically subjective, but for some reason it caused a huge stir when Yahoo posted it on their main page. New Jersey residents sent me hate mail (because they thought I’d insulted their state), New York Yankees fans sent me hate mail (because I’d stated, quite flatteringly, how I hated the Yankees for always beating the Royals), and a number of publications in Kansas reported that the “Yahoo search engine” (as opposed to me, a subjective writer) had declared the Flint Hills to be the “fifth best destination in America”. Amidst this madness, Fox News contacted me about appearing as a “USA travel expert” on their “Fox & Friends” morning show. As it happened, I was off teaching my Paris writing classes at the time, so it didn’t work out.

4) Selling film rights to Vagabonding

Earlier this summer a representative from one of the “Big Five” talent agencies in Hollywood contacted me about the possibility of selling film rights to my first book, Vagabonding. Of course, Vagabonding is not a narrative book, but I could see how its themes might be worked into a TV series or motion picture. I told the talent agency to send me more information, but to date nothing has come of it.

5) Becoming a spokesperson for Rockport shoes

Way back in 2004 a marketing representative contacted me out of nowhere and offered me an eye-popping sum of money to serve as a “spokesperson” for a new line of Rockport travel shoes. I’d always thought Rockport shoes were great — and the price was definitely right — but perhaps out of principle or foolishness I told the marketing rep that, while certainly interested, I didn’t want to put myself in a position that would contradict the anti-consumerist slant of Vagabonding. This gave the rep cold feet, and I never heard from Rockport again.

In retrospect, I should have simply accepted the offer and just quietly towed my anti-consumerist line (which I’m sure is possible to do, even as a spokesperson, since it’s certainly possible to sing the praises of a product without insinuating that it’s the only option in the universe). As it turned out, this gave me my punk rock moment — I didn’t sell out! — though under the right circumstances I reserve the right to do some kind of spokesperson gig in the future.

Three ways to capture sense of place in a travel story

In my last post I mentioned how I spoke with Thomas Fox Averill‘s writing students at Washburn University — and specifically about how you can use travel experiences to improve your “sense of place” descriptions, in fiction as well as nonfiction. Of course, mere travel isn’t the only way to improve your sense-of-place writing chops — it’s also useful to use research information and creative juxtaposition to enliven your descriptions of place. From the pages of Marco Polo Didn’t Go There, here are three strategies and examples for creating a stronger feeling of place in a story:

From Chapter 9: Evoking sense of place using direct description and contrasts

“Driving along the desolate and gorgeous Sandover Highway northeast of Alice Springs, there are only two sure indicators that life exists in this parched red-orange landscape. One is the curious ubiquity of pink cockatoos, which dart out of the bush and swoop over the Land Cruiser, occasionally exploding into the grill in a suicidal puff of pastel feathers. The other is an abundance of junked cars — sun-bleached Ford Falcons and rusty station wagons that have been abandoned at the side of the road by Aborigines going to or coming from their isolated homes in the outback. In the heat of the afternoon, when the horizon shudders like a mirage and towering dust devils swirl across the highway, this place can feel like the end of the world. Perhaps seized by irony or optimism, the German immigrants who tried to settle this area in the 1920s named it Utopia.”

From Chapter 12: Evoking sense of place using historical context, description, and sense of time

“Compared to the marquee islands of the Cyclades — Santorini, Ios, Mykonos — Sifnos doesn’t have much of a reputation. According to Herodotus, the Classical Era gold and silver mines on this 30 square-mile island made it the richest in the Aegean; a century later, Sifnos won notoriety as the site where the Spartans met with the Persians to plot against Alexander the Great. For the most, part, however, Sifnos has existed as a nondescript suburb of an island, with 2000 or so inhabitants, known more for its poets and pottery than political or geographical distinction. During Ottoman rule, the Turks never bothered sending a garrison to the island, and though pirates periodically haunted the Cyclades, the patron saint of Sifnos, Panaghia Chryssopighi, is best known for protecting the island against grasshoppers. “Despite such lack of distinction, however, my boat-mates and I immediately fall in love with Sifnos. The tourist crowds have left with high season, and we have the island mostly to ourselves. Renting motorcycles, we cruise up intricately terraced valleys to the central plateau, where the houses of Apollonia town lay scattered like big white dice among blue-domed churches and olive groves. We wander out to the far coast and swim on empty beaches under ridges dotted with almond trees and clumps of wild juniper. We explore the mazelike alleyways in the hilltop fortress of Kastro, where bright pink bougainvillea creeps over shuttered windows, and stray cats blink in the sunlight. In the evening, we sit outdoors at wooden restaurant tables and dine on tzatziki, olives, stuffed peppers, lamb, and local white wine. After dark, we hike up to the empty monasteries overlooking the harbor, where we listen to the sound of the wind and the tinkling of goat bells. One day on Sifnos stretches into two in this manner, and two days stretch into three.”

