Andrew_McCarthy_on_Kilimanjaro

Andrew McCarthy

On Travel Writing, Fear & the Journey of the Soul

 

It takes me a minute to accept the reality that I am talking to Andrew McCarthy. Though I’ve interviewed celebrities that were far more famous and influential, there’s a deep personal connection my younger self had to his breakthrough films, including Pretty in Pink and St. Elmo’s Fire. McCarthy was the shy one, the sensitive one, the one plagued by existential angst. When I was 17 (the year those two films were released), he was my on-screen doppelganger.

 

Twenty-six years later, I’m no longer shy, nor filled with angst. And McCarthy, though he still dabbles in acting and directing from time to time, is becoming better known as a travel writer thanks to his exceptional work for publications such as National Geographic, Afar and the New York Times. His award-winning stories are filled with rich attention to detail and a navel-gazing exploration of the inner self as he explores some of the world’s most remote destinations, from the Peruvian Amazon and Chilean Patagonia to Mount Kilimanjaro and Sudan.

 

Yesterday, to promote his new book, The Longest Way Home, McCarthy took the time for a lengthy discussion on his rebirth as a freelance writer, the fear he confronts every time he travels, the benefits of the solo journey, and the ultimate rewards of laying bare his shy, sensitive soul.

 

Andrew_McCarthy_Pretty_In_Pink

 

You describe yourself as shy and introverted. What attracted you to such an extroverted craft as acting?

It is an odd thing, when you put it like that! (Laughs) When I first acted, I felt like I was fully myself for the first time. When you’re acting, you’re accessing yourself, but you’re playing someone else. It’s very revealing, but you’re also ultimately hiding.

 

Writing is a more internal journey. Where did your interest in the craft originate?

I came to writing very late in life, but it was a relief because I didn’t have to wait for someone to give me permission, and then interpret somebody else’s thing. When I traveled alone for months at a time, I became untethered, sort of drifting. I tried to write a journal to ground myself, but I was a very bad journal writer. I could write dialogue, I knew character and I knew setting, all from acting. I’d write vignettes, and I did that for 10 years before I tried to take it out into the world. I never anticipated doing anything with it, because I’m an actor, right? I was writing because, while I was traveling, it gave me something to do. I started reading travel stuff, but nothing I read captured my internal experience.

 

Were there any travel writers that influenced you?

When I started writing, I picked up some Paul Theroux books. They changed my life. His travel books were the first ones that made me think, “That’s how I want to travel!” That excited me and sent me further into travel literature.

Andrew_McCarthy_Patagonia

 

You seem drawn to the world’s most remote destinations­. What’s your attraction to “getting away from it all?”

The further I go, the closer to me I get. If you see a McDonalds or Starbucks, you relax in a certain way. I don’t like that kind of relaxing. There’s something about physically remote places that I find very powerful. I access myself in a way that is very potent. I like to go places that I’m told aren’t very interesting, like Sudan. I found Sudan to be fascinating, and people there to be lovely and welcoming. I like depending on the kindness of strangers. I don’t find travel a frivolous thing; I find it a necessity. I’m not talking about vacations– vacations are great, and I’m all for them– but I’m talking about traveling, which is different.

 

It seems like we’re challenging ourselves by facing those things most people are afraid of.

I’ve got to find out which explorer said, “Brave men never do anything: It’s cowards that discover the world.” I think that’s true. I travel primarily to conquer fear, because I didn’t want fear to rule my life. Traveling is an act of faith and optimism. Travel obliterates fear. It just does. That’s my theory.

 

Given your affinity for wilderness, do you have any thoughts on the ecological and economic benefits of ecotourism?

When people are aware, they behave responsibly. When they behave responsibly, they feel better about themselves. When they feel better about themselves, they treat each other better. And I’m all for that. I think awareness of shared responsibility brings people closer. Besides what it’s doing for the planet, which is the obvious need for and benefit of ecotourism, on an emotional level I think it just feels good for everyone involved and makes us feel less separated.

