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Working Vacation

Senior editor Patricia Sharpe and writer-at-large Suzy Banks discuss this month's cover story, "Get Outta Here!"

By August 2003Comments

texasmonthly.com: How did you end up writing about your particular topic?

Patricia Sharpe: We debated: New Orleans or Chicago, both fantastic eating cities. But in the end, we thought more Texans would go to Louisiana.

texasmonthly.com: Had you ever been to your destination before? If not, was it what you were expecting?

PS: I’ve been to New Orleans five or so times. The first time I visited New Orleans, with my whole family when I was in my twenties and my two brothers were teenagers, was quite a revelation. I’ll never forget the look on my brother David’s face when he peered into one of the bars on Bourbon Street and there was a naked woman on stage at four o’clock in the afternoon. He looked like a deer in the headlights.

texasmonthly.com: What was the most interesting thing that happened to you while on assignment?

PS: I was so fascinated to see Anne Rice’s house in the Garden District. She’s the author of the whole Vampire Chronicles series, plus the Witches Chronicles series. The house is huge (it must take up the better part of a block), all gray, with beautiful shaded grounds—very gothic looking. It must be mysterious at night. I kept thinking of her, inside, wondering what her writing habits are like, if she works in the morning or the evening, how many words she writes a day (she’s incredibly prolific), how much she revises–all these things that only another writer would think of.

Suzy Banks: I’m not sure if losing my luggage was interesting, but finding it sure was. When the Southwest Airlines employee told me they would find my bag and bring it out to me that night [in Ojo Caliente], I thought, “Yeah, right. They’re going to drive two-and-a-half hours out to the middle of nowhere to deliver my bag.” Well, they did! Except that the security guard on duty that night wouldn’t let the delivery man on the property. And instead of putting the bag in the hotel office or delivering it to my room himself, the guard put it in the back of his pickup truck and forgot to take it out when he went home at six in the morning. That next morning I start phoning the airline–on the pay phone in the lobby since there’s no cell phone reception–which doesn’t have any record of my lost bag (because it’s been delivered), no one at the hotel knows anything (because the night watchman never said a word or left a note), and I’m getting madder and madder and having a real tough time relaxing in the nice hot waters. Finally, the airline convinces the hotel that it did indeed deliver the bag and the hotel calls the security guard at home, but he’s left with a friend for the entire day to chop wood. So finally that evening, one of the hotel managers drives over to the watchman’s house and discovers my bag sitting in the back of his pickup.

texasmonthly.com: Do you find travel writing more difficult than other kinds of stories? If so, why? If not, why not?

PS: It’s really easy to write a boring travel story: the kind that says we did this, then we did that, the history of the area is such-and-such. I hate those stories. The challenge is to make the story personal and put a little drama in it but still make it informative.

SB: I think it’s harder because there are few destinations that haven’t been written about before (and if they haven’t been written about before, there’s probably a good reason why!). How many creative ways are there to describe a hotel room or a swimming pool or being pampered? Haven’t you read it all before a zillion times in every guide book or travel magazine?

Also, I think travel writing is difficult because no destination is perfect. When I’m assigned a certain place to go and that’s the place I have to write about come hell or high water, I want it to sound at least slightly appealing. Otherwise, why the hell write about it? And yet my number one priority is to be honest with the readers, to tell them about the place warts and all. If I wanted to be a fiction writer, I’d pen a novel. A lot of people in the tourism business don’t understand this. They seem to think a travel writer’s first obligation is to parrot opinions of the visitors bureau or chamber of commerce or whoever profits the most from tourism. I wind up making a lot of folks mad (oh, Fredericksburg comes to mind), which once bothered me, but now I find amusing.

texasmonthly.com: Was there anything that surprised you while you were at your destination?

PS: I hadn’t remembered how extensive the Garden District and surrounding area is. Good grief, you ride the St. Charles Avenue streetcar through the district, and those huge Victorian houses seem to go on for miles. By the way, if you’ve never watched a streetcar driver, you should sit right behind him. Driving a streetcar is extremely physical, very hard. Drivers have to wear heavy gloves or they would be bruised from operating the levers that control the brakes and accelerator.

SB: I was absolutely blown away by the cathedral-like chamber carved into the mountain at the Rancho de San Juan, not only by the sheer magnitude of the labor and artistry involved in it, but also by how amazingly peaceful it was. I was there on the birthday of a dear friend who had died only a month before, and I don’t think I could’ve been anywhere else that would have made me feel less sad on that day.

texasmonthly.com: What was the most difficult aspect to working on this story?

PS: The hardest part was eating so much in a short period of time. Naturally, I had meals that I ended up not using in the story. In fact, the most expensive meal turned out to be unusable: It was at the Windsor Court Hotel, and while the food was good, the menu was so international that it didn’t say New Orleans at all. I could have been in New York or Paris or Hong Kong. Well, except for the waiters’ accents.

SB: Keeping my skin moisturized! No kidding. Between the zero humidity, the high altitude, the relentless sun, jumping in and out of the water at Ojo, and not having my sun hat or my gang of skin care products (remember, my luggage was AWOL for two days), I looked like a blanched tomato with coconut sprinkled on it.

texasmonthly.com: What did you like best about the destination?

PS: I love the French Quarter. It’s like being in Europe, with its small stores and boutique hotels. And it’s such a combination of the bawdy and the proper.

texasmonthly.com: What was the worst thing about the destination?

PS: Weather-wise, New Orleans in the summer is not a lot different from Houston in the summer. You sweat a lot. Stop for mineral water or other libations early and often throughout the day.

texasmonthly.com: What suggestions or advice would you give to someone who had never been to the destination you wrote about?

PS: Don’t rent a car unless you’re leaving town. Just take cabs everywhere.

SB: Pack your sunblock, moisturizer, and swimsuit in your carry-on luggage!

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