As the Frugal Traveler for the New York Times, one of the most prestigious newspapers in the world, Matt gets to travel across the country and around the globe and share his adventures with hundreds of thousands of readers.
It’s enough to make me green with envy.
A few weeks ago I got Matt’s attention by calling him my “nemesis” in an edition of Tales From the Road.
Problem is, it turns out that Matt isn’t just a great travel writer with an amazing job – he’s also a really nice guy, totally accessible, candid and down-to-earth.
In a moment of petty, jealous spite I called him “a hopelessly untalented writer of dubious integrity” – he responded by inviting me to a travel writer’s get-together in Brooklyn.
In the following interview, Matt talks about the intersection of travel writing and the Internet, the importance of humility and why he tries not to spend his days chatting with off-duty prostitutes.
It’s been a privilege to interview Matt and we both welcome your thoughts and comments.
TIM: What’s it like to be a travel writer for the New York Times? Do you modify your style when you’re writing as the Frugal Traveler, instead of for a ‘cheeky’ publication like TripmasterMonkey?
MATT: What’s it like? Well, people regularly tell me I have the best job in the world, which makes me a little uncomfortable, but I guess that’s what it is-awesome.
For the most part, I get to write about wherever I want, however I want. Which is not to say I simply do whatever I want. At the Times, there is some sense that the articles should be useful to prospective travelers, so I try as much as possible to balance that mandate with readable, enjoyable adventure.
But while I write for the Times in the persona of the Frugal Traveler, a character who’s almost exactly the same as Matt Gross, at TMM I write pretty much as myself, if a little unhinged. I can be sarcastic, obtuse, insulting, ridiculous, impractical, clever and opinionated.
It’s quite cathartic, but it’s also just a different beast from the Times. In any case, when you write for multiple publications, the challenge is always to “get” the voice of the publication while maintaining your own unique style. As you can imagine, that can be tricky.
So as a travel writer you modify your voice to match the tone of various publications. Do you find yourself doing a similar thing as you travel, adjusting your personality to fit places and cultures?
Adjust my personality? Maybe a little. I try-as I imagine most travel writers do-to imagine myself as something of a “normal tourist.”
That is, if I were paying for this vacation, what would I hope to get out of it? A good meal or two, a comfortable hotel, the “better” (i.e. less touristy) tourist sites and a few places, events or activities that are unusual but let me feel like I’m somehow getting to the heart of the destination.
For me, personally, as Matt Gross, maybe I’d do things differently on my own dime-go skateboarding, or spend the day chatting with off-duty hookers, or track down a sketchy-but-great restaurant near the warehouse district.
Or maybe I’d do the destination just as I would as the Frugal Traveler. It’s been such long time since I’ve traveled on my own that I can’t quite remember what I actually do when I’m abroad.
But again, when it comes to the writing, it’s all about balance: I want the column to be accessible, but to reflect my own occasionally quirky interests. I want it to fit into the Times, but I want to put my own stamp on it.
I want some mainstream activities in there, but I also want to discover (or at least bring to light) new options. The last thing I want is to become a self-indulgent travel writer, imagining that every little thing I do is of interest to readers. Yeesh.
Well, self-indulgence is one thing, but you’ve certainly developed a following among readers who get to know you through your columns.
Rolf Potts said something interesting in his interview a couple weeks ago, about how the Internet has helped him establish a certain celebrity persona, as “each story becomes part of a greater narrative.”
How has the Internet influenced your career, and the way you interact with readers?
I owe everything to the Internet.
Obviously, there would be no way to file my stories, photos and videos without it, but it also lets me reach infinitely more people than the ordinary paper does, and lets them reach me.
The readers seem to love being able to shape my journey-God, look at all those comments!-and sometimes I wish there were deeper ways to involve them. “Instant online poll: Should Matt go north or south? Eat Chinese or Italian?”
And I guess writing for the Web creates a kind of intimacy with readers as well. I get Facebook and MySpace requests pretty regularly, and am happy (usually) to have these people as both online and real-life friends; I never say no to meeting strangers.
Still, the readers rarely hear from me directly. I may occasionally answer questions in a formal setting, or I may incorporate their suggestions into an article, but I don’t generally talk back.
For one thing, I don’t want to get involved in the arguments that inevitably arise, but I also want to maintain some distance-some air of mystery about myself.
It’s strategy: Make people wait for you, anticipate you. If you’re everywhere all at once, available on IM and Skype 24 hours a day, then maybe the readers will get bored of you.
The Internet has definitely revolutionized travel writing. Do you think online media is in the process of replacing traditional magazines and newspapers?
Okay, a longer answer? The revenue generated by online media is still not great enough to fund the reporting you find in traditional print media, so until it reaches that level-or we run out of trees-there will always be magazines and newspapers.
They can all coexist, along with TV, movies, radio and whatever gets invented next year. I don’t understand the inter-media battles at all.
I ran across a great quote the other day, by a traveler named Peter Fleming who went to Xinjiang in 1935. It goes like this:
“He who starts on a ride of two or three thousand miles may experience, at the moment of departure, a variety of emotions. He may feel excited, sentimental, anxious, carefree, heroic, roistering, picaresque, introspective, or practically anything else; but above all he must and will feel a fool.”
Nice quote, but it’s a shame he limits it to “the moment of departure.” Me, I felt like a fool-an excited, sentimental, anxious, carefree, heroic, roistering, introspective fool-every moment of every day of the trip.
I think it may have been Socrates who said, “I know nothing but the fact of my own ignorance,” and that’s as good a philosophy for a travel writer as any.