Brian Thacker: Author of travel books

image-BrianThacker200Brian Thacker’s seventh travel book is Tell Them to Get Lost – Travels with the Lonely Planet guidebook that started it all. Travelling South-East Asia with a copy of the first-ever shoestring guidebook, published in 1975, Brian travels through Portuguese Timor, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Laos and Burma.

Brian caught the travel bug not long after finishing university, and has since travelled to over 70 countries. He’s worked as a tour guide, ski instructor, and advertising art director. He took up full-time writing in 2003 and has since published 7 books on his travel adventures.

Click play to listen. Running time: 29.35

Tell them to get lost

Transcript

* Please note these transcripts have been edited for readability

Valerie
Brian, thanks for joining us today.

Brian
Thank you for having me.

Valerie
Now, we’re intrigued by your latest book, Tell Them To Get Lost: Travels With the Lonely Planet Guide Book That Started it All. I’m about half way through it, and I can’t put it down. First tell me about the book, why did you decide to write this, with this angle?

Brian
I was sitting with Tony Wheeler, who is the founder of Lonely Planet at a book signing after a Melbourne Writers’ Festival, and no one was buying our books, we were just sitting there chatting away. And, I was talking about how I traveled in Corfu many years ago with this old guide book I’d picked up for 50 p from a book sale in London. And, how in the old guide book it said that there was this tiny little fishing hut where you get some lunch. And, I came around the corner and I’m seeing this beach in front of me. And there’s 500 pubs, all called the Red Line, full of English people reading the same newspaper. So, I started telling Tony about that, and I said, “Has anyone ever tried to do that with a Lonely Plane Guide Book?” And he said, “I don’t think so.” And I said, “Do you have a copy of the first guidebook you ever wrote?” And he said, “Yeah.” And a few minutes later I had this trip planned all through Southeast Asia with this idea of getting that old guidebook from 1975 and using that as my only guidebook, just to see what has changed and what is still around.

Valerie
What a great idea. So, when was that? Was that 2000 and what? And, when did you go on your trip?

Brian
That was 2008, I think, the Writers’ Festival. I split the trip up, but it was over 2009, mostly, the trip.

Valerie
Did you write while you were there or did you take notes and then put it all together much later?

Brian
I carry around a little exercise book, like one you get in primary school. And, I scribble notes frantically as I am going along.

Valerie
You don’t take a laptop, or an iPad, or something like that?

Brian
Not at all, no. I just like taking notes, and then I transcribe all the notes then onto a Word document when I get home.

Valerie
You do it the old-fashioned way.

Brian
Yeah.

Valerie
Take us back to when you first started in writing, what made you interested in it in the first place and how did you get into it?

Brian
It’s a great story. Twice in my life these wonderful things happen, because I got re-trenched, I had this silly dream come true. First time, in my former life I was in advertising as an art director, advertising gets retrenched a lot when I lose accounts. One time I got retrenched and there was no work around, and I saw an ad in a paper for tour leaders in Europe and winter work. When I first went traveling, when I finished college, I went skiing in Switzerland. There was this guy there and his job was a ski guide. And I thought, “What a job!”

So, I got this big silly dream. I went over and got a job as a ski guide in Switzerland. And, in the summer I was taking tours around Europe, busloads of drunk Aussies and Kiwis around Europe. And then when I came back to Australia, I got back into advertising again, and got retrenched, and while I was sitting there waiting around — I’d kept a journal, just a journal of all the things the locals got up to, what the passengers got up to on the tours. And I always thought it would make a funny book, because it was funny stories. And, I thought, “Well, instead of sitting here watching Oprah, why don’t I just start writing a couple of stories?” And I started writing a couple of stories and I thought, “Hey, I think I could get a book out of this. If I’m going to do it, I’m going to do it properly, I’m not going to sit on it for years.” So, I took four months off, more like four months off looking for work —

Valerie
What year was that? When did you take four months off?

Brian
That was 1999, end of 1999. And then I handwrote the whole mess into a sort of big exercise book thing. And then it looked like the ravings of a lunatic, and it was at 80,000 words. So, I then rewrote by hand the whole thing again. But, this was just scribbles everywhere. At the back of my first book it actually says, “Brian has vast writing experience, he’s written over 1,000 postcards in his travels.” I really didn’t have much, I had no formal training in writing. I was lucky enough, my sister types about 1200 words a minute, so she typed up — she got my second lot of notes and then typed it all up for me. And, it was then that I finally started working on the computer on it.

