Reading Gary Pedler’s debut book, Couchsurfing: the Musical, (Adelaide Books, 2019), we’re reminded that the most enjoyable travel writing is not just about an alluring place. It’s about what it’s like to be in that place. As Pedler says of his appealing, clear-sighted, and occasionally acerbic memoir, “It’s a mix of writing about places, people, and my own history.” Pedler is a journal-keeper from youth, an aspiring novelist since his twenties, but only recently a memoirist and travel writer. When he took time off from working to travel extensively, he decided to try Couchsurfing, a hospitality network that connects travelers with free places to stay, as a budget-minded way of finding accommodations. The book opens in Israel and ends in North America. Along the way Pedler visits France, Germany, Austria, Italy, Ireland, and the UK, and stays with “a whole gamut of people.”
In Tel Aviv, he chooses Amnon, a college professor, as his first host, on the grounds that Amnon is close to the same age and offers a private room. There Pedler realizes, while hanging out at his host’s place of work while he teaches, that despite having some traits that might not be ideal for Couchsurfing, he’s also “perfectly willing to do things that [aren’t] typically touristic, like exploring a university campus.” Pedler is a sharp observer of people, and he quickly picks up on the signals his hosts unwittingly give. He stays with gay couples and straight couples, young families, and singles. He’s well fed by some hosts (though it’s not part of the Couchsurfing agreement); and sometimes he’s not even offered anything by hosts who eat in front of him. In London, one host, Cameron, offers him both food and religion, the latter of which Pedler politely declines.
In his epilogue, reflecting back on his travels, Pedler writes:
“How many intercoms have I buzzed, doorbells rung, knockers rapped, and how many doors have opened for me? If I ever imagined this trip would be a matter of monuments and museums, meals and views, I was wrong. Looking back, these are small features on the paths, and it’s the human encounters that loom large. If I ever thought Couchsurfing was just cheap and convenient, I was wrong about this as well. I turn over in my mind all the gifts my hosts have given me, memories, experiences, and yes, some challenges. I hope I’ve given them something in return.”
I talked with Gary last month about Couchsurfing: the Musical and his lifelong commitment to writing. An excerpt from the memoir follows our Q&A.
Evelyn Somers: You’re an emerging writer who’s been working on mostly novels and story collections for a while now. Tell me about when you first became interested in being a writer.
Gary Pedler: I had a typical writer’s beginning. I loved to read what other people had written, and that transferred over into wanting to write myself. But I wasn’t a precocious writer, other than in my journals. I don’t find that surprising. Poets can be precocious, and composers, and artists—but precocious writers, especially novelists, are less common. To write a good novel, you need to have both technical skill and some experience under your belt.
I started my first novel in my mid-twenties. The writing went very slowly. Finally, I realized I had a block. I would revise the book a little, I would add a little—but year after year, I was never finishing it; I was just mucking about endlessly. Maybe a good editor could have helped me. On the other hand, part of me is glad it didn’t come to anything then because I’m a much better writer now.
ES: How has being a gay man affected your perspective on art, and specifically on art that deals openly with sexual orientation?
GP: There are two schools of thought about the importance being gay has in your life. One school is: “It’s just a minor aspect, no big deal.” Another school represents me better, which is that it is important, it is a big deal. In my first collection of stories, which are all autobiographical, my being gay was an essential element in every story. It’s true obviously in the stories about me as a teenager, having my first sexual experience, coming out to my family, and so on. But also in the stories where I’m an adult and doing things like finding out about my mysterious gay uncle. Like a lot of writers, I started writing autobiographically, then later moved away from that. One story I enjoyed working on recently involved putting myself in the shoes of a Spanish father with a young son; so—different nationality, different sexual orientation, someone with a child. I’m very pleased with that story. I think it really captures this guy’s character and his world.
Regarding the Couchsurfing book, I was aware that I was writing about myself as a gay man, while at the same time I knew this wasn’t a “gay travel book,” whatever that might be. Some of the hosts I stayed with were gay men, most weren’t. I stayed with a mother with two daughters, with twin brothers, a whole gamut of people. Writing the book, the gay aspect worried me a little. “Okay,” I said to myself, “I’m not targeting a gay reader, but who am I writing for?” My conclusion was that my ideal reader was someone who maybe didn’t have a particular interest in hearing about my experiences as a gay man or my perspective on things, while at the same time he didn’t not want to hear about those things. In the end, I think my being gay made the book more interesting. After all, the travel writer is usually an outsider. Being gay sometimes just added another degree of outsider-ness.
ES: You’ve written for adults but also for young adults. Do you think your work tends to be tuned more for one audience than the other?
