Interviews

Journeys of Self-Discovery in “Bad Tourist”

An interview with Suzanne Roberts about her book, "Bad Tourist."

Suzanne Roberts’ most recent memoir, Bad Tourist, will come as a delightful surprise to readers as she merges all of her writing strengths: a travel writer’s adventures, a memoirist’s insight, and a poet’s ear for language. Roberts, an accomplished travel writer, was named “The Next Great Travel Writer” by National Geographic Traveler magazine, and her previous book Almost Somewhere; Twenty-Eight Days on the John Muir Trail (Bison Books, 2012) won the 2012 National Outdoor Book Award. In addition, Roberts has published four volumes of poetry.

Bad Tourist is a collection of essays related to travel but is definitely not a travel guidebook—in fact, Roberts calls her book the “anti-travel guidebook.” While the book takes us across fifteen countries and the mishaps Roberts endures in a variety of travel experiences (she travels for recreation, for education, and for work), instead of the stamps in her passport, it is Roberts herself that the reader tracks along the way. While she shares stories of romantic entanglements, escape from natural disasters, and interactions with locals all over the world, we are watching Roberts grow in her understanding of herself and in the role that travel has played in that growth. Travel is the backdrop of this memoir; Bad Tourist is the universal story of a woman learning to accept and love herself.

I recently sat down with Suzanne Roberts to discuss her book. While I know Roberts from the MFA program at Sierra Nevada University, in all honesty, I was always a little bit afraid of her. Roberts can be intense, and as an instructor, demanding. But after reading Bad Tourist, I better understand her:  for good or for bad, she squeezes everything she can out of life, which also makes her relatable, interesting, and often, unabashedly vulnerable.

Pam Anderson

I really enjoyed Bad Tourist!  I’d like to ask about the book’s structure, which is organized thematically rather than chronologically. How did you decide on this format, and how do you think it enhances your overall narrative? Did you originally see these stories as a book? 

Suzanne Roberts

The easiest way to organize a memoir or book of essays is chronologically, but I organized my first memoir Almost Somewhere that way, and it’s a craft choice I regret—it feels plodding to me now. Bad Tourist began as a memoir in chronological order. I imagined something like an edgier Eat, Pray, Love (something like Drink, Fly, Fuck), but it ended up evolving over the years, and the essays all were similar in theme—my narrator was trying not to be a “bad tourist” but inevitably failed. After all, as Jamaica Kincaid says in A Small Place, tourists are ugly human beings—we all have our blind spots, and these result in cultural misunderstandings and mistakes when we travel. 

Pam Anderson

I really enjoyed having to piece together where and when in the narrative arc each story was taking place. As a reader, I had to keep putting things into perspective, reminding myself where you were in terms of your personal growth.

Suzanne Roberts

That’s what I was hoping for! I’m glad you got that. 

Pam Anderson

You’ve titled the book Bad Tourist, but in very few cases would you be considered a “bad tourist.” How did you decide on this title, and what is its implication? 

Suzanne Roberts

I put the essays that didn’t seem to fit into the memoir I was working on into a file called “Bad Tourist.” After a while, I realized I had an anti-guidebook, so I arranged it like a guidebook with sections on sights, eating and drinking, etc. I also realized that if I arranged the sections in the right order, there would be the arc of a narrator in search of a more authentic version of herself, but self-discovery doesn’t always happen in a neat linear line. 

I wasn’t initially planning on a book called Bad Tourist, but it fits because I haven’t just been a bad tourist when traveling; oftentimes, I’ve made decisions that made me a bad tourist in my own life.

Pam Anderson

That aspect of the title makes sense to me.

Suzanne Roberts

Right. It was like I was outside of my experience somehow. I’ve struggled with not knowing why I’ve made certain decisions, and I’ve made peace with that by trying to figure it out—mostly through writing. Sometimes we do things and we might never know why; I’ve learned to live with that. 

Pam Anderson

For me as a reader, I saw any “tourist faux pas” as secondary to what you were experiencing personally. At times, you may have been aggressive, but never to a point of not appreciating what you were experiencing. When I think “bad tourist” I think “Ugly American,” and I never felt that you were an Ugly American within your stories. 

Suzanne Roberts

Not even when I got into a fight with a teenager on the plane?

Pam Anderson

Ha! Well, that wasn’t your finest moment, but I understood it. We’ve all been there, claiming our space, annoyed that others are trying to encroach on us so that their experience can be better. Maybe we can write off that episode as a small tantrum to remind others that traveling is about looking outward and paying attention to others (even on a plane), not only looking out for ourselves.

Suzanne Roberts

All great points.

Pam Anderson

You reveal a lot about yourself, your family, and your friends—not all of it complimentary—as honest writers must. Were there any details that were especially difficult to include? 

Suzanne Roberts

As a rule, I draft new essays with the idea no one will ever see them. I know, even as I’m doing it that I’m lying to myself, but I’ve been able to compartmentalize and pretend, so in writing drafts, it’s not hard to include these things, even if it’s sometimes hard to face my own stuff. The most difficult material was about my mom and her relationship to her mum, but before she died, I let my mother read the manuscript. She wasn’t completely happy with everything I wrote, but she let me tell my story the way I needed to. I gave her veto power, but she hardly used it. Ultimately, she wanted me to tell my story, which I couldn’t do without writing about her and us. 

