Dispatches from an outsider
Richard Grant on America’s weird
Bestselling adventure and travel author Richard Grant takes British screenwriter Matt Graham on a journey to faraway places – as the native Brits discuss their adopted American culture, and being an Outsider
It started with a book. It was pressed into my hands by an exile from Yorkshire, and San Francisco resident, who I met in Buenos Aires where he lived briefly above a Peronist-themed restaurant. Peter Barker gave me God’s Middle Finger, a travel book about the Sierra Madre Mountains of Mexico.
A decade later, I was the one pressing the same book upon someone else, sitting in a restaurant in New Orleans’ Irish Channel neighbourhood (so called for the 19th century Irish street gangs who used to fight there with names like ‘The Crow Bars’) – when a man tapped me on the shoulder – and in a thick Southern accent: “excuse me, son,” – at this point I should add I’m used to people asking me to be quiet, but he went on to say: “do you mean the book written by my friend Richard?” He was Tom Ramsey, New Orleans chef gourmet and raconteur and transplanted Mississippian, and he introduced me to the man behind some of the most wild and inventive travel writing of the last few years.
I called Richard Grant on the phone from my home in Los Angeles:
Hi Richard. So, where are you right now?
I’m in a converted, 1940s brick garage next to my house in Tucson, Arizona. I’m looking at a floor-to-ceiling bookcase, two guitars, and through the French doors, an enormous prickly pear cactus, sunflowers, a male broad-billed hummingbird darting and hovering. A 13-year-old German shepherd mix is asleep under the desk, which is starting to fall apart and needs replacing. This is the greatest office I’ve ever had, but it doesn’t seem to make writing any easier.
Reading your works, what I really connected to about your voice is that it feels like that of an Outsider. Do you feel that’s an accurate description?
My last two books, Dispatches From Pluto and The Deepest South of All, were both about Mississippi where I lived for nine years and felt very much like an outsider. I was trying to make sense of a very deep, rich, complicated, eccentric, twisted culture that is haunted in many different ways by the legacy of race-based slavery. My dominant cultural influence was London, England, from the age of eight to 24 (1971 to 1987) but I felt like an outsider there too, because I was born in Malaysia to British parents, and also lived in Kuwait as a boy.
When we moved to London, I was told it was home, but it felt completely alien to me. I never was able to get accustomed to the cold damp gloom, the Tupperware skies, the obsession with class and accents, the narrow-hearted nastiness that forms a large part of English culture.
I moved to America when I was 25, where I also felt like an outsider, but a lot more free and loose and happy. I lived in New York, New Orleans, Austin, TX, Moab, UT, then based myself in Tucson, AZ, for twenty-odd years, while traveling extensively and writing about other places I didn’t belong – Mexico, Haiti, Africa. I can’t even imagine what it’s like to write about a place or a culture from an insider’s perspective. I’ve always been looking in from outside.
To my surprise, my books about Mississippi were very well received by Mississippians. The state legislature passed a resolution commending Dispatches From Pluto, I had lunch at the governor’s mansion and won an award as a “Preserver of Mississippi Culture,” which is an odd thing for a guy from London, England. The legislature said I held up a mirror in which Mississippi could see itself, with all its contradictions and complexities, which was a fine compliment.
I’ve always been looking in from outside.
Tell us a little bit about how you became a journalist and travel writer. What was that journey like?
I studied history at university in London, but I didn’t want to be an academic. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, except get the hell out of Britain. I had friends in New York and Philadelphia, and I spent a summer painting houses with them, then drove across the country to California, which I absolutely loved. All that space and freedom on the open roads of the American West, adventures and romances along the way.
I started writing long letters about my travels to friends in London, who suggested that I could sell them as articles to magazines. That’s how I got started, then I became a freelance magazine journalist working for The Daily Telegraph, The Independent, Esquire UK, and other outlets. There was some travel writing, but mostly it was feature stories – about lowrider car culture, militias, street gangsters trying to make it as rappers, Mexican drug cartels. Plus occasional profiles of movie stars, musicians, writers.