GP: I’ve only written one YA book. I’d always thought of myself as writing for an adult audience, but at one point there was a convergence of people telling me that YA was in demand and my having an idea that would work for a YA story, about a teenage girl who’s adopted by a single gay guy. When I can manage to be positive about the experience of doing that book, I say that it stretched my abilities to write an entire novel in the voice of a teenage girl. However, at this point, it feels like a mainly negative experience. I found an agent; there were some near misses, but ultimately, she couldn’t sell it—and incidentally, by then the period of YA being a relatively easy entrée into getting published had unfortunately passed. My agent then suggested drastic changes, so, to be accurate, the book ended up being MG and not YA. Trying to be positive again, I’m proud that I wasn’t a prima donna. The agent had good ideas. However, when she sent out the new version, she couldn’t sell that either. So it feels like three years of work for nothing. If someone asked me for advice about whether or not he should become a writer, I’d tell the story of that book and say, “This is the sort of experience you might have. How does that sound to you?”
As though my experience with the YA world hasn’t already been painful enough, my current project is another YA novel called Blockadia. It’s about three kids who travel around the country making a documentary about the efforts to fight climate change. My agent wasn’t encouraging about it, but recently my interest in the project was reignited. Now I feel I have to finish it and find a new agent who is excited about it. When you have a book idea that involves combating climate change, everything else you might work on seems trivial.
ES: As a writer who is emerging in midlife and coming from outside academia, what impediments have you encountered, if any? Have you found advantages in the less typical path?
GP: I’m not sure about impediments. I wonder how my life might have been if I’d gone the academic route. In terms of the MFA route in particular, if such programs existed when I was in college, I either wasn’t aware of them or didn’t pay much attention. Certainly they weren’t the big deal they are today. My road as a writer has been long and generally solitary. However, someone who has doubts about the effects of MFA programs and things of that ilk might think it’s better that I found my own way. I chose my own writing models and methods for learning from them. I’m happy with the way I write nowadays, and whatever my style is, I don’t think it’s a generic one. It has at least a little individual flavor.
ES: Couchsurfing: the Musical is a travel narrative unified by the recurring theme of musicals. Each new chapter and each new country you visit is linked to a musical, most of them familiar classics, such as Cabaret, The King and I, Fiddler on the Roof. Did that structural conceit come to you after the book was already in progress? Or was it the original spark?
GP: There are books you decide to write and books that other people decide you’ll write. In this case, I was telling a friend about my Couchsurfing adventures, and he said, “I love hearing you talk about this. Why don’t you write a book about it?” Later I decided, “Well, why not?” That was the original spark. I told myself writing the book would be easy, since I would just mine my journals; I didn’t have to invent anything. Usually when I tell myself a writing project will be easy, I’m dead wrong. This time, I wasn’t. The book was much easier to write than my other ones. The next thing I grabbed hold of was the title, Couchsurfing: the Musical. I fixated on that, but it took me a while to figure out what in the world it could mean. In the end, it seems to me the concept works, to make some connection between a country I’m visiting and a musical that’s set there or relevant to it in some way. Say, between Israel and Fiddler on the Roof, which my high school staged.
I’d never written nonfiction before, never done any travel writing. Sometimes while I worked on the book, I would think, “This isn’t all that interesting, because I’m just saying exactly what happened, what I saw, what I said and other people said.” Then I would remind myself that often that is mainly what a writer has to communicate. I think the book ended up playing to my strengths. It’s a mix of writing about places, people, and my own history, though the last is the smallest component.
ES: In reading your book, one discovers that you do a lot of journal writing, and that you’ve been doing that for a long time. Can you talk about that?
GP: I’m a fanatic journal keeper. At this point, my journals covering a year are around 220,000 words. Which means that two years approaches the length of War and Peace. I try to write down every last thing that I might find interesting later. My future project is to pull my early journals into a publishable shape. If someone told me he wanted to publish his journal, I’d roll my eyes. But every time I go back to my own journals—not from all periods of my life, but from my tentative beginnings at around eight until my mid-twenties, I do think some people might find them interesting. For one thing, what was it like to be a gay teenager in the late ’60s, early ’70s? To arrive in San Francisco in 1977 and be there during Harvey Milk’s time in office, and later, during the AIDS epidemic? I love reading other people’s published journals. They’re as close as you can get to reality in any art form. A television producer can make a “reality” program, but how real is it when the people involved know they’re being filmed? It’s the writer who can get us closest to raw reality.
ES: The book is so delightfully anecdotal. Reading it feels a bit like being taken around a neighborhood to meet everyone who lives there. We get to see the insides of people’s houses, learn what they eat, how well you get along with them, whether they’re suspicious of you, how much you do or don’t want to hang out with them; and we learn about some of the political and cultural attitudes you encounter.
GP: Basing Couchsurfing: the Musical on my journals helped me avoid having an agenda. I’m not out to prove anything; there’s no overarching thesis, either about places or people. There’s only one person I met that I did not enjoy at all, and only one place that I give a big thumbs down to—sorry, now that I think of it, actually two places. While the book doesn’t have an agenda, it does have a through-line, which is the interior voyage that parallels the exterior one. Couchsurfing starts with me thinking, “This scares me, I’m not sure I want to do it.” In the course of the book I discover that most of the time, it is not scary and that I’m enjoying it and getting a lot out of it. The point of staying with all these different hosts changes from saving money to enhancing my experience of traveling, because while places aren’t infinitely interesting, at least for me, people are. Late in the book, I tell someone that I see Couchsurfing as a finishing school. It’s putting some finishing touches on the development of my character.
