What was that name again?
Should I know you?
Only if we are related, if we've ever dated, if I owe you money, if you are a reader of English-language travel writing or a collector of contemporary photographs.
What do you mean by "travel writing"?
You know how, in New York, if you ask for "tea" in a restaurant, you get it hot; but if you ask for "tea" in Houston, it will come iced? In the USA, when you say you write "travel books," people-even other writers-think you write guidebooks for Fodor's, Rough Guide or Lonely Planet. I find that, in Britain, when you say, "travel book," it is understood you mean journey narratives and chronicles of foreign life such as Robert Byron's The Road to Oxiana, Evelyn Waugh's Labels, Graham Greene's Journey without Maps and Freya Stark's Beyond Euphrates. But the British, historically peripatetic, have made great travelers and, not surprisingly, have led the world in travel writing.
Does that mean you have to "buy British" to get good travel writing?
No. There have been good books by Paul Theroux, Bill Bryson, Tom Swick and other North American writers.
Although all good writing requires the author to draw from the well of humanity, the method of the travel writer is to do so while in motion. Travel writing therefore places a very particular set of demands upon the author. A travel book has to have as coherent and unified a narrative as a biography, it has to inform as well as a book of history, and it should have both a theme and insights into human character worthy of a novel; it has to do all that while covering, literally, much ground, and usually with the benefit of only one recurring "character": the author himself. That it should also entertain adds one more task for the author-and these are just the entry-level requirements.
But doesn't most travel writing come in small doses-in newspaper and magazine articles?
Yes. Travel writing is often called journalism, but it is perhaps the only form of journalism also recognized as a form of literature (though some would also so categorize sports writing). Even so, stories from my "Travels with Julie" series, which is very personal in nature and therefore rather separate from traditional journalism, have appeared in newspapers in the United States and Canada. A selection of my travel pieces also appears on this website.
Is Once Around the Fountain based on "Travels with Julie"?
Once Around the Fountain is inspired by "Travels with Julie," but it's a complete narrative, not a compilation of articles.
Critics call you a classicist in form. How do you relate to chic, hip and cool kind of people?
Actually, I'm cooler than you, and have been since last Thursday.
On the other hand, you've been called "politically incorrect," that you are not afraid to voice controversial opinions. Are you seeking controversy?
I try at all times to behave like a gentleman, mindful that the best definition I've heard of gentleman is, "a man who never unintentionally offends."
Paradoxically, it's also been said that you are a romantic.
No one is more amused by that than my wife. Once Around the Fountain is about falling in love on the road and about how travel is conducive to romance. To those seeking love on the road, included in this website are a few dubiously effective tips on how to travel romantically.
You mentioned a number of writers. Who is your greatest influence?
It was Leonard Bernstein who said that there is an inevitability to Beethoven's music; as daring as his works were for their time, the themes raised by each resolve in what always appears to be the correct and inevitable manner. I think that a work of non-fiction, if it aspires to the rank of literature, must proceed with the same daring, yet conclude itself with the same inevitability-and sound beautiful to the ear.
Where do you like to travel the most?
I'm European. I was born in the USA, and I'm an American citizen, but I'm also a German national and carry a European Union passport side by side with my American one. It allows me to feel like an international man of mystery without all the paperwork you need to join the CIA, MI6 or the Dick Tracy Fan Club.
How did you manage all that?
By acting as my own attorney. When I'm in need of a little extra spending money, which is nearly every waking hour, I work as a lawyer, concentrating in intellectual-property law. As a writer and as a photographer, I can tell you that having a lawyer in the house has proven very handy. And you didn't think I paid for all that traveling around out of book royalties, did you?
Is that why readers have written to your newspaper editors complaining that you favor expensive destinations?
I used to travel cheaply, but that gets harder to do as you get older. Everyone tells you that, but you don't really believe it until you actually do get older. For me, the switch just happened to take place while I was still in grade school. However, I've always had little use for travelers who come home with nothing more than stories about pricey places where they ate and slept.
Then what is traveling about-seeing new places?
I think it is mostly about meeting new people. There is nothing wrong with being pampered now and then at a resort or with isolating yourself from the world at the kind of hotel that PR types call a "hideaway." With the help of big resorts, theme parks, casinos, package tours and cruise ships, however, it is possible to travel the world and to experience none of it. Complacency always sires mediocrity, and mediocrity is a neuter, capable of siring nothing. Fortunately, the world is a more interesting place than the tourism business would have you believe; even a small effort at finding your way around on your own has the chance of turning a dull vacation into a fine and memorable one. It happens most often when you meet interesting people whose way of life is different from your own.
If I want to dispute that statement or otherwise tell you what I think, must I write about you to via my local newspaper?
This website has an e-mail page to which readers can go and send me their impressions. I can't promise that I will answer every message, but I will listen to what everyone has to say. To start: Annette from Iowa, thank you for your touching and thoughtful letter. I'm sorry I haven't responded before but I was never given your return address. I'm very glad you enjoyed the book, and I appreciate your kind sentiments.
What else do you write besides travel?
Fiction and humor. Examples of both appear on this website.
Anything else we should know about you?
As a photographer, I publish my travel photographs with my articles and sometimes with the articles of others. My more personal work has been exhibited at Leica Gallery (New York) and elsewhere. A selection of my photographs appears in the gallery that is part of this website.
What kind of photographs do you take?
The commercial work is what is known as "travel editorial," meaning color images made to accompany my articles and those of other travel writers. What I call my personal work is strictly in black-and-white and is in the fine-art photography category known as "street photography," meaning they are impromptu, unposed images of real life.
Who are your influences? And please spare me the cutesy Beethoven reference.
Henri Cartier-Bresson, Ansel Adams, August Sander, Erich Salomon and Arnold Newman. I also admire the work of Sebastião Salgado, Ralph Gibson and Lucien Clergue, among others.
How does the method of writing compare with the method of photography?
Writing requires absorption in the subject-especially a living, breathing subject-while photography requires that you maintain a watchful distance. I don't think that I could have made the photograph of Al Hirschfeld which appears in the photo gallery of this website if I were the one interviewing him at the time, rather than another writer. Although I was physically in closer proximity to Hirschfeld than the writer, the writer was fully engaged by him, and I was separated from him by the transparent wall that goes up whenever you peer through a camera.
The formative aspects of writing can be carried out wherever in the world that you can find a stable surface on which to place a sheet of paper. The quality of the work is almost entirely independent of the tools that you use. (To those who like to compare the relative qualities of computers, remember: Shakespeare wrote his oeuvre with quill pens.) In photography, in contrast, the "decisive moment" (to use Henri Cartier-Bresson's famous phrase) occurs in a split second, and only on location. Also, the success of a photograph depends in no small part on the quality of the equipment used and how well optimized it is for the task at hand. Whenever I shell out for expensive photo equipment, I am prone to reflect on Shakespeare, who, for his quills, needed only a willing goose.
But is there a deeper relationship between good writing and good photography?
Only that each should, in its own way, enrich our lives by helping us understand life. It's an illusion that we will truly understand life, but what a necessary illusion it is.
A SAMPLE OF NEWSPAPERS AND MAGAZINES IN WHICH THE WRITING AND PHOTOGRAPHS OF ALAN BEHR APPEAR:
The Boston Globe
The Charlotte Observer
The Cincinnati Enquirer
The Dallas Morning News
The Denver Post
The Globe and Mail
The Kansas City Star
Los Angeles Times
The New Orleans Times-Picayune
The Philadelphia Inquirer
St. Petersburg Times
The Salt Lake Tribune
The San Diego Union-Tribune
San Juan Star
The Seattle Times
The South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Town and Country