Tom Wolfe: An Appreciation

Millions of people were inspired by the writings of Tom Wolfe, and I was one of them. When he died last spring at the age of 88, I lost my one and only role model.


Tom Wolfe: 1930-2018

A little background: My college career wasn’t the four-year-long bacchanal that popular culture has painted college to be. Instead, it was four-and-a-half very difficult years of studying Cicero, medieval and Renaissance texts, neoclassical books of commonplaces, and other bits of fluff.

However, my profs routinely complained that my writing was too entertaining, too polemical, and sometimes too original. They were right. I couldn’t speak or write that weird hypersensitive academic dialect, which is why I usually saw comments such as very insightful but style is inappropriate scribbled on the margins of my papers. As a result, I knew that there was no way on God’s blue marble that I’d ever work in a university.

Then I discovered Tom Wolfe. He was already almost seventy years old, but in his writing I thought I glimpsed a reflection of myself fifty years in the future.

So Tom Wolfe became my guiding light. An arrow pointing the way. My one and only role model.

“The problem with fiction is that it has to be plausible. That’s not true with nonfiction.” – Tom Wolfe

I gobbled up everything I could find about him. In his twenties, Wolfe too had been a stylish and talented and nonacademic writer while pursuing his Ph.D. in American Studies at Yale. He too had gotten the same tsk-tsking comments from his professors. He too bristled at the restrictions, leaving academia as soon as he could.

This was candy to my eyes. I saw that what Wolfe had done, I could do too, in my own way, somehow, sometime in the future.

Like him, I went into journalism. I chose the field partly because it’s what writers often do, and partly because that was how Wolfe had started his career. In fact, he’d spent a few years at The Washington Post, working on the Metro and Foreign desks. I too got a job at the Post, coincidentally also working on the same Metro and Foreign desks.

However, Wolfe left the paper in his early thirties and moved to New York, where his writing career immediately exploded (along with his propensity for outlandish suits). Mine did not. Here’s why.

  1. At twenty-two years old, I was way too young to succeed as a writer. To write good nonfiction or realistic fiction, you flat-out need to be older. That’s not true for other genres. Fantasy writers, for example, do often succeed when quite young.
  2. My skills still needed work. I’d placed in a short story contest sponsored by Scott Fitzgerald’s estate, but that was a matter of beginners’ luck. I really didn’t get the hang of fiction until age thirty. (And my skills will always need work.)
  3. Three, the media market had totally changed in the forty years since Wolfe had burst out in a fireball of success.

That third point is so very crucial. In the nineteen sixties, there were about ten radio stations and three television channels in every major media market. That was it, nothing else. On the print side, the newspaper business was thriving—there were thousands across the nation, and they were mostly solvent, supported by classified ads and retail advertising. The magazine industry was more or less the same. The book industry relied totally on the “produce” model in which a book was seen as basically a head of lettuce, existing for only a few weeks before going bad and being remaindered.

Whoo boy, have things changed.

On the good side, the average American citizen is now inundated by buckets of news and entertainment every waking second.

On the bad side, the average American citizen is now inundated by buckets of news and entertainment every waking second.

Wolfe enjoyed a couple more advantages as well. One was that he was born in 1930, and thereby escaped service in World War II. Think of this—if he’d been born even seven years earlier, he would’ve been drafted into the service, and the experience would have turned him into a Greatest War author like so many others, and he would’ve written about slogging through calf-deep mud with bullets whizzing past his ears and nights spent gnawing on hard cheese rinds and sleeping on the dirty floors of churches in miserable French villages.

Nope—not in his books! Instead, Wolfe hit his mid-thirties, a time when so many writers finally begin doing good work, in the mid-nineteen sixties—the exact moment when our national social fabric started to unravel. And so that time period became his material, with its many peculiarities.

His other advantage was the fact that he made his name in the Sunday newspaper supplements, thin magazines that were disposable and whose editors gave Wolfe room to experiment. They existed for only a few decades and are almost totally extinct today.


Before going further, I do have small criticisms of Wolfe.


One, his output was slow, at least to my eyes. He only published a large book every few years or so. For instance, A Man in Full took him eleven years and clocked in at 370,000 words. Do the division, and you see that he only wrote about 35,000 words per year during that time. For comparison’s sake, I usually write about 500,000 words per year on various novels, ghostwriting projects, editing projects, academic exams, emails, blog posts, and other errata. So in that sense, the pupil has exceeded the master.

Of course, it’s true that quantity does not equal quality—but it’s also true that lack of quantity doesn’t equal quality either. To my eyes, there is a basement level of word production below which we start to wonder—is this person still a writer? Or has he become that ickiest of terms, an author?

What’s the difference, you ask? It’s a question of verb tense: a writer writes, while an author has written.

Some of my favorite writers have gotten sucked into teaching jobs and become authors, never or only rarely returning to their careers. For example, I loved the book Paint It Black by Janet Fitch, but she took her sweet time—eleven full years, same as Wolfe did above—before publishing her next book, The Revolution of Marina M., in 2017. Assuming the new one is a normal length of 70,000 words, the math tells us that she was writing at the breakneck pace of 530 words per month, or 18 words per day. I haven’t read the new book yet, and part of me isn’t really inclined to do so.

