You might know Andrew McCarthy as Molly Ringwald's prom date in Pretty in Pink. But the American actor has also carved out a respected niche as a serious travel writer. On the release of his new memoir, The Longest Way Home, he chats to Peter Moore about how travel changed his life. And why Americans should travel more.
People are aware of your early movie career and what you have done since. But when did travel become important to you?
It became important when I walked the Camino de Santiago in Spain when I was 30. It was the trip that changed my life and made me see the value and the use of travel, that it was an important and viable way to spend time and wasn’t just a frivolous escape.
What did it reveal to you?
It revealed my fear, actually. I had a bit of a breakdown in a field of wheat there. Parts of it were miserable. I’d read a book about it and two weeks later, on impulse, I went. I had no idea why or what I was looking for. It just made sense to me.
Was it during that trip that you felt a compulsion to write about what you were experiencing?
That actually came later. Though I did try to keep a journal on that trip, which I found not too long ago. It was pretty lame and I only succeeded in keeping it for a couple of days.
After the Camino though, I started travelling more and actively seeking out travel writing. I started reading Paul Theroux’s books which opened my eyes to a way of travelling that I had never really considered – namely go, go alone, go far, don’t come home for a long time. Wait for it to start to become uncomfortable and difficult and that’s when you know it’s about to get good.
What was it about Paul Theroux’s books that spoke to you?
His books are oddly personal. He is very revealing in weird, clear ways. Like in Happy Isles of Oceania. It’s a book about the South Seas, but it’s also a book about divorce, about losing love and finding love. He keeps himself pretty removed and yet that imbues everything about that book, even though he only drops those personal things in occasionally. He’s distinctly himself when he travels.
I like his candour about the dark side of travel. I’m often lonely. I get grumpy – not as grumpy as him. And I like the way he travels. He didn’t go and look at stuff. It was as much his interaction with people and the serendipity of that. The sense of movement. That inexorable sense of movement.
When did you first write something you were proud of?
The first time I picked up a pen and tried to write was in the mid-90s, in 1995, when I went to South-East Asia, Vietnam, Cambodia. Again, I tried to keep a journal. I was travelling for a long time, untethered and drifting and I needed something to stabilise me.
So I started writing journal stuff and that was uninteresting. So I just wrote a story. A young guy pulled up on a scooter in Hanoi and he asked me if I wanted a ride, so I got on the back of the scooter and drove around with him. It became the scene that I wrote about.
I was an actor. I knew dialogue, I knew story arc, I had a sense of pace. So I just wrote that scene, that scene as it transpired that day. And that helped. Big time. It made sense to me. It made sense of my trip where writing a journal hadn’t. So I did that. In Laos I met a crazy woman trying to rent me a bicycle, so I wrote about that. All these little vignettes.
I did that for years. Then I’d come home and throw them in the drawer, all these little notebooks. I did that for about ten years before it occurred to me that I wanted to do something with it.
Do you think your career as an actor and a director have influenced your writing?
How could it not? That was what I read and that was what I was doing – working on scripts. Tell the story. Make sure everything has a point and a reason to be in it. Are we moving the story forward? And telling detail says a lot. A quote will propel your story way down the line. So yeah, that became my voice, I guess.
Do you think being Andrew McCarthy, actor, has helped or hindered your travel writing career?
It has done both. There was mild curiosity for people at first, which would get them to respond to me. But I had an equal amount of people, maybe even more, whose attitude was ‘So the guy from Pretty in Pink thinks he’s a writer!’
I wrote for a fair number of years before I was outed as the same person. The first guy I wrote for at Nat Geo Traveller, a guy called Keith Bellows, gave me my first chance to write. He was not interested in that aspect of me. He didn’t see any value in exploiting that. He just thought ‘You wrote a good story, so I’ll give you another story.’ And that was how it grew.
I never really met a lot of the editors I wrote for. It was all done online, so they didn’t know. I was using my name, they just didn’t make the link. It’s not like Tom Cruise of Brad Pitt. They’d seen that Nat Geo Traveller had given me a job, so Travel and Leisure gives me a job, then The Atlantic, then The New York Times.
So how were you ‘outed’?
I wrote an article for a magazine where I was arrested in Ethiopia and the magazine saw an opportunity to advertise the piece, a year later, when the story came out. ‘Actor Andrew McCarthy arrested in Ethiopia when on assignment for us!’ So I was outed.
