The Texas Tour

The first leg of the book tour for All the Agents and Saints is now complete. In the last 15 days, I’ve held 13 events in San Antonio, Austin, San Marcos, Corpus Christi, Edinburg, and McAllen, Texas. The timing was intense: days before my arrival, my home state endured the worst natural disaster in its history. Due to the catastrophic flooding in Houston (where my tour was supposed to begin), my flight got re-routed to San Antonio. Gas lines wrapped around entire city blocks. I wound up postponing the Houston events, as it felt wrong to take up space and resources there. So many people had lost everything, while others feared for their safety after nearby industrial plants started exploding. It is a tragedy that Houstonians will be grappling with for generations. I have never known a city so resilient.

By the time I reached my hometown, Corpus Christi, power had mostly been restored, though many trees and fences were still down, including at my parent’s house. The much-loved communities of nearby Rockport and Port Aransas, meanwhile, were completely devastated. …

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Spring Update

Today marks the spring equinox, but it’s still snowing like mad up here in the North Country. Never have I spent so much time indoors as these past three months, though I’ve learned that the best way to deal with a long hard winter is to embrace it by cross-country skiing, snow-shoeing, maple-tapping, and swilling hot toddies around the fireplace.

So 2013! It started with an investigative reporting trip to South Texas (subject of my next book about living in the borderlands) and then I returned to upstate New York to teach travel writing and an introductory creative nonfiction class at St. Lawrence University. I’ve also been hosting the Viebranz Salon Series, which entails throwing glitzy catered parties featuring local writers and musicians every couple of months at the Kohlberg House, and partaking in our Writer’s Series. In February, I had the honor of introducing one of my literary heroes, Rebecca Solnit (whose Field Guide to Getting Lost is an endless source of inspiration). In March, I had the great fortune of hearing Pam Houston …

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El Gran Midwest Viaje

In less than two months, I’ll be leaving Iowa City, my home of three years. Due to my lack of (car) wheels, my knowledge of this city consists of a one-mile radius, and I know even less of the state. So I was thrilled when two dear friends from Washington DC swept me up for a three-day road trip.

Our first stop: the Herbert Hoover Presidential Museum and Library. (Did I mention these friends were from DC? Yes indeed: one is a political biographer and the other works for the Obama campaign, so presidential libraries are their thing.) As it turns out, this man Hoover was orphaned in West Branch, Iowa at the age of 10, educated at Stanford, honeymooned in China during the Boxer Rebellion, became a wildly popular president without ever having run for political office before (and then became a dreadfully unpopular one after the Great Depression), and then retired at the swanky Waldorf Astoria in NYC. After getting our history fix, we romped around Main Street, which consists of …

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Introducing Pico Iyer

As some of you know, I’m on the verge of completing my MFA at the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program. Last night was the highlight of my entire experience here: I was asked to introduce my literary idol, Pico Iyer, at a reading he gave for some 250 writers and students. I thought I would share it here, as a tribute to my long-time muse.

We have gathered here tonight for the pleasure of hearing Pico Iyer discuss his latest book, The Man Within My Head, about his lifelong fascination with the writer Graham Greene. The irony of giving this introduction is that, for the past 12 years, I have been fascinated with Pico Iyer. So, before he dazzles us with what it’s like having Mr. Greene inside his head, let me share what it’s like having Pico inside my own.

It started with an essay he wrote for Salon in 2000 called “Why We Travel.” Having spent years trying to justify my own wanderlust to my family, I was startled …

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As y’all may have heard, Latino Studies has essentially been banned in the state of Arizona. My amazing friends at Nuestra Palabra, a literary arts organization in Houston, Texas, are currently organizing a Librotraficante caravan to Tucson to smuggle “wet-books” across the border.

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New Travel Writing Class

I had so much fun teaching an online travel writing class with Media Bistro this summer, I just signed up for another one this fall, September 15 – November 17. Here’s the skinny:

Travel the world and get paid for it? Yes, it’s true! Whether a long weekend in Mendocino or a long walk across Nepal, there’s a market out there for your stories, and a proven path that successful travel writers follow. In this course, you’ll learn how to grow your freelance writing career by mastering one of its most adaptable, engaging genres: travel.