From Chapter 10: Evoking sense of place using the people who populate that place

“The best belly dancing in Egypt, it is said, costs $50 a show and can be found at five-star hotels like the Meridien Le Caire or the Parisienne. At the Palmyra club, which is within walking distance of the Sultan Hotel, admission is about $1.50. The performance value (I suspect) is calibrated accordingly. “When our disheveled traveler posse arrives from the Sultan to take a table in the back of the Palmyra, a man in a djellaba and two women in chadors are happily shaking their moneymakers on the dance floor. At first I think this is a prelude to some kind of Islamic-themed striptease, until I realize that these people are just overzealous customers. The real dancer — a big-haired, large-breasted girl in a faux snakeskin jumpsuit — is at the back of the stage, idly joking with the accordion player. As my eyes get used to the darkness, I take in the surroundings. The club features tall ceilings and textured rock walls, accessorized with red curtains. If the lighting were improved and the velvety curtains replaced with, say, country knickknacks, this place could easily pass for a family restaurant in Minnetonka, Minnesota. “The crowd, however, is decidedly non-Middle America: Bedouins in red-checkered kaffiyehs and long gowns wave 5-pound notes (each about $1.45) at the edge of the dance floor; Egyptian office stiffs with wrinkled neckties leap up from their tables to clap along with the music; fat men with thin mustaches sit alone in corners, sweat stains growing out from their armpits. The band looks straight out of a David Lynch movie: the melancholy lute player who blinks and stares at the floor as he strums; the grinning, leather-faced bongo drummer who wears brown pants over white, patent-leather shoes; the keyboardist who stops playing in the middle of the song to light a cigarette. The music is rhythmic, dissonant, deafening. “Eventually, the girl in the snakeskin jumpsuit starts to dance again, humming to the music into a cordless mike. After 30 minutes of this, she yields the stage to a dull-eyed blond with feathered hair and a sequined evening gown. This new dancer is so amorphously plump that her rear end seems to start just below her neck. As she dances, the slightest wiggle sends her sequined extremities into a gelatinous fury of motion. For those of us at the Sultan table, the effect is mesmerizing and somewhat disturbing. The Egyptian men, however, go nuts, shouting along to the music and periodically jumping onto the stage to bust a few dance moves and shower the blond with 1-pound (30-cent) notes.”

Tour stops #4, #5, #6, and #7: From the college towns: “Come and couch-surf Kansas!”

After a somewhat lonely showing in the Salina Central Mall, I took my book tour east on I-70 for a series of events on college campuses in Manhattan, Topeka, Lawrence, and suburban Kansas City. It was here, amid college students who were keen on the message of Vagabonding and intrigued by the tales in Marco Polo Didn’t Go There, that I feel like my book tour finally hit its stride.

I suspect that university campuses will always be my bread and butter when I tour for books — if nothing else because of the “time-is-wealth” slant of Vagabonding, which college students are always keen to hear. My tour of northeastern Kansas colleges started at Kansas State University in Manhattan, where I was slated to give keynote address to the Kansas International Educator’s conference. The word “keynote” was slightly intimidating (it made me feel like an adult all of a sudden), but I decided to keep the subject matter of my speech close to what I know best — travel, and the gut-level lessons you learn when you live in unfamiliar cultures. Since these concepts are easily applicable to international education, this led to a great post-talk discussion of living overseas, including safety issues and how to best motivate students to leave the comfort of home and study/travel abroad.
After my speech for the KIE folks, I jogged over to the K-State student union building and gave an International Coordinating Council-sponsored talk to 20 or so students, including hitchhiker extraordinaire Aaron Bell (whose hard-won hitching strategies I will blog about later this year at Vagablogging). Several members of the audience were members of Couchsurfing.com, and they all had a common refrain for would-be USA travelers out there: “Come to Kansas and stay with us!”

I say right-on to that, since a place like Kansas is off the beaten path in the truest sense of the word, and the student-couchsurfers there seem keen to show travelers the best of what the state has to offer.

Once I’d finished in Manhattan I continued on to Topeka, where I spent a day at Washburn University speaking with the writing students of novelist Thomas Fox Averill and memoirist Sarah Smarsh. None of these classes dealt with travel writing per se, but even among the fiction students I was able to generate some great discussions about how travel can sharpen your sense of place as a writer (and I’ll share some of these specific tips in my next post).

After an open-to-the-public Marco Polo Didn’t Go There reading at Washburn Union, I made a red-eye drive to Kansas City, where I was slated to give a noontime vagabonding talk the next day at Johnson County Community College. JCCC is one of the largest and wealthiest community colleges in the United States, and as a venue it reminded me of my talk at Google’s New York office: It was very organized and high-tech, with a sharp and engaged audience. As was the case at K-State and Washburn, a few of the students in the audience had been Vagabonding fans for years, and they brought in yellowing first-edition copies (some of which had traveled around the world with them) for me to sign. It’s always awesome to meet people who not only have read Vagabonding, but have already put it to use, and traveled around the world and back with stories to tell.