I was riding around with a hard-living group of rodeo cowboys when I got the idea for my first book. They lived a completely nomadic life, going from one rodeo to the next, soaring and crashing on various combinations of drugs and booze, experiencing intense velocity for eight seconds on the back of a leaping, thrashing bull, then 500 or 800 miles behind the wheel the next day. Since I was pretty nomadic myself, I decided to write a history of nomadism in the American West and take a look at its present-day nomads – rodeo cowboys, RVers, train hoppers, rubber tramps, Deadheads, Rainbow Family tramps, flea market vendors, etc.
I was riding around with a hard-living group of rodeo cowboys when I got the idea for my first book.
My next two books described dangerous journeys that I took in faraway places. God’s Middle Finger was about the lawless Sierra Madre mountains in northwest Mexico, where I nearly got killed after being hunted through the woods at night. Crazy River was an account of my disastrous attempt to make the first descent of the Malagarasi River in East Africa.
The two Mississippi books followed. They’re not really travel books, because no journeying is involved, but they use some travel writing techniques to describe places and cultures. Dispatches From Pluto is about the Mississippi Delta, a very distinctive place where I lived for three years in an old farmhouse, in the poorest, Blackest county in Mississippi. The Deepest South of All is about Natchez, Mississippi, also a place unlike any other. It has the largest concentration of antebellum mansions in the American South, the white aristocracy gets dressed up in Confederate uniforms and hoop skirts to impersonate the dead, and the town elected a gay black mayor with 93% of the vote.
You’re a travel writer. Tell me a few of your favourite places in the world and why they’re your favourite.
My favourite places include the west coast of Ireland for the glory of the light, and the stories and music in the pubs. I love New Orleans for the food and music, the conviviality, architecture, atmosphere, tolerance, cocktails. My favourite bookstore in the world is in Oxford, Mississippi, a few doors down from one of my favourite bars. I once spent a wonderful if overheated summer living in Alamos, Sonora, in Mexico, and exploring the surrounding forests where the thorny desert meets the lush tropics. Mexico, in fact, is one of my favourite places, although the levels of violence and lawlessness are horrifying these days.
In Africa, one of my favourite places is Mana Pools in Zimbabwe, because you can go on walking safaris there. The Serengeti is obviously incredible, but you’re always in a vehicle. Zimbabwe doesn’t go in for a lot of health and safety regulations, so you can spend all day walking through the bush on foot with a guide, tracking and observing wild dogs, rhinos, elephants. Northern Namibia has some of the most stunning landscapes I’ve ever seen, although it’s hard to beat the red rock country in Arizona/Utah and western Montana. The best beef I’ve ever eaten was in a little ranching town called Jesus Maria in central Argentina. Also: Point Reyes, California. Amsterdam. Italy where you can eat best of all.
I loved your new book about Natchez, Mississippi, and I know you’ve spent a lot of time in The South. I remember learning almost nothing about slavery at school in England where it was presented as an American issue. How do you think the discussion of slavery could be improved for younger people today, both in the USA and in Europe?
Living in Mississippi, and writing about Natchez which was built on slavery, I did some reading on this subject. Slavery has existed all over the world throughout human history, but the cruellest, greediest, most dehumanising form of slavery was race-based plantation slavery. It was invented by the English in Barbados and Jamaica, and from there it was brought by the English to the American South. I knew absolutely nothing of this from what was supposedly a good education in England.
I think it’s important to understand that ‘black people’ and ‘white people’ were invented in the slave societies of the Americas and the Caribbean. When immigrants from Europe arrived in America, they thought of themselves as Irish, English, German, Dutch, etc. In this new country, they quickly learned, they had a new privileged identity based on something they had scarcely considered before: the pale colour of their skin.
