Friday, December 7, 2012


      Female travel bloggers now abound on the Internet, but Evelyn Hannon was a pioneer.  In 1997 at age 57, she launched, an online travel resource just for women. Before then few people acknowledged a simple fact: Women have different travel concerns from men when traveling solo.

  Journeywoman first appeared in print in a mini-magazine Hannon started in 1994, but the real genesis of the site came in 1982. Hannon and her husband recently had been divorced. They had fallen in love at 14, married at 19 --  “Way too young,” she says now – and had two children. At 42, they knew they were going in different directions and had agreed to an amicable parting.  They would remain friends, but the pain of breaking that tie was “incredibly distressing,” says Hannon. “I felt that I had to go into the world by myself.”  She took a trip to Europe – alone.

    That solo journey would be the seed that would grow into Hannon’s late-blooming career as a travel writer and Journeywoman.

Evelyn Hannon
     As a writer, Hannon has had plenty of life experiences to tap into. During her marriage, she founded and operated a children's camp, worked at a recreational center for older adults and launched a company called Sorties that took older adults on trips to North America. After her divorce, she went back to school to study film and television. At 49, she got a grant to go to China to do research for a film on the way women do traditional Chinese medicine. In her fifties, she moved to Toronto where she started On her 65th birthday, she celebrated by running in a 10K race.
     Now 73, Hannon isn’t ready to slow down yet. Dubbed the Grandmother of Women's Travel (and now a real grandmother of four), she still manages (with only the help of a webmistress) her far-reaching network of female travelers (the website gets one million visitors a year) who keep each other informed and sometimes even meet up with each other in various parts of the globe. The site is peppered with good advice and articles written by contributors about their experiences. Hannon writes about her own travel adventures like the time she traveled to China with her daughter Leslie when she adopted a Chinese baby named Lotus.

Graphic from
     Hannon tweets several times a day to her more than 22,000 followers on Twitter and writes a weekly blog – “Aging Disgracefully” – that appears on, a website founded by her other daughter, Erica.

     This week, I caught up with Hannon by telephone at her home in Toronto. The following is an edited transcript of our chat:

     Creativity and travel have a lot in common. Both involve a certain amount of risk and putting yourself out there. How has aging changed your approach to your creative life as a travel writer and your actual traveling?

     As I get older, I get bolder. At this point I’m 73 years old and I pretty well speak my mind. I’m not afraid anymore. I’m not afraid to approach people. I’m not afraid to be playful. You know that whole thing about “when I get older, I’ll wear a purple hat.” Things don’t embarrass you and you know that you have the expertise and people know you are not just fooling around.

      You talk with admiration about your mother as someone who knew how to grow old gracefully. But your blog is called Aging Disgracefully.

     That’s right. My mother was an absolutely lady. I am a maverick. I don’t think anybody can accuse me of not being a lady. I’m never rude. I’m friendly. But my mother was a very sophisticated lady. I am a funky lady. I’m aging disgracefully  -- doing it a little differently than people expect.

     You started Journeywoman at age 57. What are the advantages to starting a project later in life and what are the disadvantages?

      I don’t think there are any disadvantages at all. The career moves that I had had in place before I started this company all gave me terrific background and access in order to create the new one.  So I was bringing forward all this lovely experience. I was saavy enough at that point. I had business acumen.  Yeah, it was perfect. I think that your excitement when you’re older is so much more because you understand that you are taking this on because you really really love the idea.

     What was your first travel piece about?

      My first travel piece was about Amsterdam. I didn’t really know how to do any of this then. So I cold call the Netherland Board of Tourism and said, “Hello. My name is Evelyn Hannon. I am going to be the first Canadian woman to start write about travel from a woman’s point of view and I’d like you to send me to Holland.” There was silence at the other end and then a woman said, “Evelyn, who are you? That’s not how you get assignments. Would you like me to explain how you do it?”  I eventually faxed her a letter of introduction and at the bottom of the letter I wrote: “Remember I’m a Journeywoman. My bags are always packed.” Four days later, the phone rang: “Evelyn, is your bag really packed? One of the journalists on our press trip just called to cancel, would you like to replace him?” That was my first travel story. It got incredible coverage. It was the first time someone had written a piece that said, “This is how you look at Amsterdam from a woman’s point of view.”

     In your piece Girl With a Grandmother Face, you describe your grandchildren’s negative reactions to your wrinkles. To counter that, because they called you old and weak, you challenged them to an arm wrestling match, which, of course, you eventually let them win. What can we do to change our society’s negative views of “girls with grandmother faces”? Or it up to us? Do we need to change attitudes out there or do we need to change attitudes within ourselves?

Graphic from
      The concept of aging and of grandmother sitting in her rocking chair and knitting and all of the stereotypes are still in books. But our generation is slowly changing that. We’re living longer. We’re healthier. Many, many of us are single and therefore are working longer and choosing to work longer because it’s our way of being out in the world. I think we’re changing attitudes without really understanding that it’s happening. There are too many of us not to be changing the concept. Just by what we’re doing. I don’t think there’s a fight. When I meet up with younger travel bloggers, everyone is excited to see Journeywoman because I was the first one to start travel writing from a woman’s point of view. But when kids who are 40 years younger than I am say they cannot believe that I am 73 years old, I say, “Why? Age doesn’t have to do with your face. It has to do with what’s going on in your heart. It has to do with your spirit.” I think there are way more of us with that gumption, with that spirit than ever before.

