Interview with Joshua Samuel Brown – Originally published in April 2009. [Updated January 2021]
This month I’ve got a special treat for you. One of my favorite authors, Joshua Samuel Brown, was kind enough to answer some questions for MSW.
I’ve mentioned Joshua several times on My Several Worlds. We first met online in 2008. I had been following his blog for ages before finally working up enough nerve to leave a few comments for him. In the meantime, I searched high and low for his book, Vignettes of Taiwan.
While online one night, I mentioned to Josh that I was having trouble finding the book. A short while later, a signed copy arrived in my mailbox! After meeting Josh for the first time, I realized why he is so successful as a travel writer. His friendly demeanor and charm will put anyone at ease.
So, without further ado. Please read on for further insight into the life and times of a talented travel writer and my friend, Joshua Samuel Brown.
MSW: Thanks for joining us here today, Josh. So, who is Joshua Samuel Brown? Tell us a little bit about yourself.
JSB: It is ten PM, and my wife is asleep. It is raining, and having been working on the big machine all day I’ve settled back with the mini Acer Aspire to promote a more relaxed style of writing. Outside my window, cats in heat are howling for love. So who am I?
Do you remember that scene in Man on the Moon where Courtney Love asks what’s his name playing Andy Kaufman who he really is, and he says “what if there is no real me?” Sometimes I wonder if the same applies to me.
MSW: I stumbled across your blog, Snarky Tofu, over a year ago, and was instantly hooked by your unique writing style. What was the inspiration behind Snarky Tofu? Do you have any other sites you would like to tell us about? What are your goals with Snarky Tofu?
JSB: The blog was originally called Stinky Tofu, until my friend and long-suffering comrade, Poet Richard Deming left a comment – after a particularly snarky entry, no doubt – suggesting that I call the blog “Snarky Tofu”. Rick had also coined the phrase “a classic narcissist” to describe me (he meant it as an insult, I think, and was thus surprised when I co-opted it as a brag-line in my promotional material), so I decided to again steal his material.
I write for some other sites, foremost among which is the great Things Asian Press, which has been pivotal to my career as they published my first book. I also have sort of a general clearing house for my articles at www.josambro.com, which is badly in need of an update – according to my website, I’m still in Belize.
As far as goals, it’s interesting – I like having people read my blog and comment on stuff, but have yet to really figure out how to monetize the thing. I like the immediate gratification of blogging. On the other hand, I sometimes write a piece and think, “Should I really be giving this away? Can I sell this somewhere?” Ah, the life of a hack writer, eh?
MSW: You’ve been quite busy over the past two years. Your personal collection of short stories and essays called Vignettes of Taiwan was published in 2006.
You co-authored Fodor’s China and the seventh edition of Lonely Planet in 2007, as well as the third edition of Lonely Planet Belize, and the eighth edition of Lonely Planet Singapore. That’s a lot of researching, a lot of writing, and a lot of traveling.
What is it that you love most about your job? What do you hate about it?
JSB: I like the travel and research, but sometimes get bogged down in the data collection. I often have difficulty juggling vast quantities of data. The photo of me in the back of my first LP guide, showing me being crushed under a stack of paperwork. That kind of sums it up.
MSW: That’s one of my favorite photographs, Josh. I’m amazed at the amount of travel literature we’ve picked up on our own travels. It’s a great idea for a photo. Could you tell us a little about your first book Vignettes of Taiwan?
JSB: VOT is a collection of short stories, most of them new and written for the collection, with a few re-edited articles I’d done about Taiwan for various newspapers and magazines. I think the book presents a good overview of life in Taiwan, and does help to paint a clearer picture of our adopted island home than the usual tag-line that inevitably follows any damned story run in the mainstream media about Taiwan, you know the one:
“Taiwan split from Mainland China in 1949 following the communist victory in China’s civil war…”
I think that every newswire service in the world must have some sort of auto-paste hot key that spits some variation of that sentence out with one key-stroke to save time.
Doesn’t matter what the story is about. Taiwanese scientist finds cure for baldness? Paste that sentence at the end.
Taipei Zookeeper caught in love-tryst with pandas? Paste that sentence at the end of it.
I wanted to go a bit deeper with VOT. Hopefully I did. If not, there’s a few more books in me yet, and at least a couple about Taiwan.
MSW: I can’t tell you how happy I am to hear you say that. Just for the record, my husband and I really enjoyed your book. Having a signed copy arrive in the mail from you makes it even more special.
We thought you did a tremendous job capturing the real Taiwan. I think this book should be on everyone’s reading list, especially if they’ve spent any time in Taiwan.
Are you working on anything special at the moment?
JSB: I just finished a chapter for another LP guide, my fourth, and I’m planning to take the rest of the year off to focus more on a combination of film, literary pursuits, and Taiwan. I have a couple of film ideas I’m trying to get backing for, and am currently working on a tourism-based proposal. Also I have a novel I’ve been trying to find the time for. I usually keep a bunch of pokers in the fire. It’s the only way to live as a freelancer. Multitasking, they call it.
MSW: When did you first start working for Lonely Planet? Is there a story behind it?