As for others, the friends who appear in the book have read it and given me their permission to include them (most agreed to using their real names). My ex-husband wanted me to use his real name, but I didn’t.

Pam Anderson

Interesting! Why did he WANT his real name used?

Suzanne Roberts

You know, I have so many creative nonfiction students worrying about including people in their lives in their work, but I’ve found the only thing worse for people than being written about is NOT being written about. 

My husband wanted me to change his name (I didn’t) and he’s uncomfortable having some of the details of our private life revealed, but he married a writer. He also has veto power but hasn’t used it much. As for me, I’ve worked through everything I’m sharing, so it doesn’t have the power over me it once had.

Pam Anderson

I think this is intriguing—once you share it with the world, you set yourself free.

Suzanne Roberts 

Exactly. I cheated on my first husband, I slept around; I can be a very selfish woman, indeed. These are things I once felt shame around, but not anymore. I used to think if I felt guilt, that would somehow be better than accepting myself. But you know what? That’s bullshit. Guilt and shame are ways for us to feel better without actually being better. Once I realized that, I could set to work on myself on my own terms. At the heart of it, effective creative nonfiction and memoir hold up a mirror to the reader, so in the end, it’s not just about me. 

As a reader, what parts made you the most uncomfortable? 

Pam Anderson

Not the stories you may think. I understood the affair and searching for love “in all the wrong places.” The parts that made me uncomfortable were when I cringed for you, like when you were going to international schools with people younger than you—when you’re 32 and they’re 22, it’s a huge gap—and were making mistakes people their age make.  

And yes, these scenes are a mirror. I had a phase in my 40s when I was making terrible, immature choices.  I suppose when I was cringing for you, I was also cringing for myself. 

Suzanne Roberts

Yes, exactly. I love that! Readers who are uncomfortable with my narrator (or me) are likely seeing something about themselves they haven’t completely accepted.

Pam Anderson

Also, I was uncomfortable by how the culture of tourism sometimes takes advantage of travelers: charging too much, expecting sex with no strings attached, drugging a drink. Being reminded of the dark side of the tourist’s world, especially for women, made me anxious. 

Suzanne Roberts

I hope it was clear I understand why locals would charge tourists more. And as for the sex, I told myself I, too, wanted sex with no strings attached, but in the end, it never worked. And as for the drugging, I never found out who did it. While it’s true I was dancing with local guys, I don’t have proof it was them. It could have been another tourist. While there are scams, and as you mention more dangerous consequences, the darkest side of tourism is the tourist’s ethnocentricity, which often leads to exploitation. 

Pam Anderson

As I read, I found the lines that I felt were the key that unlocked the whole book for me. Are there any specific lines that, for you, are the boiled-down version of what Bad Tourist is really about

Suzanne Roberts

I wonder if it was in the avalanche essay? Even though it’s the earliest essay, and it was originally the opening chapter, I felt like it summed up what I was looking for. Is that the one you were referring to?

Pam Anderson

Yes, the chapter entitled “Skiing the Fall Line.” You see Susan as the kind of woman you “…wanted to be—independent and sure of herself.” And then later, you write, “Backcountry skiing and hiking adventures had become a way for me to seembrave without really being brave—a way of playing tourist in my own life.” That sentiment hit home, because for anyone who travels, we allow ourselves to become a character in other places. We try on new identities. And the moment you recognized that you were playing a tourist in your own life is when I felt I understood you. As you close that essay, you write, “I would travel to escape and then to find myself; I would travel, finally, to come home.”  Boom. That unlocks it all for me.

Suzanne Roberts

You know, I think that’s true—the idea of being an outsider makes us feel like a character, but I also wonder if it’s something we both feel as writers? As a writer of memoir, I sometimes feel as though I’m looking at myself from the outside. I think James Joyce captures that when he says, “The artist like the God of creation remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.” He meant something slightly different than in the way I’m thinking about it here, but I love that image of the writer paring her fingernails, removed from the world she’s creating, or in the case of memoir, re-creating. And those out-of-body experiences tend to come most often when traveling, because we are already outside of our usual lives and experiences. 

Pam Anderson

I wonder if I read the book differently because I know a little about you—certainly not all that you shared, but some of the basic brushstrokes of your life—and I know you’re a good person. I wonder if an anonymous reader would have less compassion or less patience for some of your choices. What do you think?

Suzanne Roberts

I’m glad you still think I’m a good person after reading it! And I think you’re right. I’ve already seen early reviews that call me unlikable but mostly from male readers. Some would rather not know what’s going on in the female psyche. 

Some readers will come to Bad Tourist expecting a travel book, but as you mentioned, it reads like a memoir, so they might feel they were somehow duped. But we can’t write the book everyone wants to read. We write the book we need to write and hope it resonates with some readers.

Pam Anderson

And finally, what are you working on now? 

Suzanne Roberts

I’m finishing up a collection of essays about grief. I’m also writing a memoir about taking care of my mom through terminal illness. I currently have an 80,000-word mess, and I know I’ll get to the point where the book shows me the way, but I’m not there yet. I’m trying to learn patience.

MEMOIR
Bad Tourist
By Suzanne Roberts
University of Nebraska Press
Published October 1, 2020

1 comment on “Journeys of Self-Discovery in “Bad Tourist”

  1. Leann Hakala

    This sounds like such a good read–a memoir of disvovery, ‘Drink, Fly, Fuck’? Sign me up! Thanks for the interview!

    Like

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