     At 68 you joined 750 students and a dozen 50 plus lifelong learners for a 108 day voyage around the world with Semester at Sea. What did the younger students teach the elders on that trip?

    The energy. The excitement. The creativity. The crackling in the air because they were always so curious and wanting to change the world: It just invigorates you to be around that kind of energy. That’s what they taught me: Just get out there and try.
Some of the older people tried skydiving because all the other kids were doing it.

    What did the younger students learn from you?
     I was only supposed to be on that trip for half the time.  I had done some mentoring on board and given a few lectures. But when the kids learned I was getting off – six weeks into the journey -- they told me that they didn’t want me to go. “My cabin is being taken over by someone else,” I told them. “That was the contract.” Then one young woman, a medical student, came to me and said, “I’m not letting you go. I have a cabin with an extra bed and I want you to stay with me.” “It’s such a delight to have this invitation,” I told her, “but it’s going to be like having your grandmother in your room. Why don’t I just stay for one more port.” She said, “If you don’t stay for the whole trip, I’m not inviting you.” So I stayed. Oh, the fun we had. They just took me in. Nobody cared how old I was.

     I have noticed that the eligible ages for senior discounts vary wildly – ranging from 55 years on up to 70. Is that an example of society’s unwillingness to deal with age or is it a good thing that we don’t have a set idea of when old age begins?

     We have young…why shouldn’t we have old? But old has so many layers. It’s like the Eskimos who have many names for snow. There are so many interpretations of what old is. I think we can say what retirement age is – as long as it’s not mandatory. We can give people the option of stopping their profession at a certain time and collecting their pension, if they choose to. But in terms of society deciding what’s old is. No.

What is the age of your oldest contributor?

    I don’t know. So many of them are just a name. They send in their tips from all around the world. We have a deal. I don’t charge anything for my newsletters, but everybody who receives them needs to be prepared to send me one tip a year. That’s all I ask. And it’s amazing. This network is like the Little Engine That Could. And they just keep sending in their stuff.

Have you ever thought about writing a travel memoir?

      I can’t wait to put my story down on paper. But I’m waiting until I retire. I am so busy. I wake up at 5 a.m. and I force myself to stay in bed until 7 but for those two hours my mind is racing about everything that needs to be done. Because it really is more work than one person should be handling. I’m also blogging. I’m the resident grandmother on my daughter’s website, which incidentally just won a Digi award, the Oscar of the digital world. Then trying to be a good grandmother. And people are always calling me to ask me to give a post on this or that. I finally have gotten to the point of saying, if it’s a paid position, yes I will do it. But I can no longer do it complimentary. It’s too much for me.

      Wife, mother, business woman, divorcee, solo traveler, filmmaker, grandmother, travel writer, Internet personality, teacher, blogger, tweeter, Journeywoman: Evelyn, who are you?

     Every seven years, I kind of change. You know what drives me? I take on things that I know nothing about. I’m an absolute novice. I work at it until I perfect it in some way and get some recognition or an award or whatever and then I close the door and I say, okay I know how to do that. Life is short.  I want to learn how to do something else.

   So are you due for another reinvention?

  No. Journeywoman, it’s my love. I found my love.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

How Late Does a Bloomer Have to Be to Make a Late Bloomer List? Not That Late.

       The new list of late bloomers -- "10 Great Literary Late Bloomers"  -- just posted on the internet has me wondering: How late does a bloomer have to be to make one of these lists? Not so late, it seems.

Emily Temple
Emily Temple
    The current roll call was compiled by Emily Temple, the literary editor at Flavorpill, an internet city guide started in 2000. According to Temple's Linked-In profile, she graduated from Middlebury College in 2008.

    Which may explain why most of the writers on her list are just barely showing their grey.

      One of them  -- Anthony Burgess -- was a boyish 39 when he made his fiction debut. (Oh, okay, he was 45 when he hit the literary jackpot with "Clockwork Orange," but that's still younger than all but two of our U.S. presidents).
     The older I get, I guess, the higher the age a late bloomer needs to be.

Laura Ingalls Wilder
     Five more on Temple's list (Deborah Eisenberg, William Burroughs, Helen DeWitt and Raymond Chandler) were only in their early forties when they bloomed on the literary scene. And two more (Charles Bukowski and the Marquis de Sade) were barely into their fifties.  Literary late bloomers? I tend to think of them as writers who either started or found success in their fifties and up.

     So, yes, for me the last two on Temple's list definitely quality: Donald Ray Pollack was 55 when he debuted with a short story collection and 58 when he published his first novel last year. And, Laura Ingalls Wilder -- the only silver-haired among the lot -- was without a doubt a late bloomer. She published her first novel -- "Little House in the Book Woods" when she was 64.

      Temple says she was inspired to create her list of literary not-so-late bloomers after she discovered a "cool website dedicated to the discussion of writers who published their first major work at age 40 or later." The website, called Bloom, is indeed cool, a place "where you'll encounter the work and lives of authors ... who bloomed in their own good time."