Another strange thing about Wolfe is that he never wrote in a series, which is a bit of an anomaly for a bestselling fiction author. Going all the way back to James Fenimore Cooper, you can see that series have always been a popular vehicle for writers. Hell, more so-called “literary” names than Wolfe, such as the highbrow John Updike, wrote in a series. Even the Nobel Prize-winning Southern Gothic whiskey-swilling mad genius William Faulkner wrote in a kind of series, knitting all of his work together in the imaginary setting of Yoknapatawpha County. But Wolfe never did anything like that. That’s partly because he came out of nonfiction journalism, which doesn’t do series. It’s also because his work was so strongly based on different locations.

Different locations, you say?


Full confession: The Ainsley Walker Gemstone Travel Mystery series would one hundred percent never have existed without Tom Wolfe’s work.

He was my biggest inspiration as a writer, by far, nobody else was even close—and this series has been my attempt to carry his intelligent, funny, entertaining style into new places. I mean places quite literally. Wolfe is still living rent-free in my mind as I visit and research locations such as Uruguay and Argentina and Puerto Rico and Portugal and many, many more yet to come. In fact, he drilled the importance of research in every interview he ever gave. “Nothing fuels the imagination more than real facts do,” Wolfe told the AP in 1999. “As the saying goes, ‘You can’t make this stuff up.'”

“I do novels a bit backward. I look for a situation, a milieu first, and then I wait to see who walks into it.” – Tom Wolfe

But I did consciously decide to do a few things differently. Here’s a quick list:

  • Ainsley Walker would be my recurring main character, an advantage Wolfe never had.
  • The series would feature the same external goal in every story—find the gemstone—another advantage he never had.
  • The sentences would be less complex and show-offy than Wolfe’s.
  • The chapters would be shorter than Wolfe’s.

So much else, however, I stole shamelessly from the man in the white suit.

  • Remember his colorful, larger-than-life characters, such as Reverend Bacon in Bonfire of the Vanities? I’ve been copying the vibrancy of that character, over and over, in different ways.
  • Remember how he used huge vocabulary words such as sternocleidomastoid muscle? I use them too, once in a while, particularly foreign words and phrases. He taught me to lift the reader up. It’s not insulting to occasionally use a big word, especially if you explain it with context.
  • Remember how the settings of his books played as large a role as the characters? New York, Atlanta, Duke University? I stole that convention too—but I didn’t limit myself to the U.S., the way Wolfe did. I’ve stupidly decided to write about every nation in the entire world.

All of this leads to a single question that has been circling my head for the last two decades: What would Tom Wolfe do if he were trying to make it as a writer right now?

From a business perspective, I guessed that he would’ve begun as a totally independent entity and written whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted, held to nothing except his own high standards. This route would mean less money early in life (no advances from traditional publishers), but more money later in life, since books sell eternally now that the produce model has disappeared.

So, thinking of him, I chose that route. It seems to be working.


Unfortunately, I cannot even name one other writer who inspired me as much as Wolfe did.

The only writer who might come close was Robert Penn Warren—but only for one book, his brilliant All the King’s Men. Michael Crichton’s scientific adventures featured great pacing and good research, but his work was lacking in character and dialogue. James Michener displayed huge ambition and obvious work ethic, but I always found his fiction to be honestly boring. (Warning: I’m a tough critic! Take my opinions with a grain of salt.) Still other classic fiction writers I’ve admired a lot, such as Flannery O’Connor or Agatha Christie or Raymond Chandler or Ernest Hemingway, never inspired me to emulate them.

But Tom Wolfe was a complete writer. Reading his passages over and over (particularly those in Bonfire) taught me how to write fiction—not from a methodical standpoint, but just through sheer osmosis. At risk of sounding like a vegan yoga teacher, I caught his vibes, man. Then I made them my own.

“What I try to do is re-create a scene from a triple point of view: the subject’s point of view, my own, and that of the other people watching—often within a single paragraph.” –Tom Wolfe

If you’re looking for a good title to start with, well, my favorites are everybody’s favorites, the biggest hits—The Right Stuff, Bonfire of the Vanities, and A Man in Full. People older than myself swear by The Electric Koolaid Acid Test, which was linguistically revolutionary but too druggy for me. In college, after I discovered the brilliant The Painted Word, I tracked down From Bauhaus to Our House in the stacks of my library by pulling up dusty old bound copies of Harper’s magazine from the late seventies, when the book first appeared serially in those pages. (I still don’t own a copy of that book, only the printed photocopies of the magazine.) In fact, I blame that book for kickstarting my small obsession with modern architecture. And while studying abroad at Oxford University, I remember finding The Kandy-Colored Tangerine Flake Streamline Baby in a bookstore in London and reading it for hours until my back hurt. I only bought it after I’d finished.