 

Andrew_McCarthy_Costa_Rica

 

You seem to prefer traveling alone. What are the benefits of going solo?

Really, all the things we’ve been talking about. My wife often does travel with me, but she likes to travel alone as well. When we travel together, we have our experience of each other in the place. That can be a very wonderful, intimate experience, but those nameless fears don’t seem to exist when we’re in Paris. When you’re alone, those fears rule us without us even knowing it. The most important thing I say when I’m on the road alone is, “Hi, can you help me?” When I say that, I make myself vulnerable. No one’s ever said no. But when we’re together, I rarely ask for help. We’ll be ok together. We’ll figure it out. Alone, I always ask for help, even when I don’t need it. It helps me reach out to people, and helps them reach out to me. Traveling solo is an optimistic, trusting act, and I think people respond to that.

 

You’ve said you view travel as a form of infidelity. Did it surprise you that Dolores stuck by you through what many might see as a mid-life crisis?

These are dilemmas of ambivalence I’ve had my whole life. I had it with acting– I wanted it, yet I pulled away from it. I wanted intimacy, yet I pulled away from it. I was looking to get rid of that push-pull once and for all. Back to the infidelity thing: If I go have a private, personal travel experience, when I come back I’ll tell you a story and show you a picture, but it really can’t capture the essence of my experience. In that sense I’m unfaithful, because I’m giving myself to the world and leaving you behind. The paradox is that when I come back, I come back richer, with more to offer you. My wife is very aware of that. She also has her own rich life. She’s not just sitting around, waiting for me to come back.

 

Do you feel as if The Longest Way Home needed to be written so you could move on with the next stage of your life?

I think that’s totally true. There’s that Joan Didion line,  “I write to know what I’m thinking.” I travel to know what I’m feeling, and I write to figure it out. In writing something, you take responsibility for it and own it. Something happens once you’ve written it down and it’s on paper. It becomes of itself, separate from you. It’s a new experience, and I didn’t understand that to a large degree until I started writing.

 

andrew-mccarthy-the-longest-way-home

 

What advice would you give to aspiring travel writers?

I’m not good at giving any kind of advice. What I have to offer in my travel writing is a sense that travel changed my life, and it can change yours. I love travel because of what it does for me on a personal level, so I write from that place of energy and excitement whether I’m writing about Patagonia or Parma Ham in Italy. I’m always writing from that place, and I think that message comes through without people knowing it. I write from that place of passion, however it manifests. If you’re writing for a free trip, you’re in the wrong business.

 

Having been an actor and writer myself, I find that each time you take on a new role or write something new you’re giving a piece of yourself away for public consumption.

You’re giving something away, but I also think you get something back, but I don’t know how to tangibly say what it is.

 

I think what you get back is connectivity.

That’s where the action is! I think you’re exactly right, and that’s what the book is really about: How do we get to that connection? I find that connection most when I travel the world. And I want to find that connection, and bring it back home with me.  –Bret Love; photos provided by Simon & Schuster/Andrew McCarthy

 

If you enjoyed reading our Andrew McCarthy Interview, you might also like:  

INTERVIEW: Anthony Bourdain On No Reservations

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INTERVIEW: Henry Rollins On Occupants and Working With Nat Geo

INTERVIEW:  European Travel Guru Rick Steves on Ecotourism & Travel Writing

10 Travel Books That Inspired My Love of Adventure

43 Responses to INTERVIEW: Andrew McCarthy on Travel Writing, Fear & the Journey of the Soul

  • Karon says:

    What a great interview! Like you, I was a teen during the height of Andrew McCarthy’s fame and loved him in such relatable roles. It is amazing to me these some 20-odd years later that we have yet another personal thing in common. Thanks for sharing his viewpoints on his travel journey with us!

    • Glad you liked it, Karon! It’s been a long time since I’ve interviewed someone I idolized during my teen years, so it was a little weird at first, But once we got into the discussion, I forgot all about him as an actor and was able to focus on his traits as a human being and fellow travel writer.