     But consider this: That site was founded by Sonya Chung, a novelist who once told an interviewer that she considered herself a late bloomer because she only began writing in "her late twenties." 

Photo credit: Robin Holland
Sonya Chung
     Chung is also the force behind the inspiring "Post-40 Bloomers" series at The Millions, which was launched in 2011 in the wake of the outcry over that year's New Yorker "20 Under 40" list. "Why do the kids get so much of the good stuff?" asked Martha Southgate in "Older and Wiser," also posted on The Millions.

     Chung wanted writers over 40 to get some good stuff, too. In her first column introducing the Post-40 series, Chung said she appreciated Malcolm Gladwell's distinctions among "late bloomers, late starters and late-dicoverereds," in his popular New Yorker article on "Late Bloomers," but admited her own bias was toward late starters -- "people who have lived a whole life, or two, or three before seriously devoting themselves to write a book."

     But it's hard to imagine that those she and others have profiled in the "Post-40 Bloomers" series have had time to live three lifetimes. Like the writers on Temple's list, most were already successful by their forties and early fifties:

     * Spencer Reece who had been submitting his poetry for 13 years and was rejected some 300 times over before both a publisher and The New Yorker recognized his work when he was...40.

    * Walker Percy who published "The Moviegoer," at 44 
    * Novelists David Abrams and Anna Keesey who were 49 when they published their first novels
    * Mary Costello who finally found success with her short stories in her mid-40s
    * Short story writer Susan Starr Richards who published her first collection at 49 
    * Isak Dinesen whose literary star started to ascend at 50, just as her physical deterioration accelerated
    * David Orozco whose "debut" collection at 52 was 16 years in the making

     To be fair, the Post-40 series hasn't completely overlooked writers who have achieved success in their late fifties, sixties and seventies. The fact that one of them didn't actually live long enough to see that success was a bit disconcerting. But let's not quibble. We late late bloomers will take all the role models we can get:

William Gay
   William Gay, a self-taught wrier who finally managed to publish two short stories at age 55 and then was offered a book contract for his novel the next year

     * Stephen Wetta who took 56 years to learn to write in the voice of his 12-year-old self
Harriet Doerr
     * Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa who began working on his one and only novel, "The Leopard," when he was 58 and finished it when he was 60 (alas, only to die before it was published posthumously the next year)
     * Mary Wesley who found success publishing young adult fiction in her 70s

     *  Harriet Doerr who won the National Book Award for her first novel when she was 74

     And I'll give this to Chung: She was on to something when she deliberately left out the word "late" and "older" in her "Post-40" title:  "Late relative to what and according to whose definition of early or on-time?" she asked.

     Indeed. Will I still think of Laura Ingalls Wilder as a late bloomer when I am in my seventies and eighties? 
     Perhaps not. Clearly, late is in the age of the beholder.

     10 Great LIterary Late Bloomers

Monday, November 12, 2012

Fifty Shades of Grey for the Grey-Haired Crowd: Books About Sex, Love and Aging

    Here's a delicious story: Rejected for 20 years by the old, traditional publishing route, an older woman is hitting it big with a novel about sixty-something romance, thanks to the upcoming, new kid on the publishing block: the ebook.

hilary boyd
Hilary Boyd in north London. Photograph: Andy Hall for the Observer

    English journalist Hilary Boyd had published six non-fiction books on such subjects as pregnancy, step-parenting and depression, but she never gave up writing fiction. Finally, last year she published her first novel, the story of a romance between 60-somethings who meet in a park while the woman is looking after her grandchildren. Alas, Thursdays in the Park, didn't exactly fly off the shelves; it sold under 1,000 copies. But this year Boyd's publisher, the independent imprint Quercus, posted the novel on Amazon as an ebook and something surprising happened.

    As an ebook, Thursdays in the Park began selling like crazy, topping more than 100,000 copies. Now Boyd has sold translation rights to the novel, which is also available in paperback, in France, Sweden, Finland and Germany and English director and actor Charles Dance (he once played a Bond villain) wants to make a movie of the story. At 62, Boyd has a bestseller on her hands.

      Obviously, there's an untapped market for novels about middle-aged love among Kindle readers. "Old people falling in love and having passionate relationships is not a story that's had much exposure before, but I'm in no doubt that the market's out there," Boyd told the London Observer. 

       It's the same market that flocked to "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" and "Hope Spring."  It may even be the same audience that has been reading Fifty Shades of Grey. Why should the rules be any different for an older crowd? If you get the packaging right, sex obviously sells.
     The London Observer heralded Boyd's ebook success as a sign of a rise in gran-lit, but books addressing the subject of sex, love and aging are not really new. What is new is the packaging. As baby boomers get comfortable with using Kindles and Nooks, I suspect there will be more demand for ebooks -- both novels and memoirs -- that speak to the challenges that sex and love pose as we age. Meanwhile, here are some of my favorites that I read in old-fashioned book form: 


My Dream of You, by Nuala O'Faolain
On the eve of her 50th birthday Kathleen a writer living alone in a basement apartment in London, has all but given up on love. She returns to her native Ireland and researches a 150-year-old mystery about an infamous love affair and ends up finding her own unexpected path to love in the process.

