Ahoy there, blog readers! (Yes, that nautical greeting was deliberate–you’ll understand why in a moment.)
If you follow me on Goodreads, you may recently have seen my ecstatic review for a book called The Disaster Tourist, which takes place on a round-the-world cruise and is one of my tippy-top favorite reads of 2013. But I wasn’t content merely with reviewing it and gushing about it to friends. I just had to hunt down the author, Aiken Avery, and lure him over for an interview at this here blog.
Luckily, hunting him down wasn’t too difficult, since Mr. Avery and I were college classmates (where we both studied creative writing with Ernie Hebert). And even more luckily, he agreed to share his insight and wisdom about travel, writing, travel writing, and today’s publishing options for literary novels. Hooray!
Here’s a blurb about the book itself, and my interview with the author follows. (Also, since this is a blog usually devoted to children’s literature, I should probably insert a disclaimer here that this is most definitely an adult novel, complete with strong language, queer content, and all that good stuff.)
About The Disaster Tourist:
When foul-mouthed RG boards the S. S. U. Sea for its fall semester voyage, she does so with her usual intentions: knock people down a few pegs and hopefully score some hot chicks along the way. But intentions and itineraries don’t always sync. Part international romp, part descent into madness, The Disaster Tourist follows a crew of sometimes thought-provoking, often ridiculous characters as they circumnavigate the globe on a cruise ship turned floating college. RG’s plans to corrupt her lovely, wholesome Midwestern classmate Dottie fail when she turns out not to be the simple beauty she seems. The two forge an unlikely partnership—straight with gay, principled with radical—as the climate on-board, and in the various ports of call, grows from silly to paranoid to downright dangerous. In the end, The Disaster Tourist strives to capture what it means to be an American abroad in the 21st century.
Tara Dairman: Welcome, Aiken Avery!
Your debut novel, The Disaster Tourist, takes place in so many different locations—Japan, Vietnam, China, and India, just to name a few—and you write about them so evocatively! Here are a couple of my favorite descriptions:
India was like an ice cream cone with every topping imaginable—not just ice cream ones but pizza toppings, too, salad toppings, cereal toppings, and then handfuls of dirt and sh*t thrown on for good measure.
The poor—which, from what they could tell, was everybody—subverted physics in order to balance great loads of merchandise on tiny carts and rickshaws and bicycles, Pisas of metal tins, breaching whales of straw baskets, to name only ten degrees of the surrounding three-sixty.
I was wondering how you carried out your research on these locations for the book. I believe that you’ve been to most or all of these places yourself—did you go back to journals or photographs? Rely on memory? Or did you need to look to books and the Internet to bring yourself up to date on these destinations?
Aiken Avery: I definitely appealed to my old photo albums for detail. I come away from a trip with a general sense of the place, but detail gets lost just because of the overwhelming abundance of it—especially in crowded places like China and India. In years past, writers might have needed to shell out for plane tickets to these places or bury themselves in books at university libraries (which I’ve done plenty of myself). Now, without the benefit of photographic memory, we have the Internet to help flesh out descriptions.
I’ll admit, it felt a bit like cheating, but I definitely made use of Google Earth! I could zoom in on a locale like Ho Chi Minh City and click on the icons for other people’s photos, a great feature of theirs. What does the Rex Hotel look like these days? What would a typical street scene bustling with locals look like? Now we have a wealth of evocative imagery and information right in front of us on our laptops. So yes, I’ve been to all of the countries in the book—authentic experience is still top dog—but technology helps to fill in the gaps.
TD: Follow-up question: Did you have any trouble separating your own, real-life experiences in and opinions of these places from those of your characters in the book?
AA: Like most people (I assume…), I leave a place with all sorts of conflicting feelings about what I’ve just experienced. Is India dirty and stinky and wretched in a lot of ways? Absolutely. Is it also a beautiful, diverse, fascinating place? Of course. I would go back and travel around it for a year if I was able (still barely scratching the surface). So I actually found that it wasn’t all that difficult to voice these varieties of opinions through characters; they already cohabitate, bickering in my head.
