Andrew McCarthy discusses his new role: travel writer

For many people, the name Andrew McCarthy probably conjures images of iconic movies from the 1980s and 1990s, films such as St. Elmo’s Fire, Pretty in Pink, Less Than Zero, Weekend at Bernie’s, and The Joy Luck Club. But these days the actor is playing a new role: travel writer. Since he first wrote a piece on Ireland for National Geographic Traveler in 2006, McCarthy has published some two dozen travel stories in publications including the Wall Street Journal, Travel + Leisure, Afar, and Islands. He is now a Contributing Editor for National Geographic Traveler, and last year in the Society of American Travel Writers’ annual Lowell Thomas awards competition, he was named Travel Journalist of the Year. McCarthy will be guest of honor at the Book Passage Travel & Food Writers & Photographers Conference next month and has just signed a contract to write his first travel memoir.

I had the pleasure of interviewing McCarthy onstage at the National Geographic Auditorium in May. The evening was full of great anecdotes and insights; here are some that especially struck me.

Travel literature and the importance of scenes:

I asked McCarthy how he made the transition from actor to travel writer, and he said he began reading Paul Theroux and that Theroux’s travel books changed his life. (Reading Paul Theroux is, I think, excellent advice for any would-be travel writer.) Theroux and others taught him that in regard to travel literature, “when people do it well, they can really capture the essence of a moment in time, in a place — in themselves and in the place.”So,” McCarthy continued, “I just started buying tickets to places, a ticket into Capetown and out of Dar es Salaam 2 months later, and the rest I’d just fill in. Every year I’d take a couple of months and do that. I started writing scenes of encounters I had with people – just for myself — because that’s what I knew how to do, be in scenes. So I’d write the scene between me and the kid who picked me up on the moped in Hanoi and took me around for the day. I did nothing with them, I put them in a drawer.”

I love how McCarthy’s perspective as an actor illuminates the importance of scenes in travel writing. Deconstruct most great narrative travel articles, and you’ll discover a series of scenes – like a movie script, but supplemented and strung together with facts. One of the great arts of travel writing, of course, is choosing which scenes to put into your story to convey your point – the experience and the experiential lesson/s that you want to convey. In most stories, probably 90-95 percent of the available material, the totality of scenes from the trip, end up on the editing room floor. But the final story proceeds as a succession of carefully chosen and crafted scenes. In this sense, creating scenes is the essence of great storytelling, and McCarthy’s words made me appreciate that grounding truth all over again.

Scaffolding and chance in storytelling:
When I asked McCarthy how he goes about shaping a story on the ground, he quoted what John Gielgud said about acting: “Build a strong scaffolding and leave the big moments to chance.”

“That’s a bit what I do with travel stories,” McCarthy said. “Initially I’m very much in service of what I think I’m going to write about – and that always alters….”

There are two great points here, I think. You can’t support a story without the scaffolding, so your fundamental job as a travel writer in a place is to find the scaffolding for your piece. “I make sure I nail down a few lampposts when I get there,” McCarthy said, “hooks that I know I can swing from one [scene] to the other – I’ve got to get from here to here and suddenly I meet the guy selling ice cream who grew up wherever and that will swing me to where I can lynchpin to the next one….”

But equally important is Gielgud’s point about leaving the big moments to chance. That chance is the serendipitous spark and stuff of the story: the moment that you didn’t expect to happen – on the ground, in the writing – and that happened only because the scaffolding was sure and strong enough. These “big moments” are the unexpected gifts of traveling and writing – the epiphanies that suddenly give everything a clarity and meaning you hadn’t realized before. Surprising those big moments on the ground and then re-capturing them in the telling is the great quest and joy of travel/writing for me.

Fear, vulnerability and transformation:
I believe that every travel writer has a trip that changed his/her life. I asked McCarthy if he had a trip that changed his life and he immediately answered, “Yeah. Around 18 years ago I walked the Camino de Santiago in Spain, and that changed my life. “

He elaborated, “I walked across Spain for a month and it was just a transformative experience for me. I found it terrifying, and I was lonely and miserable for most of it, and then something happened and I had one of those experiences that you have – I went there to see if I could take care of myself and I discovered that I was taken care of. It wasn’t a religious experience but it was some kind of experience where I felt unafraid in the world on a deep level for the first time. I carried so much fear with me in the world that I didn’t even know I carried it until it was suddenly absent for a short time — and that changed my life and started me traveling.”

A bit later, I asked McCarthy what travel does for him now, and he said, “When you go out in the world, you realize that you have to lay yourself vulnerable to the world and ask for help and you become much less fearful in the world…. I’m a great believer in the transformation that happens when you travel – I’m a better version of myself when I travel, I’m happier, I come home a better person.”

I was very moved by the conjunction of these experiences and truths – the way walking the Camino de Santiago had helped him confront the fears he’d been living with all his life, and the recognition of the vulnerability that is at the heart of the traveler’s situation in the world.

This has been one of travel’s great truths for me as well: that we are fundamentally vulnerable, reliant on others, when we move out into the world, and that cultivating the art of vulnerability is one of the traveler’s greatest challenges and rewards. Every time I travel I re-learn this lesson: the more I open myself to the world, the more the world opens itself to me; the deeper my trust, the deeper my reward.

I agree completely with McCarthy that in this way, travel makes us better, bigger, people, more attuned to the nuances of life, more embracing of its diversity, and ultimately, more embracing of ourselves.

Near the end of our talk, McCarthy articulated the passion that propels his travels: “I love going anywhere,” he said. “When I’m out the door, and I’m on my way — yeah, I miss everybody, but who knows what’s going to happen in the next x amount of days? I love that feeling….”

And I knew that though we’d walked different paths to find it, wanderlust had touched – and transformed — both our lives.


You can view my conversation with Andrew McCarthy here.

McCarthy and I will converse again at Book Passage in Corte Madera, California, on Aug. 13.