Interview: Frank Bures

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For N12, we interviewed our contributors on their lives outside the notebook. Writer Frank Bures reflects on travel writing versus journalism and words he’d like to never read again.

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How do you take notes on the road?

I use small notebooks during the day, then a bigger one at the end of the day and in the morning. I write with No. 2.5 pencils only, so I bring those too—they can be hard to find. I also have a NEO word processor, which is virtually indestructible and gets 900 hours of life from three AA batteries. I generally don’t bring a laptop abroad. All that said, I do find a certain tension between having an experience and recording it, which I’m not always sure how to navigate.

What’s the difference between travel writing and journalism?

I guess it depends what kind of travel writing and what kind of journalism you’re talking about. Destination travel writing tells people how they can have a certain kind of experience for themselves. Narrative travel writing tells a story. Journalism tells you what is happening in a certain part of the world, but its time frame is usually very short. I feel like the very best travel writing not only tells you a story, but it brings you to a place and helps you understand how it got to be the way it is, what it’s like to be there. It gives you a deeper understanding of not only what it happening there, but why. James Fenton’s “The Snap Election” is a great example, as is Michael Herr’s Dispatches.

What are your favorite “travel” books?

One book I keep coming back to is Peter Hessler’s Oracle Bones. It’s got so many threads woven together so well—it’s really a masterpiece. I also love the classics like Arabian Sands and The Road to Oxiana. And the first half of Joseph Conrad’s novel Lord Jim (the sailing part) is so brilliant and brave and really evokes that whole era. More recently I reread Rory Stewart’s The Places In Between, and also read Cheryl Strayed’s Wild—both of which I’m sure will be read for a long time. I always love going back to Shiva Naipaul’s North of South as well as the old Granta Travel issues. There’s something in the attitude and execution of those pieces that I don’t see much these days. Along those lines, probably one of my favorite books of all times is Bill Buford’s Among the Thugs, which isn’t exactly a travel book, but it does so many things so well, and is so transportive and bizarre, that I can read it over and over.

Where do you find good travel writing these days?

Besides Nowhere, of course, there’s a lot of brilliant writing being published. The trouble is finding it in the wash of content on the Internet. Some of the best pieces turn up pretty regularly in Harper’s, GQ, The New Yorker and those kinds of places, for the obvious reasons that they can pay for the best. But you can also find a lot of great stories in more obscure places through portholes like Longform and Longreads, as well as in the Best American Travel Writing Anthology, which does a nice job to mixing the higher profile stories with more obscure stuff from the literary magazines (like this piece by Daniel Tyx). But I generally read more books these days than anything else. I just started George Packer’s The Village of Waiting, about his time in the Peace Corps in Togo, which is wonderful. Next I’m very excited to read House in the Sky, because I’m a big fan of Sara Corbett. The real problem is there’s too much to read in one lifetime.

What are three phrases a travel writer should never use?

Three? That’s hard. “Magical”: please dear God, people — stop using that. I once saw that word used twice in the first column—unironically—of a big glossy travel magazine story. I haven’t picked up a copy since. Another thing: When you’re writing about a place, it cannot possibly be seen as “undiscovered.” Also, very few places truly have “something for everyone.” And if you’re actually describing something as “nestled,” chances are the only thing nestled is your head in your backside.

What’s the best way to learn how to write travel stories?

Read good ones. Pay attention to the ways they move you. Read bad ones. Pay attention to the ways they don’t. Read short stories and fiction, to internalize a topographical sense of narrative. Set aside an undistracted place and time—preferably long stretches—to focus on reading and writing. You can’t expect a reader to get lost in your work if you haven’t gotten lost in it yourself.

What do you do every day to keep yourself entertained when not on the road?

I have two daughters in grade school, so general parenting takes up a lot of time—which is another way of saying they keep me entertained! Otherwise I do a lot of biking, kayaking, and reading. We also have a creek and bike path behind our house that leads down to the Mississippi, so I find myself down there a lot.

Where would you move if you could and why?

All things being equal, I would probably move to either Kinshasa in the Congo to work on my French (and where I suspect there are many great stories waiting to be written) or Nairobi, Kenya, a city I love in a part of the world I love with plenty of nyama choma and Tuskers for sustenance (and where I know there are many great stories waiting to be written). I also really love Lagos, Nigeria, though it’s a city with some challenges.

Read Frank Bures’ story from N12 here and the rest of the issue here.

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