Issue 23 / Fall 2020
Suzanne Roberts grew up in Southern California, the daughter of an American father and an English mother. Her fondest childhood memories are those of traveling to Sequoia National Park and Mammoth Lakes, Fire Island, and to England to visit her grandparents. She still loves to travel, despite her fear of flying. I know because before we went on a hot air balloon flight together, she told me she had learned that hot air ballooning was the safest form of aviation—a person was more likely to be killed by a cow.
I met Roberts fifteen years ago, when we both joined the same poetry critique group. We have remained friends and writing colleagues since. Our conversation about travel essay collections, titles, journaling, and themes took place over email with the occasional voicemail.
Krista Lukas: Your titles strike me as telling and creative. I especially like “Prague and the Unbearable Lousiness of the Tourist,” “Stretching the Thigh Fat,” and “Sassy at Burning Man.” Some of these are allusions, others are descriptors, some puns, and some are lifted directly from the text.
Suzanne Roberts: Thank you so much for noticing my titles! Some titles come right away but most take me forever to figure out. Because this is a memoir-in-essays and not a straight memoir, it was important to me that each essay has a title that says something about the subject but in a playful way—as you say with the Kundera allusion or the pun on Sassy. In almost every case the title I ended up with wasn’t the one I began with, but once I find the right one, it usually sticks.
KL: How did you arrive at the title of your collection, Bad Tourist?
SR: The essays in Bad Tourist are a result of pulling pieces that didn’t fit into the memoir I was working on. As I went through the memoir manuscript and started pulling pieces out, I noticed the parts that didn’t fit all had a similar theme—I was trying, on my travels, not to be a bad tourist but inevitably ended up being one. I called the file I stuffed these pieces (or the “darlings” I had “killed”) into BAD TOURIST. I kept working on the original memoir, which has since evolved into a book about my mother—she ends up forcing her way into a lot of my writing, and even makes a couple appearances in Bad Tourist. When I had about 90,000 words in my Bad Tourist file, I realized I had a book of essays, and at first, I was resistant because essays are a harder sell. The memoir was originally in chronological order, but then I realized I not only had a memoir-in-essays but also an anti-guidebook—what not to do when travelling—so I organized it like a guidebook with sections like Sights, Sleeping, Eating & Drinking, etc. But I also tried to organize the book so the arc—a woman learning how to live on her own terms—makes sense. This is all to say that when you make cuts to what you are working on, save everything. Those cuts might actually be another book.
KL: You write of journaling throughout the collection. What importance does journaling have for you as a writer? Does having journals to look back to help you as you’re molding a piece into an essay?
SR: The two most important things I do as a writer are reading and journaling. I have hundreds of journals, dating back to when I was little. I couldn’t have written either of my memoirs without these journals. They help me process and remember details. I have learned to write down all the specifics of the places I’ve been, as well as snippets of conversation because I never know what I will need later. Some things don’t seem that important when I’m living through them, and I only see the importance later. And sometimes, I write from memory and then look back in revision to add the details, and usually there’s something—it could be a line of dialogue or the name of a place I visited—that ends up unlocking an essay. I brag that I have a great memory, but I’m not sure that’s true; it might be that the act of writing it down solidified the memory.
KL: I noticed seeking new experiences, adventure, and self-revelation as recurring themes. What themes do you identify in this collection? Were you conscious of these as you were writing, or did they emerge in retrospect?
SR: I agree with the themes you have mentioned and in some essays, writing toward theme was intentional; in others, the theme emerged in revision. The collection is also about what it means to be a woman in the world and the way we are so often in-relation to men. I tried to push against that in the book, showing how my younger self went along with that idea, but as I got older, I learned to be the subject of my life, owning my own desires, rather than the object in relation to others—mostly with men but with my mother, too. Those feminist themes definitely surfaced more fully when I revised and ordered the book, creating an arc of discovery and learning how to stand on my own.
KL: In thinking about the theme of self-revelation, I noticed in “Fourteen One-night Stands,” the protagonist, in her journal, reflects on having told her traveling companion she was falling in love with him: “Was it true? I didn’t know, but I knew a thing eventually became whatever you named it.” Does this insight apply to any other essays in your collection, or to the entire book?
SR: I love that you pulled out that sentence, because yes, I very much think that applies to the whole book and to life in general. I do think language—the way we name things—creates reality. That’s why ideas and language are so powerful, for both better and for worse.
KL: I’ve learned as much about what to do as I have about what not to do from reading in every genre. Which travel essay collections did you learn from, and which did you use as models for your own?
SR: Essay collections about travel, unless they are selected essays over a writer’s career, aren’t easy to find and maybe that’s because essay collections in general have been a harder sell in the marketplace, though I feel like that might be changing.
Rolf Potts’ Marco Polo Didn’t Go There is funny, irreverent, and poignant, and at the end of the book, there’s an explanation of how each essay came into being, so it’s a great collection for anyone studying the art of travel writing.
I also love Camille Dungy’s Guidebook to Relative Strangers; though not every essay is a travel essay, many of them are, and they focus on what it means to be a Black mother in America—it’s an extraordinary collection of essays.
I have definitely looked closely at the craft behind David Sedaris’ humor in Me Talk Pretty One Day, and the key is that though he certainly makes fun of others, he pokes the most fun at himself. Michael Branch’s short, place-based essays are also both funny and smart. He was one of my professors in graduate school, and I’ve learned a lot about writing from him. Two collections I keep returning to are How to Cuss in Western and Rants from the Hill. Ellen Meloy’s Anthropology of Turquoise isn’t exactly travel, but it’s definitely place-based and also very funny, though in a more understated way—I really love her work.
The Irish writer Rosita Boland’s book of travel essays, Elsewhere, is a wonderful collection but it’s in chronological order, so it functions as a “greatest hits” in the way both Susan Orlean’s My Kind of Place and Paul Theroux’s Fresh Air Fiend do—in these cases the essays don’t follow a single theme but create a sort of canon of the writer’s work, and usually that writer has already established their place in the genre.
Suzanne Roberts is the author of the memoir in travel essays, Bad Tourist: Misadventures in Love and Travel (University of Nebraska Press, October 2020), the memoir Almost Somewhere: Twenty-Eight Days on the John Muir Trail, winner of the National Outdoor Book Award, and four books of poems. Named “The Next Great Travel Writer” by National Geographic’s Traveler, Suzanne’s work has been listed as notable in Best American Essays and included in The Best Women’s Travel Writing. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, CNN, Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, The Rumpus, Hippocampus, The Normal School, River Teeth, and elsewhere. She holds a doctorate in literature and the environment from the University of Nevada-Reno and teaches for the low residency MFA program in Creative Writing at Sierra Nevada University. She served as the 2018-2020 El Dorado County Poet Laureate and currently lives in South Lake Tahoe, California.
Krista Lukas has published short stories, essays, and interviews in The Sun, Jewish Women’s Literary Annual, and Los Angeles Review of Books. She is the author of a poetry collection, Fans of My Unconscious, poems from which appear in The Best American Poetry 2006 and The Writer’s Almanac.