As you’re about to see, Michael Sowden, author of Fevered Mutterings, is an extremely funny guy. So funny, in fact, that he’s made a name for himself as one of the best travel writers/bloggers around. His witty writing is so engaging that Travel Blogger’s Exchange Convention recently included his writing in their keynote address.
In this travel interview with Michael, I try to dig in to uncover the source of his wit and entertaining travel writing as well as find out about his travels. Come see how far I get in this en-devour…
Q1. Where/how did you develop your hilarious and witty sense of humor? Did you absorb it from someone in your family? Or is it uniquely you? Did it ‘just happen’, or have you been ‘working on’ ‘developing it’ ‘polishing it’ over the years, like professional comedians must do?
When I was a teenager I was bitten by a radioactive clown.
No, no, let’s stop me there before I go nuts. You flatter me outrageously. But it’s true, I love goofing off. Especially on social media – it’s been the best way to break the ice and meet new people that I’ve found aside from pretending I’m Justin Bieber. (That’s a great way to do it, by the way, but….wrong sort of people. Yeah. Never again).
My dad had the same inability to be serious in polite company, and he passed along his love of wordplay and looking at the world in an interestingly skewed way, so if I’m going to blame anyone, it’s going to be him. I don’t care, as long as the blame if shifted, I don’t mind which direction it goes in. Bad luck, dad.
Q2. When did you start telling and writing stories?
I’ve been a consummate liar ever since I was a child. Seriously, that’s probably the root of some of it – I used to try to spin outrageous yarns and see if I could do it well enough to get people to fall for some really stupid things.
But I’ve had my nose in books all my life, and it’s only over the last year that I’ve started looking at stories in a different way, as tools for getting information deep into the heads of strangers. Stories aren’t just useful for business – they *are* business. That’s what I’m getting involved in right now, alongside telling them for money purposes.
Q3. Who are your writing ‘hero’s ? Why do you admire them so much? Are there any writers whose work you emulate?
The travel writers who get deep behind the “why” questions are the ones I most love reading right now. Pico Iyer and Alain de Botton in particular. I admire them because, like children, they ask the simple questions with the really, really difficult answers. But I tend to read widely, and there’s a wealth of amazing free longform journalism on the web (curated by people like Longreads and Byliner) that has so much to teach writers of all levels.
Michael Paterniti, Michael Lewis, Susan Orlean, pretty much everything at The Morning News these days….such amazing writing, all gratis, all there to be downloaded and picked apart in order to learn how good writing works. It really is a writing education revolution. And offline? I’m a big fan of the American fantasy novelist Gene Wolfe. He does amazing, baffling and beautiful things with stories.
Q4. I’m sure you’re well aware that Americans and Brits, on the whole, have quite different senses of humor. As an American, I’m very curious and intrigued about that particular style of British humor, self-deprecation, that you often employ on Fevered Mutterings. Personally, I find it hilarious. But as an American, it also strikes me as such an odd thing to do- to put yourself down.
Could you tell us anything more about this type of humor? Do you know about its roots- how/where/why it all got started? Why is it so popular among Brits?
Because we suck, and since the Empire crumbled it’s the only thing we have left, so we’re damn well going to hang onto it.
Okay, more seriously. Self-depreciation….I don’t think it’s a solely British trait. The most self-depreciating travel writer in existence is Bill Bryson. He will happily paint himself as an utter incompetent to get laughs, and does. And…it works. His books sell by the barrowload. Why? Because we’re all klutzes and we all recognize ourselves in an unashamed klutz – but also, because mistakes and embarrassing idiocy are nothing to be ashamed of. They’re the path to wisdom, they make us human, and they make people respond to us more humanly. Look at ex-‘Python’ Michael Palin’s BBC travel programmes, in which he often goes out of his way to make a fool of himself. It works. It’s incredibly charming.
And as I say, I don’t think it’s British. Much of the funniest stuff on TV in the last 10 years comes from the US. Joss Whedon’s Firefly, or Arrested Development, or Frasier. All trading in self-disgust and withering sarcasm. And even Canadians can be funny. (I know. AMAZING!). Will Ferguson’s work is gloriously snarky, and also beautifully written – see Hokkaido Highway Blues, his attempt to hitchhike the whole of Japan.