Julie & Romeo, by Jeanne Ray
Front Cover
What would you do if your widowed mother or father began dating? The children of Julie and Romeo are not thrilled with that prospect in this light-hearted novel about steamy late-in-life romance. with a nod to the Bard, the trysting widow and widower hail from two bitterly feuding families who own the town's rival florist shops. But don't expect a tragic ending from Ray, who is the mother of novelist Ann Patchett. Age does have its privileges.

The Leisure Seeker, by Michael Zadoorian
John and Ella Robina have been together for more than 50 years. Now in their 80s, they both face serious illness. Ella has cancer; John has Alzheimer's. They decide to escape from their doctors and adult children and go off on a final adventure, running away from Detroit for a cross-country trip.

Love in the Time of Cholera, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Boy meets girl. Girl rejects boy. Boy waits fifty years to get his chance again. Marquez's classic novel begins with a comical death and ends with the long-delayed union of Fermina Daza and her old sweetheart, Florentino Ariza. The two chapters point to the unexpected twists life offers. But they also bookmark a tale that unexpectedly offered something that had been rare in literature: sensual scenes of late-in-life romance. "It is life more than death that has no limits," writes Marquez.


A Round-Heeled Woman: My Late-Life Adventures in Sex and Romance CoverA Round-Heeled Woman: My Late-Life Adventures in Sex and Romance, by Jane Juska
The author ran a personal ad in the New York Review of Books: "Before I turn 67, I would like to have sex with a man I like. If you want to talk first, Trollope works for me." She then wrote this refreshingly honest account of what happened next.

Without Reservations: The Travels of an Independent Woman, by Alice Steinbach.
Middle-aged and seeking adventure (but not too much), Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Steinbach ventures alone to Europe to let her hair down. She wants to experience life, not just observe it. This divorced mother of two grown son finds romance with a Japanese businessman in Paris, goes ballroom dancing in Oxford and almost gets mugged in Rome. "This is what I will have forever," she says on her last day. "The memory of this moment, of rain falling on Venice."

Somewhere Towards the End: A Memoir, by Diana Athill
Long-time publisher Diana Athill in her 90s takes a hard look at growing old and concludes that its advantages outweigh its disadvantages in this funny, brutally honest chronicle of her own loves and long life.

The Virginia Monologues: Twenty Reasons Why Growing Old is Great, by Virginia Ironside (based on her stage play)
Ironside embraces her inner (and outer) oldster. She thinks growing ancient is a gain not a loss. So much the better if your memory is going. You can forget the bad times, like all the creepy men you slept with in the other sixties. She gives plenty of advice: Take lots of drugs, and not just those prescribed by your doctor. Talk about your various ailments ("I take so many fish oils I'm thinking of joining an aquarium"). Enjoy your grandchildren ("The reward for not killing your children.") As for sex, she's over it: "I have to admit that, at 65, I think I've had enough sex to last me a lifetime -- and I know I'm not the only one...I've found one can have so much better relationships now sex is out of the equation."

Post Scripts: A Writing Life After Eighty, by LaVerne Hammond
LaVerne Hammond (my mother) wrote this collection of columns and essays for senior section of the St. Petersburg Times (now the Tampa Bay Times). Hammond sold her first piece to the newspaper when she was 86. Many of her columns address the subjects of love and old age and, yes, even sex. In one column she describes how she managed to keep the sexual fires burning in her own long marriage of 52 years. In another, after the death of her spouse, she offers advice on dating in your eighties and nineties. Hey, it really is never too late.



Friday, October 5, 2012


     In August I spent a week at the Chautauqua Institution, a sprawling resort in western New York, to attend an senior arts boot camp, led by Jeanne Kelly of Encore Creativity. I followed seniors in each of the three arts tracks offered at the camp and wrote an article for the Washington Post's Style section. My piece has just been posted at the Washington Post website: Seniors sing (and dance and act) for their health.

Here are the seniors I followed during the week:


     Sixty-seven-year-old Florence Crisp of Alexandria, who drove up in a carload of other former Foreign Service officers to the arts boot camp, didn't let her two artificial knees stop her from joining the dance track.


Sixty-one-year-old Noel Miner, who joined the theater track, made an appropriately grand entrance onto the Chautauqua grounds in western New York with her husband and biggest fan Harold on their 2010 Harley Tri-Glide from their home just outside Orlando. 


When George Lane, 81 (at right) of Gaithersburg, Md., told Encore Creativity he needed a ride to Chautauqua, Jeanne Kelly put him in touch with Vin Kelly (left) of Chevy Chase.  Coincidentally, the two had been neighbors 30 years ago in Silver Springs. They are also both tenors.


Sunday, July 22, 2012

At 100, M.H. Abrams Continues to Bloom

    M.H. Abrams is not a late bloomer. He published his first book at age 22 and has published every decade of his life since. His latest is a book of essays, slated to come out from Norton in the fall, called "The Fourth Dimensions of a Poet." Today he was scheduled to give a lecture on the subject at Cornell University where he began teaching in 1945.

