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Tuesday, 04 March 2008

When Twain is Your Travel Guide: an Interview with James Wallace - Page 3

Written by Erin Kuschner
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Literature has always been a portal into the foreign. The exploration of lives that do not belong to you in a place you have never been is what a reader hopes to encounter page after page, from beginning to end. And for those who can only discover a new country from the seat of an armchair, travel literature is the holy grail of experiencing the unfamiliar.

INTRAVEL: Do you subscribe to any travel magazines?

JW: No, I don’t. We subscribe to Gourmet, which is a kind of travel. They have special issue from time to time on Paris, or Rome. So recipes, but also recommendations for restaurants or hotels.

INTRAVEL: Do you think the appeal of travel for early authors has changed at all? I know when we read [Alain de] Botton, he talked about how traveling before there was all this literature about a place made the traveler see things through fresh eyes. How do you think this has affected travel writing?

JW: I think by the time you are in the 19th century travel is already tourism. There’s not much more “exploration” left to do. And there’s always… an effect that we call “always already.” You go back to find the origin of something and no matter how far back you go, it seems that it always already has turned into a commodified, impure thing somehow. You are looking for just a pure, exploring experience. I think, you know, Cooper went to Europe for pretty much the same reason we do. It’s the cultural capital; it’s a different way of life, different manners…he wanted his children to be educated in a wider world than Cooperstown, New York. That was a major impulse for him: to go abroad and to stay abroad for as long as he did, to put his kids into school in Europe. For my wife and I, taking the kids to England and France and Spain - that was one of the things we really wanted to do. My son has been to China a couple of times, in Xian, which is kind of out in the middle, west of Beijing. It’s where the clay warriors are, the terracotta warriors. They’re giant, a whole army that some emperor had made…

When Twain is Your Travel Guide: an Interview with James WallaceINTRAVEL: Do you do any travel writing yourself?

JW: Not really. I’ve always kept a journal in England, France, and Italy, but I haven’t ever done anything with it; I haven’t tried to do any real “writing” per se.

INTRAVEL: Do you think the practice of keeping a journal and writing more novels about travel has dwindled off with all the types of travel magazines that are popping up?

JW: Well, when I go to the bookstore, to the travel literature section – of course, there’s an enormous travel section, mostly guidebooks – it looks to me like people are still cranking out those travel books, and apparently they are selling pretty much as they always did. The audience for reading is not the same as it used to be – reading in general. Everyone complains about the disappearance of bookstores and things like that. Of course, that’s not so much because people aren’t reading anymore, it’s because you get your books from And I do too! There’s a local bookstore in Coolidge Corner [near Boston] that I go to all the time – it’s a great store, a Brookline institution, and people go in there all the time. But when I want a book that I know is not going to be there because it’s too obscure I just get it from It’s too easy now to get books that way.

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Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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