My final stop on my tour of northeastern Kansas was the classic college town of Lawrence, where my cousin Dan and several other old friends live. There I made an appearance at the River City Reading Festival alongside Kansas authors like American Shaolin author Matthew Polly, River of Doubt author Candace Millard, and Ice Harvest author Scott Phillips. I had a small but lively crowd at my reading, but the real spectacle was the author signing tent afterward, where a long line of people was stretched out along the library waiting to meet — no, not me — What’s the Matter With Kansas author Thomas Frank (who was there promoting his new book, The Wrecking Crew).

I managed to attract a dozen or so Marco Polo Didn’t Go There fans during my hour-long stint in the tent, but Thomas Frank’s mob of admirers was a reminder that other authors certainly have a more high-profile manner of promoting their books this year.

After Lawrence, I headed off to London, England of all places — to record voice-over for a Travel Channel special I’ll describe in a future post. [Photos by Jeffrey Couch.]

You, Rolf Potts, are a Contemptible Jackass, Part I: Stoner movie redemption

Around the time Marco Polo Didn’t Go There was set to debut in bookstores, I began to wonder what kind of negative comments it might attract. I wondered this not because Marco Polo is a bad book (to the contrary, I’m as proud of it as anything I’ve written), but because some degree of knee-jerk negativity is inevitable in the instant-reaction atmosphere of the Internet Age.

I learned this when I debuted Vagabonding five years ago. For the most part, of course, reader reaction to my first book has been overwhelmingly positive and encouraging. But every once in a while I’ll get an email or a blog comment that basically claims I’m a contemptible jackass because of some theme or observation in the book. One rather perplexing criticism that recurs from time to time is that Vagabonding is “preachy.”

At first this observation baffled me, since I urge flexible open-mindedness from the opening Preface chapter (“Add what is specifically your own…The creating individual is more than any style or system”), and the only things I preach against are postponing your travels, micromanaging your itinerary, or traveling too fast to truly experience your cultural surroundings.

After a bit of follow-up, I’ve discovered that most of these critics were upset by my “anti-marijuana” stance. The thing is, I never come out and tell people to not smoke it on the road; all I say is to (a) not get caught traveling with it in places where it could land you in jail, and (b) don’t get into the habit of using it all the time, because it will separate you from the more mind-blowing experience of unfiltered reality. That’s as anti-drug as I get in Vagabonding — and in fact (while I’ve never much been into smoking it myself) I’m all for marijuana legalization in the United States.
Moreover, I’m of the belief that stoner movies are one of America’s greatest contributions to world culture. In fact, from my personal DVD collection, here are four stoner movies that I make an effort to watch at least once a year:

4. Dude, Where’s My Car? Admittedly, one reason I love this movie so much is that I first saw it on the big screen in Bombay’s Colaba neighborhood, and it proved to be the pop-cultural equivalent of time-travel amid a very intense sojourn in India. But even better, this is a stoner movie that (unlike, say, Smiley Face) doesn’t try too hard to be a stoner movie: It’s just a delightfully pointless and juvenile comedy that features occasional marijuana use, an idiotic sci-fi sub-plot, and a million quotable lines. And then? No more and then!

3. Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle This movie has already been praised for its effectiveness in capturing an ebullient, almost patriotic vision of the American Dream without having any white guys in starring roles (unless you count the genius cameo by Neil Patrick Harris). This munchie-driven comedy might even qualify as an iconic American road movie, since Harold and Kumar’s epic burger quest shows how any destination is made that much sweeter by the challenges of the journey itself. Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition!

2. Dazed and Confused Richard Linklater’s pot-laced tribute to 1976 might be hilarious and quotable, but it’s also startlingly well observed. Indeed, this is no madcap stoner fantasy — it is (to me, at least) a wonderfully evocative look at mid-American teenage life in the pre-cell-phone age. A nice reminder that, at the end of the day, you just gotta keep livin’ man — L-I-V-I-N.

1. The Big Lebowski The first time I watched this movie I laughed myself silly — and nearly 20 viewings later it keeps getting funnier. To try and explain why I love this movie so much is beside the point: Either you know what I mean because you love it too, or you’re one of those people who just couldn’t embrace its stoner-Zen absurdity (and if so, then, you know, that’s just, like, your opinion, man.). The Dude abides! Fire up the Ford Torino and take me to LebowskiFest.

So there you have it: My admonitions in Vagabonding don’t mean I’m against marijuana; I’m just saying you should save plenty of psychic space for unmediated reality as you travel. As for Marco Polo Didn’t Go There, it remains to be seen which aspect of the book attracts the most grumpy emails. I’m guessing it’ll either be the “Jack Kerouac for the Internet Age” blurb on the cover (which might attract the ire of Beat movement fundamentalists), or use of the word “postmodern” in the subtitle (which could attract the fundamentalist ire of pasty academic guys in black turtlenecks). We’ll see!