Wednesday, November 27, 2013
Doug Mack is the Minnesota Author in the Spotlight here on Book Snob during the thankful month of November. Read this fun interview and you learn the backstory behind Europe on 5 Wrongs Turns a Day. Plus get some travel advice, learn about Doug's favorite city and travel writers, it will give you wanderlust. Fun Fact: Doug attended and graduated from the high school I currently teach at. How cool is that?
1. Tell us a little bit about yourself?
I'm an Aries, an alligator wrestler, a Segway tour guide, a onetime Bon Jovi backup dancer, and a travel writer. Two of those things are not true.
I grew up in Minneapolis, majored in American Studies at Carleton College, and have since turned my attention to the rest of the world as a freelance writer, penning stories for places like Newsday, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Morning News, and World Hum. I especially enjoy seeking out unexpected angles on seemingly familiar places and topics, staying on the beaten path but looking at it in a new way.
2. What inspired you to write to Europe on 5 Wrongs Turns a Day?
Well, here's the first line of the book: “It began as most things in my life do. Awkwardly.” The full story involves a chance discovery of a 1963 edition of Arthur Frommer's seminal guidebook Europe on Five Dollars a Day by yours truly, along with a
giddy, dancing mother (my mother) and shoeboxes full of letters she'd written during her 1967 Grand Tour of Europe.
Curious about the family-history angle, I started reading the book and the letters and soon became even more intrigued by the broader picture and the jarring changes in the world in general and travel in particular over the course of the last generation. The low prices. Checkpoint Charlie. The careful explanations of now-familiar foods like gelato. The wide-eyed innocence of both Frommer and my mother, and the way they didn't hesitate to call themselves tourists—a loaded, often pejorative term today.
So I thought it would be interesting to revisit the Continent using only that outdated information—no modern guidebooks or internet research—and see what had changed and what hadn't, both in terms of the the places and the general tourist experience. And to try to connect the dots between the eras, telling the story of how the beaten path got so beaten, while having my own (mis)adventures getting lost with a seriously old guidebook.
3. How did you decide what cities to travel to and write about?
There were only 17 cities listed in my 1963 guidebook, so that limited my itinerary options. I also knew that trying to go to all of those cities wouldn't be financially feasible—I did all the travel before I had a book deal or an advance—and would simply make the book too long and unwieldy.
So I narrowed the list by considering logistics, budget constraints, and which places would make for the most interesting then-and-now comparisons. Berlin was in (for obvious reasons). Athens was out simply because it was far away from the rest. In the end, I went to the following cities, in order: Florence, Paris, Amsterdam, Belgium, Berlin, Munich, Zurich, Vienna, Venice, Rome, and Madrid.
One thing that I found fascinating was that Frommer's list of featured cities was, even by itself, an interesting indication of political and cultural changes, and how the beaten path is ever-evolving. After I got back from Europe, tons of people asked if I'd been to Barcelona or Prague, two modern hotspots, and I had to explain that they weren't in my 1963 guidebook because American tourists just didn't go to those cities back then (due to Franco and a certain Iron Curtain, respectively). On the other hand, Frommer does give a chapter to Nice, which is arguably less trendy today than it was back then.
4. Do you have a favorite city? If so, why?
Ooh, I hate this question, because my answer changes every day, and every city seems to have things I adore and things I just don't like. But I especially enjoy Amsterdam, with its the canals and funky charm, and Brussels, with its grittiness and appreciation of the absurdities of life. I suppose I like low-key, weird cities more than the landmark-filled World Capitals like Rome or Paris or New York.
And when it comes right down to it, I love Minneapolis, for those same reasons and because it's where I grew up and still live. The more I travel, the more I realize how good we have it here—the lakes and parks and bike trails; the brutal winters and glorious, festival-filled summers; the food and arts-and-culture scenes, which are genuinely world class, even if the rest of the world hasn't noticed yet.
5. Do you like to read? What authors or books influence you?
I'm always reading at least two or three books—they're scattered around the house, forming a trail of clutter, much to my wife's dismay!
I was raised on a steady diet of travel books, most of them of the same humor-plus-history format that I now use in my own writing—they were more than a bit influential. Bill Bryson, Pico Iyer, Calvin Trillin, Sarah Vowell. My favorite travel books are Bryson's A Walk In the Woods and Bill Buford's Heat—I've read each one over and over, trying to reverse-engineer how they compose their narratives, craft their scenes, hone their voices, and so on.
And then there is The Things They Carried. I don't read much fiction. I especially don't read much war fiction. Yet this endures as my favorite book, hands down. The writing … it's just astonishing, so searing and evocative and carefully constructed and utterly captivating.
6. Can you tell us why or when you decided to become a writer?
My book is dedicated “To my parents, who taught me to love travel and books and travel books. Here's another one for your collection.” And as I said previously, quirky travel memoirs were just always around me, literally within reach as I grew up. So I always thought it would be fun to try writing that sort of story.
After college, I took a travel writing class at The Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis. I workshopped a couple of stories in the class, and sent one of them off to a website called World Hum. They published it, and that opened some other doors and (fast forward through years of agonizingly slow progress, rejection, tears, rewrites and resubmissions, and general frustration interspersed with occasional triumph) … and … here we are.
7. Where are you planning to travel next?
I'm heading to the Key West Literary Seminar in January. I've been attending the Seminar for several years now, and it always helps recharge my writing battery, and has helped me meet other writers and editors with whom I've later worked. Also, did I mention it's in Key West? In January?
After that, I'm off to the Virgin Islands to work on my next book.
8. Is there another travel memoir in your future? If so, can you tell us a little bit about it?
As it happens, I just started working on a new book a few days ago, after my agent gave the official
approval and a deadline for my proposal. Since it's all very early and somewhat tentative, I'm reluctant to talk about it in detail, aside from saying that my book proposal sample chapter will necessitate a trip to the Virgin Islands in January. (I know, rough life!)
But it's another travel memoir that will offer a new perspective on a seemingly familiar topic, with generous helpings of humor and history.
9. Do you have any travel advice for first time European travelers?
Don't forget to get lost! Do lots of research, of course, and take your guidebooks and know what you want to see and do. But then, when you're actually on the ground, put away that information, and your cell phone, and so on—for at least a few hours—and just wander, relying on your wits and your whims.
For first-timers on the Continent, I think Amsterdam and Paris are probably the best bets just because they're so history-rich and easy to get around. There's tons to do in each place but also many lovely, quiet neighborhoods where you can just go for a stroll away from the crowds. And if you do go to Paris, I insist that you go to a bakery called Gerard Mulot on the Left Bank. Get the pain au chocolat. Thank me later.
10. In one sentence tell readers why they should read Europe on 5 Wrong Turns a Day?
It's a funny and fascinating journey into the brave new Old World, and a disarming look at the ways the classic tourist experience has changed--and has not--in the last generation.
If you would like to win a copy of Doug's book Europe on 5 Wrong Turns a Day please click here:
Europe on 5 Wrong Turns a Day Giveaway. Open Internationally.