As time went on, of course, I slowly grew apart from his work. You could say it was because Wolfe’s last few books, from 2004 onwards, were not quite as brilliant as before. You could say it was because I was changing. You could say many different things.

But that doesn’t take away the very, very important role he played at a very, very important juncture in my life.

This is the only author appreciation I’m going to write. You won’t see me memorializing any other writers, not like this. That’s partly because the ones I’ve liked the most have already died. But it’s also because none of the others mattered quite as much to my life and career as Tom Wolfe. And I’m doing my best to hopefully, possibly, maybe, someday, fingers crossed, if the good Lord’s willing and the creek don’t rise—match the master. That’s the goal, anyways. And even if that doesn’t ever quite happen, his example will push me to places I wouldn’t ever get to otherwise.

He was my one and only role model. Requiescat in pace, Tom.


The Two Anthony Bourdains: Six Years Later

We lost a big one today. Anthony Bourdain (1956 – 2018) was a hero of mine. I never wanted to be him — a former heroin addict and fairly unhappy chef — but I wanted to be like him, if that makes any sense. I think millions of people probably felt the same way.

He was a phenomenally good nonfiction writer, with the type of authorial voice that you can’t teach somebody. As a television host, he and his team wrestled Parts Unknown to the ground and made it the best program on all of television. I really mean that. It was one of the only television programs that successfully dismantled the myth of the Ugly American — and tried to teach Americans not to be scared of other people.


You can read thousands of gorgeous remembrances of him all over the interwebz, but nonetheless let me share one more piece. My own.

In 2012, I wrote a blog post here, on this site, about Bourdain’s tortured soul. It was a short piece, and only the second time I’d ever posted anything here. Here it is again:

The Two Anthony Bourdains

He’s an astounding writer.  He used to be a good cook.  And he’s been making good television for almost a decade now.

But Anthony Bourdain has an inner struggle.  A cleavage in his soul.

One half of him, the part born and raised in New York City, the place where people’s emotional shields are as high, hard, and glossy as the glass curtain-walls of their skyscrapers, hasn’t changed.

That’s the wisecracking part.  You saw this exhibited best in the Sardinia episode, years ago, the skinny dude in the black Ramones t-shirt, crouched on a rock, unleashing his sarcasm-plated tongue on the local caper farmers — until they reamed him for using utensils.  The former junkie putting his own needs above others.

Dostoevsky called this a state of “laceration”.  It doesn’t translate so well into English, but I think he meant people who have been pierced, and are aching with pain.  In Bourdain’s case, of course, he “pierced” himself, over and over again, with a heroin needle.  And he’s still aching.

But the other half of his soul has been blooming.  You may remember the Brazilian episode, in Sao Paulo, in which — confronted with a really nice woman and her stew — he finally let down his guard, shed the New York tough-guy shell.  It can be seen in other episodes too, when his empathy quietly emerges, especially during segments with troubled people.  Those are my favorite moments.

As a fiction writer, I’ve been advised to plate my characters with armor, and then throw them into a pool.  It’s a fascinating metaphor.  The main character is forced to strip herself of her psychic armor—because if she doesn’t, she’ll drown, and the mission won’t get achieved.

Bourdain has been “stripping” in public for years—not of clothing, but of his own psychic armor.  And he’s still got years of television (and lots of psychic armor) to go.  It’ll be exciting to see if him continuing to change, and to explore the world, at CNN.

In the meantime, it’s a big world.  Go see it all.

Well, it’s still a big world. And you should still see it all. Without Bourdain, however, that task has just become a little bit harder.


$0.99 Sale – The Puerto Rico Pearl

From March 15 to March 22, The Puerto Rico Pearl is on sale around the world for only $0.99!


Amazon Kindle, Kobo, Apple iTunes, Google Books, Nook (all links US) — no matter what your reading device or store, you can now pick up The Puerto Rico Pearl for under a dollar.

This is a global promotion. New readers in the U.K., Australia, New Zealand, India, Canada, and elsewhere — have a look at the story, and if you like it, spread the word!

The Puerto Rico Pearl has never been discounted before, and remember … it will only last one week. Catch it while you can!

Here’s the story:

It’s hurricane season.

An airplane en route to the States has just been forced to land on the island of Puerto Rico—and onboard is AINSLEY WALKER.

Stranded in torrential rain, she is guided by another passenger towards a rickety plantation house in the island’s tropical interior, where she meets an elderly woman who has lost a precious family heirloom.

It’s a pearl brooch that had once belonged to an actual pirate of the Caribbean—and the old spinster needs Ainsley to find it … fast.

Soon she finds herself on another runaway adventure—one that propels her from wealthy art museums to abandoned sugar mills, from colonial-era cities to buried pirate chests on abandoned naval bases.

Along the way, she discovers joy, pain, friendship, danger, the limits of her endurance—and the fact that things are never quite as they seem.

The Friend Zone

Have you ever read a novel that, when it ended, you could remember more about the best friend than you could the main character?


There’s a reason for that.

