From visiting a Witch doctor in Bolivia to hiking the Volcanoes of Catalonia, food and travel writer David Farley has travelled far and wide and written really interesting pieces about his trips. His most irreverent achievement, however, remains his quest to find the holy foreskin that went missing in the Italian town of Calcata. He wrote a book about it called An Irreverent Curiosity: In Search of the Church’s Strangest Relic in Italy’s Oddest Town.
Though, even for Farley, it’s probably hard to outdo the wackiness of his holy foreskin investigation chronicles, he is nothing if not witty and engaging in real life. During my stay in Berlin recently, I got to meet him and hang out with over beers in the city’s hipster bars. He sweetly agreed to answer a few questions about why he moved to Berlin and what it is to be a travel writer today. Here they are.
You recently quit your teaching position, sub-leased your apartment in NewYork and moved to Berlin. How often do you challenge yourself like that?
Whenever I’m feeling complacent and stagnant I start to get very restless – not just a restlessness to travel or take a trip but to actually shake up my life and change my environment. I did that when I moved to Prague in the 1990s. I did it when I moved to Rome in the last decade. And now, Berlin. The fact is, though, that I had decided I wanted to move to Berlin in Spring 2014 when I was here on a magazine assignment. After that decision, I hemmed and hawed about it for a while – I think, in a Buddhist sense, I had to work out my attachment to New York and everything associated with it – but eventually I did it.
How did you start your travel writing career?
I was studying for my master’s degree in history in San Francisco and my girlfriend was a writer. I had asked her to proofread one my long (and probably boring) research papers. After, she said, “I don’t mean this in a bad way, but I was surprised how good the writing is.” She encouraged me to start writing and the first things that I felt compelled to write were about unusual incidents and circumstances that we end up in while traveling. Eventualy those stories began getting published in travel publications. By default, I became a travel writer.
My advice to people who want to be a travel writer is to not quit your day job.
How did the irreverent subject in one of your earlier pieces, ‘A sort of Happy Ending‘ in which your brother takes you to a Mexican strip club to make you a man, come about?
Simply this: an editor for a travel publication emailed to say they’d give me a large sum of money to write something and I could write whatever I wanted. The night before I was just telling a friend about that crazy story and so I decided to write about that.
How has travel changed you on a personal level? How has it affected your writing?
It has left an indelible mark on me and changed me in ways that I cannot fathom or calculate. It’s changed my life in every big and small way. It is hard to say how it has affected my writing because traveling and my writing are so intertwined. They have a symbiotic relationship.
Travel has changed my life in every big and small way.
How did you go about looking for Jesus’s lost foreskin relic for your first book? Give us a little backstory on how your first book shaped up?
I had been living in Rome and went on a day trip to this small medieval hill town called Calcata. There, someone told me that the village church housed, until recently, the Holy Foreskin, the only piece of flesh Christ could have left on earth. You don’t often hear the words “holy” and “foreskin” in succession to each other, so it was quite hard to forget about that. Because of my interest in history, I became fascinated with this relic, which used to be a superstar relic on the pilgrimage circuit: popes granted indulgences to those who came to venerate it. Pilgrims flocked to it. And it went missing in the 1980s under mysterious circumstances. I ended up writing an article about all this for Slate.com that went viral. From that, I got a book deal.
Weigh in on the travel writing market of today. How are the opportunities for someone new to break into publications and become a travel writer?
The paying travel writing market has definitely shrunk since I first got into this about 15 years ago. There are far fewer paying publications. My advice to people who want to be a travel writer is to not quit your day job. Or quit your day job and dive into the writing life but don’t cannonball into the genre of travel writing. Instead, write about other things and make “travel” just one of the things you write about.
If you’d like to know a little more about Farley, he has a really cool self-interview published on his homepage, read it here.
Click here to read his award winning piece on Varanasi for Afar magazine.