When I started writing crime fiction at the end of 2005, I thought of it as a stark departure from the journalism that had been my full-time job for, at that point, seven years. While some high-profile journalists have been caught making stuff up, seeding their articles with characters that only existed in their heads, I never took that route. That was what fiction was for, after all.
So it’s been a surprise to come full circle and realize that, in my fiction, I’m talking about all the stories I was never allowed to tell as a travel writer. By “allowed,” I don’t mean that any editor or tourist rep tried to bar me from telling the truth. It was just that, if I wanted to make a living at journalism — and I did — I had to play by certain rules.
This hit home a few years ago, when I was writing a travel feature about Easter Island for a glossy magazine. While I’d been on the island, traveling with a group of journalists, our shady tour operator got greedy and demanded a cash payment from each member of the group, telling us that they wouldn’t take us to the island’s major sites if we didn’t pay. Disgusted with this lame attempt at a shakedown, another journalist and I rented a jeep and took our own tour. I saw the spectacular sites, took photos, and got what seemed like a great story out of the experience.
My editor didn’t agree. She called me, concerned. “I love the piece, but you can’t say the tour operator extorted money from the group.”
“But that’s what happened,” I told her.
“I know, but no one will want to go there if you say that.”
That might be true, but that wasn’t my problem. Except that it was. My job, as a travel journalist, was to take a seedy version of reality and sanitize it, because advertising dollars were at stake. The story wasn’t supposed to let travelers know what to expect on the ground there. It was to paint a pretty picture that would make people open their wallets and spend freely.
Ultimately, that story was killed.
The unspoken rule of the travel-writing business is that you don’t talk about bad things. To me, this is a strange irony, because I’ve had some bad things happen while on the road (including two robbery attempts, both in France), and that hasn’t put me off traveling. Nor has the story that I think about every time I’m on the road. I freelanced for Frommer’s Travel Guides for a decade, and in May 2000, one of the editors vanished while on a press trip at a resort in Jamaica. Her name was Claudia Kirschhoch and she was a year older than I was, an attractive woman who was also an experienced and confident traveler.
She’s in my mind whenever I travel, especially when I’m on the road alone. But I never wrote a word about her until I started Evil in All Its Disguises, which is about an attractive female journalist who goes missing while on a press trip. In real life, the resort she disappeared from reacted a lot like the novel’s fictional Hotel Cerón in Acapulco, first pretending that everything was fine (even though maids reported to the hotel that the guest hadn’t been in her room for days). Afterwards, a hotel rep cast doubt on her character, suggesting that she was on drugs and sexually wanton. Her body has never been found.
Evil in All Its Disguises is purely fiction, but fiction with its origins in a real-life tragedy. Much of the book is about the ghosts we carry with us, and it seems only fitting that I’m finally talking about mine.