To explain, let me pull back the curtain. Most stories are about ordinary people going through extraordinary situations. In the end, though, they’re still ordinary people. In fact, that’s their appeal. Protagonists tend to be simple vessels for our empathy, and not very much more. This is especially true on the big screen. Matt Damon once said that main characters in movies should be “ciphers”, or zeroes. If you’ve seen or read the Jason Bourne series, then you know it doesn’t get more cipher-y than that. The guy literally has amnesia.

The friends, on the other hand … well, that’s where the spiky human spirit leaps up and shines. A sharp sidekick stands out in a sea of ciphers like a bright fork in a tray of pudding. Because of this, fictional friends often live longer and more intensely in our collective imagination than heroes do.

You can find hundreds of examples of this dynamic in every branch of storytelling. Prince Hal is just a prince, but Falstaff is so vivid that his name has become an adjective. Forget Frodo, he’s a snooze—we remember Samwise’s stolid and servile dedication to his friend. Tom Sawyer is remembered as a generally nice kid, but it’s his friend Huck Finn, that mischievous homeless trashy scamp, who stands out more brightly in our psyche.

All of this means that, very often, friends are more important than the protagonist.

Therefore, if you’re a writer, you’ve got to spend some time in the friend zone.

Some of these friends come prepackaged as archetypes. Say what you want about them, but archetypes exist for many reasons. One, they’re universally recognized. Two, they pop off the page in a way that protagonists don’t, because friends can be their own crazy selves when they’re at the margins of the story. Three, they don’t have to undergo change. A protagonist’s allies often end the journey the same way they began—maybe crude, maybe honest, or funny, or repressed. In fact, you can usually describe their personalities in adjective-noun pairs, such as the narcissistic salesperson.

Here’s an example from television. I dislike Sex and the City for a lot of different reasons, but the series does perfectly illustrate this principle. Carrie Bradshaw, the series’ protagonist, is a cipher. All we really know is that she loves spending money on shoes. Around her is an orbit of three stalwart friends: the intelligent libertine (Samantha), the traditional naif (Charlotte), and the cynical careerist (Miranda). (Note the adjective-noun for each.) Those characters are more memorable than Carrie because they’re defined. Carrie spends every episode trying to find her own identity, but her friends have already discovered theirs.

(As a side note, did you ever notice that the exact same four characters are found in The Golden Girls? The two casts parallel each other almost perfectly. Carrie is Dorothy, Samantha is Blanche, Charlotte is Rose, and Miranda is Sophia. This probably wasn’t an accident.)

One of the bibles of storytelling is  The Writer’s Journey, by Christopher Vogler. It’s one of those books that humbles you. When you read it, you realize that other people, smarter people, walked the path of storytelling long before you ever did. In fact, I’d say this guy Vogler figured out the craft of story better than anybody else I’ve ever read, including the famous Joseph Campbell. His book is a reference point for all writers, in every genre, in every format.

Here’s what Vogler has to say about friends: “Allies do many mundane tasks but also serve the important function of humanizing the heroes, adding extra dimensions to their personalities, or challenging them to be more open and balanced. Allies in fiction suggest alternate paths for problem-solving and help round out the personalities of heroes, allowing expression of fear, humor, or ignorance that might not be appropriate for the hero.”

Perfectly said.


Ainsley, the Half-Cipher

Books, however, have different strengths than films do.

It’s harder for a main character in a book to be a total cipher, thanks to interior monologue. The nature of the medium—words, on a page or in pixels—brings us easily into a person’s innermost world. We can hear the protagonist narrating all of her thoughts. Movies and television can’t do that, at least not easily. They have to use awkward devices, such as voiceover. Or the producer hopes and prays that a brilliant actor will sign on to the project.

In the Ainsley Walker Gemstone Travel Mystery series, the protagonist is more than a cipher. If you’ve read any of the titles, you know where Ainsley stands on just about everything that is going on around her–because she tells us! The woman has opinions. This is the benefit of using the third-person limited perspective.

(It’s true that a writer can achieve the same with a first-person perspective, but first-person tends to work best with protagonists who are either a bit whack-a-doodle or outright liars, and with stories that are less plotted. For example, I love Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie, but good luck describing that plot to a stranger. There isn’t one.)

So here’s the contradiction: Though we know all of Ainsley’s thoughts, we don’t know much about Ainsley’s background. Even I don’t know much! We only know what she wants to tell us. She’s like the cool French girl you met in the hostel in Amsterdam during your semester abroad back in college and you ended up hanging out with her for almost a week but never learned anything about her personally except the fact that she liked OG Kush better than Super Silver Haze. Ainsley keeps you, me, and the world, at arm’s length.

Think back to the series. Here’s what we know: Ainsley’s father passed away from cancer when she was a girl, her ex-husband disappeared after law school, and she used to be a state track-and-field champion. She’s also had a checkered work history. And that’s it. That’s literally all we’re told. She never reveals anything about her early life—not her birthplace, not her mother, not her siblings, not her extended family, not her education. We don’t even know her real hair color.

