Jumping on The Lunatic Express with Carl Hoffman

April 19, 2010

When I tell people I traveled by myself through Africa, they often ask: Were you ever really scared?

They’re expecting a story about being attacked by men with machetes or feeling alone in my hostel at night. But the truth is, I was most scared when packed into overcrowded bush taxis on dangerous roads. Every time I got into one, I thought about how I’d get out if we were in a wreck.

Author and journalist Carl Hoffman

So when I heard about Carl Hoffman‘s new book, The Lunatic Express, it shot to the top of my to-read list. Lunatic is a modern-day adventure, Carl’s story of traveling the world via its most dangerous buses, trains, planes and boats. But he says the tale is not about defying death. It’s about seeing the world the way most people do, about experiencing transportation that the poor use every day. His book trailer offers some interesting photos and videos of that transportation.

Carl has a lot of traveling and writing under his belt. He’s a contributing editor at National Geographic Traveler, Wired and Popular Mechanics magazines, and also writes for Outside, National Geographic Adventure and Men's Journal. He’s of the increasingly rare breed who has never worked a full-time job and makes his living freelancing. His first book, Hunting Warbirds: The Obsessive Quest for the Lost Aircraft of World War II, was published in 2001.

While I was in D.C., I sat down with Carl to pick his brain about traveling, writing and the book (on sale at Amazon). Now I’m sharing the best of our conversation with you.

Alexis: How'd you come up with the Lunatic idea?

Carl: I'd been traveling a lot for the last 15 to 20 years. I go to weird places a lot. And everywhere I go I just see buses, boats full of people, so crammed. I'm a curious person. I wanted to know, who are these people? Where are they going?

Hoffman's new book

I've always loved bus plunge stories [in newspapers], 100-word stories like, Ferry Sinks, 600 People Drown. Who are these people? It says so little about them. In that little 100 words is a big tale. It's a tragedy, peoples' lives. But you never know anything about it.

There’s a lot of talk about how everybody wants to go to the end of the earth… I had this thought that I could escape, but not to the end of the earth — into the heart of the earth, to the very heart of the people, and to put my finger on something and see the world. The danger made it more salable, and I thought it would be an adventure for sure, an unpredictable adventure, but it was always less about me trying to defy death, [and more] about seeing the world and understanding the world.

Traveling for months in packed vehicles — that’s a nightmare for a lot of Americans.

The unknown is scary, always. Things over which you have no control. When you get to that train in Mali, in Bamako [Lexi’s note: Carl’s referring to a train in West Africa we’ve both taken], you're just sort of throwing yourself into the mercy of another world and a bunch of people you don't know, and that's scary for people. In the end, I find that doing that can be quite liberating and fulfilling, and people are wonderful and gracious and take care of you.

Where would you like to go that you haven't been?

I think I've been to 60 or 65 countries… I'd like to go to some more remote places. I like the weirder corners of the world. I've never been to Argentina or Buenos Aires. Africa, I'm fascinated with. I've been to about 10 or 12 countries in Africa, but there's a lot more I'd like to go to.

How did you decide how to thread this story together?

That's the fundamental challenge of all writers, whether it's a newspaper story or a magazine story or a book. What I say in Lunatic is a great reduction. There's a lot of things that didn't make it into the book. Whole places I went didn't get in. You're struggling for a narrative that makes sense, that has pacing, tension, that's not boring. So less is more, as with most things in life. I try to figure out what's elemental. What's always moving the narrative forward, what's revealing something, a conversation that has meaning. And if it doesn't, if a quote doesn't advance the story or doesn't say something or reveal something, then there's no reason to include it. If there's a scene that doesn't take you somewhere, literally and metaphorically, then get rid of it.

Did you write Lunatic while you were traveling?

No, I just took notes. And I blogged, which I'd never done before. I never write while I'm traveling. Just notes. So I came back and wrote it.

Did the final product end up looking how you envisioned?

It's an act of creation. Like a newspaper story, you have a vision for something, an interest, a curiosity… Yes, I have this grand vision, and in the end, the thing that you do never seems like quite like what you imagined it would be… For Lunatic, the book proposal was really short. I had this idea, but would I really meet somebody interesting on the bus, would the bus break down, would the ferry sink? It was all on speculation.

My original idea was I was going to travel very fast, nonstop. Basically get off one bus and get on another. That's what I did initially; for my first three weeks, I hardly paused. I spent like 140 hours on buses.

That doesn’t even sound fun to me!

Well, the whole trip wasn't, in some ways, supposed to be fun. The original idea was that it would be painful. But there was no context. I was traveling too fast. If the bus didn’t break down or the person sitting next to me wasn't interesting or we couldn't communicate because of language, I had nothing but observation and impressions, and those aren't strong enough to me to sustain a narrative. So I slowed down a lot and I made much more of the scenes and characters… The stiller moments sometimes are the better moments.

One of the things I hate, and I think it’s a problem in so-called travel writing, is that people don't do much reporting. I don't really consider myself a travel writer; I consider myself a reporter, a journalist who often writes about traveling or writes about far-away places… I read this in a story the other day, a columnist talked about looking out his window in Mumbai or in Delhi and this sweet lady did nothing but sweep the garbage into a pile all day, and [he was] walking past her in the day, but he never talked to her. To me, [talking with people] is what makes the book… That's the hardest part of the writing because you have to report, you have to hang around with people and talk with them and go in their world, and it's hard and tiring and boring sometimes. But I think that part's rewarding.

More than a lot of stories I've done, [Lunatic] was kind of like I imagined it would be. I'm pretty happy with it. I would be happier if I got rich off of it.

What advice do you have for journalists who want to transition to writing books?

You've just got to find the right story. That's the whole name of the game, the whole biz is finding the right story. It's not that you're a good writer. It's not about your contacts even. All those things help, but it all comes down to having a great story, a real story. Not a topic — a story.

You always have to think about the story, the arc of the story, the narrative of the story. All of these things are out of the structure of a novel. What's the conflict? What's the main character learning or trying to learn?

In Lunatic, I pitched a book that had not one mention of my personal life in my proposal — not because I was trying to pull a fast one, I just didn't think of it that way. [In the end, I included personal details in the book because] when I was traveling, there were a lot of things going on in my personal life, but also I wanted to bring some meaning to it. Who am I? I'm asking you to come along with me on this long journey. Why should you come along with me verses someone else? Why should you be interested in me? So I've gotta introduce myself to people, I've gotta open up a little bit, hopefully make you think I'm an interesting person. And as it turned out… the way I felt about what I was seeing, the way I reacted to it, had a lot to do with how I was feeling at the time in my personal life. So all that went into it. Now it's hard for me to imagine a book without that stuff in it.

Finding the right balance is hard. If you say too much, it's self-indulging. If you say too little, it doesn't make sense. Especially for me, it was hard to talk about marital things and my children. What's too much and what's too little? That went through a couple of iterations.

You mentioned wanting to write another book. Why work on a book rather than continue with magazine stories?

A book is really different. You write a book, and you can go down any side road you want. You want to take a digression, you want to talk about… your marriage, whatever, you can do that. You've got the room and the space to do it and you're speaking to people directly, not as an Outside magazine writer within the confines of Outside. It's a super nice thing to me to be able to grapple with a project over a year, instead of months.

Thanks for the insight, Carl! Readers, if you’re looking for your next good book, I’d recommend this one.

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