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Sunday, 25 February 2007

An Interview with Rolf Potts - Page 2

Written by Karen Elowitt
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If you’ve never heard of Rolf Potts, then you’re one of the disadvantaged few. A seasoned traveler and writer, he has been to over fifty countries and has written about his adventures for dozens of magazines and newspapers, from the high-profile to the humble. Rolf always tells his tales in a witty and wise way that has earned him worldwide praise.

You’ve toured brothels in Cambodia, tried tantric sex in India, gotten semi-kidnapped in Lebanon ... do these types of adventures just find you, or do you seek them out? Surely your travels must not always be as interesting and funny and poetic as your stories.

Having the luxury of time allows you the privilege of story, I guess. Sometimes I am a magnet for unusual people. With people like Mr. Ibrahim in Beirut, well, some people might run away from him, but I take things as they come. But with regard to time, if you swoop into a place with only two days to spend, you will be sort of pre-conception driven, and be forced to deal with the ideas you had when you arrived. But if you have two weeks in a place, to wander and hang out and go on day trips and talk to people, pretty soon a story can develop more organically. If you can give a travel experience time, those stories will happen if you’re open to them. They also tend to happen when you travel alone. Some of my best stories have happened because I was sitting on a train and started talking to a Cambodian guy in Thailand, or I was walking around Beirut and met a guy who liked Americans.

You spent a couple of years in Korea teaching English in the mid-90s. You have said in past interviews that you spent a lot of this time reading and writing. Is this when you really started to develop as a writer?

It was certainly part of my development as a writer. But writing is always an ongoing process. When I was seven I wrote a book about dinosaurs, complete with a pronunciation guide. It was a combination of plagiarism and fantasy. It was always something I was interested in and good at. I wrote for my high school newspaper, and wrote science fiction and horror stories at that age too. It sort of developed from there. In a general sense, they always say write what you know, and eventually my obsession with travel and my obsession with writing dovetailed. My trip around the US and my attempts to write about it are a result of that. Then in Korea I was licking my wounds from the failure of my USA travel book, but I went back to the craft so I guess that’s how I developed my writing in that time. I also did a lot of reading – Moby Dick, and poetry anthologies, and I got back to the language and the craft.

Did you consciously choose a “niche” as a travel writer, which is very competitive, or do you just write what you want and the way you want, and just see if anyone wants to buy it?

I don’t think I consciously chose a niche, although it seems that I have one now. My niche was sort of an accident and coincided with the heyday of’s travel section, which was really narrative and story-based. What I was already writing dovetailed nicely with what they wanted. I was traveling solo and slow and having these goofy adventures. ‘Vagabonding’ was almost an accident too. A Random House editor approached me about it, based on some things I had written on my website. So I think my niche sort of found me. I like to be a generalist, even though independent travel is my bread and butter, but I like to think that I can stay branched out, and write about cultural tourism, or hotel tourism or other special interest travel if need be.

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