And that’s the way it should be. You, the readers, can project what you’d like onto Ainsley Walker. Maybe in the future we’ll all find out, in extremely granular detail, her complicated relationship with her mother, or her deep insecurities, or her turbulent adolescence. But that would remove some of the mystery.

With Ainsley Walker, you are free to fill in some of the blanks.


International Relation(ship)s

More than anything, it’s her many friends and allies who help define Ainsley Walker. Let’s revisit a few of them.

Spoiler alert! You may want to skip this part if you haven’t yet read all the Gemstone Travel Mystery titles.

In The Uruguay Amethyst (link: Amazon US), Ainsley befriends an extroverted hair stylist, Sofia, who becomes her travelling companion through the second half of the book. She is assisted by Bernabé, an elderly lecherous jeweler. Both friends serve different purposes. Sofia helps Ainsley accept her new identity as an international traveler, while Bernabé helps her physically achieve the mission.


Both are static characters. Sofia finds out that, despite her dreams of travel, she is meant to be in the Montevideo hair salon, and no reader can imagine Bernabé being anything other than himself. Their personalities are set in stone. Meanwhile, Ainsley plays the dynamic character as she tries to achieve two goals: one external (find the gemstone) and one internal (find her identity).

But sometimes the peripheral characters are the dynamic ones, and the main character remains static. The Puerto Rico Pearl is a good example. In this book, Ainsley befriends Luis, an unemployed poet and handyman who drives her around the island searching for the brooch. She also meets Orlando, an obese scholar of Caribbean pirate lore who is trying to free himself from his enormous private stash of historical documents.


This story wouldn’t be the same without either of them—but Orlando is the one who undergoes a significant change. Ainsley remains the same, beginning to end.

In The Spain Tourmaline, however, Ainsley returns to claim the role of the dynamic character, as she slowly must confront her hostility to the killing of animals. First, despite her newfound vegetarianism, she is forced to eat jamón ibérico. Second, she’s forced to watch a bullfight. Third, she’s finally forced to kill an animal.

I actually wrote this three-step ladder of escalating internal conflict before I knew anything else about the story. Ainsley’s friend, Gabriel, the bullfighter’s assistant, is static. He exists to carry her along this path of self-discovery.

It’s been exciting to discover that my protagonist and her allies can switch between the two types of roles. It keeps things unpredictable. Sometimes Ainsley’s a deep human being, going through wrenching internal changes—see, for example, The Camino Crystal.


At other times, she’s like Leo DiCaprio in The Revenant, simply battling for survival—see, for example, The North Korea Onyx.

North Korea Onyx

Whether static or dynamic, her allies are just as important to the series as Ainsley herself.


A New Idea For Short Stories

Some writers set their series in the same location (say, a small town), and are therefore able to revisit the same cast of characters in book after book after book. Many readers love this, as they get to visit old friends with every new title.

This isn’t possible for my protagonist, since she travels to a different farflung international location in every title. Still, it seems a shame to dream up and portray a compelling friend–and then abandon that character forever after one book.

So I’ve been kicking around an idea.

Maybe it would be attractive to write and publish a series of short stories or novelettes about Ainsley’s many friends and allies? I’m thinking one title for each. It could be a great way for you readers to revisit some of your favorite characters from the series, and it could be a great way for me to revisit them too. Plus it would extend the number of titles in the series.

Keep in mind, I wouldn’t write an entire novel about a side character, because authors sometimes confuse their readers when they start publishing seven different series, all semi-interwoven with non-chronological timelines and characters running in and out of each. At one conference, I’ve actually seen an author put up a Powerpoint of an incredibly complex flow chart in an attempt to explain how his body of work was arranged. (It kind of looked like this.)

This series, however, wants to stay simple. For you, the reader.

Still, I don’t think a smattering of seven or eight short stories would clutter things up too much, especially if the titles are clear and brief, such as “The Basque Chef”. If that’s something you’d like to see more of, or if you have any other ideas, feel free to let me know via the comments below, via email (j dot a dot, or via other social media such as Twitter. I love hearing from readers.

In the meantime, it’s a big world. Let’s go see it all.

[photo credit: Mick C via Flickr]

Travel and the Law of Diminishing Returns

Propaganda exists everywhere, plugging away, and travel is no exception.

If you follow the magazines, you know what I’m talking about—article after article catering to a romantic perception of some incredible perfect idyllic place just on the other side of the hill, the other side of the mountain, the other side of the ocean. Some place you haven’t been to yet.

It’s designed to make you question yourself.

I’m as susceptible to this urge as anybody. That’s because I’m also as capital-r Romantic as anybody, except maybe Samuel Coleridge or Percy Bysshe Shelley. Still I’ve had to admit a hard fact: Wandering the earth like the Ancient Mariner is not necessarily the best way to go through life. Nobody reads that poem anymore, so let me remind you of the fact that all of the Mariner’s sailors died of thirst and the Mariner himself chewed into his arm to drink his own blood.


Gustave Dore’s famous etching of the mariners gazing in horror upon the Albatross.

