I am incredibly excited to interview our guest Thomas Kohnstamm. Thomas is an accomplished travel writer who has written multiple guide books for Lonely Planet, he’s the author of Do Travel Writers Go to Hell?, and he has even ventured into the world of screenwriting and producing videos. Today we discuss his writing career, love of Brazil, favorite beer, and more. Enter Thomas.
Hey Thomas, thanks for joining us! For those that are unfamiliar with your work, can you tell everyone a little bit about yourself and how you got started writing about travel?
I’m a Seattle-based writer. I came up as a travel writer in the late 90s and early 2000s, mainly covering Latin America. I wrote a gonzo-style memoir called Do Travel Writers Go to Hell? in 08 about the highs and lows of following my dream to be a travel writer on my first guidebook project in Brazil.
Since then I have worked on a lot of screenwriting – my book was in development as a scripted comedy series at Showtime. These days, I write and direct digital video, write long-form interviews and am hard at work on a novel.
How I got into travel writing:
I was always big into reading and writing and doing off-the-wall stuff and telling stories. I guess that I like to vacuum up info and experiences and share my take on it with anyone who will listen.
I also grew up traveling a ton with my family. We didn’t have a lot of money, but – every chance we got – we went on road trips and camped and stayed in hostels.
We traveled overland across Europe and North Africa on three different occasions before I finished high school. I started studying Spanish when I was about eleven and first traveled by myself to Spain at 17 to work as a translator at a big festival. From there I started working as a guide for volunteer programs in Costa Rica and Ecuador while I was in college. In 1998, a few months out of school I pitched Lonely Planet the idea for a Costa Rican Spanish Phrasebook. I didn’t have any contacts so I pitched them through their customer service email – and they bought it. That would never happen today, but you know what they say about timing. Anyway, I then went and did a Masters in Latin American Studies and eventually circled back to guidebooks before fanning out into other types of writing and travel writing.
What was your day to day process like for writing Do Travel Writers Go to Hell?
Wake up. Drink coffee. Walk the dogs. Drink coffee. Stare at the computer screen. Drink more coffee. Start to beat myself up. Drink more coffee. Hate myself. Start to write. Drink beer. Write more. Drink more beer. Write into the night and hopefully end the day happy with my output. Then do it all over again.
It took me almost a year to write the first chapter. I started it while taking a little hiatus from travel writing down in Chilean Patagonia and sharing an apartment with an old college friend who was also working on a book. The second chapter took me a few months to write when I was back in Seattle. I got a book deal and powered through the rest of the first draft in something like seven months.
If you could impart only three gems of knowledge on a young travel writer, or any writer for that matter, what would those gems be?
1. Don’t do this unless you really feel in your core that you need to do it. A career in writing is not for the faint of heart. It will be a roller coaster and you have to really love it if you are going to keep stepping up to see it through.
2. Focus on storytelling and voice. There are a lot of people out there who have good grammar, flawless spelling and can put together pretty sentences. Work on being able to convey your own voice and force yourself to learn storytelling structure. Those are the skills that will differentiate you from the pack and elevate the kind of stories you can land.
3. Balance a broad understanding of travel/the world with a specific expertise. It is very hard to break in by just saying that you like travel in general. You need that broader knowledge but it needs to be paired with a high level of insight on food, music, a language, a sport or something to lock-in some initial contracts and get some momentum and bylines.
Is there anything that you believe that few other people would agree with?
Cheap watery lagers are amazing. Mexico has the best beer on Earth. Americans are all wound up about craft beers with pumpkin and pine cones and elderberry and shit in their beer. They’re so hoppy that you need to chase it with a tongue scraper. A cold Miller High Life is a work of art – not enough people recognize that…
I understand that you have a love for Brazil, what is special about Brazil to you?
Brazil is one of the warmest, most welcoming cultures on the planet. Yes, the country has more than its fair share of problems, but – as someone who is interested in people and cultures – Brazilian people grant you more access to their lives and society than in most other places.
Spending time in (messy, friendly, fun) Brazil complements life in (organized, efficient, reserved) Seattle for a more rounded life experience.
Now that you’re settled down with your family, are you still active in seeking out new adventures?
I have two kids under the age of four, so things have changed. But my wife is from Rio, so we try to go to Brazil every year for at least a month, if not more. I also do more regional travel and travel for specific stories and videos I’m working on.
I guess that the short answer is: I don’t have anywhere near as broad of a travel life these days but I have more depth in the travels and adventures I do manage.
I enjoy learning about what other people are reading because I think the act of trading ideas and knowledge is incredibly powerful, do you have three books about travel or other that you feel have had large impact on your life?
It would be hard to narrow that list out of all of the books that’ve had an impact on my life but within travel writing (broadly defined), I’d say:
The Tourist by Dean MacCannell – it’s an academic book about tourism and its impact on people
The Rum Diary by Hunter Thompson – pretty straightforward travel story elevated by his energy and voice.
In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin – mastery of form.
Thank you so much for being with us Thomas. I could ask you questions all day, but I want to be respectful of your time. For one last question, where can people find you to see what your latest projects are or what you’re up to?
Clay: Once again I would like to thank Thomas for being so kind and letting me interview him. If you would like to buy his book, Do Travel Writers Go to Hell?, you can do so on Amazon.