Darkly funny travel tales from a writer with a nose for trouble
Brendan Shanahan's immersive writing style made his previous books, In Turkey I Am Beautiful and The Secret Life of the Gold Coast, a hoot, and his new collection, Mr Snack and the Lady Water, is no exception. Part travel writer, part investigative journalist, he employs the time-honoured methods of gonzo journalism to write himself right into the thick of any story.
Brendan, it’s clear that you love throwing yourself in the deep end for the sake of a good story, do you have any personal limits or is anything fair game?
I don't have any particular "rules", but I am not at all fearless. Indeed, I have a very heightened sense of my own mortality and an extremely low threshold for pain or even mild discomfort (for starters, I like to sleep a lot, which is not ideal for a travel writer). I have rarely done anything I know, consciously, to be dangerous. My willingness to put myself in harm's way is limited only by my naivety. I tend to think people are, basically, pretty good, for instance, which means I'll probably end up dismembered in some serial killer's dungeon.
When I travel I'm pretty blasé about safety, but only because most of the world is, contrary to what many believe, fairly safe. There have been exceptions: I once got an offer to go to northern Iraq – unofficially – while the war was still on. The area was considered fairly safe, but I decided against it anyway. A month later I heard an English uni student who had crossed from Turkey was imprisoned for a month because they thought he was a jihadi convert come to fight the Americans. And he wasn't in a nice prison, either. Actually not a prison at all – just a room in the desert with 50 other dudes, who robbed and tried to rape him. Pretty glad I went with my instincts that time.
Is retelling your traumatic experiences in such a humorous way a coping mechanism?
Have my experiences been traumatic? They don't seem that way to me. Ninety-nine percent of the time I think they've been very funny and entertaining. Of course, comedy and tragedy are two halves of the same thing, but it's not like I've ever been to, like, a war or something – a guy pissing in my backpack at 3am is not exactly a bomb shelter in Kabul. So far the most traumatic thing I've ever experienced is the four years I spent at a Catholic boys high school.
Is there anything that has happened to you that you wouldn’t write about?
I have lots of stories I haven't written about, but none I wouldn't write about. I'm a very open person; too open, probably: shame and I are not well acquainted. I guess I'd only not write something if someone specifically begged me to. And even then they'd have to beg me.
If you could go anywhere in the world for a holiday right now, where would you head to first?
India is the most fascinating country on earth. Going there is liking walking into the Louvre or a really good Vegas Buffet: "Oh, oh! I want lamb cutlets! No, I want sashimi! No, I want lobster ravioli!" There's just too much to see, too many places to go and too many people to meet. For good travel stories nowhere else comes close – I think I'll be going there for the rest of my life. It's a terrible oversight that I haven't yet been to Iran, so I'd love to go there. West Africa, too, is another part of the world I'm curious about, although having travelled in other parts of Africa I'm not sure I can face the food again.
So you bought a house in Vegas on a whim. How much time do you actually get to spend over there? And what do you get up to if you’re not much or a gambler?
I spend roughly half the year in the States. I adore it, especially Las Vegas. As soon as I arrived I felt a connection with the city – which is bizarre considering I'd only spent one night there prior, and had an awful time. People don't realise Vegas is a proper city of two million people. Well... I use the term "proper city" advisedly: Vegas is in the process of becoming a proper city, but it's still got a lot of maturing to do. There's not much in the way of "high culture", which I don't miss as much as I thought I might. It can also be a pretty rough town.
Despite that, or because of it, there's a great spirit to Vegas. People there don't have "hometown pride" in the way that a lot of Americans do. They still like Vegas, they're just not starry eyed about it. They're perversely proud of its shadiness – like the way you can buy T-shirts in Johannesburg with murder stats on the back. Anyway... there's heaps to do there that's not gambling: the food scene is incredible, and every night there's a band, comedian or forgotten cabaret singer I've wanted to see my whole life, for about a quarter of the price I'd pay in Australia. Plus, Vegas is in the middle of the most beautiful desert. It really is bizarre – you can drive half an hour and be in a place that looks like Uluru, then drive home and eat your Michelin-star dinner looking at a fake Venetian canal.
Do you ever see yourself settling in one spot, either in Sydney or the States, or do you think the travel bug never really leaves your system?
Well I do sort of see myself as "settled" these days, at least as compared to my past. Sure I commute between Australia and America, but a lot of people live like that now. In the internet era, I find the notion of having to be based in a particular place weird. Like, why do all writers have to move to New York? Why do bankers have to be in London? I guess actors have to be in LA, because they physically make a lot of movies there, but why do screenwriters have to be there?
I was talking to Adam Hills the other day about this. We agreed that it's strange, but many of the suits in charge of things still have a mentality that you have to be located somewhere specific. He would play the Montreal Comedy Festival, then be invited for auditions in LA. Producers would say, "Well, let us know next time you're in town." And he's like: "Well, um, Sydney's only 12 hours from LA. It's not that much further than Montreal. I can be here any time." But they couldn't really wrap their heads around that because in their mind Australia is a place that only exists in beer commercials. Publishing isn't that different. Many times the first question they ask is, "Are you based in London?" or whatever. From now on if a publisher asks me if I'm based in London, I'm just going to say yes. If they ask me if I'm based in New York, I'm just going to say yes. With a couple of days notice, I can fly there and pretend. In the internet age, we're all travellers, all the time. We live on the cloud, man. Get on board.
Mr Snack and the Lady Water is out now, published by Melbourne University Press in both print and as ebook.
Picture: Shanahan at Cabbage Patch World standing in front of a "humidi crib ward" of "premature" Cabbage Patch Babies.