Don’t get me wrong. Travelling the world is important to build wonderful qualities like empathy and equanimity and enthusiasm and a whole lot of other words that start with ‘e’. As you probably know, I’m writing an entire series based on the urge to pursue international adventure.

In fact, I even recently counted up the basic travel stats of my life:

Nations visited, total: 23

Time spent abroad, total: About 13 months

Foreign languages spoken: 1

That’s not too shabby by any stretch of the imagination. I don’t have as much time abroad as a Peace Corps volunteer or a trust-fund baby, but a lot more than the average member of the U.S. population. In fact, only forty percent of us even have a passport. If you find that startling, get ready for this—according to the linked page from the State Department, in 1989 less than 3% of the U.S. population had a passport. I’ve doublechecked those numbers, and it’s still incomprehensible. Didn’t Woodrow Wilson start knitting the United States into the fabric of the world back in 1914? Apparently it took more than a century for the idea that travel is beneficial to penetrate into our collective noggins.

Ainsley Walker stands as the exception, of course. She would rather not breathe than not travel.

The Dismal Science Helps Us Understand

I never studied economics (another ‘e’ word) in college, being too focused on literature and history. Ignoring it was my error. (Same with Elton John, whose music I didn’t discover until twenty years after everybody else. And another ‘e’ word.) It’s been the great discovery of my adult life that, more often than not, economics forces everything else into the backseat. As a result, it’s a revelation every time I discover a new economic idea, especially when it can be applied to other parts of life.

That includes the law of diminishing returns. Let me explain.

Prescribing antibiotics in your medical office? Fifty years later, those medicines won’t work as well, if at all. Applying chemical fertilizers to a field? Ten years later, your harvests lose their superpowers and return to baseline. Writing a term paper late into the night? The hour that starts at 11 pm will be much more productive than the hour that starts at 5 am. That’s guaranteed.

In layman’s terms, the law of diminishing returns describes the way that stuff grows less effective over time.


So too with travel. There is a finite point at which travel becomes Way Way Too Much Overload. Frequent travelers know very well that point I’m talking about. You’ve reaped all possible psychological rewards, and the benefits of being on the road begin to shrink. That moment is the highest data point on the curve—or, in economic terms, the point at which the marginal per unit output decreases. That is also the moment when, optimally, you pack up and go home. Of course, travelling doesn’t work that way.

This point of saturation is reached at various different times, depending on the individual. Let’s look at four of them.

The weekender. This person reaches that saturation point in a matter of just a few days. I once went to a tropical island paradise with a group of people that included a fiftyish woman, let’s call her Dolly, who had asked that our vacation be limited to six days. The group had ended up deciding, despite Dolly’s objections, on nine days. I watched Dolly, on day seven, suddenly and literally clam up at dinner. She just went mute. Her entire body shut down. After we paid the check, Dolly beelined directly to her rented condo and didn’t come out again until it was time to go to the airport two days later.

In retrospect, I see that she’d tried to warn us: I’m not designed to be away from home for a week. Some people call this a plantation mentality, but it’s better not to pass judgment. Lo que es, es, as the Spanish say. In English: It is what it is.

The modern HR vacation. Others reach that saturation point after a longer period of time. A two-week vacation, for example, seems to be the ideal length for most people, particularly office workers who’ve structured their own travel mentality around what’s allowed by the boss. And even then, the perfect moment may be reached midway through the vacation, on the seventh day. Then the second half of the trip serves as a total letdown, an emotional postscript. This is where the value of planning arises. To avoid peaking too soon, I like to save the most interesting activity for the end of the trip. Otherwise, it’s like getting a hangover while you’re still drinking.

Slow travelers. Still other travelers prefer long journeys, four to six weeks each, maybe even a couple of months. These people tend to stay in a single city or location, enough to establish routines, meet the locals, and feel as though they’ve become part of the fabric of daily life. This is what the term slow travel refers to, and these people usually pursue classes in language, cooking, and culture. I’d include myself in this category, ever since living in South America in 2014. That particular trip lasted four months, including two months parked in a single city—Medellín, Colombia. The entire experience, while exhilarating, lasted too long for my own tastes. It taught me that I don’t need more than six weeks abroad at any given time. That may sound indulgent, yes, but keep in mind that, prior to that, my fantasy included spending a solid year traipsing around the world.

The vagabonds. Those people, the ones who consistently disappear for months or even years at a time, are in a class by themselves. They’re the wanderers, the ones who basically keep little home base, if any. They’re professional photographers, musicians, writers, ambassadors, relief workers. They’re often young, sometimes idealistic, sometimes deeply wounded by family, and occasionally just plain crazier than a shithouse rat.

While touring Bolivia last year, I met a young German couple who were in the middle of an epic eighteen-month journey around the world. Days off? Nope—they were in constant motion. Personal discovery? Maybe. Body fat? None. Were they nuts? Definitely a little. Based on what they put up on Facebook after we parted ways, they kept their own little two-person party rolling into Bali and across Southeast Asia for the next nine months. Don’t ask me how it was funded, because I don’t have a clue. By the time it had ended, they’d spent 529 days in a row travelling.

