Lunch With Alan Dean Foster, Part III: At Home and Abroad

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Fresco of a Roman woman from Pompeii, c. 50 CE.Fresco of a Roman woman from Pompeii, c. 50 CE.
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Travel is an integral part of Alan Dean Foster’s life. He doesn’t just talk about it, he lives it. He has been all around the world and continues to travel regularly. He gets the most that he possibly can out of all of his trips. He tries to get to know the real country, meet the real people, and not just skim the surface. Part III of my interview with him discusses travel and includes several trip anecdotes. We also discuss why he settled in Prescott, Arizona. As wonderful as our town is, most people don’t tend to end up here accidently.

Me: What brought you to Prescott?

ADF: Well, we’ve been here 30 years. My wife JoAnn is from a town of 300 people in west Texas, and I’m from Los Angeles.

Me: Halfway in between.

ADF: Pretty much, yes. And not just physically. She couldn’t take L.A., and I couldn’t live in west Texas. And we were looking for a compromise. We wanted someplace where there were no fires, no floods, no earthquakes, no hurricanes, no tornadoes, mild summers, and mild winters. That eliminates pretty much everywhere in the continental United States except parts of Arizona and New Mexico. JoAnn originally wanted a Victorian house, and we saw an issue of Arizona Highways that featured Prescott, and there was a picture of a Victorian house on it. That’s even harder to find in Arizona and New Mexico. So we came here, immediately saw that all the Victorians were downtown, because when people back then made a little money and could buy a nice house, they didn’t want to live in the boonies, they wanted to live in civilization. As a result, anywhere you find Victorian houses generally, in cities, they are right smack in the center of the city, because the city grew up around them. The problem is, that while the Victorians in Prescott are beautiful, they are all right downtown. And we didn’t want that after moving from L.A. We found this house that wasn’t a Victorian, but was fairly close to town yet isolated, and was at the end of a dead end road, had a little property with it. Again this was 30 years ago. And fell in love with it and made an offer on it even though it wasn’t for sale. And after a couple of short negotiations, ended up buying it. And we’ve been in it ever since. Meanwhile the town’s grown up completely around us, but we’re still at the end of a dead end road.

ADF: We never regretted the move. I can live anyplace because of what I do. No place is perfect. Everybody would like to live in Tahiti and be five minutes from Manhattan. There is no such place. Or as my mother in law used to say, you can’t get all your squirrels up one tree. I miss the ocean, but that’s the only thing I miss living in Prescott. It’s changed a lot in 30 years, but when we moved here you couldn’t get anything to eat after 9:00 at night. It was pre-internet. If you wanted to do any real shopping you had to go to Phoenix, other than grocery shopping. I dislike the increase in traffic, but the roads department, which I think doesn’t get enough credit, has really managed to keep up pretty well, when you consider the explosive growth in the last 15 years. We’re still happy in the same house, and we’re still happy in Prescott.

Me: What are your favorite things to do in town?

ADF: I work out at the Y twice a week. As of a year and a half ago, I’m a competitive power lifter, the NASA [Natural Athlete Strength Association] Western Regional Champion in the unequipped bench press in my age and weight group, which I call Revenge of the Nerds, because I never did anything athletic in school. It’s very strange to be starting in on it at my age. I read, obviously a lot. The internet is wonderful. I have friends all over the world and we can keep in touch now easily, not just readers of my work, but friends. And my main thing is travel, which is all I’ve ever wanted to do, since the time I was a little kid. If I could be anyone in history I would have been Sir Richard Francis Burton. […] I’m trying to see as much of this planet as I can before I die because I’m stuck on it. It’s the only one I’ll get to see. I’ve done pretty good. If I never could travel again I would be content. There’s still a lot of places I’d like to go. There’s places I’d like to go back to. My wife, unfortunately, is unable to travel and has been for about 16 years. She understands it’s a major component of who I am and what I do, as well, since my travels figure in my work. I still manage to get overseas once or twice a year.

Me: I wish I could travel more, but time, money, and small kids are all factors.

ADF: Everyone makes choices in their life. What’s funny, what’s ironic, is I know a lot of writers and artists who are not tied down by family or job responsibilities who could travel and who come up and say, “Gee, I wish I could this,” or “I wish I could go there.” And I’ll say, “Well, come on, I’ll make all the arrangements. All you’ve got to do is pay for yourself.” And people would say, “Great! Terrific. I’m going.” And months would go by and I’d call and say, “Are you still going?” “Yeah, I’m still going. I’ve just got to take care of one or two things first.” More months would go by, I’d call again. “Oh, I can’t go. I can’t go. Gotta do this show,” or “I gotta finish this book,” or “Gotta do this,” or “Gotta do that.” I had two guys go with me, both artists, one, a wonderful man named Ron Walotsky, who has since passed on, and last year James Gurney, the artist of Dinotopia and the dinosaur stamps from the U.S. Post Office. Terrific guy. I’m sure some of your readers will know the Dinotopia books, certainly if they have kids. And we went to North Africa for a month. We went to Malta, Tunisia, and Morocco. It was a terrific trip. A terrific trip.

Me: Our favorite trip that we took was to New Zealand.

ADF: You would like Maori.

Me: It’s on my list now!

ADF: A historical novel set in New Zealand.

Me: We only had 11 days in New Zealand. Our friends in the U.S. thought that was a long time, and the people in New Zealand thought it was much too short.

ADF: Everybody takes longer vacations than the Americans except the Japanese.

Me: Though we saw plenty of Japanese in New Zealand when we were there. Most of them were wandering around for a month or two.

