Sean O’Reilly, Travelers’ Tales author and editor

Manzanar Street Scene

WaterBridge Review: What made you decide to publish travelers’ books? Whose idea was it?

Sean O’Reilly: Travelers’ Tales got its start in 1993 when travel writers James O’Reilly and Larry Habegger teamed up with writer and publisher (and James’s brother) Tim O’Reilly to produce a new kind of travel book, one that would paint a portrait of a country through the experiences of many travelers. James and Larry had spent years roaming the world as freelance travel writers and wanted to find some way of capitalizing on their experience, of turning what they loved into a business. All three were fascinated with the power of stories to convey information not typically provided by standard guidebooks.

WBR: And your own involvement?

SOR: I came on board in late 1994 as a researcher, although I wrote my first published travel article in 1986. I’d written about a visit to the Crater of Diamonds in Arkansas. The story was carried by four or five different publications. I didn’t think much of it at the time. I was much more interested in political and social issues, which resulted in my first book (never published) called Adventures on the River of Gold—about Aristotle, and moral and social issues. That interest has continued to motivate my travel writing, which sees the interior literary landscape of the traveler as important as the exterior landscape.

WBR: Do you go out to find the stories, or do they find you?

SOR: Initially, we spent tremendous sums of money buying rights to various stories, many of which we found in high-quality travelogues. We’ve since become a little smarter, financially speaking, and now offer honorariums for stories, most of which are independently submitted by freelancers to Believe it or not, every story that’s submitted gets a hearing. Nothing is filed without first being read, and many stories do get used, although sometimes not for several years after being submitted.

WBR: Are you a great traveler?

SOR: Actually, I would describe myself as a mid-range traveler. James and Larry, on the other hand, have visited over a 100 countries between them. I’ve only visited about 30 countries but would like to see many more. I have six children, so wanderlust is tempered somewhat by domestic duties. I’ve been able to get to Israel, Iceland, Thailand, China, and Bali over the past couple of years, so I haven’t done too badly by most standards.

WBR: Where is your next port of call?

SOR: Probably Palawan in the Philippines. I recently read what I would describe as a so-so article about Palawan, but it really made me want to go there. It’s amazing how sometimes just one little piece of information can change your life. I remember reading an article about the Seychelles back in the 1960s that had a profound impact on me. I didn’t get there until my honeymoon many years later, but it’s that sort of impact that stories can have on your life. Often you won’t even realize it until years later that a desire has been growing based on something you read years ago.

WBR: What do you love about travel?

SOR: I love the disconnect from the familiar, the launching into new territory. And I love meeting new people.

WBR: Besides country and regional guides, you publish books about women’s travel, about travel and spirituality, and books of humor such as There’s No Toilet Paper on the Road Less Traveled. How are the themes of Travelers’ Tales books chosen?

SOR: We like to work on books that are of some personal interest to us, on what we find collectively interesting and think might have some commercial value. The Road Within, which won the Small Press Award in 1998, came about because we really wanted to do a book on travel and spirituality, and we thought it might become a classic if done well. It was certainly one of the first books of its kind in the travel genre and may well be considered a classic over time, if the response from readers is any indication.

WBR: What is the process for selecting the essays?

SOR: A good story and prose that engages. We really like stories that lift you out of your seat, so that after reading them, all you can do is shout out to the next guy or gal, “Ya gotta read this!”

WBR: Do you have a favorite author?

SOR: Paul William Roberts. His River in the Desert is an amazing piece of writing. There’s this fabulous line in the book that occurred when he was racing on a white horse towards the Great Pyramids at nightfall. He has a startling realization after some internal dialogue (which I don’t recall): “I suddenly realized that man is more moral than God.”

WBR: What’s the most humorous travel piece you’ve ever read?

SOR: I think it would probably be a toss-up between three stories that we published in Hyenas Laughed at Me and Now I Know Why. One is called “The Snake Charmer of Guanacaste” by Patrick Fitzhugh. The other two are “The Monster Dildo” by Lisa Alpine and “Snap Happy and the Nagas” by Bennett Stevens.

WBR: What are your main points of advice to those about to travel, a kind of Sean O’Reilly travel advisory?

SOR: Do it now, plan it now. Go where your heart urges you to go and don’t use your head too much… Your soul knows where it wants to go. Just listen and you will know where you need to go next.

WBR: Your publications at Travelers’ Tales offer a rich abundance of quotes and aphorisms, such as that from Rumi, thirteenth-century philosopher and poet: “Travel brings power and love back into your life.” Do you have a favorite quote about travel?

SOR: You just picked one of my favorites! Another great one is from Dickens. “It is required of every man that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellow men and travel far and wide; and if that spirit goes not forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death. It is doomed to wander through the world—oh woe is me, and witness what it cannot share, but might have shared on earth and turned to happiness…”