Personally, I’ve got about two weeks of constant moving in me. Any longer, and I need to plant myself somewhere for a while. Also, I really enjoy coming home after an adventure. It’s a universal urge, and it means a lot to people to use their own bathrooms, wear their own clothes, root around in their own gardens. Wasn’t that Odysseus’ goal in The Odyssey? And Steve Martin’s goal in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles? I too wrote a novel about that feeling. We all want to arrive home, eventually.

Except for the ones who are being paid for travel.

Travel Bloggers

I don’t even know where to begin with this particular creature. It’s not that I dislike them. It’s more that I distrust them.

For those who don’t know, let’s define our terms first. A travel blogger is a person, or more often a couple, who travels the world mostly for free. All their hotel stays are reimbursed by hotels. All their restaurant meals are reimbursed by restaurants. All their fantastic diving trips are reimbursed by local travel boards.

What do they do in return? Travel bloggers write blogs (duh), tweets, and posts on social media about those same locations. They gush and fawn and adore with the same variety of adjectives as the current occupant of the White House—fantastic, beautiful, amazing. (They leave out words like disaster and loser, because that doesn’t get them free stuff.) It’s not as easy a gig to get as it sounds. Travel bloggers also must have an enormous number of social media followers to be offered such comps in the first place, and that’s no small task.


The only thing that changes is the scenery on the other side of the laptop.

There’s another term for what they do.

Pay for play.

On the surface, there’s nothing wrong with this. The travel bloggers always look absolutely ecstatic. After all, they’re having luxury vacations for free. I won’t mention any by name, but you’ve probably seen their enormous perfect smiles as they take selfies every day in front of a different cocktail, a different sunset, a different pool.

Nobody’s getting hurt, you’re probably thinking, so what’s the problem?

There’s a few problems. One, I originally started working in journalism, my first real job being at The Washington Post. There, pay-for-play is such a big no-no that even Christmas presents to Post staffers must be sent to charity—and the staffer must also send a thank-you card to the gifter informing him or her of the charity donation. I know that travel blogging isn’t journalism, but it’s deep in me to avoid compromising my own point-of-view.

Two, it must be damn near impossible to put on such a front, day in, day out. I can only imagine that travel bloggers don’t actually enjoy many of their activities, constantly fiddling with their camera phones to get the perfect shot of the seawall, finding the right filter for Instagram, worrying about replying to that concierge in Prague, etc. All their daily and hourly and minutely experience must be viewed through the lens (pun intended) of what will translate well to followers on social media. And then there’s the eventual emptiness that must consume them. A travel blogger essentially becomes a glorified PR flack for tourism boards, a role that must take its toll eventually. He or she has no job security, no medical benefits.

Three, my intuition says that only a narcissistic personality needs to promote his or her own superiority to the world. Lording it over others is what narcissists are born to do. Plus, amassing hundreds of thousands of followers is something else that narcissists tend to excel at as well. When it’s all about you, then nothing is about anybody else.

Let me offer a different view of what travel should be.

Travel as a Form of Suffering

You’ll never read this advice in any travel magazine, but here’s what I’ve learned. The best form of travelling involves discomfort, particularly for those of us like myself who are afflicted with too much modern comfort.

It’s the first of Buddha’s Four Noble Truths.

Life is suffering.

We shouldn’t run away from that. We should accept it.

This is the philosophy I’ve stuck by when writing the Ainsley Walker Gemstone Travel Mystery series. It would’ve been too easy to write it as a series of mere fantasy fulfillment. You know, the kind of ridiculousness that certain authors indulge in, such as, oh, I don’t know, **coughCliveCusslercough**, especially when he brings in a character named Clive Cussler to save Dirk Pitt at a crucial part of the story.

It also would’ve been too easy to duplicate the brainless attitude of a glossy travel rag. You know the type—it’s the magazine that always highlights the best civet-oil spa treatment in the Namibian bush. It’s the magazine that uses the word indulge fourteen times in as many paragraphs. (And always, always the word funky to describe a handbag. Aren’t there other types of bags? Angular? Stiff? Classical?)

I’ve gone a different path with my writing.

My protagonist, Ainsley Walker, suffers during her adventures. In fact, as the series has gone on, I’ve gotten better at torturing her. Notice that at the end of each story, while she always recovers the gemstone, she also suffers some sort of personal change or even setback. The North Korea Onyx, for example, is nearly a tragedy, a down ending that I figured might alienate a couple of readers here and there but which accurately reflects the horrific nature of North Korea. These mixed endings—rather than endings that are all happy or all sad—seem to be the most real, the most human, and the most believable.

In the end, Ainsley Walker isn’t a static character, mired in her own blinkered perspective. She’s made of taffy—stretched, pushed, and pulled by circumstances into different shapes. Sometimes, a part of her keeps its new form, even after the rest of her self returns to normal.

That is a real traveler.

