The art of travel writing
I’ve always been drawn to the mix of fantasy and reality in The Travel Almanac. Fantasy is a big part of the travel experience – we all love the feeling of being someone else for a while – and yet most travel magazines miss out on it in favour of very prosaic, factoid-heavy listings about (admittedly very expensive) hotels, bars and restaurants.
The Travel Almanac doesn’t actually tell you much about what a place is like. Instead it conjures a feeling, and always takes care to leave something to the imagination. I spoke to editor and co-founder Paul Kominek about the art of travel writing, appealing to the mainstream and the importance of fantasy.
One of the things I love most about The Travel Almanac is the very evocative descriptions of the hotels and restaurants you go to, so I was hoping you could start me off with a description of where you are now – what does The Travel Almanac office look like?
Right now I’m in Berlin. We have a little space here on Strausberger Platz. It’s one of the oldest, most iconic roundabouts in East Berlin and it oozes communism. But we hardly ever work “at the office”; rather we work while traveling, so it would be a bit misleading to really call it an office space.
It’s a rather intimidating building complex, created using material from the ruins of the Second World War. It was supposed to show off the high level of culture and architecture in the East of Berlin and rival such avenues as the Champs-Élysées in France. The intended glamour and vivaciousness never really materialised, though, and instead a lot of the display windows and apartments were either abandoned or converted for alternative use. But in the last few years the area has started to pull in some rather interesting people and projects: Texte Zur Kunst, a brilliant art magazine, is based around here and Javier Peres recently moved his gallery space for Peres Projects just down the street. There is also a wonderfully absurd Chinese restaurant nearby with a rather satisfactory sweet & sour soup and average cocktails at pre-gentrification prices. It is a nice place to work or have meetings as it remains mostly empty.
How did The Travel Almanac start?
In 2009 I met John Roberts, who is now my partner at the magazine. We both have music production and DJ backgrounds and were releasing music on the same record label at the time, Dial Records, which is run by our friends Peter Kersten and David Lieske, who now own the wonderful art gallery Matthew in Charlottenburg. I had been playing around with the idea of starting a magazine for a while but it was not until unsuccessfully trying to come across a readable and halfway decently designed magazine on the topic of travelling during a layover in London that I became aware of the potential of this genre.
Most other travel publications at that point were mainly one-dimensional promotional tools for the travel industry and I would go so far as to say that the term ‘travel-magazine’ was frowned upon by anyone who had a shred of taste and style. I presented John with the idea to change this status quo and we were instantly on the same wavelength with it. We then spent almost two years developing the final concept and coming up with a visual language that suited our needs and would set us apart from everything that was out there.
We printed 4,000 copies of our first issue in the Spring of 2011 with David Lynch on the cover, and they sold pretty much instantly. We hadn’t really thought much about specific numbers at that point and as everything was self-financed, there was no money to print more and that´s why Issue no. 1 is pretty hard to come by nowadays. We’ve gradually printed more with each issue and recently reached 22,000 copies, which was a big milestone for us. We plan to go even further next year, extending our worldwide presence into more tradition travel outlets, such as the airports of America.
Do you think you’ll have to make concessions to appeal to that more mainstream audience?
I actually don´t see us as much of a niche magazine, but rather an entirely new type of publication with the potential to appeal to quite a large audience; more specifically a new generation of readers who are rediscovering the uniqueness of printed publications. Whether or not ‘mainstream’ still actually exists is another topic entirely I suppose. But at its core, The Travel Almanac is an interview magazine featuring conversation with well-known cultural figures (such as David Lynch, Harmony Korine, Matthew Barney, etc.) on the topic of travelling and presented to readers in a relatable manner.
Was that always the intention when you first sat down in a Berlin café in 2009 and started talking about the magazine you wanted to make?
The interview core was really the starting point. We said, “let’s just speak to people that we love – cultural icons who are really interesting – but let’s talk to them about subjects they aren´t asked about constantly.” This is why our interviews with those well-known personalities usually are much more personal and intimate than the average interview. Travelling habits and experiences say a lot about a person and are at the same time very universal and thus make for a great way to break the ice in a conversation.
It’s very rare that I’d normally read a hotel review because the reality is I’m probably not going to go there, but your reviews are so beautifully written and so interesting that I want to read them all. I’m not being handed everything on a plate, and that makes it so much more interesting.
Thank you, that´s nice to hear. From the start, we were more interested in literary travel writing, and more artistic representations of a place in contrast to traditional hotel reviews that contain mostly dry information compared to other locations in order to give you a ‘bang for the buck’ evaluation. Instead, our hotel texts should give a sense and feeling about a place through the eyes of someone who shares similar values as you.
The reading experience is what is most important and we definitely draw from and find inspiration in a very rich history of travel literature and writing, maybe even more so than from travel journalism. We’re always more interested in the stories of these places than whether it has a nice pool or whatever. The same is true throughout the magazine. Even if we’re featuring products, it usually comes in less of a descriptive text and more in an essay form, about how a perfume might make you feel, or the sensation you might have wearing a certain shoe – reality always mixed with a bit of fiction. Or in our most recent issue, an essay on the history of stockings and their relevance to sexual liberation as exemplified by the traditional manufacturer Fogal from Switzerland.
You have this tension between fantasy and reality running through the magazine, and one place where I see that is the Travel Log at the back, where you have these lovely blank pages for people to fill in with their own notes. Do you really expect people to write in there?
I’ve heard from a lot of people who actually do while they’re travelling, yes. But that also has to do with our format – it was part of the concept from the start to create a pocket-size publication which you can take along when traveling, enjoy and get inspired by while on the road, in contrast to heavy and non-mobile coffee table books and magazines. The blank pages are also supposed to enforce its preciousness as an item full of memories that is for keeping and not a magazine that you throw away once you’ve read it. Some people even buy a second copy so they can keep one pristine and write in the other.
Ah! So it’s a cynical ploy on your part to make everyone buy two copies!
That’s absolutely right, yes.
So who’s on your next cover?
It’s a bit early to say, as our most recent issue has just been released, but I can tell you that it is going to be our first female cover. We never planned to have only men on the cover, but somehow it turned out that way. It has seemed to be more difficult to get the fabulous women that we like for interviews (we have an ever-growing list of people who we’d like to interview and it’s about half and half men and women), but we’ve found it much easier to get men for whatever reason. I´m not sure if it´s a general issue and am still trying to figure that out, but we’re getting there.