They became white people.
African Americans are often troubled by the fact that most slaves who came to the New World were captured, bought and sold by Africans. “How could our own people sell us into slavery?” one hears. But there was no concept of “our people” in Africa at that time. Africans didn’t think of themselves as black, Negro or African. They were Fulani, Bambara, Mandinka or whatever ethnic-linguistic group they belonged to. The idea that Black people share a common identity was created by the experience of being enslaved together in the New World, on the basis of their skin pigmentation and the newly invented fiction of “race.” When we talk about “white” and “black” today, I would like us to remember that these categories were invented to justify the enslavement and exploitation of Africans, and they are essentially bullshit.
This sounds trite, but can you talk about some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced in your life?
It was a real challenge to make a living as a freelance journalist for at least 15 years. The only way I could do it was to live in very cheap places, eat a lot of rice and beans, and forgo health insurance. Don’t get me started on the American healthcare system!
Has any of your work been rejected because of political reasons?
A right-wing newspaper tried to rewrite one of my stories to put free market capitalism in a more favourable light, but capitulated when I pointed out the factual inaccuracies they had introduced. This was eight years ago. Three or four years ago I wrote an intensively researched magazine story about the five Native American tribes that enslaved African Americans, and the present-day discrimination faced by descendants of those slaves on the reservations in Oklahoma. It made the liberal/progressive editors very uncomfortable, because the racist oppressors were in one of their victim groups, and they decided not to run the story.
Do you have a location you want to document but know that it’s too dangerous or tricky?
I want to walk across Lagos, Nigeria, and write a book about the city, which may have 21 million inhabitants – no one knows. My wife and six-year-old daughter do not like this idea and wisdom is on their side.
Tell us about three outrageously good writers who we should know about.
Michael Farris Smith writes killer Southern noir. I recently enjoyed Matt Hongoltz-Heitling’s very funny non-fiction debut about libertarians in New Hampshire, although I didn’t like the title: A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear: The Utopian Plot to Liberate an American Town (And Some Bears). He’s dead now but Charles Bowden was a cult outsider figure in Arizona. He wrote some brilliant, highly original non-fiction about the Southwest borderlands, and also some overblown nonsense. I’m rereading his epic Down By The River, which is a good place to start.
As a traveller, you have a global perspective. What in your opinion are the biggest obstacles facing the world in 2022?
Populism, nationalism, the fossil fuel industry. And arguably human nature itself. Are we capable of coming together to solve a planetary crisis? We’ve never had to do anything similar before.
And finally, what are your plans for the next year?
I have a book idea about the American Southwest, and I hope to get into the research and writing next year. Otherwise, improve my rusty Spanish and my guitar playing. I also want to get better at listening to my dead friends, who are all saying the same thing: “Live with gusto. Make the most of it. No self-pity. Savour it while you still can.”
What’s so good about this?
Richard Grant is living proof that if you let fear guide your life, you’ll end up in a cul-de-sac of your own making. The most important thing is pursuing your dreams, because at the end of the day, it’s really all we have in this short life. Challenges are there to be overcome. His books are meditations on the baffling and bizarre range of all the wonders of human existence. His new work, The Deepest South of All, is currently on the US Bestseller list.
Meet the writer
Matt Graham is a TV writer, originally from London, now based in Los Angeles. He’s the writer of the hit series Oliver Stone’s: The Untold History of the United States, a great many TV scripts for Hollywood, short fiction and a novel, The Night Driver. He’s the survivor of a plane crash in Panama and a roadside mock execution in Nigeria, and has worked as a crime reporter in South America, as well as a ranch manager in Colorado. He’s lived all over the world, and his great unifying passion in life is the search for the sleaziest bars imaginable. Sometimes he wakes up wondering whether or not it’s all just been a strange dream – the kind that jolts you from REM at 3am and leaves you staring at the ceiling. Follow @muzurphulus.