In another sense, however, Ainsley isn’t even a traveler at all. She’s just a human, living a full life, experiencing the same ups and downs and lefts and rights that we all do. The only difference is, for dramatic purposes, she experiences this stuff in a very compressed amount of time, and in a radically foreign setting.

In the end, I hope she’s real to you, because I’ve worked very hard to make her seem real to me—and she’s going to continue to get stretched and pushed and pulled for many more adventures in the future.

In the meantime, it’s a big world. Let’s go see it all.


All Books Are Self-Help Books

Earlier in the year, the sociopathic North Korean regime released video footage of two citizens, a pair of brothers, being interviewed about their allegiance to their state, and especially their allegiance to their current chief sociopath, Kim Jong-un. Both men were citizens of North Korea, both spoke the language fluently, and both appeared content with the direction that their society was headed.

That’s weird enough. The really weird thing is that they are white.

Their names are Ted and James Dresnok. They’re the sons of an American defector to North Korea, James Dresnok, Sr. The Washington Post covered the story here, and the elder Dresnok has been the subject of an excellent documentary, Crossing the Line. I found his story so compelling, in fact, that I used him as the model for William Yaris, a supporting character in The North Korea Onyx.

Part of me, the irrational part, wants to find these two brothers and tell them it’s time to come back to the West. After all, it feels like they belong here—maybe in a garden apartment in Chelsea, in a house in Houston, in a suburb of Toronto. Another part of me refuses to believe the truth. Their lives must be fake. How could two Caucasian men exist in such a xenophobic society as North Korea? In a place that the late Christopher Hitchens memorably described as “a nation of racist dwarves”?

The answer is simple: Their lives aren’t fake. They never were in the West. Those are their true lives, the lives they were born into.

The same way that you and I were born into ours.

Continue reading



Most people don’t pursue meaningful lives for two reasons.

1) They are afraid to change.
2) They don’t know what they would change into.

The first reason, the fear of change, is well known. All of us dig ourselves into little ruts for one reason or another. Some of us accept one promotion after another, imprisoned by an ever-increasing salary that we don’t need. (The opening scene of Idiocracy painted it well—a young couple is going to have a baby only if the stock market recovers. I call this the timidity of the overcivilized.) Some of us have lost jobs but can’t yet see the bigger picture—that globalization is slowly eroding certain parts of Western economies. There’s no point in trying to climb a ladder if it’s leaning against a crumbling wall.

But the second reason is more insidious. Not knowing what you want to do is really a crisis of the soul. And it’s hard, really hard, to help someone find her own passion. Modern psychotherapists view everything as a problem that can be solved, including personality disorders, but if you’ve been around this blue marble for a while, you know that’s not always possible. I prefer the way that religion takes a darker view of things. Religions teach us that some of us simply won’t ever know ourselves, not unless we experience some real suffering—and even then, there’s no guarantee of change. (Related: If you’re interested in a psychotherapist’s view of evil, I’d recommend the book People of the Lie by M. Scott Peck. It’s fascinating.) As a storyteller, I’ve learned this same lesson. Purposelessness is deadly in fiction—the main character must always want something. It’s okay to be confused, but not to be purposeless.

Speaking realistically, the only serious obstacle to the pursuit of change is dependents. Maybe you have a sick parent. Maybe you have a young child. (The immune system reaches full flower at age five, so it may not be feasible to take your tyke on any expeditions deep into the Amazon until then. And this also explains the seven-year itch, if you think about it.) Maybe you have a troubled brother who needs you psychologically. Maybe a pet. It may not be feasible to just up and leave for a month.

That’s Ainsley Walker’s role. She travels for you when you can’t do it yourself. She inspires you to live for the day when you can explore, even in little snatches. Ironically, the segment of the public least likely to join Ainsley Walker on her adventures—young males, who generally read very little—are the ones who probably act the most like her. They’re the risk-takers, the ones who die for stupid reasons. Ainsley tends to take foolish risks as well, and she’s got deep reasons for that, which will be explored in future titles.

Meanwhile, it’s a big world. Let’s go see it all.

The North Korea Onyx: Preorder Now

North Korea OnyxThe North Korea Onyx, the eighth and latest Ainsley Walker Gemstone Travel Mystery, will be published on Monday,  April 25.

Click on link to preorder at Amazon  and Apple.


In America, a Korean immigrant church teeters on the edge of bankruptcy.

The minister has discovered the location of an onyx teacup, an historical treasure that had belonged to his grandfather before the division of the Korean peninsula. Recovering it will save their church. The only catch—

It’s in North Korea. And they need someone willing to retrieve it.


In her most thrilling travel mystery yet, Ainsley arrives in Pyongyang under the pretext of running a marathon—

—only to end up running for her life.

Racing across the peninsula, she sees the hidden truth about the North Korean people, their deep suffering, and their resistance. Fighting hunger and exhaustion, Ainsley summons every last drop of her resourcefulness, endurance, and inner strength to stay ahead of the regime—

—and to stay alive.

From an author who worked on the foreign desk of The Washington Post—

—comes a travel mystery that will change the way you see the world.