The other thing I did was tell all my friends I was writing a book, so they’d all be encouraging me. And, I gave myself a deadline, and then I printed out ten copies of the manuscript, and gave them out to friends. Thankfully none of them said, “That’s a load of rubbish, I would give it away.” They tried to get some response from people. And, then six months after I’d started it, I had close enough to a finished manuscript.

Valerie
Art direction is very different to writing, in fact it’s almost the opposite. Did you have an interest in writing as a young child, or was it just something that developed and came naturally to you when you decided to do this?

Brian
I think a couple of things, yes, I was a really, really big reader, which I do lots of travel writer workshops now and I just say it’s so important to read. I have always been a big reader, and even when I was a teenager and all my friends were out running amok, I was still reading like mad. I think that’s a big thing. Before I went to art school, I did really enjoy creative writing, and did quite well at  it in school, but I never really touched it since. I haven’t touched for twenty years. It was a long time at least anyway

Valerie
What did that first book become? How did you then get a publisher interested, that very first time?

Brian
I think my advertising background helped be, because with all of my books, they’re almost like an advertising idea, because it’s about selling. My first book, the title is called Rule Number 5: No Sex on the Bus, which I think is a catchy title. And, I got one piece of advice from someone, and it was good advice, it was to try and get an agent first before a publisher, because we all know publishers have massive slush piles, etc, etc. I got the writers’ handbook, and picked out ten agents and sent off the whole package with the synopsis. I did a marketing plan. I found out how many people went on tour, and said, “This is your potential market.” And, did that whole sort of package, including I even shot a front cover, and it wasn’t the final front cover at all, but just that bit of ‘wow’ factor. And I’d got the nice rejection letters, as you do. I don’t know if I can swear on this, it’s not a terrible swear word, but one of the agents wrote back and said, “No one wants to read that sh#t.”

Valerie
OK.

Brian
Which is a bit harsh.

Valerie
You know that is pretty harsh.

Brian
He said, “I went on a tour bus tour of Europe, and no one’s interested in it.” But, I did get an agent, thankfully it was only about a week or two later, so that rejection letter. And, they sent it off to a couple of publishers, as they do. They don’t send them off to hundreds at once, they send them off to a couple at a time. And as you know all the different levels of publishing editor, publisher, acquisition meetings, all the different things they have to go through. And lucky enough, it was sent to someone at Duffy and Snellgrove, but she was leaving. She was publishing editor, and the publisher wasn’t interested. She was going to Allen & Unwin to children’s books, but she took it with her and gave it to one of the other publishing editors there, because she quite liked it. That publishing editor didn’t really like it that much either, but the publisher was walking past a desk, saw it on top, and liked the cover, and then saw the name, Rule Number 5: No Sex on the Bus. And the publisher thought, “What’s that?” And she picked it up, and flicked through it, and away it went, and I got a publisher.

Valerie
Serendipitous.

Brian
Yes.

Valerie
Good thing you had that attractive front cover. So, then did you decide at that point, “I’m going to do this travel writing full time.”? Or thoughts about how your career was going to go? Did you think you were going to go back into advertising?

Brian
Well, first I wasn’t sure how the book was going to go, but it went really well. They’ve reprinted it a lots of times. Even if no one wants to read that, as I said before. So, it went really well. The publisher said, “Do another one,” of course. So, I did that mostly, again, from past travels, because I was still working full time. And I did a few journeys for that book, to finish off that book. And, then that one went quite well, and then halfway through writing the second one I left full time work.

Valerie
What helped you get to that decision?

Brian
One of the things that helped was that being a travel writer I had to travel, and I only get four weeks of holiday a year.

Valerie
Sure.

Brian
That’s a big problem. And I used four weeks of it to do a bit of research for the book, but I still had other research to do for the book, and I thought, “They aren’t really going to give me holiday, so I’ll have to leave.”

Valerie
Yes. Were you confident at the start? Because obviously you didn’t study travel writing or do it at the university or whatever. Were you confident and comfortable with what you were producing?