  • Micki says:

    Love this interview! Like you and Karon, I was a teen during McCarthy’s Pretty in Pink Days. It’s wonderful to watch someone like McCarthy reinvent himself. I think his journey mirrors the transformations that a lot of us have had over the years. Thanks for sharing this – he has some interesting insights on solo travel!

    • Agreed, Micki! It’s funny because I started out as an actor/musician myself, with some of the same personality traits that McCarthy describes, but realized early on that writing was much more my speed. But even within my profession, I’ve done a complete change from focusing on pop culture criticism to focusing on travel, so I can relate to his re-invention, particularly since it came when he was a single dad dealing with divorce.

  • So often when actors shift gears to another profession it’s a sham. When they shift to MY profession it can be even worse. In the case of Andrew McCarthy, travel writer, I have surprised myself at how much I like his writing and your revealing interview solidifies those feelings.

    • Yeah, I was a little dubious at first, but read a few things he did in NatGeo that really impressed me. But his book really sealed it for me: I now think he’s one of the best in the business.

  • I have gone through your blog and found each of your posts really interesting. Your writing style is really amazing, and catches the attention of readers and travel enthusiasts. I firmly believe that you are ardent at developing the content of a blog precisely. You writing is truly flawless. For me, going through your Blog was like taking a joy ride.

  • Laurence says:

    Fantastic interview Bret / Andrew. A lot here to think about, and a lot that echoes my own thoughts as to why I travel :)

  • Is it sad I have never heard of him. But I do want to buy his book now. Love this quote: “I’m not talking about vacations– vacations are great, and I’m all for them– but I’m talking about traveling, which is different.”

    • Interesting! Coming-of-age movies like “Pretty In Pink” were huge here in the U.S., and are still shown on TV fairly regularly today, 25 years later. He’s a good actor, but in my opinion a much better travel writer. His book is well worth a purchase, and one of the best travel books I’ve read in recent years.

  • Wow, great interview, guys. It’s nice to see people following their dreams and passions, no matter how successful they could have been in another field as well.

    • It’s especially interesting to me because when I first started college I wanted to be a professional actor, only to realize that the field ultimately wasn’t for me. Then, when I went back after taking some time off, I wanted to be a professional musician, only to realize I was not interested in a life of constant touring. Even after becoming a professional writer at age 27, I eventually shifted from cultural criticism to focusing on travel. I guess the moral of the story is that it’s never too late to reinvent your life.

  • Great interview. I also love reading Paul Theroux books. My favourite quote is “I’m not good at giving any kind of advice. What I have to offer in my travel writing is a sense that travel changed my life, and it can change yours”. It definitely changed mine!

  • Great interview guys!…I look forward to downloading this next on my Kindle:)

  • Angela says:

    Great interview. I also like Paul Theroux, and another writer who never fails to inspire me is Stanley Stewart. When I read his articles/books I feel I’ve been to those places myself. And great travel philosophy, I too consider the wilder the better :)

  • You have just stirred up my old childhood crush! Excellent interview and looking forward to reading his book.

  • Ali says:

    I love this interview, Bret! I can totally relate to a lot of what he said about what travel is and what it does for you. I’ve never been a big celebrity worshiper, but when I first found out an actor from movies I loved as a kid is now a travel writer, and has similar views on what I value about travel, I was so excited.

  • Eric says:

    Just finished reading his book as well. It’s a great read. This just goes to show that travel is the best teacher.

  • Turtle says:

    Fantastic interview. I have to confess, I had never heard of Andrew before. Now I feel like that’s made me a lesser person. His work sounds really good and I can’t wait to read some of his stuff and learn a bit more about him. Thanks!

  • “The further I go, the closer to me I get.”

    This was my favorite line in the interview because I completely agree that the most remote, un-touristy, unexplored destinations are always the ones where you get the strongest sense of who you are and how you fit into the rest of the world. Not that you can’t have fun in cities or countries that are similar to your own, but going somewhere different has a way of opening your eyes.

