Sunday, 31 August 2008

Investigating the Investigator

Brett Atkinson is updating the Czech Republic sections of Lonely Planet's “Eastern Europe” and “Europe on a Shoestring” guidebooks. He recently took the time to answer a few questions I had for him...

How long have you been going and how long do you expect your research to take? Is it purely a research trip, or are you also writing reviews as you go?

Olomouc is about halfway through my research and I’ll be in the Czech Republic for about a month.

Unlike some other Lonely Planet writers I don’t write up much text while I’m on the road. It’s all about maximising the research period, and I’d rather spend my time hunting down new bars and restaurants and investigating daytrips than be hunched over my laptop in a pension. I like to then get home and lock myself away surrounded by all my notes and information.

Having said that, my notes are usually a combination of details and observations, and virtually fully-formed reviews that I will have written in my notebook while I’ve actually been somewhere. You just can’t beat the value of writing a review in the actual bar, restaurant or museum.

Is it sometimes a struggle to describe places so concisely, or is it less work because there are fewer words?

That’s actually one of the biggest challenges of the job, to capture the essence of a place, while also making sure the salient details are included – all in around 70 or 80 words. None of my books have ever increased in word count from edition to edition, so the other challenge is to include all the new stuff or a great daytrip, while retaining and updating what’s already in there. Economical writers like Hemingway or Raymond Carver would have been great guidebook writers.

Bill Bryson said “being a travel writer is the best job in the world”, but he doesn’t write guidebooks. Does it apply to you too, and is it as glamorous as people think?

I reckon anyone that can combine two of their passions - travelling and writing - is pretty blessed. It sure beats talking about toilet cleaners and discount stores in an ad agency (my previous job). I love the independence, meeting lots of new people, (jeez, I sound like a Miss World contestant), and getting to know a destination’s culture and history in depth.

I’ve worked for LP in Europe, Asia and the Pacific, so I’m trying not to be pigeon-holed as a regional specialist. My next two gigs are in the tiny Pacific nation of Niue (population 1300) in late September, and then Sri Lanka just before Christmas. Between those trips I’m holidaying in Mozambique and Madagascar with my wife Carol. If I was working in a full-time job, I just wouldn’t have the flexibility to do that.

Is it as glamorous as it sounds? Not when you’re looking at the eighth hostel of the day, or you’re up early after a night of barhopping getting transport prices at the bus station. I’m lucky in that outside of LP work I get to write about other destinations for magazines and newspapers in New Zealand. In the last 9 months that’s also taken me to China twice, Bolivia, Chile, Australia and Borneo. These are the times when being a travel writer really is the best job in the world.

I’m certainly not earning what I used to in Ad-land, but the remuneration is adequate. I’m definitely not starving, and I’m getting paid to explore the world. Not a bad deal really.

How would a typical day progress?

There’s really no typical day. I guess the key thing is to research at the best time for different aspects of the book. In a lot of countries, bus stations and train stations are busiest in the morning. Similarly you don’t want to be investigating hotels when everyone is checking out or checking in, so I try and hit them early to mid-afternoon. Try and see restaurants and bars when they’re busy with locals. It’s not rocket science, but you do have to be very organised and disciplined.

In a big city, you need to break the research up into neighbourhoods. At the end of the day, I also make time to review and summarise my notes to make sure that I’ve captured everything. Once you leave somewhere you usually don’t have a chance to go back. You’ve also got to balance a planned daily schedule (eg. by July 18 I’ll be in Brno…) with the ability to be flexible, eg. if you hear about a new festival or you think a place actually deserves more coverage (and therefore research time) than what’s in the previous edition.

And do you visit every place? Once? Twice? How do you go about uncovering new places?

Every single accommodation, restaurant, bar or other point of interest in the previous edition is visited at least once. In the case of cafes, bars and restaurants I do try and visit some places twice. What’s a quiet café in the morning could morph into a raging bar later at night. Lots of places can be quite versatile and it’s important to experience them in their different guises. Often I have a starter, main and dessert in three different places to experience as many restaurants as I can.