    No, Abrams is not a late bloomer. He's is a non-stop bloomer.  Tomorrow is his birthday.  He will be 100 years old.

    Yes, at 100, Abrams is still lecturing and writing and publishing and pursuing a life-long love of literature.

     If you want to see what it looks like to bloom into your nineties, continuing to pursue your life-long passion, treat yourself to this video of Abrams talking about reading poetry:

      "I go back far enough so that when I was a college student I heard T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound and e e cummings read their poems. Each read differently but all read well. I heard Robert Frost talk his poems to great effect. And I heard Dylan Thomas recite poems in a Welsh bardic chant to an equal or greater effect," Abrams reminded his audience last fall.

      If you went to college, and especially if you were a lit major, you most likely bought this work of Abrams: The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Abrams was the founding editor of that mainstay of English Departments on college campuses across the country. Many of us still can't part with our dog-eared copies. The sight of my husband's battered Volume I hardback on his bookshelf was one of the reasons I fell in love with him.

     Abrams also wrote two major works of contemporary literary criticism: "The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition" (1953) and "Natural Supernaturalism" (1973). Among his students at Cornell were Harold Bloom and Thomas Pynchon.

      But this is no stuffy professor.

      When Danielle Winterton of the Ithaca Times, recently asked Abrams who we should be reading now, there wasn't a dead white man in sight. Sounding more like a hip, up-to-date literary critic than a professor emeritus, Abrams recommended the novels of Gillian Flynn. Flynn's latest is the popular thriller "Gone Girl."

     Abrams' life is the "model of the intellectual journey in which every stage breaks new ground,"  Roger Gilbert, the chair of Cornell's English Department, told the Ithaca Times. "It is incredibly moving and inspiring to see how he has insisted on remaining engaged, thinking new thoughts, and being aware of what is happening in the world of literary studies." 

      Abrams was never much for resting on his laurels -- or resting at all. He continued to renew and update his anthology, throwing out old names and adding new ones. Each new edition -- it's now on its 10th -- has been "a collaboration between editors, users, teachers, and students,"Abrams told the Ithaca Times. "That's the way to keep the thing vital and alive and current." The formula is working: more than 50 years after Adams launched it, the anthology is thriving.

      Abrams obviously has kept himself vital, alive and current as well, although he doesn't see reaching the age of 100 as much of an achievement.

     "It's nothing I worked on, I assure you," he told Winterton. "I don't know why people think you somehow deserve it; you don't deserve it or not deserve it; it happens to you."

     Born in 1912, Abrams never let anything -- not even the Great Depression -- prevent him from following his dreams of becoming a literary critic, a professor, a thinker.

     "Abrams has often said he choose English as a field of study because there weren't any jobs in any field at the time, and he figured he might has well starve doing something that he liked instead of starving while doing something he disliked," writes Winterton. 

      Today, in celebration of its centenarian scholar, Cornell also scheduled an "Open Mike for Mike," to let friends, students, colleagues and admirers pay tribute to Abrams for his birthday. Among those who sent in tributes and birthday wishes were Bloom and poet Robert Pinsky.

     Fellow literary critic E.D. Hirsch, Jr. posted what he called one of his favorite Abrams-ism: Good criticism requires "a keen eye for the obvious."




Friday, June 15, 2012


     When a famous author dies, readers write fondly about the first time they met the icon -- in print, that is -- and let us know which book or quote is their favorite. Friends of the dearly departed, who knew the writer beyond his or her written work, pen more personal tributes. Then there are us lesser lights who recall our brief brush with greatness -- and cringe at the memory.

       Like the time I tried to edit Ray Bradbury.

       My close encounter with Bradbury was a disaster. And as I look back now, a pretty predictable disaster. There I was a lowly book editor at the St. Petersburg Times asking a sci-fi megastar to do a piece on assignment, an article imagining how the Super Bowl might evolve in 100 years. What chutzpah!

      At first, my charming naivety paid off. Bradbury agreed to do the work  -- albeit for an exorbitant price. But charm and chutzpah ultimately couldn't save me from the inherent folly of the enterprise. When it was all over, Bradbury got to bank a hefty kill fee and I deposited three important conclusions:

       1) Imaginative writing should not be commissioned.
       2) Science fiction/fantasy writers are not overly fond of narrative structure.
       3) All writers need editors except the famous ones who won't.

       Like a lot of bad ideas, this idea sounded good at the time. It was just before the 35th Super Bowl in January 2001, the first Super Bowl of the 20th century, and it was to be held in Tampa. The newspaper's sports editor thought it would be cool to have a science fiction writer imagine what Super Bowl 2101 would look like.
       I could have found a local sci fi writer who would have been thrilled to take a stab it. But, no. I had to think BIG. I had to go for the supernova of sci fi/fantasy: Ray Bradbury.

      I should have been wary when Bradbury asked for so much money. But, hey, how can you put a price on greatness? What a coup a Bradbury original would be! People would be talking about this piece for decades -- maybe even until 2101.

     Then Bradbury's article arrived.