ES: Did you anticipate, when you started writing the book, that it would be dominated by such a large cast of characters?
GP: As I said, in this book, I definitely tend to be a traveler who’s more interested in people than places. In the chapter about Paris, I hardly say anything about the city itself. In any case, that’s already been covered by thousands of other writers. People write articles about Hidden Paris, and I ask myself what could possibly still be hidden in that city? The cast did end up being large, and of course in the book the people are brought together in one place, whereas in reality they never met each other and rarely knew anything about each other. One thing that helped the book is that I didn’t decide to write about my experiences for publication until the trip was almost over. If I’d started the adventure with the idea that I would write about it, that might have made me too self-conscious, doing things like choosing hosts I thought would be interesting to readers.
ES: You’re still doing a lot of traveling, is that right? How is that inspiring or informing the writing you’re doing now?
GP: I like travel writing, and I want to do more of it. These days I’m spending more time in Europe than in the U.S., which makes me well positioned for travel writing. However, one quality about me as a traveler is that I don’t gush a lot. I went to Mexico City with a friend, and after we got back, it became a joke that when people asked him how he’d liked Mexico City, he would say that he kind of liked it, but when someone asked me, I was completely uncompromising. I would just say that I hated it, and here were all the reasons why. Actually there were some things I did like about it, but my tendency is to go to the sweeping negative. Some people have maps of the world showing all the places they want to visit. I have a mental map of all the places I do not want to visit. Some of them I’ve already seen and have no intention of ever seeing again. Though I’m almost always glad that I have visited them, I just wouldn’t go back. I joke that I should write a series of travel books called Don’t Even Consider Going Here.
One form of travel I am enthusiastic about is long-distance walking, and one of my projects is a book called Seven Walks for the Somewhat Lazy. I’ve written a chapter about my walk on the Le Puy Route, one of the Caminos de Santiago in France. I include an explanation of the history of the Caminos, and I reread that recently and thought, “Actually, this is good; this is real travel writing.” It sounds authoritative, if I may say so. It’s nice to reach my sixties and feel that at last I can write authoritatively.
From Couchsurfing: the Musical. . . .
(reprinted by permission of Adelaide Books)
Imagine, in our hyper-commercialized world, a situation in which you’re specifically instructed not to pay for something. When I first heard about Couchsurfing, if someone had told me that I would become a surfer with almost fifty stays under my belt, let alone write a book on the subject, I would have laughed long and hard. Spend the night in the home of some stranger, probably not even in my own room? No thanks, not my cup of tea. As a teenager, I’d rejoiced when my parents let my brother move into our guest room, leaving me in sole possession of the bedroom we’d shared. Applying for a college dorm room, I’m sure I made a heavy check mark next to “single room.” Moving to San Francisco, I lived alone in a studio apartment for twelve years, where the tang tang of the cable cars on Powell Street compensated for sleeping on a rickety old Murphy bed. As an adult, I didn’t finally live with someone until my partner persuaded me to cohabit, and then only with the inducement that I got to live in a charming bay-windowed Victorian. However, desperation is the mother of invention, and standing there in front of the intercom panel, with its rows of names handwritten in faded ink, I was semi-desperate.
I should explain how I came to be circumnavigating the globe. My mother had died five years after my father, leaving me enough money to take an extended break from the work world. My ex had made his farewells a short while before, after fifteen years of civil partnership—mainly civil, though we did have our lapses. Without much to keep me in San Francisco, I headed west.
I had some money, but not a lot, and needed to travel on a short, thin shoestring. Once I put Asia behind me, I moved into a less budget-friendly part of the world, starting with Israel, with Europe looming beyond. Some people would say the obvious solution was to stay in hostels. However, I agreed with Sartre, who declared after spending several tortured nights at Les Deux Magots Hostel: “Hell is other people . . . in a hostel.” The people who returned to a dorm room at midnight without having put out a single thing they needed to get ready for bed. The Bag Rustlers who had stashed all their belongings in plastic bags and, in the first light of dawn, fiddled with them for what seemed like hours. Hunched over my laptop in my hotel room in Amman and planning the next leg of my trip, I felt I had to take at least a tentative sip of what I didn’t believe was my cup of tea. After reading every word in each profile for hosts in Tel Aviv, studying any photographs included either of the person or the lodging, I sent out my first requests.
You may ask what in the world someone in his fifties thinks he’s doing, writing a book about Couchsurfing. Other writing on the subject tends to feature very young people reeling among the homes of other very young people. “Grabbed a beer” is the most frequently recurring phrase, followed by “grabbed another beer.” For those in their early twenties, Couchsurfing is a natural extension of crashing at a friend-of-a-friend’s place because you don’t have enough money or planning ability to do anything else. I’m here to make a case that Couchsurfing can work equally well for us older folk.
Evelyn Somers writes fiction and is Associate Editor of the Missouri Review.