As for why the Brits love self-depreciation, it’s probably something Puritanical. 200 years ago it was hair shirts and flogging ourselves, nowadays it public self-assassination through humor. We’re all bad. BAD. AND WE MUST BE PUNISHED uh, sorry, I’m ok, it’s ok. Everything’s fine. I just had a British moment there.
Q5. Could you tell us more about the title of your website, Fevered Mutterings?
It’s an extremely complicated transposed anagram of a secret Illuminati textbook that I discovered buried under the Vatican while on the run from Soviet agents that clearly pointed to the fact that Stonehenge was built by Klingons. You’ll have to wait for my book to come out if you want to know more. Sorry.
(Actually, I can’t remember why I called it that, back in 2004 with the first version of my blog. Lost in history).
Q6. Fevered Mutterings’ subtitle is ‘The Art of Unfortunate Travel’ So, what portion of your travels are actually ‘unfortunate’? Do you really have a knack for misadventures when traveling? I presume you also have a lot of fortunate, fun, and good luck along the way, too? Or am I just being a too serious American and this subtitle, too, is tongue in cheek?
I wish I could laugh this off as a fictionalized piece of useful personal branding. But no, it isn’t. I get into trouble pretty much everywhere I go. We’ve all done something similar – but I’m getting a little concerned about how regularly disaster strikes. However, nothing actually, genuinely bad has happened yet, and for that, I definitely count myself blessed. (Dear world: I didn’t just set you a challenge. Kthx).
Q7. Could you please share with us 1 or 2 of your most ‘unfortunate travel’ experiences.
Lost in an 8-hour rainstorm up on the North York Moors with no tent, inadequate waterproofs and about 5% power left on my phone. Sometimes I suspect I’m still up there, and everything that has happened since (including writing it up for the San Francisco Chronicle) has been the work of a fevered mind.
Second least fortunate travel experience? Getting robbed in a Starbucks in Dusseldorf earlier this year – the thief lifted my travel wallet out my bag without me knowing, and it had my bank cards, travel tickets and passport in it. And I had 4 hours left before my plane departed. That was an…interesting afternoon. Also, expensive.
Q8. Besides England, what are your favorite 2-3 places in the world, and why?
Orkney (north of Scotland) for the incredible quiet and the skies so wide they’re almost terrifying. Athens for the crazy, raucous, jumbled West-meets-Middle-East feel, and the restaurants in the Plaka district under the Acropolis. And Cyprus because it’s where I grew up, and the memories it triggers are always strong ones.
Q9. Are there any places that you’re really ‘dying’ to visit? (not literally, of course) If so, where and what’s the appeal?
The States and Canada. Never been across the Pond, and it’s becoming an embarrassment. But beyond that – I’d dearly like to hang out in Chiang Mai, Thailand, because I feel I know it from the recommendations & blog posts of so many friends. Lastly – everywhere else. That’s the honest truth. (And I’m sure there’s a lot of disaster waiting to happen in that statement).
Q10. For new readers to Fevered Mutterings, what 3-4 best stories and articles would you currently recommend to them? Aka, what are some best samples of your writing and humor?
Firstly, I prefer the term “least worst”. It’s a British thing. And so I’d direct you to my appropriate named “Least Worst Of Fevered Mutterings” page. But of everything I’ve done, the thing that has most resonated with readers has been a little burst of sarcasm I aimed at a friend who told me he was “bored” – that post went crazy on social media.
However, I’m fonder of my posts about Latvia, namely being taken advantage of by an old woman in a supermarket, and an account of some unexpected off-roading. Otherwise? I rant, I waved my hands, and I get cranky about lame e-mail pitches. That’s my style. I’m also building a side-business in narrative consultancy (ie. business-related storytelling) and I’ll shortly have a free ebook out that is adapted from the talk on storytelling I gave at the Travel Bloggers Unite conference in Umbria, Italy this April. It’s all going on.
But I’m sure I’ll find time to be sardonic and grumpy. I always have.
Thanks very much Michael for the insightful and entertaining look into your sense of humour, writing, and travels. Hope to meet you out on the road one day! cheers, Lash
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