      He had entitled it Sporticus 2101. He imagined the greatest Super Bowl game in all history was held in a super arena that had been conceived in the year 2000 by the architectural consultant/designer Ray Bradbury. He imagined the humongous stadium was ringed with endless shops where athletes of every sport imaginable -- even jai alai -- could find the world's best sports equipment. He imagined that the first Superbowl of the 22nd century was witnessed by two billion people who paid one hundred billion dollars to see the Quicksilver Lites beat the Gigantic Bisons.

     All the ingredients were there. The only problem was, they were not there in any readable order. The piece was chaotic, with imaginative ideas popping out all over the place. It was nearly impossible to follow as Bradbury offered up sentence fragments and inexplicable twists and turns.

     The gigantic stadium and its environs had become the center of all sports in the U.S.: surfing, ski jumping, even kite-flying and fights between wild buffalos and stark mad elephants. The revenues from the Super Bowl were given to needy countries to build schools. Stadiums like Sporticus were built all over the world and eventually wiped out wars. The U.S. president once had been a star quarterback. Future football leagues had three weight divisions.

       Huh? What's he talking about? the sports editor asked me. Don't worry, I told him. It'll be fine.

       I'll just do some editing.

        I moved sentences around. I completed others. I tried to fill in some holes in Bradbury's logic. I smoothed over the bumps. When some of the sentences still remained unclear to me, I attached notes, asking Bradbury to clarify and/or to flush out certain sections.

       Okay, I gutted the piece. I tried to tame Bradbury's exuberance and create a more coherent narrative. I trimmed back excess and shaped the story into something less confusing albeit more prosaic. Then I emailed the edited version to Bradbury with a note about how it was such an honor to work with him. I tried to make it clear that this was just the beginning of the editing process. None of my changes were writ in stone. I imagined myself the Maxwell Perkins to his Ernest Hemingway.

      Bradbury was quick to respond: We had to print exactly what he wrote or nothing at all.

      We chose nothing. We sent him a kill fee of thousands of dollars. It seemed fair. He was, after all, Ray Bradbury.

      Over the years, I have mulled over and over this hapless story of my Distant Sighting of Ray Bradbury. At times, when I'm feeling pessimistic, I am convinced that he knew all along that we would never print his mishmash of a piece and that he just took the assignment for the kill fee. I imagine him laughing at our attempt to make the muddled article work for a newspaper audience. At other more self-deprecating times, I tell myself that it was all my fault. I was awfully cheeky to try to edit such an icon and I deserved to be turned flat down. I imagine that Bradbury was sad not to see his phantasmagoric imaginings of Super Bowl 2101 in print.

      Then I remember: I am talking about Ray Bradbury, a writer who authored hundreds of published short stories, close to 50 books and numerous poems, essays, operas, plays, teleplays and screenplays during a career that lasted more than 70 years. We clearly had needed him far more than he had needed us. Why should he have bothered to deal with an obscure book editor?

       Bradbury already had legions of adoring fans who wouldn't have cared a whit that his piece read like a first draft. Sci fi lovers are notoriously tolerant of works that show their seams in the service of an imaginative idea. Why else would fans of Doctor Who have put up with those cheesy props and fake planets for so long?

     In her tribute to Bradbury on her blog Ramblings, my niece Sonja  explained why she was willing to accept the implausibility of matters both large and small in her reading and later re-reading of a Bradbury's short story entitled "All Summer in a Day."

    She was in the sixth grade when the teacher had the class read that story of an Earth girl who was tormented by her classmates on Venus. It was Sonja's first introduction to Bradbury. She was entranced with the idea of a world where the sun only came out for two hours every seven years. Then as an adult and a teacher herself, she assigned "All Summer in a Day" to her students. On re-reading the tale, Sonja noticed a few off-kilter details she had overlooked as a child. But so what? What's a plot hole or two matter in a story that has haunted you for years? Bradbury already had her believing that a girl could travel from Earth to Venus and that a planet could sustain life without sunshine. Having to swallow more minor imaginative stretchings -- like why would the teacher have left her students alone and why when they went out to see the sun wouldn't she have noticed a pupil was missing -- was no biggie in the service of making a point about bullying in such a unique way. "'All Summer in a Day' was an excellent way to open a deeper discussion with students about tolerating differences among classmates," my niece wrote, opting for originality over believability.

       Of course, Bradbury's forecast of a super Super Bowl stadium wasn't all that damn original. Decades earlier -- in Esquire in 1973 -- William Harrison had already conjured up a future sports arena that was awesome to behold. Rollerball, anyone? But Bradbury's imaginings of the first Super Bowl of the 21st century had come in a vintage Bradbury package that his more devoted fans might have appreciated. As far removed from the who-what-when-where-why-how inverted pyramid structure of journalism as you could get, Sporticus 2101 was a jumbled juxtaposition of crazy flights of fancy, loopy predictions and prosaic declarations coming at you in a feverish, confusing flood of Bradbury words.

       Every last unedited one of them.



Friday, June 8, 2012


Several years ago I got a call from Mark Wexler. We used to refer to a call like that as a blast from the past. I hadn't talked with Mark since we both lived in New York in the Eighties. Back then, he was a photographer. Since then he had become a documentary filmmaker. He had already completed two films: "Me and My Matchmaker" and "Tell Them Who You Are." The latter is about his famous father, cinematographer Haskell Wexler. I had never known he was that Wexler's son.