Brian
No, it’s one of those things that I had no idea that I was going to get a publisher, and I thought, “Well,” it was honestly when I thought, “Instead of just sitting here, waiting to look for work, I might as well be bit active and creative.” And it was always something that I wanted to do, since I had written my first travel book, “I’d love to do that.” So I thought, “If I don’t get a publisher, I’ll try every angle, and if I don’t then I’ll self publish and make a hundred copies and give them out to friends and the people I used to work with doing the tours.” There was never any real thought of a career beyond that, to be honest. It was, “That went well. I really enjoyed it. I’ll do another one.” And, then it kept going and going.

Valerie
You’ve now carved out an excellent career in writing travel memoir really, isn’t it?

Brian
Yes.

Valerie
You obviously enjoy travel, I assume.

Brian
Yes.

Valerie
What about it is so appealing? I know a lot of people who, sure, they love to go on their holidays, but they don’t want to be traipsing around in hostels or lugging their luggage around for 12 weeks at a time. What do you find so appealing about it?

Brian
I love the moving, I love the traveling, and for the book Tell Them To Get Lost, because I was tracking down these old hotels, I’d get to a city, Kuala Lumpur for example, and I was there for three nights. And, in the three nights I moved to three different hotels. I was rarely in a place for more than one night in the entire trip, but I loved it. I love just discovering and I love just getting lost. Which, there’s a lot of me getting lost in this kind of book, because the old maps from 1975 are all hand-drawn from Tony Wheeler, so you get lost a lot, but I loved it. Loved every minute of it.

Valerie
Asia’s obviously changed a lot since 1975, and you’ve got some great tales in your book. What would you say are some of the biggest changes that you’ve noticed in Asia since then?

Brian
There’s places like Phuket, for example. Patong beach in 1975 had a restaurant on the beach where you could pay 11 cents to sleep on the floor, 8 cents for a mat to sleep on. That was the only place to stay in Patong. And of course, you don’t need to go there to write about it, to know that Phuket and Patong is a massive, massive tourism draw card for everywhere around the world. And, they’ve got more than 35,000 hotel beds, and I think they get about 3 million visitors a year now. Some places just exploded, of course. Koh Samui, you had to get a little fishing boat, you had to get a local fisherman to take you across, and you’d stay in the fisherman’s hut back in ’75. There are a few places like that have just exploded, of course.

Valerie
What are some of the most strange experiences you’ve had while traveling?

Brian
The most changed experiences?

Valerie
No, the most strange or crazy.

Brian
Oh, there’s been plenty of them. Of course, it’s being a travel writer, you go out of your way to step outside of your boundaries to get interesting stories, because it makes good stories. I had, for one of my books, I had on the trans-Mongolian, which is the train from Beijing to Moscow, I had some mad drunk Russian put a gun to my head. I didn’t know if he was going to rob me or shoot me, because they’ve been known to shoot people and throw them off into the tundra and never be seen again. And it took me a few seconds to panic because I thought, “Oh, it’s a gun. I’ve never seen a gun before, wait, I think he’s putting that to my head.” And, then his friend grabbed his hand and it fell on the floor, because he’s going, “No, no, no!” And, then they’re fighting on the ground for the gun. It took me a few seconds to realize I should get out of there and I ran down the corridor and got to my compartment.

Of course, when I first got in the compartment I locked the door. The first thing I did was — not to panic, but rub my hands together and I thought, “Oh, that’s a good story for the book.” The stranger the better, do you know what I mean.

I’ve eaten some of the strangest food, because if they put it in front of me I go, “Well, I have to try it.” Rancid shark meat, which is buried in the ground, and then wee’d on, and then rots for three months. And then the dig it up and eat it. I’ve eaten some strange things, yes.

Valerie
Oh, dear. Why do you think travel books are so popular?

Brian
It’s funny because I’ve met lots of readers and things over the years, and they’re the armchair traveler, people who are happy to travel vicariously through someone else sitting on their nice, comfy lounge seat at home. And, there’s also people — some people like to read about where they’ve been, or where they’re going, as well, which I think is a big thing, and also places and things that they just wouldn’t do. I think as well, like if people — when people do trek, walk for three years through Mongolia on a donkey or something, that’s something they wouldn’t do. People read about something they wouldn’t do.

Valerie
What’s makes a good travel writer?

Brian
I think it’s observing, I think a really good thing is observing what’s going on around you. And it’s not just about writing about the theme, it’s trying to invoke a sense of place, and people, and really immersing yourself in the culture and getting the people in good dialogue, and being a good story teller.