Your writing stands for itself, but the competition between travel writers must be stiff. Did you do anything special to set yourself apart from other travel writers?
JSB: I sent a copy of Vignettes of Taiwan to Lonely Planet. This led to me being offered the chance to write a sample chapter, which I did (on Shenzhen, of all places). They liked my work, and offered me a shot at co-writing their 2007 edition of LP Taiwan.
Since then I’ve done three other books for them. As far as doing anything special, I really just try to be as professional as possible while getting the job done with a good mixture of accuracy and creativity.
MSW: Do you have a favorite travel tale?
JSB: I have lots of travel tales, and could probably inundate you with links at this point. But my favorite stories all involve magic in some way, or kismet, to be more precise.
Chance meetings with someone you know, or should know, in the most unlikely places. I met my wife Laurie while researching a story I eventually called “Seven Hours in the Soul of Seoul“.
Random encounters with strangers. I’m working on two short stories right now with the concept of chance meetings, one being comedic and the other rather serious. I’m not sure what I’ll do with either. Both might be too strange for mass consumption.
MSW: You have a dream job that most people would be envious of having. What are the pros and cons of living the life of a Lonely Planet travel writer?
JSB: Well, LP is just one of the jobs I do – currently the most prestigious one, but it’s still a job. A more appropriate question would concern the pros and cons of being a travel writer in general.
Chief among the pros are the amount of traveling I get to do (duh!) and also the vast number of people I get to meet. I’ve made a lot of good friends in this job, and feel as if I have more than one place I could conceivably call home as a result of having done such extensive research of places I otherwise only might have gotten to know superficially, if even at all.
The cons are similar, actually – the traveling can sometimes wear you down, causing places to kind of blur into one gelatinous mess mentally.
Also, in some ways, travel writing sucks the fun out of actual travel, as so much data collection is involved that you can’t just relax and let experiences roll over you.
I did a good blog entry (I think, anyway) about some of the travails of travel writing called “My Parents are Little People“. I eventually want to release a book of such stories. Think it’d sell?
MSW: I do, indeed. By the way, I loved that blog entry. You write about Taiwan beautifully. What are your favorite destinations and why?
JSB: I find Taiwan an amazingly inspiring place; the culture is fluid, always changing in subtle ways. I think this fluidity makes Taiwanese people more tolerant of difference, of strangeness. As a result, I find myself encountering more unusual people in Taiwan than I normally do in most other places.
As far as my favorite spots, Taipei itself is probably my favorite city on the planet. The beaches of Penghu are undiscovered (or barely discovered) gems, and though everyone seems to have discovered Wulai I still like hiking up there.
No, too many favorite spots in Taiwan to pick out even a handful. I dig the whole place, from Keelung to Kenting and Matsu to Lanyu.
MSW: After completing your assignment for the 7th edition of Lonely Planet Taiwan, you left Taiwan to spend some time in Texas. After that, you worked on assignment in Belize and Singapore. Now, you’re back in Taiwan. What is it about this tiny island that keeps calling you back?
JSB: Heh. Texas didn’t work out. It was nice having plenty of land to call my own (er, mine and my wife’s own, that is), but the locals were a bit too redneck and I didn’t like being so car dependent.
So we hightailed it back to Taiwan. I feel very comfortable in Taiwan, and I attribute this at least partially to the Taiwanese people, just some of the most easy to be around folks on the planet (in my opinion). Taiwan is a very easy place to live.
Coming back to Taiwan is like coming back to live in my mom’s basement, if my mother actually had a basement, or at least a nice one anyway.
MSW: Do you have any advice for first time travelers?
JSB: Drink the water in copious quantity.
MSW: What are your favorite places? Any city or town you’d like to return to, or do you prefer seeing new places?
JSB: I love Laos, Southern China (Guangxi to Yunnan), and of course Taiwan. I have some desire to see Europe before I die, but if I had one more trip to someplace unvisited, I’d probably go to New Zealand instead.
On the other side of the pond, I usually wind up in Colorado when I’m back in the States – I go back east, but only to visit friends and family; I no longer feel much affinity to the land and culture of America’s Northeast.
Strangely enough, one place that I do feel an amazing affinity for is Newfoundland. I lived there for three months in 2001, and had been trying to make it there (for reasons I can’t quite explain) for over a decade prior to actually going there.
Newfoundland is one of the places that always comes up whenever anyone asks me the favorite places question. I think I must have spent a previous life there. I wrote a story about it in my post called “Codless and Charming“.
MSW: Where do you see yourself in 20 years?
JSB: Who knows? Maybe New Zealand. Never been there but I hear they have hobbits. Or Laos. Or Yunnan Province. Or maybe Sunny Newfoundland.
Of course, Taiwan will always be home. If I wind up spending most of the rest of my days here I can’t think of anyplace better from which to have my ashes scattered than from the top of Yaming Mountain.
Taiwan is always home!
Thanks so much for joining us today, JSB!
Check back here for a few upcoming short stories from the man himself, Mr. Joshua Samuel Brown. Better yet, drop by his blog at Josambro.com and say hello!
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