Mark invited me to meet him at the Sarasota Film Festival to see his latest documentary, "How to Live Forever."  It's all about the fears (and joys) of growing old, which dovetails nicely with my creative late bloomer obsessions.

How to Live ForeverThe film is told in a wry and really engaging way. You don't expect to laugh when you go to a film about aging, but this one's a riot. Its cast of characters include the world's oldest woman, Phyllis Diller, a 94-year-old heart surgeon, Jack Lalane, a 92-year-old Japanese who dives for fish, Suzanne Somers who is touting hormones, a coffin maker and the people of Okinawa who are the longest living on earth.

After seeing the film, I told Mark, "Everyone should see this film -- young and old." Now everyone can. It's finally available as a DVD on Amazon and iTunes. The DVD has 30 minutes of bonus material that I probably didn't see when I was down in Sarasota. Now I'll have to buy the DVD, too. Pretty clever of you, Mark.

The release of the "How to Live Forever" DVD coincidentally comes in the same week as the death of Ray Bradbury who is one of the subjects in Mark's film. Of course, Bradbury, who was 91 when he died on June 5, long ago found a way to live forever: through his books.

In the film, Bradbury, who was then 87, points out that he has written many books about old people, referring in particular to "Dandelion Wine," published in 1957. Then he talks about the sequel he just has written to that book which he says is again about the relationship between younger and older folk. This time though, he says, it's a conversation between his 13-year-old self and his older self. He compares the confrontation of these two Bradburys to Lee and Grant at Appomattox. Each has to learn to accept the other, he says. He doesn't name the book, but it turned out to be the last novel he released in his lifetime, published in 2006. It's called "Farewell Summer."

Tuesday, June 5, 2012


      Do you have enough travel stories to fill a book? Do you want your grandchildren and great-grandchildren to see the world through your eyes? Do you dream of getting paid to travel? If you said yes to any of these questions, you may be the victim of a highly contagious disease known as the travel writing bug. Don’t be alarmed. There is a cure. Write a travel memoir. 
     People have been travel writing for millennia, beginning with those who recorded their adventures on cave walls. Some merely wrote essays on “What I Did on My Summer Vacation.” Others described deeply spiritual quests... 

    That is beginning of my description of the Travel Memoir class I am offering June 6 on the campus of Eckerd College. It's my first OLLI class.

      OLLI stands for Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. The concept of OLLI is simple: Curiosity never retires. OLLI, which exists on campuses across the country, is a membership organization that offers learning opportunities to midlife and older adults (50 and older, that is). Members pay a small annual fee and then can attend a whole slew of lectures, go on dozens of educational excursions and form special interest groups, all for very reasonable prices. 
      In my course description,  I cite two memoirs that have been huge bestsellers: Peter Mayle's A Year in Provence and Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love. Breezy reads, they are not, I admit, the most adventurous examples of the genre. But wouldn't the bandits, dervishes and idol worshippers in more grittier memoirs, such as Freya Stark's The Valley of the Assassins, have scared people away?
        No, it turns out. According to an informal survey I made on Facebook and Twitter, in preparation for the class, the grittier, the better. At least that was the case for those who answered my post, "What Is Your Favorite Travel Memoir?"

       No one who responded even mentioned Eat, Pray, Love. Mindi Dickstein, a lyricist and a librettist who teaches musical theater at New York University, did single out A Year in Provence, but she clearly was far more excited about her other two picks: Bruce Chatwin's The Songlines and David Rieff's Going to Miami (the latter, which details its own version of bandits, dervishes and idol worshippers in Florida, has been called an "anti-traveloque"). She just wasn't certain they qualified as travel memoirs. 

      She needn't have worried. The genre covers a lot of territory. 
      The titles my social networking friends suggested, in fact, were quite literally all over the map. Susan Farewell, editor-in-chief of, suggested Lawrence Durrell's Bitter Lemons ("really a memoir of Cyprus") as well as Durrell's Spirit of Place: Letters and Essays on Travel. An American expat living in Singapore who tweets @chamorro_chica and blogs at offered up Machu My Picchu by Iris Bahr. Barbara Kagan, a graphic designer at Southern Connecticut State University, chose Tony Horwitz's Baghdad Without a Map and Other Misadventures in ArabiaJanet Krietemeyer Keeler, a travel and food editor, confessed her preferences were Nothing to Declare by Mary Morris and Shopping for Buddhas by Jeff Greenwald while her colleague at Tampa Bay Times, Florida culture writer Jeff Klinkenberg, gave a nod to both Bruce Chatwin's In Patagonia and Peter Matthiessen's The Snow Leopard. Everett Potter, publisher of Everett Potter's Travel Report, also tweeted The Snow Leopard as his fav to which travel editor Veronica Stoddart at USA Today replied, "Ditto."