Travel writing is a conduit to many parallel genres, from food to art, politics to technology, and the skills and experience you’ll gain covering travel can be applied to all your writings. In week one, we’ll fully assess the travel writing market (magazines, newspapers, guidebooks, websites, blogs, and more) and set individual writing agendas for the duration of class. In following weeks we’ll reveal the inner workings of the field, showing how travel editors think and what they want from their writers. We’ll diagram the many …

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Midsummer Bliss

Is it me, or is this summer blazing by at hyper-speed? Since I last wrote, I’ve been to San Francisco; Jackson Hole, Wyoming; Syracuse, New York; Dallas; and Houston, plus Corpitos at every point in between. Craziness! Some of the highlights:

* hiking through Tennessee Valley and then downing a bottle of wine, a bag of cherries, and a block of lavender goat cheese on Paradise Beach with Marcy Gordon

* bonding with Lavinia Spalding, editor of Best Women’s Travel Writing 2011, over dim-sum at Yank Sing (which serves the yummiest jiaozi this side of the Pacific)

* wandering the winding streets of San Francisco, chai-and-chocolate-milk in hand, with Lea Aschkensas

* biking across Elk Refuge and beholding the Grand Teton

* meeting one of my literary heroes, Cristina Garcia, at the Jackson Hole Writer’s Conference and then devouring her latest novel, The Lady Matador’s Hotel, in a day-long gulp

* meeting another literary hero, Ben Fountain, at a barbecue in Dallas and then re-reading and re-falling for Brief Encounters with Che Guevara 

* road-tripping …

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Postcard from the Philippines

I’ve been meaning to write about my trip to the Philippines for weeks now, but life keeps intervening! In short, it was extraordinary.

The inspiration behind the journey was the 50th anniversary of the National Writers Workshop at Silliman University in Dumaguete, aka the oldest creative writing program in Asia. Founded by two graduates of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop (the venerable Edith and Edilberto Tiempo), the NWW gathers more than a dozen Filipino essayists, novelists, poets, and playwrights around a table for an Iowa-style workshop for three weeks each year. We — the thirty members of Iowa’s Overseas Writing Workshop — arrived just in time to help them celebrate at a gala complete with singing, dancing, “magisterial photos,” and a blow-out feast of lechon (a young roasted pig that is crispy on the outside, juicy on the inside, and delicious through and through).

From there, we spent about 20 days island-

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Existential Migration

My friend Sree (a Malaysian/Australian writer I recently met in the Philippines) just forwarded a link to a book that seems to encapsulate what I’ve been struggling with for much of my adult life: existential migration. Here’s a snippet from the website of Greg Madison, author of The End of Belonging:

“Unlike economic migration, simple wanderlust, exile, or variations of forced migration, ‘existential migration’ is conceived as a chosen attempt to express something fundamental about existence by leaving one’s homeland and becoming a foreigner.

This concept arose from interviews with voluntary migrants from around the world now living in London. The study generated impressively consistent themes such as the importance of trying to fulfil individual potentials, the importance of freedom and independence, openness to experiences of the mystery of life, and the valuing of difference and foreignness as a stimulus to personal awareness and broadening perspectives.

Among this population there is a marked preference for the strange and foreign over the familiar or conventional. As well as the new concept of existential migration, the research proposes a novel definition of home as interaction; that the ‘feeling …

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Ode to New York City

Feliz New Year, everyone! I’ve just returned from 66 hours in my favorite city on the planet — NYC — which I spent with six of my closest friends. It was the first time I’d been back since my rather disastrous exit a year and a half ago…

I first moved to Brooklyn two weeks after 9/11 and stayed until December 2004, when I left for Mexico to research Mexican Enough. After spending the 2005-2006 academic year at Princeton, I realized the road was wide open. I had lined up some speaking gigs and residencies in the year ahead, but there wasn’t enough income to live anyplace in between — certainly not in the Northeast, anyway. So I took a vow of nomadism and stuffed three-quarters of my belongings into a U-Haul storage facility in Chelsea (Manhattan). It stayed there THREE YEARS, at $100 a month! I knew it was ridiculous to pay so much rent for a few (well, 20) boxes of clothes, photos, books, and mismatched cutlery (plus some errant furniture I’d swiped off the streets …

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Passports with Purpose

Now hear this: The beautiful people at Passports with Purpose have recently launched their 2010 fundraising campaign, and it’s amazing. After raising nearly $30,000 last year and building a school in rural Cambodia (which opened this October), they are currently attempting to build an entire village for some Dalit (the so-called “untouchable” people) in Tamil Nadu in southern India, via an organization called Lafti. Watch this video for details:


In just two weeks, Passports with Purpose has already raised $41,000, or 82 percent of their goal of $50,000. And it gets even better: You can help the cause by placing $10 bids on a host of awesome prizes, including airline tickets, iPads, hotel and resort packages, travel gear, y mas. I myself just bid on two boutique hotel packages to New Orleans and San Antonio, plus a roundtrip ticket on Continental Airlines to take me there.

Intrigued? I know that times are tight, but it’s not every day you can simultaneously build a village and (attempt to) score such terrific booty. The final day to place bids …

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