  • Alexandra says:

    Wow I’m really surprised by all those folks from OZ and NZ who haven’t heard of him before! Go rent Weekend at Bernies or Mannequin!

    As for the article I just stole this quote for my status “The most important thing I say when I’m on the road alone is, “Hi, can you help me?” When I say that, I make myself vulnerable. No one’s ever said no. But when we’re together, I rarely ask for help. We’ll be ok together. We’ll figure it out. Alone, I always ask for help, even when I don’t need it. It helps me reach out to people, and helps them reach out to me. Traveling solo is an optimistic, trusting act, and I think people respond to that.”

    Such a great reminder

  • Paula says:

    I just love the way Andrew is. I love how he doesn’t completely settle. He broadens himself in life. Goes everywhere even when someone say don’t. I find him to be so interesting. When I met him he was very nice and Adorable ! I must say that. i am now reading his book called The Longest Way Home. I just started it but it has me wanting to read more and more. The best to him and whatever he does in life.

    • Agreed, Paula. As a longtime fan of his acting, it’s been amazing to watch his evolution into a first-class travel writer later in life. There’s something to be said for reinventing yourself and your career.

  • Paula says:

    PS If I had the money I would do what you do. I NEED that in my life. To travel, have a different kind of piece of mind than the one you get when your home alone. I Love family more than anything and when I am in a relationship its at the top of my list YET I NEED to do ME ! Maybe that comes from being there for everyone in many many ways and even though I had joy in doing it I STILL find that I need to fly solo at times.

    • Understood. We don’t have the money to travel either (freelance writing doesn’t pay as much as one might think), which is why we’re so blessed by GGT’s success. It has allowed us a chance to see so many of our dreams come true, and we feel like we’re just getting started.

  • “The further I go, the closer to me I get.”

    I love that quote. I also agree with Andrew that acting isn’t necessarily an extroverted thing. A lot of time is exploring your world inside and living in its shell. Good interview!

    • I agree that the acting process itself isn’t necessarily extroverted, but the life of a successful actor requires extroverted behavior, from attending film premieres and awards ceremonies to participating in film junkets and TV interviews. As a recovering introvert myself, I always find it fascinating when self-professed shy people become movie stars.

  • Probably the best interview with a travel person I’ve read. I completely identify with Andrew. He is my life – my emotions, my solo travel, passion, experiences. This actually inspired me to write about my own experiences. I think this is something I need to do. Thanks for this.

    • Thanks for that great compliment, Jeremy! I love doing these interviews, and we will have several more coming up on the site in the next few weeks. I really enjoyed talking to Andrew and related to him to some degree, but I personally prefer traveling with Mary and cannot imagine going to the places GGT covers without her. In part that’s because of the amount of work involved in taking notes, conducting interviews, taking photos and shooting videos. But it’s mainly because I would feel weird about her not being able to go with me, not being able to share my experiences and having those shared memories. It’s interesting to note that Andrew admitted he travels solo a LOT less frequently now that he’s married…

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  • I could relate to so many things said in this interview, it really hit home. I can completely understand the passion for not only solo travel, but for complete solitude. There was a time that I was completely alone, in Tibet, and the feeling was raw. I was able to soak in my surroundings and experiences so much more.
    Another factor of solo travel is the ability to connect with the locals much more. I too, ask for help if I do not really need it.I do this as a way to connect with the locals.
    Great interview.

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  • Josh says:

    Great Interview guys! We are such a big fan of Andrew and loved the insight you guys were able to give us. Look forward to checking out his new book. Thanks again for another great interview guys!!

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  • Excellent interview! I’ve done my share of interviews, so really appreciate reading a well-crafted one. Of course, it helps to have an interviewee that is willing to reflect and share his/her experiences in a revealing way. I haven’t read Andrew’s book, but my interest in now piqued to do so!

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