The really interesting question is whether or not I had trouble separating my real-life experiences from those of my characters. Fictionalizing real events, adding new people, contexts, twists—which I did often when writing this book, having gone on a study abroad program similar to The Disaster Tourist‘s “University of the Sea”—can change your memories of those events, or even replace them with the new ones to an extent. I don’t mean to say that I’m incapable of separating fiction from reality! I just mean that taking actual events and attaching meaning to them—in the way that the very deliberate process of writing always does for bare reality—can often place the fictional event even above the real one in importance. I now value my experiences much more because of what I was able to cultivate from them, if that makes any sense.
TD: Here’s another quote from the book that I loved, describing the main character, RG.
She could feel the claws of her personality climbing up the walls of her skull to predetermined places—a large, articulated crab getting into position—and then it was only through its eyes, the lenses of this refracted self, that she was able to see and act.
On paper, RG, might turn some readers off; she’s snarky and manipulative (not to mention doggedly, unapologetically anorexic). But I was completely charmed by her—just like many other girls on the ship are, and I’m sure many readers are, too. How did you come up with this complicated character—and did she take any turns over the course of the book that surprised you?
AA: RG is an amalgam of a few different people I’ve encountered: a solitary and obsessive exerciser from my college days (never knew her, but found her compelling); the beleaguered adopted daughter of relentlessly well-meaning Brahmin parents in Cambridge, MA (where I did a lot of private tutoring); and my own “Negative Nancy” inner voice. RG is a minority and a Devil’s advocate in every possible way, and as such, I risk alienating people who start reading and can’t handle her! Trust me, I worry about that.
But the intention was always for her to change, to soften and wise up over the course of the story. Really—without giving too much away, I hope—she was always meant to become more and more like her “silver linings” friend in the story, Dottie, while Dottie grows more and more (to RG’s horror) like the old, bitter RG. To say “the characters took on a life of their own” would be cliché, but yes, they changed in surprising ways—unpredictable even to me—as I slowly discovered what their motivations should be. I guess my long-term writing strategy is “plan, but in pencil.”
TD: You write such beautiful (and often twistedly funny) descriptions and observations. Here are a few of my favorites:
Her jokes were like puppies head-butting the gate to get out and play.
He’d been crying like an old man—which was to say that his eyes were completely dry over a low, trembling voice.
To go abroad, even to sail to the other side of the world, is to be taken for a walk on a leash—and then, inevitably, brought back home again.
This makes me curious about your writing process. Do the words just tend to just come out this way for you in the moment, or do you do a first draft more focused on plot and focus on the language later?
AA: I can’t say I’ve never written a passage and then thought of an improvement—either to the plot or to the language—later on. An advantage to undertaking big, novel-length projects is that you have as much as a year or two for all of the best “improvements” to occur to you, sometimes well after the first draft. But for the most part, I focus on the language and the tone as I’m writing for the first time, not later. I’m glad you liked the head-butting puppies comparison—I came very close to ditching that one!
TD: You self-published The Disaster Tourist as an e-book rather than pursuing traditional publishing. Can you share what led you to choose this path, and how it’s working for you so far?
AA: At the time I was writing my first novel (a yet-unpublished Civil War story), self-publishing was basically taboo. In most cases, doing so meant that you had tried traditional routes and no agent or publisher would touch you, so you must have written a dud. The only recourse for duds was self-publishing. I used to go so far as to say that I would rather not publish at all than self-publish.
However, as I was writing my second book, the Kindle was introduced, and e-books really took off. Opinions both in the industry and among laypeople have shifted pretty dramatically on the subject of self-publishing, so a writer no longer has to pray for a big publishing house to discover his needle status in the haystack of the “slush pile.” He can be much more proactive about getting himself noticed: by taking the book to market himself and by proving, sometimes in a big way, that customers are indeed lining up with dollars in hand. I’m still learning the ropes, but I hope my marketing campaign will do just that.
Well, Aiken, I’m with you in hoping that many, many readers discover this incredible book!
To that end, here are a few links where you can purchase The Disaster Tourist:
Thank you so much for this interview, Aiken Avery! And readers, if you end up reading The Disaster Tourist, please let me know–I’m dying to find some more folks to discuss it with.