ADF: Well, they do travel, but to most Japanese the idea of vacation is alien. Of course to Europeans, for whom a month is a small… six weeks is a normal vacation. The idea of working yourself to death the way we do here is again totally alien. But Jim, for example, both of his boys are in college. Both at Harvard, I believe. And so there were time constraints for him, too. He had to wait. It’s all about making choices. We don’t have kids. We have godchildren and nieces and nephews. That was a conscious decision. Those are the choices you make in life. Whatever is valid for you is the right choice. Mine was travel.

Me: We did go to Ireland when my daughter was almost two, but it was a difficult trip.

ADF: It’s very difficult traveling with young children.

Me: When you travel, is there anything unusual or out of the ordinary that you like to do? For example, when we travel, we always like to go to the grocery stores to see what food is normal for them, to see what daily life is like for people who live there.

ADF: I’m an avid scuba diver. I don’t know that that qualifies as out of the ordinary. I try to get away from the tourist areas. I like the tourist areas, too. If you go to England, you’re going to go to the museums. I go to every museum in every country. Some of that is unusual.because people who go, for example, to Norway or Sweden, wouldn’t necessarily think to go to the national art museums. But what you find in national art museums in many countries is fantastic art by wonderful artists you’ve never heard of, because they are considered regional artists. For example, I found the Russian national art museum in St. Petersburg much more interesting than the Hermitage. The Hermitage is wonderful, everybody goes to the Hermitage, all the package tours go to the Hermitage. But the Russian national museum is full of iconic Russian art which will tell you more about Russia than the Hermitage will, which is full of European… full of French impressionists. If you want to understand a country’s art and culture, you go to the local museum. Not the famous international museum. Those are fun to see, also, though. So that’s one thing.

ADF: And I try to get away from the more common… I go to all the common tourist places, too, because… because you do. But in Prague, for example, if you like the art of Alphonse Mucha, his studio is a museum. They have it set up just like his studio with all his props and stuff. And that will tell you more about Alphonse Mucha and his art than every Mucha painting and poster that you’ll ever see. A lot of people don’t go to places like that. Some of it is a function of time. If you’re on a package tour, you go where the package tour takes you.

ADF: The problem with a package tour is that it only goes as fast as the slowest person on the tour. So if you’ve got a 90 year old guy, it goes as fast as he does. I’ll tell you a package tour story. When I went to Italy for the first time… My cousin moved there 35 years ago to do a couple of years at an Italian law firm to get some international law experience, and he loved the country so much that he never left. And he and his wife were both from Connecticut. Their son speaks better Italian than English probably. So I was staying with them. I had a month in Italy, I spent a week in Rome. I was staying with them, they had a house in Rome and [they asked where I wanted to go]. They were trying to be helpful. One of the places I mentioned was Pompeii. He said, well, let me set you up with the tour company, I know the guy who runs the tour company […] And I’m trying to be demure and say I’d really like to go on my own, but I could see how desperately he wanted to be helpful. So I said, okay, this one time.

ADF: So you have to get to the tour bus place at like 5:00 in the morning, because everyone has to assemble. And then you go tooling out as soon as the bus is full. And the first stop you make is at the coral factory, the coral carving place, and they get a kickback from every bus that shows up. Then we went to what was must have been the busiest highway lunch stop in all of Italy. There were dozens, literally dozens of tour buses there. It was a total a war zone inside. Everybody fighting for a place to try and get something to eat, never mind use the bathroom. And we finally get to Pompeii, and it’s 1:00 in the afternoon. And I went to the tour guide who was a very nice gal. I always learn some of the language wherever I go. It’s not difficult if you just memorize. Italian is the easiest language I’ve ever studied, actually. I went to the tour leader, I said, “I’m leaving the tour. You’re no longer responsible for me from this moment on.” She said, “But you paid for…” I said, “It doesn’t matter, I’m no longer your responsibility, you’ve got plenty of people to look after.” And I went and saw Pompeii on my own. After which, I had enough time to jump on the local train which was called the Tren Vesuviano, go to Naples, go to Herculaneum, which is the other famous town that was buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, smaller and not as well known. It was raining, there were maybe eight people there. It was fantastic. I had the whole place to myself. Had 30 minutes left, got on the subway in Naples, went downtown, went to the museum, the national museum in Naples, ran through the museum, ’cause I had 30 minutes. It has some of the most famous sculptures in Italy. Got on the subway, went back to the main train station, got myself a ticket back to Rome, went back to Rome, got a cab, and got back to my cousin’s house around midnight. So I saw more in five hours on my own than I would have seen by far if I’d stayed with the tour for the whole day. But I understand most people are not comfortable doing that.

ADF: And you have to be comfortable overseas. Like Jim and I, in Morocco. We had recommendations taken from Lonely Planet and TripAdvisor, about where to stay in some place, like where to go in Fes, which is a great old city in central Morocco. And the place we went and looked at, the room was crummy, we didn’t like the room. So we walked around and found another place, which was virtually empty and just as nice as the first place, if not nicer, and quiet. But most people are not comfortable doing that. You have to have time. You can’t be… well, we’ve only got a half morning here, we’ve got to see this, this, and this, so we’re stuck in this hotel. You must have time.

Me: I’d be comfortable doing that in some places more than others.

ADF: Of course that’s another part of it. It’s very different to be exploring on your own in London or Paris or Rome than in Morocco or Tunisia or South Africa. You asked what I did that was unusual, that’s one of the things. Like driving around South Africa, you rent a car and you go.

Me: For my first trip to Europe, my mom and I just bought a map, rented a car, and went. We had so much fun.

ADF: That’s the key word.

So remember to always have fun when you travel! Thanks for reading Part I, Part II and Part III of my interview with Alan Dean Foster. He’s a fantastic author, and a very interesting man who lives his dreams.

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