     Minnesota Star Tribune's Laurie Hertzel gave a shout out to all of Eric Newby's books, particularly A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush. Book critic Carole Goldberg (formerly at the Hartford Courant) chose Revolution: The Year I Fell in Love and Went to Join the War by Deb Olin Unferth. One-Minute Book Reviews Jan Harayda recommended A House Somewhere: Tales of Life Abroad, "a collection of 26 essays by (mostly) well known travel writers or journalists on their favorite places," including Tim Parks, Simon Winchester and Frances Mayes. Former National Book Critics Circle president Jane Ciabattari picked On Persephone's Island: A Sicilian Journal by Mary Taylor Smith: "I've reread it many times. Great one!"

       Someone directed me to the London Telegraph's recent list of "20 best travel books of all time." Surprisingly, it includes seven novels: Jack Kerouac's On the Road, Alex Garland's The Beach, Jan Morris' Venice, Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things, Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and Graham Greene's Our Man in Havana

     Can a travel memoir be fiction? I usually think of a memoir as a work of non-fiction, but all of those novels do combine a fierce sense of place with intense personal reflection, a good definition of a travel memoir, I think. Often a sense of place so dominates a fictional narrative that it does feel like a travel memoir. When I go to Paris, for example, I like to bring along the latest mystery by Cara Black. Starring Aimee Leduc, a half American, half French detective, Black's mysteries are set in various quartiers across the City of Lights (Murder in the Marais, Murder in the Latin Quarter) and are chock-a-block with interesting facts and reflections about those neighborhoods. The Venice-based mysteries of Donna Leon (Death at La Fenice) are like that, too.

     Natch, Black answered my question, "What Is Your Favorite Travel Memoir," with a French-drenched title of non-fiction: Almost French by Alexandra Turnbull. An Australian journalist, Turnbull only meant to stay a week in Paris when she agreed to meet her lover there in the mid-1990s. She ended up calling it home. 

       And speaking of home, can a book describing a city where the author grew up still be considered a "travel" memoir?  That latter question was posed by Gina Vivinetto, who teaches creative writing at the University of Tampa. She was thinking of Orhan Pamuk's novel Istanbul.

        Yes, I say, yes! Istanbul is a perfect example of the double nature of the travel memoir as both exterior and interior journey. Pamuk shows us the city that is around him and within him. For me, travel memoirs capture the spirit of a particular time and place but also the transformation of the person who is doing the observing of that time and place. Ultimately, they are descriptions of personal journeys. And what could be more personal a journey than the one taken to discover the place of one's very roots?

       Tame. Gritty. Fiction. Non-fiction. Home. Away from home. So what from all these examples can we conclude makes for a good travel memoir?  
       Clearly, the best examples of the genre work on several levels at once. Take The Snow Leopard, the most frequently mentioned title for fav travel memoir in my Facebook and Twitter survey.  In The Snow Leopard, published nearly 40 decades ago, Peter Matthiessen describes a hike he took in the fall of 1973 that took him 250 miles into the heart of the Himalayan region of Dolpo, "the last enclave of pure Tibetan culture on earth." His journey with zoologist George Schaller is purportedly about tracking down the elusive big cat of the title, but through the eyes and pen of Matthiessen, the trip becomes a spiritual quest, a search for nothing short of the meaning of life itself.
     Very Buddhist, just like its author.

     Which brings me to Oprah. Oprah, alas, is not one of my Facebook friends or Twitter followers, but in the midst of my researching this topic, she inadvertently answered my question, What Is Your Favorite Travel Memoir?, by choosing one as her first Book Club 2.0 pick:
Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail (Oprah's Book Club 2.0)

        Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed. 

        The author of this book has the perfect name for a travel writer. And that's no accident.  In 1995 the author of Wild legally changed her name to Cheryl Strayed, a moniker she chose herself. I was unable to find out what her original name had been, but the change certainly reflects the theme of self-affirmation that has made her memoir a bestseller (and, most likely, is what so attracted Oprah to it).

      Like Matthiessen, Strayed's hike was arduous and challenging. But, again like Matthiessen's lyrical ruminations in The Snow Leopard,  the real story Strayed tells us in Wild is not about the rattlesnakes and black bears, the searing heat and freezing temperatures nor the stunning views and interesting people she meets up with on her 1100-mile solo trek. It's about the inward journey she takes. It's about her discovery of that Buddhist of Buddhist truisms used by Jon Kabut-Zinn for the title of his book on the mindfullness of meditation: "No matter where you go, there you are."
       It is what lies at the heart of every great travel memoir and it is why we love to read them. 

       "To awaken quite alone in a strange town is one of the pleasantest sensations in the world," writes Creative Late Bloomer Freya Stark in Baghdad Sketches, one of 30 travel books the intrepid British traveller wrote from age 42 until her death at age 100.  "You have no idea what is in store for you, but you will, if you are wise and know the art of travel, let yourself go on the stream of the unknown and accept whatever comes in the spirit in which the gods may offer it. For this reason your customary thoughts, all except the rarest of your friends, even most of your luggage -- everything, in fact, which belongs to your everyday life, is merely a hindrance. The tourist travels in his own atmosphere like a snail in his shell and stands, as it were, on his own perambulating doorstep to look at the continents of the world. But if you discard all this, and sally forth with a leisurely and blank mind, there is no knowing what may not happen to you."