Andrew McCarthy, likely best known to you as a member of the iconic Brat Pack, with his roles in Pretty in Pink and St. Elmo’s Fire, has forged a second career as a travel writer. Out with a new memoir, The Longest Way Home, about traveling as a way to settle down, McCarthy touches on issues of fatherhood and commitment. I met up with him at a café on the Upper East Side in Manhattan, where he ordered a boiled egg and it came with what he called “shredded bread.” I tried to explain to him that they were toast points and that it was a traditional French thing where you dipped the bread into the egg, to which he replied, “I don’t know anything about that. I’m from Jersey.”
With a refreshing mix of honesty and tenderness (he got choked up three times in an hour, talking about his children), McCarthy, who rarely does interviews, opened up about acting, travel, family, and fear.
The Rumpus: What prompted you to think you could be a travel writer? Did you always have a writing impulse?
Andrew McCarthy: No, I didn’t write ever. I didn’t read. When I went to school I wasn’t interested in any of that. Then someone gave me The Old Patagonian Express. I read that and it blew my mind, so I started reading more Paul Theroux; then I started traveling and then I started writing. I tried keeping a little journal and that was so pathetic. It was just stupid, so embarrassing for even me to read. Then I began writing down scenes of things that happened and I kept them in a notebook and I did that for years. There was no motivation—it just sort of validated traveling to me. When you travel you’re sort of drifting, and because I would travel for months, I became untethered, and I found that if I wrote a scene, it gave me something to do for an hour and grounded me. I did it for that sake and literally put them in a drawer when I came home.
Rumpus: Was there a learning curve? I mean I’d like to be a great jazz player, but I don’t hear amazing jazz and think, Hey I could do that.
McCarthy: Well if you read a lot of travel magazines you realize a lot of them are crap. So the bar wasn’t that high. But there’s some great travel writing, too. One of the reasons I thought I could do it is because no article captured anything of my own experience of traveling. When I read Paul Theroux, I could tell he’s having an experience. After an editor said that I could go ahead and try to write something, I told him I didn’t know how to write a travel story and he said, “Good.” No other editor would have taken a chance on me. There are a lot of people who have the attitude, “Oh this actor thinks he can write.” I get that all the time. I can smell it in a second, and you come upon it, and you just have to go around it.
Rumpus: Were you able to translate any of your acting knowledge into writing? Are there similarities between the two practices?
McCarthy: The similarities for me are that I’m not good enough to fake things. I couldn’t write about fashion. I genuinely believe travel changes people’s lives. Everything that I write, whatever my story is about, whether it’s about prosciutto in Parma, underneath it is the sensation that this is going to change your life. If I’ve been successful in any way, it’s because people pick up on that. It’s the same thing acting did for me. Acting saved my life. I felt alive in a way I never had before. I felt like I had an answer and a way out of whatever life I had; it gave me direction. They both fuel the same excitement. I knew I could write from that place. I didn’t know what a nut graph was, but I had a passion and an instinct for it.
Rumpus: It seems like there’s two types of travel writing: vacation and real travel.
McCarthy: There is a difference, but I’m a big anti-snob. I can’t stand when people say, “You’re not a traveler, you’re a tourist.” Go and fuck yourself. If you get out of the house, hats off to you. You know what I mean? How many people here have left the country? Not too many. So I mean anybody who gets out of the house, let alone leaves the country? I don’t care if you’re going to the greatest hits of Paris—Notre Dame, and you’re going to go to the Eiffel tower, and then home—fantastic.
Rumpus: Right, because they’re coming up against fear.
McCarthy: You have no idea what fear they’re dealing with. That’s what travel obliterates—it obliterates fear. That Mark Twain line is so brilliant, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness…” My whole soapbox is that America is a wonderful nation but incredibly fearful; we make all our political decisions based on fear. If people went out into the world they’d realize that a guy with a towel around his head isn’t out to get you. Something like 30% of Americans have passports, and they usually use them to go to Canada and Mexico. So anyone who gets out the door has my undying affection.
Rumpus: Do you think being alone is integral to a certain kind of travel? Oddly, some of the most moving parts of this book take place when you’re traveling with family; what’s the distinction?
McCarthy: You often have the experience of each other in the place, as opposed to yourself in the place. By nature I’m a solitary traveler, but by nature I’m a solitary person. I prefer—am most comfortable, most at home—when I’m far away alone. I get that. I’m deeply comfortable there. There’s a great line by Madame de Stael that says travel is “one of the saddest pleasures in life.” There’s no greater feeling than when I have that childish realization that nobody in the world knows where I am. That’s thrilling to me, but it’s also childish. Then, on the other hand, when I’m alone and see something, I think, I wish my kids could see that. You can’t win. They’re just different. I’m glad that I traveled alone first. The only reason people don’t travel alone is because they’re afraid. They think they’ll be lonely, but loneliness is not going to kill you. It’s a different loneliness on the road than at home. Loneliness at home is much more painful. Loneliness on the road has a depth and an expanse where the loneliness at home is an experience of depravation. On the road, you’re tiny, which is an incredible thing.
Rumpus: I noticed in the book when you travel alone, you’re endlessly annoyed by other travelers. I was waiting for you to bond with someone and you didn’t.
