Interview with Michael Luongo

Michael Luongo
Michael Luongo is the author of Frommer’s Buenos Aires guidebook and a contributor to publications such as Out Traveler, The Advocate, The New York Times, The Chicago Tribune, Town & Country Travel, Budget Travel,, Conde Nast Traveler, and National Geographic Traveler. He is also an editor and photographer, and one written and edited numerous books and anthologies on gay travels and the gay travel industry such as Gay Tourism: Culture, Identity and Sex, Between the Palms, the recently released Looking for Love in Faraway Places, and the forthcoming and likely controversial Gay Travels in Islam.
You can read more about Michael on his website. He was kind enough to grant Writtenroad an interview.

WR: Tell me about Looking for Love in Farway Places. How did the idea arise?
ML: The idea actually arose as a group discussion between myself, Haworth’s publisher Bill Cohen and the then book manager Bill Palmer. We wanted a psychological edge to it, how perhaps men fall in love overseas because there is less ageism overseas, less body type emphasis, and other things. Once I started collecting stories, the idea of gay marriage and post 9-11 gay immigration issues came into play, along with news of couples having trouble immigrating to the US together because of the laws we have in this country.

WR: Who are the writers in this anthology?
ML: The writers are very varied, but all are well traveled gay men. Two of them died in the making of the book. Richard Thompson and M.S. Hunter. I feel honored to have them in the book, that these were their last stories. Not all the writers were professionals either. Two had never really put their stories on paper before. The others were a mix of men who had already published literature, others commercial travel writers, a few were professors of English. Interestingly, I really had wanted more stories by gay couples with immigration and refugee issues. There were a few, but getting more was difficult, largely because the decision to do such a story rests on two people, rather than just one. Some of the writers in this collection have followed me through different collections that I have edited over the years, my stable of writers as we editors like to say. Some of them are also in my upcoming book Gay Travels in the Muslim World, a book I know will be very controversial.

WR: Your story is about your time in England?
ML: Yes, when I was finishing grad school, doing HIV prevention work for gay men who travel. I worked at Canterbury Christ Church College, which now has a slightly different name, in Kent, the East of England. I went from working in Manhattan and bold environments to a quiet Elizabethan town. It was a big change. But I wound up with a boyfriend who was sort of a secret lover. He was in the closet, whereas I was in this very open position, dealing with sexuality and speaking publicly and all over the UK and to Parliament, and yet I was in a very confused relationship, in a beautiful, lonely rural setting. Our love hideaway was near Dicken’s Bleakhouse, so it was also part of the process of my advancing my writing.

WR: You seem to have written for or edited many similar anthologies? What have been the ups and downs of working on these types of projects?
ML: Oh I suppose the pay would be one. But I love editing anthologies, finding fresh voices, reading of other people’s experiences. I also like helping writers find their voice, helping them cut away their clutter to tell the true story, the one with meaning. That is what I like best about editing actually. From a practical standpoint, anthologies are sensible collections for writers to break into for later, hopefully, getting longer pieces. I also call them subway reading, being in New York. You can read two chapters a day. One in the morning, one on the way home. Literature in convenient sizes.




WR: How did you first become involved in travel writing?
ML: My parents never went anywhere you could not drive to and come back from in the space of a day. They weren’t travelers, but they had thousands of books. My favorite as a child were art and history. I swore I would visit every place I read about. I came into travel writing academically though. My Masters is in Urban Planning at Rutgers University, with a concentration in tourism, with gay tourism and gay urban space my research activities. I published the first academic paper on the gay travel industry along with my professor Dr. Bria Holcomb, and then continued publishing and writing academically. But I did not get to travel as much with that as I would have hoped. It’s a long story the process, but I worked in England on safer sex research and gay men who travel, the subject of my story in Looking for Love in Faraway Places, and then I came back the USA and got a job working for a gay travel map company, FunMaps. I still did not travel that much with that job. I had lots of contacts though with editors through that job and made my first contacts for eventually pitching stories. One thing leads to another which is important for aspiring writers to know and so, clips with small places lead to assignments with big places and so on and so on.