Valerie
People often refer to a ‘sense of place’. What do you mean by that?

Brian
I think it’s a combination of everything. If you can really write about the culture, and the colour, and the people, if you’ve got really good conversations and good stories about people and places, then all that combines together to create that sense of place, I think.

Valerie
And so you write in your exercise book, do you kind of live in mortal fear that this is going to get stolen, or lost, or soaked, or all of your stuff is gone?

Brian
Oh yes. I would say to people they can take my money, passport, my backpack, the clothes off my back; if I’m standing naked, but I’ve still got my notebook in my hand, I’m happy.

Valerie
Have you ever lost one?

Brian
No, I keep it constantly with me. I have a sling back backpack, and it’s often at the front of me and I’m clutching it, whenever there’s a crowd of people I clutch it so it’s not going anywhere. I would even, in the other way, traveling with this 1975 guidebook, of course, I couldn’t lose that either. If I lost that in the middle of Malaysia, or where ever I was, I wouldn’t be able to get another one. I’d be in all sorts of trouble, so I was very careful with that too.

Valerie
When you come back with your exercise book, and you’re formulating your stories and the structure of your book, do you find that you have enough in your notes? Do you forget stuff? Do you have to go look stuff up again? How does that translate to the actual page?

Brian
It’s quite interesting, a few years ago I had dinner with Bill Bryson, of course, you know, and I asked him the same question, because I was interested in what he did. And it was identical to mine, that he just takes lots and lots of notes. I will sometimes write four pages about something and get a sentence or two about it.

The problem is the opposite sometimes, when you just write a couple of sentences and when you get back you think, “That was actually really quite interesting.” And then you’re trying to wrack your brain, and you end up saying, “There’s a yellow church on the left hand side”, when it was actually a green chair on the right hand side. So, I try to just take as much notes as I can. And, most of my traveling I do by myself too, and often you’re sitting in a restaurant by yourself, and in my travels I go countries and places where there’s no tourists at all, or something, and then so I’m sitting there a lot by myself, so I’ll actually start writing bits and pieces out that actually become the writing in the book itself, if you know what I mean. I’ll start actually writing.

Valerie
Do you ever get time and, because traveling can be such a blur, especially if you’re going to three different hotels in three different nights. Do you ever get back and go, “I really just don’t remember what happened when I look at these notes, I just don’t recall.”

Brian
I seem to do OK out of it, and it’s good to take some detail. I actually sit on my notes for a couple of months before I start writing as well. Then when I read it again I go, “Ah!” And it actually brings my memory back to other things, or around that thing. In one of my books, which I did a book called The Naked Man Festival, I went around the world to all of these freaky festivals, including the Naked Man Festival. Is the festivals were often only just over a couple of hours sometimes, because it’s like — the Naked Man Festival is only a couple of hours. It was very hard to get so much information down in notes. So, I actually that entire book with a Dictaphone, and then transcribed it from that.

Valerie
When you do write it, you need some kind of structure, you need to have a thread coming through it. How do you determine that? Do you, again, wait until you sit down, and do you think about it chronologically? Do you think about some other way to structure it? How does that work?

Brian
Mostly I have an idea at the start how I’m going to structure it. Mostly, for the travel writing, it’s A to B, and what happens in between. But it’s what to add to it. For example, I did a lot of research before and after the trip for this current one, because I wanted to find out not only what the old guidebook said about traveling in 1975, but I wanted to find out about airlines, and how they worked, and how people traveled, and what the type of people were like who traveled. And even the most simple things, how much earned then and compared to the travel costs. I did quite a bit of research before, and then it was a matter of when I had a separate Word document with all my research on it, and then when I transcribed all my notes from the book, it was almost like a jigsaw puzzle, just putting all the bits in and everything. What I’m talking about there for that bit of research there would work in well there. And, it’s really just plopping all these bits into place, and then writing it so it all flows.

Valerie
Tell us about your writing routine, because obviously when you’re traveling it’s very intense, and it’s like “Go, go, go. Do, do, do.” But, when you get back and you’re ready to write, do you have some kind of writing routine? Do you only write in the mornings? Do you aim for a certain number of words a day? How does that actually work for you?

