Jumping on The Lunatic Express with Carl Hoffman

When I tell people I traveled by myself through Africa, they often ask: Were you ever really scared?

They’re expecting a story about being attacked by men with machetes or feeling alone in my hostel at night. But the truth is, I was most scared when packed into overcrowded bush taxis on dangerous roads. Every time I got into one, I thought about how I’d get out if we were in a wreck.

Author and journalist Carl Hoffman

So when I heard about Carl Hoffman‘s new book, The Lunatic Express, it shot to the top of my to-read list. Lunatic is a modern-day adventure, Carl’s story of traveling the world via its most dangerous buses, trains, planes and boats. But he says the tale is not about defying death. It’s about seeing the world the way most people do, about experiencing transportation that the poor use every day. His book trailer offers some interesting photos and videos of that transportation.

Carl has a lot of traveling and writing under his belt. He’s a contributing editor at National Geographic Traveler, Wired and Popular Mechanics magazines, and also writes for Outside, National Geographic Adventure and Men’s Journal. He’s of the increasingly rare breed who has never worked a full-time job and makes his living freelancing. His first book, Hunting Warbirds: The Obsessive Quest for the Lost Aircraft of World War II, was published in 2001.

While I was in D.C., I sat down with Carl to pick his brain about traveling, writing and the book (on sale at Amazon). Now I’m sharing the best of our conversation with you.

Alexis: How’d you come up with the Lunatic idea?

Carl: I’d been traveling a lot for the last 15 to 20 years. I go to weird places a lot. And everywhere I go I just see buses, boats full of people, so crammed. I’m a curious person. I wanted to know, who are these people? Where are they going?

Hoffman's new book

I’ve always loved bus plunge stories [in newspapers], 100-word stories like, Ferry Sinks, 600 People Drown. Who are these people? It says so little about them. In that little 100 words is a big tale. It’s a tragedy, peoples’ lives. But you never know anything about it.

There’s a lot of talk about how everybody wants to go to the end of the earth… I had this thought that I could escape, but not to the end of the earth —  into the heart of the earth, to the very heart of the people, and to put my finger on something and see the world. The danger made it more salable, and I thought it would be an adventure for sure, an unpredictable adventure, but it was always less about me trying to defy death, [and more] about seeing the world and understanding the world.

Traveling for months in packed vehicles — that’s a nightmare for a lot of Americans.

The unknown is scary, always. Things over which you have no control. When you get to that train in Mali, in Bamako [Lexi’s note: Carl’s referring to a train in West Africa we’ve both taken], you’re just sort of throwing yourself into the mercy of another world and a bunch of people you don’t know, and that’s scary for people. In the end, I find that doing that can be quite liberating and fulfilling, and people are wonderful and gracious and take care of you.

Where would you like to go that you haven’t been?

I think I’ve been to 60 or 65 countries… I’d like to go to some more remote places. I like the weirder corners of the world. I’ve never been to Argentina or Buenos Aires. Africa, I’m fascinated with. I’ve been to about 10 or 12 countries in Africa, but there’s a lot more I’d like to go to.

How did you decide how to thread this story together?

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Alastair Humphreys: Make a living doing what you love

Figuring out how to make a living doing what you love is one of life’s biggest challenges. But Alastair Humphreys has made it happen — and he’s our guest today.

Alastair calls himself an “adventurer” — a title that makes me oh-so-jealous. He has biked around the world, an expedition that took him four years. Completed the Marathon des Sables, a 150-mile race through the Sahara Desert. Canoed the Yukon River. Walked across India. And more.

Alastair Humphreys: adventurer, author & speaker

Alastair, who lives in Britain, has written three books about his experiences. (He self-published, but one book has since been picked up by a traditional publisher.) Yet he makes most of his money through public speaking, giving motivational talks about his adventures and inspiring groups to challenge themselves. The reason I invited him here for a Q&A is because I think many of us could make money by speaking like he does, and I wanted to learn more about how Alastair makes that work for him.

Great to have you here, Alastair! You talk about making a living doing what you love. How have you managed to do that?

The key thing is to do what you love and do something interesting. Worry about the money-making afterward. I have managed to make a living out of traveling by:

a) doing interesting things
b) documenting them well (I hope) through my blog and books
c) working hard at marketing myself
d) doing a good job when people pay me to do something for them.

From this a positive reputation can slowly begin to grow.

What kind of audiences do you speak to? Do you seek out most opportunities or do they come to you?

I speak to a lot of schools and some corporate audiences. The talks come about through a lot of hard work, cold calling and occasional spamming! I seek out the majority of my talks. However, with time, I am now starting to find that some people come directly to me, mostly through the effort I have put into in making my blog good and current.

What do you talk about? How do you keep it fresh every time?

It depends what the client wants. The essence though remains the same: exciting adventure stories and good photographs. The relevant message varies, from geography lessons to religious studies to corporates wanting to learn what difficult really means, setting high goals, etc.

Alastair cycles in Sudan

Are you naturally a good speaker? If not, how did you learn?

I would say that I am naturally articulate. But I am not naturally self-confident enough to stand up and speak to large audiences. I have gotten used to this though. The knowledge that I am the world expert on my subject (“me”) helps give me confidence. And once an audience laughs in the right place you quickly relax.

I spend a lot of time studying other speakers and trying to improve. The TED talks are great for this. I have also started doing some Pecha Kucha talks — they are very unforgiving!

How do you know how much to charge? Did you start out speaking for free?

I started for free, and then crept my fees up over a few years until I reached a level that both the client and I were happy with.

You’re a big fan of print-on-demand. Can you tell us about your writing journey? Do you sell your books when you speak?

I had the usual round of rejections from normal publishers so I self-published my book. I sold it on my site and at talks (a large advantage I have over some POD authors). On the back of a few positive reviews a mainstream publisher came along and asked me to work with them.

The biggest difficulty of becoming an author is not writing, or even publishing your book. It is selling it. Marketing and distribution are so hard.

What tips do you have for authors looking to grow their audience, promote their books or make money by speaking?

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Writers’ Roundup: December 18

Slim pickings in my Google Reader this week. Here are my faves:

  • Please stand to the right (if you’re a loser), from adventurer Alastair Humphreys. “Standing on the right (of the escalator) is a metaphor for complacency,” he writes. “Is that REALLY the best use of 20 extra seconds of your life?”
  • When writing becomes revision, check out these eight articles compiled by Chuck Sambuchino at Guide to Literary Agents. This post is particularly helpful for me since I’m in the midst of revising.
  • My former colleague and friend Lindsay Wise (along with photog Mayra Beltran) is off to Iraq to cover the war for the Houston Chronicle. I’m following her blog, not only for the information she’s provide, but also because I love that she’s making her dream of becoming a war correspondent happen.

It’s the last weekend before Christmas! In between all your shopping, present-wrapping, tree-decorating and cookie-baking, I hope you can find a few minutes to write.