WR: What was your first break?
ML: I could say I am still waiting for that since the money has not followed yet, but hopefully that will come. Sorry to dash the fantasies of aspiring writers. My first big break though I would say came when I left FunMaps, took a part time flexible job as a temp copyeditor and used the flexibility from that to backpack for 2 months through South America. This was in 2000 under Clinton when the economy was fabulous and secure. At the time, very few people were writing on South America at all, and especially gay South America. I called all the editors I knew from FunMaps pitching stories and ideas, and I got tons of assignments, all of them bad paying but what can you do. I will say one of the most amazing things was that for Our World, the world’s first gay travel magazine, and now defunct, I got a cover story with lots of page space. For a first assignment with them, and for really one of my first true destination coverage pieces, this was astounding. I have Wayne Whiston to thank for that, for seeing what I could do. Many editors could not find the connection between being an academic writer and how that could play into being a commercial writer, but he did. And a cover!

WR: Who have been your biggest influences?
ML: I have to say my biggest influences have been from literary writers rather than from travel writers per se. I say this because while I was doing all this travel writing, I was really working on my novel, The Voyeur. Robert Rodi who writes of gay Chicago was an influence in the sense that I have never read anyone else who so well describes the experience of all that comes at one peripherally when walking city streets. Great gay literary figures like Edmund White, Andrew Holleran, Felice Picano and Jaime Manrique have all also been influences and mentors in many ways. In terms of writing about angst and doubt, I would say Larry Kramer. He is more famous as an activist, creating ACT-UP and GMHC, but his writing is so full of Jewish angst and doubt, he is amazing to read.

WR: How has being a gay travel writer shaped your career?
ML: I believe this perspective has made me sensitive to different forms of writing and experiences within the travel genre, be it writing about or understanding women, African-Americans, Jews, children of immigrants who return to their ancestral areas and just different cultures in general. I also firmly believe, even if I am not always openly gay in all situations, that in Islamic cultures where men and women are generally very segregated, women can still sense something about me and trust me, and I can also easily slip into an all male environment devoid of women too. This has always been very helpful in Afghanistan in particular, and I believe I have been able to write sensitively about both men’s and women’s issues because of this.

WR: Has being gay in less open societies ever caused any problems? Any challenges?
ML: I am at times the first openly gay man some people have ever met in their whole lives, including in the travel industry, which I find sort of shocking at times. In Santiago, Chile in 2001, I was doing the very first, at least in English, gay travel story ever on the city. It is hard to believe, but even in the hotels, managers said they never met someone openly gay before. Of course, it being the travel industry they were surrounded by gay men but just did not know. In Tahiti, which supposedly because of Polynesian culture is gay-friendly, I was thrown out of a dance performance because the manager said she did not want anyone gay writing about the show. A woman surrounded by dancers who is homophobic is hard to believe if you are from New York. I also had rocks thrown at me in Tahiti, after leaving this area, but I was never sure if it was because of homophobia or because drunk people just hung out there and harassed tourists regardless. I do want to add that I think most people, even if they have never met a gay person, or don’t think they have, find the perspective interesting.

WR: Any advice for aspiring writers?
ML: My main advice is just to keep trying. Always believe in yourself. My new novel, not travel related at all, The Voyeur , took 8 years to be published. Actually trying to get it published over that time period is how I wound up in better and better publications like the New York Times, got other books, and got known to the point that it could be published, especially based on the success of my Frommer’s Buenos Aires guide which would seem so unrelated at first glance. The struggle was how I got that platform everyone talks about. Be a joiner also, get involved in the writing community where you live. That’s easy in a place like New York, but there are online forums. I list some groups to be involved with on my website. Get yourself to writers conferences where you meet other writers, editors etc. And cut the junk out of your life that keep you from writing – television, family guilt, spending money on senseless things at the mall, friends who put your ambitions down, all of that stands in the way of getting where you want to be. If you were given a talent, do not waste it, you owe that to yourself and the world.

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