It was a tough road I went down to become a writer but I was no exception. Most writers have to go down that same road. When someone tells me they are interested in writing, and I tell them what a tough grind it is, they don’t like to hear it. They only want to hear the positive. But fact is fact. The apprenticeship is long and hard. I have always contended that by the time I learned to write-by that I mean the hours I spent mastering the trade-I could have spent the same amount of time studying law or medicine and became a lawyer or a doctor. I acknowledge, of course, that a person could become a successful writer but might make a lousy lawyer or doctor-or vice versa. But the sobering fact is that that road doesn’t end. To continue to write successfully, the learning process must not end. It must go on without end. This is especially true for travel writing.
To write about travel, naturally, I had to travel. But it was much more than arriving at a destination and writing superficial descriptions about the place. I found, if I wanted to write well, I had to study the place beforehand and do my research. For each new destination I visited, I had to learn the history of the place, its culture, its folklore and anything else that might be interesting for my readers, and that only comes from study. Travel came second to study. Had I been writing occasional travel piece for magazines and newspapers that might have been different. But when a newspaper assigned me with a weekly travel column, the picture changed. Every week I had to discover something new, something exciting that would interest my readers, and that meant traveling non-stop.
Travel writing for me was a start. It leads to magazine writing and then to books. Study, however, didn’t stop. In fact, it increased and took on a new momentum.
I went to Tahiti hoping to write about the South Pacific. To write knowledgeably about the Pacific I had to become an authority on the Pacific, which meant more reading and endless research. I read Pacific island histories, the journals of Captain James Cook, books by circumnavigators, The Bounty Trilogy by Nordoff and Hall, scientific studies and scores of biographies. The Bishop Museum in Honolulu became my second home. For some assignments, like Easter Island, it required a great deal of in-depth research, a difficult task since little was known about the history of the island. It was the same everywhere I traveled: Russia, China, Australia, and all Southeast Asia. I was doing far more reading than I ever did in college. And to think when I graduated, I thought my studies were over. They were only beginning.
Research can be exciting and it’s surprising what we can tum up. I discovered the works of obscure and forgotten writers of the South Pacific that dated back a century ago. Their stories made not only good reading but they also provided me with excellent reference material. Sources for books and references came from old book• stores and private libraries in people’s homes. In Tahiti I befriended Lula Hall, writer James Hall’s widow, and she opened up her private library to me. What a discovery this was. Here were some of the original sources that Hall used for his Bounty Trilogy. I had a tough time tearing myself away from her library.
The basement of the National Museum in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, became my Bishop Museum away from home. In dusty volumes on back shelves I delved into unpublished manuscripts that became genuine treasure troves. For example, we hear so much today about the Chinese Admiral Zheng He who sailed with an armada of hundreds of ships and explored far beyond the borders of China. One writer has even claimed Zheng He discovered America long before Columbus reached the New World.
I read about him in the basement of the National Museum in Kuala Lumpur and wrote several magazine articles about his seven voyages. No one knew him then but an interest in him soon developed. From another book on a back shelf I read that an English rubber planter had built a European castle in the jungle and abandoned it when the First World War began. It took me weeks to find the castle, completely overgrown by the forest. It was good story material and I wrote about it. Today Kellie’s Castle is in tourist brochures. Making discoveries like these is when research becomes interesting and enjoyable and reaps untold rewards.
My book, The Strange Disappearance of Jim Thompson, took years of research, and although the book has long been published, the story of Jim Thompson is not over. New information, new leads about him continue to filter in. It may end up that I need to write an entirely new book. But then the strange disappearance of Jim Thompson may end up being not so strange.
The saying is the written story ends when it is published. It cannot be changed. I find this is not true. A published work only opens doors.
When I set the record for the longest motor trip around the world in a Toyota Land Cruiser and wrote Who Needs a Road, I thought that was the end. But one never knows how a book will turn out. Letters keep coming from readers asking about the expedition and making comments. The book has endured time for the simple reason that, the world being what it is, such a motor trip around the world cannot be made today. It was unfortunate that when Bobbs-Merrill, the New York publishers, decided to publish the book, they never expected it to be a hit and printed but a few thousand copies. A magazine editor, Al Podell, who made the trip with me, thought differently. He scheduled me to appear on the “Tonight Show” and “To Tell the Truth” and a couple other TV shows. I made my appearances but Bobbs-Merrill couldn’t print copies fast enough to meet the demand. It was disappointing. I went on a book-signing tour around the U.S. but there were no books in the shops. I chalk it up to experience.
One advantage of being published is that I receive some very interesting letters from readers who inform me about lost cities, sunken treasures, unexplored caves, forgotten jungle tribes and just about everything imaginable. I amassed so much information, I found I had enough material to write a book, which I did, and called it Return to Adventure, Southeast Asia.
What I have learned to be careful about are those people who approach me and say they have confidential information they want to share with me. “I’ 11 tell you what,” they begin, and it’s always the same, “you are a writer. I can’t write, but I have a great story that will make an excellent book.” I try to break away from them but sometimes I can’t. They continue, “I’ll tell you what. I’ll tell it to you, you write it down, and we’ll split it down the middle.” They usually add that we will make a fortune.
I found it disheartening once when I turned a deaf ear on a scuba diver who claimed to have found a sunken Japanese submarine. He was so persistent I practically had to tell him to get lost. About a year later, the story broke. The man did know the location of a sunken Japanese submarine.