Brian
I wish I was Hemmingway. Because he used to do 700 words or lunch, whichever came first, and he’d start at six. And then he’d go fishing all afternoon, and go to the pub all night. But, it wasn’t quite like that, no. I treat it like a normal job. I don’t stay in my pajamas or my trackie pants. I actually get dressed, sit at my desk at 8:30 like a normal job, and then stop for lunch, and then work until 5:30, and then put my trackie pants on. I do it like that as much as I can, because I have a deadline, you know deadlines. And if I sort of slack off and leave it to the end, which I do a tiny bit, but there’s always late nights at the end, but I try to treat it like a normal job.

Valerie
Do you aim for a certain word count each day? Or what?

Brian
No, not really, I am a bit of a word counter which is terrible. But, I get excited, because some days I might only write 700 words, and then another day I’ll write 3,000 words, like if I’m having a really, really good day. If I get stuck, I go and do some research, and then all of a sudden I’ll go off on tangents and I’m watching music clips on YouTube, and I go, “That’s not work.” And then I’ll go back and do some work.

Valerie
Sure. A lot of people think you have the dream job, traveling the world and writing about it, and being paid to do so. What is your advice to people who would love to do what you are doing?

Brian
I try to keep my trips to — they’re not long trips, I don’t go on, like I met a writer only a few days ago who rode a bicycle for three years from England to Siberia, Australia and back again — for three years!

Valerie
That’s tiring.

Brian
And wrote a book about it. You have to have money, that’s a big investment of your time and life and money and everything. This current book I was away for twelve weeks. And, I have it in mind when I’m writing a book that I don’t want to spend all my advance on all the traveling, because then I have no money left. So I’m staying in hostels at $4.50 a night, so I didn’t necessarily spend much money on the trip. And it is for five months, six months stuck inside writing the book as well. And then it’s — it doesn’t sound quite as exotic then when you’re, “I only went twelve weeks — I went for two months, but I’m spending five or six months inside, indoors writing the book,” trying to come up with an idea for another book, etc.

Valerie
So, tell us about your next book.

Brian
I’ve got three ideas, and I don’t know which one to choose yet. They’re all sort of travel, one’s not so much travel, but one of the ones which is maybe is — my partner and I, we both love romantic comedies.

Valerie
OK.

Brian
Movies, you know? Romantic films, and so do lots of people. How many websites are devoted to 25-50 best romantic movies. There’s just so many people that love them, of course. And I thought this idea of traveling around the world, picking some destinations, and then reenacting scenes from movies. So, Roman Holiday, getting on a Vespa and riding around Rome. I think of An Affair to Remember, or When Harry Met Sally, the road trip from Chicago to New York. So many different films, you know? I can’t think of them, they’d be in like Paris, and Florence, and London, and France, and a lot in America, of course. And so that’s one idea.

Valerie
That’s a great idea, I love it!

Brian
And we’d be talking about the film as well, so it’s a combination of the travel — people love travel and people love films, so I’m hoping… I’m trying to think, “Well, it’s a good idea to sell.” Not only do you have to sell it to your publisher, but then you have to sell it to marketing, and then I have to sell it to publicity. Because, ultimately, if you want to make a living at it, the book has to sell. So, if you write some in bits, some personal journey about yourself somewhere that ten people buy, you’re not going to make a career out of it.

Valerie
Yeah.

Brian
That’s my theory, anyway.

Valerie
Paint me a picture in ten years, do you still want to be doing what you’re doing or doing other things? Tell me about that?

Brian
After seven non-fiction travel books, I’ve always had an idea that I’d like to write a fiction book. I will only do it if I’ve got a fantastic idea, and I haven’t got a fantastic idea. I’m not just going to do it just sit here and try and think of some idea and try and write it. I want to come up with a fantastic idea. I think it will more than likely be travel-based somehow, whether it’s set in many locations, or whether it’s about a travel, or something. It will have traveling in it somehow.

Valerie
Have you tried your hand at it?

Brian
No, but I’ve read books on that sort of ilk. And, some of them have been huge, like The Beach, by Alex Garland, it’s really a travel book. He’s a very good writer of course. I’d like to do something like that, if I could.

Valerie
Wonderful. All right, well, thank you very much for sharing your insights about the writing process and about your latest book. I can’t wait to read the next one!

Brian
You are more than welcome, and thank you so much.

Valerie
Thanks, Brian.

 


Comments