Uncovering new places is really the most interesting part of writing guidebooks. Before I leave for the destination I’ll be reading up on current information. For the Czech Republic I get daily email updates from Radio Prague, which is a great site. Before I leave I’ll be in touch with all the local tourist offices and the national tourist board.

After several trips to the Czech Republic I now also know a few locals in key places. So before I leave New Zealand, I’ll already have a hit list of new places to investigate. To this I’ll add feedback, both negative and positive, from Lonely Planet readers. I make sure I read every readers’ letter which comes in on my destination. What readers have uncovered can be really valuable.

Once I’m on the ground I try and focus additional time to exploring up and coming neighourhoods. Where are the new bars and boutiques opening? What areas are being reclaimed by the artists and students? It’s also all about just getting out and exploring on two legs – going round the next corner, seeing what’s happening further up a lane.

What can we expect from the new edition?

Certain areas of the Czech Republic like Prague, Český Krumlov and Karlovy Vary have excellent information resources for travellers, and will already be included on most people’s itineraries. I’ll still be bringing coverage of those areas right up to date, but I want to also focus on a few detours for slightly more independent and adventurous travellers.

So I’m looking to include and increase coverage of a few of my favourite towns like Loket, Slavonice, Štramberk and Tábor where traditional Czech culture is more intact. This trip’s only for the regional European books, so it’s going to be a balancing act to include them as interesting detours while still maintaining coverage of more obvious destinations.

How has the country changed since last time you were here, and when will you be back?

What’s really struck me in the two years since I was last here, and I’m sorry for being slightly negative, is the amount of graffiti around the country. It’s not just in the cities – you’ll be in a country village and the local train station will have been tagged. I’m also noticing that there’s been a big influx of retailers from nearby countries like Austria or Germany. In the most everyday of Czech towns, there will be a Baumax or Lidl store on the outskirts.

I guess the bottom line is that the Czech Republic is becoming more homogenous with the rest of central Europe. It’s good for local consumers I guess, but a certain charm is being lost. That’s why it’s important for travellers to try and explore a few more off-the-beaten path parts of the country. I’m also noticing a lot more English-language information is available in tourist information offices, and unfortunately the Czech Republic, especially Prague, is no longer a travel bargain compared to nearby countries.

I hope to come back to the Czech Republic in spring 2009 to update the next edition of the Czech & Slovak Republics country guidebook.

Thanks for taking the time to talk to us, Brett. Hope to see you again next year...


jay said...

I was just in Loket this past weekend. It is such a beautiful place for a hiking, reading, and basically just relaxing for a few days.

Mags said...

This is a very useful post, Captain. A lot of us wonder what it would be like being a travel writer and what the process entails. This is an insightful interview.

sansIcarus said...

It sounds like a pretty glamorous job to me. Looking forward to the next interview Oddsocks, who're you targetting?

Captain Oddsocks said...

Cheers Guys!

I can't claim too much credit for the interview though-it's easy to ask questions-the hard part is the answering.

Who to target next? Good question-any suggestions?

Captain Oddsocks said...

Brett's been a popular man lately.

Following on form the glory of being featured here in the Czech Republic's leading travel blog written by an antipodean with a taste for mismatched clothes, he popped up in the national newspaper today, in an article titled Foreign Planet Czech..

My impression is that the reporter began with the intention to smirk and belittle the guides and resulting misconceptions held by foreign travellers, but in the end was forced to admit that Lonely Planet might even make good reading for Czech waiters.

The website version of the article has fixed some of the mistakes from the print version, like "Czech is too small for a big publisher like Lonely Planet, so is included in the Central Europe edition". It even pictures the Czech and Slovak Republics guide that the print version indignantly denies the existence of.

MF Dnes reporter Jakub Pokorný also seem impressed by the wisdom of Brett's advice “never to drive a Skoda Fabia across a narrow bridge leading to a castle, especially if there’s no room to turn around on the other side.”

Perhaps some Czech drivers should read it too…

If you don’t read Czech, running the article through an online translator will shed some light on its contents. And on some of the structural differences between the Czech and English languages…;-)