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Thursday, 19 October 2006

Living in the Sierra Madre: An Interview with Jeff Biggers - Page 3

Written by Karen Elowitt
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Name any place in the world, and chances are that Jeff Biggers has been there. A seasoned writer and traveler, he has journeyed to some of the most exotic places on the map and written about them with great vitality and passion. Biggers is not simply a “travel writer” – that label is far too simple to describe his work. His books, short stories, articles, and radio programs explore the inner life of the places and cultures he has visited by weaving a complex tapestry of historical details, vignettes of daily life, profiles of local people, and geographical discovery.


In In the Sierra Madre you spoke to Alfonzo, the great storyteller who told you of his wild worldwide journeys. 
He said that when he came home people said to him 'You are as poor as we are, what good are your stories?'  
You seemed affected by that as well.  Do you think that many Tarahumara people are not interested in the 
outside world?


They were interested in the outside world, but had very little experience of it. There is this idea amongst the Tarahumara (and other people) that what you do in life should be reflected in how much money you make. And they think that anybody who gets out will have had contact with wealth. So they wondered why he would bother to travel the world if he could not make a profit off it. That’s true as well for us – as travel writers we sometimes ask ourselves why write if you can’t get rich doing it? But what hit me hard with Alfonzo was that here was this man who truly had this extraordinary life, but his friends couldn’t believe that he traveled for a rich life, not personal riches.


I thought, shouldn’t that be the whole point of our travels – not to find a great fortune, but to have a beautiful experience? You struggle as a travel writer to make money - there are only about three people out there who make any money doing it. But you realize that’s not the point. The point is to have great experiences and tell great stories.


What was your favorite journey/trip and why? Of all the traveling you've done, 
where are you most drawn to?  

There are so many paradises on earth. I filed a lot of stories about amazing places for Savvy Traveler, and even didn’t file stories sometimes because I thought; I don’t want anyone to know about this place! I actually lost money doing that, but gained a great place that I thought maybe was not ready for mass tourism yet. But I am in love with deserts, mountains….. Sicily is in the top three places I love most in the world. My next book is about an incredible place in Kerala, India. There is a mountain range there called the Ghats that is just amazing.


Do you have a favorite piece of travel writing or author that you particularly admire or aspire to be like? Why is this one your favorite?


That’s a hard question because I read a lot and really admire a lot of travel writers. The really hopeful thing about this genre is that there is so much great stuff going on. There is a lot of stock commercial travel writing, but there are also lot of great writers in books, magazines, and websites such as your own who are getting the story out.


Bruce Chatwin was one of my favorites, even though he had a problem with the truth sometimes. He wrote a book called The Songlines, about the aboriginal people of Australia. It was a great classic of travel writing, even though he probably made up half of it. He had a beautiful way of writing and unfortunately died of AIDS. Colin Thubron is another one. He does an amazing amount of research before each trip. He actually spends a year learning the language, a year doing his trip and then a year doing follow-up research. It shows an incredible commitment to the journey. Peter Hessler is doing some amazing books on China. There are so many great writers, from so many different countries.


What advice would you give to fellow travelers and aspiring travel writers?


I tell people to start out writing for smaller publications such as yours, and not worry about making money. You just want to churn it out. Work on your stuff. Keep traveling and refining your stories. I think a lot of people get sort of pessimistic because they get rejected a lot, but even though travel writing is a fairly open-ended field to get into as a freelancer, there are a lot of people out there competing with you. Even me, with a few books under my belt and having been published in some big publications, I am just starting to break into the big-time after doing this for many years. It takes a lot of time. But if you really love what you’re doing, keep cranking it out for smaller publications, online publications, and regional newspapers, where the bottom line is not money but building your craft and building your clips. Enjoy what you’re doing and keep traveling, and eventually things will fall into place.


To read a review of In the Sierra Madre, click the 'ink' link on the left

You can read more about Jeff Biggers on his website, .

© Karen Elowitt 2006



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