McCarthy: Yeah, those fucking people. Well, it happens even here in New York. It has nothing to do with traveling. If I get over myself a little bit, I realize there’s a lot to learn from everybody. It’s more of a life problem that I have than a traveling one. Hopefully it makes for some kind of illuminating conflict in the book. Part of this book is seeing how a loner learns to communicate with other people. It’s not something I’m good at, whether at home or traveling. I just don’t really know how to be with people. I really don’t get it intuitively.
Rumpus: It seems interesting to me that as a loner you’ve had to lead a public life.
McCarthy: It’s very odd. It’s ridiculous, actually. It took me years to realize that I was a loner. It’s like anything: if that’s the position from which you look at the world, that’s the way you think everyone is. Though I think a lot of actors are actually introverts.
Rumpus: Writers are often introverts; maybe that’s part of why you feel comfortable writing, or why you’ve turned towards this path?
McCarthy: I have to say that finding writing was a huge relief. Even when you just say that, I find it relieving. Now it’s just a question of, do I have the abilities and the skills and the “can I think between thoughts enough” to communicate it. But, yeah it’s a relief.
Rumpus: To me my worst nightmare would be to have my glorious anonymity taken from me. Is that another reason you like traveling? To regain a sense of anonymity?
McCarthy: Yes, and when I’m recognized on the road, I’m much more gracious and open than I am here. It’s very interesting. I’m not sure why. I guess I’m more relaxed and therefore more emotionally generous. I became recognizable very early, when I was young, so it formed a lot of my responses to others. I mean, I certainly wasn’t a Kennedy where I was prepped for success—I just knew I couldn’t go to the mall. And suddenly I was getting laid a lot, when a year ago no one would look at me. I was twenty-three and it was awesome, though it was assaulting in a certain way. It would be better to find success in your thirties, when you have a sense of yourself. I was just writing an article about Ireland, and neither countries, nor people, get rich quick gracefully. When Ireland became wealthy it became an awful place, and now that it’s broke, they’ve gone back to themselves and it’s great again.
Rumpus: Traveling seems to magnify some kind of personal or interpersonal conflict one might have. By traveling those issues seem to come into focus.
McCarthy: There’s nowhere to hide. I think people have this wrong idea about traveling. I mean wherever you go, there you are. And if you’re not trying to buy stuff to distract you, then all you have is that thing. So you’re just left with that one thing in your head and it’s surrounding you. I think that’s a good thing— it helps you deal with whatever that issue is.
Rumpus: I wanted to ask you about change through travel. You said that you don’t change through “a-ha” moments.
McCarthy: Yeah, that’s what my editor said. She wanted to know what happened at the top of Kilimanjaro and I said, “It was fucking cold.” I never see the change in the instant. The biggest a-ha moment of my life was in Spain. I broke down and was sobbing, but I didn’t realize why until I got to the end. I’m not in my life or smart enough to realize when it’s happening to me. I have them, but the dawning takes a while. When I was successful so quickly so young, I didn’t trust it. I much prefer the brick-and-mortar path. With the writing, I knew that I wanted to write as many different publications I could, so that by the time I came out with a book, my critics couldn’t dismiss me so easily as an actor-turned-writer. I was sure I wanted to write, and so by the time I was outed, and someone wanted to exploit it for publicity, I already had won an award and had all these publications.
Rumpus: I can understand the fear of being pigeonholed.
McCarthy: There’s nothing I can do about that. It’s something I learned from acting. I was never in the kinds of movies that I wanted to be in. Only in hindsight did they become these iconic films of a generation. At the time they were not these particularly respected films. Brat Pack was a pejorative term. Now it’s become a term of affection, and the Brat Pack members have longevity that young actors now might now have in twenty years. But yes, it’s a double-edged sword. I get attention from having been in those movies, but I have to redirect the conversation so it’s not just some vanity project. Hopefully my book stands on its own.
Rumpus: Theroux talks about how travel has changed so much, as explored in Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, where he revisits his original trip chronicled in his classic, The Great Railway Bazaar. Does the notion of change affect you as a traveler?
McCarthy: I walked the Camino de Santiago 20 years ago, and now the idea of walking it now being able to check in every thirty seconds would be awful. I mean, but things always change. It’s like the movie business. When I arrived, people were like, “You should have been here a couple years ago, it’s really changed. It’s a shame. You should have been here in the 70’s when the auteurs were here, just five years ago. You missed it.” And that was ’82. It’s the same thing. It’s also the first thing I heard when I went to Hawaii in 1986: “You should have been here ten years ago.” You read those great quotes of people saying “our times are so modern now” and you realize [they were] written in 1820. People have always been lamenting change. Yes it’s true, and yet what are you going to do? It’s inevitable that things change, but you still set out anyway.
Rumpus: What about the issue of mortality? So central to travel is the fear of death, yet it doesn’t appear a lot in your book.
McCarthy: I used to be terrified of death. I was terrified of the world. I was terrified of travel. That’s why I travel, because I was so afraid; I stopped being afraid of the world to a degree by traveling. That notion of “I could die here,” that’s what I discovered when I walked across Spain. I was terrified every day. I wanted to see if I could take care of myself, and I found out that I was taken care of somehow. It wasn’t a religious experience but it was a personal, transformative one. The greatest way to overcome fear is to get out of the house, and to get out of the house alone.
Rumpus: Sometimes when people come up against the fear of travel they just don’t do it. What motivated you to push into the fear?
McCarthy: Because fear was not going to stop me from doing what I wanted to do in life. Some famous explorer said, “Brave men never do anything, it’s cowards that discover the world.” It’s absolutely true. I traveled solely because I was afraid.