Which was fine by me, because by then I’d written a bunch of stuff, and for a bunch of good publications. So when it did happen, it wasn’t so easy to write me off. Then I won an award, and when you win an award everyone has incredible respect for you, where as before you were a pain in the arse.
Was it important to you to win those awards?
I was thrilled by it. It wasn’t necessarily important to me. But I was surprised and thrilled and I knew it would make my life easier.
In a previous interview you have said that you didn’t feel you had control over your acting career. Do you think you’ve had more control over your writing career?
I was 22 when all that stuff happened to me. I hadn’t been bred for success like the Kennedys. I was just responding to situations. I didn’t have a clear vision. It didn’t occur to me that you could this or had to do that.
With the writing though, I did have a plan. I knew that I wanted to write for certain magazines, a broad spectrum of respected publications. It was important to me. It was something I wanted to do. It wasn’t frivolous. It wasn’t a full time career but it was something I approached consciously and deliberately. It became a bit of an accidental career, but a conscious one.
How did you find writing the book as compared to writing features?
Well, I knew what the story was before I started, which is like my travel writing. I always know my story before I start writing it. I knew what I wanted my story to be and I knew the natural arc of it.
When I first started travel writing, I didn’t know anything. I had my voice and I had my experiences, but underneath every travel article I write is this sensation: ‘This will change your life!’ This is a great and valuable thing to be doing with your life. Whether I'm writing a story about Parma ham or something else, there’s always this energy behind my stories. I believe that. That’s what happened to me. Travel changed my life. It can change yours. I believe that.
So I would write in my voice, about my passion. But there’s a lot more personal stuff in the book. So it was about balancing that personal stuff with the experiential travel stuff. I wasn’t so interested in writing a travel book per se. I was much more interested in that other internal stuff, about how stuff changes you. So it was communicating that through the medium of travel. Because that’s what changes me.
If I were changed by sitting around drinking coffee with my buddies in a coffee shop, then I would have written about the coffee shop. That would have been where I experienced that kind of stuff. So it was balancing between setting the furniture and keeping your heart open.
Was it difficult working the personal stuff in?
When I was travelling, I’d get a flash, something deep and personal from my past. I was in the boiler room of this boat in the Amazon, and yet I get a flash of my ex-wife. So when I get home a month later I just put air in that balloon and go and figure that out. The truth about why it came out there in the book is because that’s where organically it did. That’s what travel does to us. Suddenly some smell comes rushing in and we’re thinking of our grandfather and there we are.
Do you have another travel book in you?
Yeah, I have an idea for another one. It won’t be one of those ‘I went there and did this’ gimmick kind of travel book. I don’t like reading them. I don’t know what the point is. I find they have to be personal in a way that hopefully transcends the personal and inside people’s heads they’re having their trip. It becomes so personal that you become as unimportant as the writer. That people will identify with the story. That’s what you hope for.
Do you think more Americans should travel?
Yeah, that’s my soapbox. America is a great place. I love America. I’m American. But America is an incredibly fearful place. All political decisions are made on fear. And when people travel, travel obliterates fear. America influences the world. And if Americans travelled they’d be less fearful. And if Americans were less fearful, the world would be a different place.
My goal is to change the world, one trip at a time. 30% of Americans have passports. Half of them haven’t used them. And half of those have used them to go to Canada or Mexico. It’s a ridiculous statistic.
How does travel overcome that fear?
When you travel you almost put yourself at the mercy of the locals. I often travel with my kids, and I took them to the Sahara for an assignment. People said ‘Are you crazy?’ But when you’re travelling with kids, in particular, you’re walking in and saying ‘I’m trusting you.’
I was recently in Sudan. By your arrival, by you being there, you’re saying ‘I trust you, receive me.’ And people invariably do.
Sadly, Americans can’t differentiate between politics and the people of the country. I might go somewhere and people will say I don’t like your country’s politics, but we love Americans. Only Americans lump them together.
That’s a political message we’ve been given loud and clear. There’s that great Mark Twain line about 100 years ago that travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness. And that has been my experience. People who travel, alone particularly, have that experience.
In the future, when your son or daughter comes up to you and says, 'Dad, I’m about to head off, I want to go travelling,’ what is the one piece of advice you’d give them?
Call home! (laughs). I look forward to that day and I can say ‘OK, I’ll meet you in Spain on the 5th!’ I look forward to that.
But seriously? Stay open and follow your intuition.
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