A series that asks travel and food writers about their media consumption and how they structure their writing days, find sources, and deal with information overflow. Inspired by The Atlantic Wire, but with a travel, food, and culture focus.
Robert Reid recently left his job as the U.S. Travel Editor of Lonely Planet “to pursue my own writing and see if I have a book in me.” His work has been featured in the New York Times, World Hum, ESPN, Perceptive Travel, CNN, and BBC.com, among other outlets and Mashable listed him as one of the Top 15 travel folks to follow on Twitter.
How do you get started with your day?
I’m not a very interesting person before 10:30 in the morning. Like most people, I’d guess, I make coffee and check email and flip through Twitter. It gives me pleasure to let the morning be quiet for awhile, just standing and listening to the coffee percolate. If something catches my eye on Twitter, I’ll follow the link. But I’ve learned I don’t need to know as much as I used to.
How do you structure a typical work day (when you’re not traveling)?
Remember when Marlon Brando asks Martin Sheen about his method in “Apocalypse Now” and Sheen tells him, “I don’t see… any method.. at all, sir”? Yeah, I can be very organized on the road, but at home, I’m usually out to mystify Martin Sheen, like a bald chubby Brando.
Some days it’s one article all out. Other days I follow tangents to unexpected places. One time, as a writing exercise, I just started writing about the Kinks, and found myself three graphs in, talking about cereal instead. Then I started researching breakfast cereal. And found out a bearded bohemian created a Grape Nuts like cereal in upstate New York during the Civil War. When I was in the area months later, I went by and tried to track down the first bowl. I got a video out of that.
What are your favorite sources for news and inspiration?
I’m more selective about the information I put in my body than what food I consume. Yes, I feel bad hearing that there was a mudslide in Venezuela, but I don’t really need to know much about it.
Usually I read things I research for specific reasons, or follow whims. I tend to find stuff way outside the mainstream much more inspiring than, say, New Yorker’s unfunny “Shouts & Murmurs” column. Jim Rome is a sport radio guy with a goatee who is just hilarious. Today he went OFF on the Indiana Pacers for not letting their big man “rock a monocle” in a post-game presser. He called it the “biggest disappointment of his life.” He spent 10 minutes on this. And Bill Simmons’ Grantland blog, linked on ESPN, does with sports what I always wanted to do with travel (and tried), which is to take it way out of itself. Not just Kevin Durant’s shooting percentage, but uniform choices, movie soundtracks, Beyonce’s Super Bowl performance.
That’s exactly what travel needs.
What’s your relationship with social media?
Nearly all the news I hear about is via Twitter. I usually only go over to the Times website to search out something specific – an obit on Woody Guthrie for instance. I occasionally use Tumblr, usually to post fragments I come across that interest me AS I’m researching something for an article or video. I’m bad at Facebook. I don’t quite know what to do with it. So I don’t use it much.
You recently left Lonely Planet. Are there parts of your daily routine that you picked up from working with them?
As “Travel Editor,” I did much on my own. Suddenly you’re going to be on ET to talk about Marilyn Monroe “travel sites,” or Fox about bad airline food. I’m researching that on my own. I watch Monroe documentaries, read articles and see a couple movies – and go in in a Bon Jovi-esque blaze of glory. I guess that all made me shave more. So there’s that, too.
How has your daily routine/media diet changed now that you’ve gone full-time freelance?
Fewer conference calls, meaning I don’t have to deepen my voice to stress “serious” ideas and all that. And I rarely say the word “leverage” anymore. But I stay very busy, shockingly so for an unemployed person. And a recent blog post I did on how to use a guidebook was overwhelmingly my most read post I’ve done. That was encouraging.
What’s the last thing you read that stuck with you?
Oh so much! I read Woody Guthrie’s underrated autobiographical novel Bound for Glory from 1943 recently. It’s like pre-beatnik roadtrip across America. There’s a part where he rattles of the street scene of his hometown Okemah, Oklahoma, during an oil boom that I just had to stop, start at the beginning and read aloud, as fast as I could. Creek Indians, oil workers, sharecroppers, fistfights, cons, little Woody soaking it up. It reads like a race or a rap. I had to reread it a couple times. You’ll find it from page 93 to 102.
Do you listen to any podcasts? And/or is there any particular music that gets you through your writing day?
I go on huge musical whims and immerse myself for weeks at a time in an artist or a theme. Not long ago I listened to nothing but ‘70s German music for a month. Kraftwerk, Neu!, Faust, then spilling over to Iggy Pop and David Bowie’s “Berlin” albums.
And I’ve still not quite kicked my Bowie revival. I can’t stop listening to his ‘70s records like “Lodger” (which is sort of a travel album). I watch YouTube interviews when he was coked up in the ‘70s, or that Serious Moonlight tour documentary where he serves as a guide in Southeast Asia. Loved that. I’m not always sure why I do this. I just trust my interests and follow them with what I consume.
Actually all this has got me thinking of making a series called TRAVEL DUELS, which would start by comparing Bowie the Traveler (he did the Trans-Siberian in his Ziggy Stardust days; can you imagine the looks Siberians gave him?) and Paul McCartney (one of the worst travelers). I mean, go listen to McCartney smack back at the Japanese after they busted him for bringing in a Buick backseat’s worth of pot in 1980. How did he respond? Made a song called “Frozen Jap.” Even if it was about Yoko (and maybe it was), the guy’s terribly insensitive. Then again, half of his songs are about staying at home and eating biscuits with the wife. (Ed. Note: Someone, please make this series happen!)
What are your favorite sources for preparing for a trip?
Easy, it’s Wikipedia. For a recent roadtrip around northern Maine, I simply looked up Wikipedia entries for strange towns I’d visit – Houlton, Madawaska, New Canada, Millinocket. To see where it’d take me. Did you know there was a so-called “Pork and Beans War” in 1839 between armed lumberjacks of Maine and British Canada? And it resulted in a lone death, or a US guy run over by his own supply wagon? And the only skirmish was a fistfight in a Houlton bar? Isn’t that GREAT?
On the trip I went to Houlton to see if there was a plaque. They had a newish bust of George Washington, of all things, and “Iron Man 3” in an old theater. Nothing on the fistfight. I’d love to see New Brunswick and Maine organize a “pork and beans hug” once year (and said so at a tourism event I got to speak at). Huge vats of pork and beans laid out on a border island – no other food welcome – and Americans and Canadians mingle and hug each other.
That all came from Wikipedia. But it’s important to acknowledge Wikipedia serves only as a trigger, not a source. Most of what I learned came from one of its sources, the New England Quarterly.
Anything else you’d like to add?
What do you like? Go after that. Some of my favorite articles and videos I’ve done were complete busts in terms of views or readers. But if you’re not entertaining or interesting yourself, you can’t interest anyone.