mma John is a journalist and writer, the author of numerous stories for AFAR and other magazines and newspapers as well as Following On
, an award-winning memoir about her teenage obsession with the England cricket team. In August, AFAR asked her to accept a different challenge: Tell a story to a live audience at AFAR Travel Tales, a special event series with The Moth. Not only did John hold the rapt attention of the audience, her tale will be included in an upcoming podcast episode from The Moth
. After her performance, John shared some thoughts on travel, writing, and performing for an audience with us.
When did you first realize you loved to travel?
I think I've known since I was a kid. My parents first took me on a transatlantic flight when I was 18 months old—there are pictures of me looking up delightedly at the Statue of Liberty! They were always pretty ambitious about vacations when my sister and I were young; road trips across Europe, family visits to Canada, and several round-the-world journeys to see our grandparents in Australia. In fact, my sister and I flew to Australia via Singapore as unaccompanied minors when we were only 10 and 12 respectively—and we had a fantastic time.
How did you become a travel writer?
It came about gradually. I began my career in the UK as a sportswriter, but working on staff at the Guardian newspaper I was in the perfect position to pursue my other passions too. I was a theater critic for a while, and an arts interviewer, and a features writer, and one day I had an idea for an article exploring New Zealand’s nascent gastronomic scene. The country wasn’t famed for their cuisine and I managed to convince the newspaper that if I spent my vacation eating at its newly popular restaurants, then driving around in a camper van trying to create my own great meals on a one-ring-gas-burner, it would make for a fun and informative piece. They went for it. And from then on, every bit of time off became an excuse to travel more and write about it!
Who are some writers whose work you admire?
Dead or living?! My favorite writer of all time is Evelyn Waugh. He is one of the greatest comic writers in the history of British literature, but he’s also capable of great poetry and profundity, and the marriage of those things is a kind of genius I regard in awe. He was also a surprisingly adventurous traveler for a man who liked his creature comforts and aspired to an aristocratic lifestyle. Jane Austen and the Brontes—well, at least Charlotte and Anne—have left a huge effect on me. Right now, though, I’m obsessed with Nate DiMeo. His podcast The Memory Palace is some of the best writing that exists right now, and you don’t even have to read it off the page. You just have him inject it straight it into your brain.
Do you have a travel philosophy?
I didn’t travel alone until I was in my mid 30s; I’m a huge extrovert and I always thought it would make me sad, not having a friend to share experiences with. The first time I traveled solo, I immediately started to have the richest, most extraordinary encounters of my life. I’ve learned, since then, that you are never alone when you travel, and that being open to the random, the unscheduled, and the unexpected is the best way in to a place. Having said that, I’m also a journalist, so I like to do my research. I love reading books and immersing myself in literary depictions of a place often gives me ideas for destinations that are off the tourist trails.
You normally work with the written word. Was the experience of telling a story for The Moth challenging?
I come from a family that love to tell each other stories all the time… we’re pretty gifted in the talk-talk-talk department—so no! It was actually a pretty amazing opportunity to get to tell a story directly to an audience. So often you spend all that time crafting a story and then it goes out in print and you never know whether it’s connected with anyone! I absolutely loved the instant feedback of storytelling on stage: you tell a joke, you get a laugh. That was precious.
Where was your most recent trip? Where are you headed next?
I’ve just got back from a weekend on the north Norfolk coast, in the east of England; the sea’s freezing but I swam in it anyway. Next week I head to drive the far north coast of Scotland in a sports car for my next AFAR feature.
Do you have a favorite destination?
I've spent a lot of the past 18 months in North Carolina, researching and writing my next book—mostly in a tiny Appalachian town called Boone, so that feels like a second home to me now. I have made some of the most special friendships of my life there, and I’m heading back in a month, travelling to the Outer Banks for the first time, which I’m extremely excited about. It’s an eight-hour road trip from the mountains to the sea in North Carolina, and I’m really excited to see the beaches there for the first time. I just can’t get enough of that state.
What are you working on next?
Well, I’m just finishing up my second book! It’s called Bluegrass in the Backwoods
, and it’s a travel/music memoir about my journey through the American South, trying to turn myself from a classical violinist into a bluegrass fiddler. It’s being published in May 2019 by Weidenfeld and Nicholson, but you can find out more about it at foggymountaingal.com
Do you have a favorite memory at a Marriott hotel?
Absolutely—my sister and I have had some really special bonding moments in their hotels! We stayed in the Bulgari in Kensington, London, the weekend after she got engaged, and it was like an impromptu bachelorette; we stayed up till dawn together to watch the Oscars in the Queens Suite at the Renaissance St. Pancras (I should point out, we were at a party). But my favorite memory is our first trip to New York together, when we made a special trip to drink cocktails at the Algonquin. As my love of Evelyn Waugh might have given away, I am obsessed with the literature of the 1920s and 30s and to be able to sit in the same Art Deco hotel lobby that Dorothy Parker, Harold Ross, and their round table of wits frequented was, as Parker might herself have said, too utterly utter for words. My sister and I got quite giddy. It was heavenly.
Listen to more first-person accounts of life-changing travel experiences in a travel podcast series by The Moth at afar.com/traveltales.