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In Through the Outdoors: Q & A with Travel Writer Tim Cahill
Adventure travel writer Tim Cahill, co-founder of Outside Magazine, is the featured author at Whitefish Review's launch party
Tim Cahill - Photo courtesy of Whitefish Review
Over the past four decades, Tim Cahill, a longtime resident of Livingston, has established a reputation as one of America’s best known and most intrepid adventure travel writers, penning narratives about wanderlust with his signature wry humor.

A founding editor of Outside magazine and the award-winning author of 10 books, Cahill wrote about rock and roll for Rolling Stone magazine, plumbed the nefarious depths of the mind of serial killer John Wayne Gacy for his bestselling book, “Buried Dreams: Inside the Mind of a Serial Killer,” and covered the brutal Jonestown Massacre before shifting the focus of his craft to adventure travel writing.

The intrepid journalist has tracked the supposedly extinct Caspian tiger across Turkey, collected samples of human hair in Mongolia, gone in search of giant centipedes in the Congo and embarked on a trip to visit the famous Saharan salt mines.

This month he ventures north to Montana’s hinterlands as the featured author in the latest issue of the Whitefish Review literary journal, which will be unveiled Dec. 14 at a gathering at Casey’s Bar in Whitefish. Issue #14 of the journal, titled “The Hunger Issue,” features an impressive lineup of local and regional writers, photographers and artists, including Kate Ehrenberg, Charles Finn and David Allan Cates.

Cahill spoke with the Beacon recently about his experience launching Outside magazine, the elements of a strong adventure travel story and his assessment of Montana’s literary scene.

Beacon: Throughout your professional writing career you’ve touched on everything from in-depth journalism on a notorious serial killer, to long-form pieces about the Jonestown Massacre to adventure travel books about flesh-ripping jaguars. Describe your entry into writing, and, more specifically, adventure travel writing.

Tim Cahill: My first writing job was for Rolling Stone magazine, in a position that was basically editorial drudge, but in those days you could progress through the ranks pretty quickly. My first piece for Rolling Stone was in ‘69. I was doing editorial chores, reading the slush pile and things like that. Then I started writing stories about rock and roll, stories none of the first-string writers wanted, like interviewing Donovan. I didn’t particularly want to write about Donovan, either, but I wanted to have a major feature in Rolling Stone at the time. I wrote rock and roll for two years and said, ‘OK, I’m not going to do that anymore.’ And I also did some investigative stuff. You know, as a journalist, you get a lot of calls about stories you should be pursuing, and one of the calls I got was about a serial killer in Chicago named John Wayne Gacy. I ended up writing a book about him, which I did not think was psychologically healthy. I did not like living in the sewer of that man’s mind. I was trying to get inside his head and inhabit his mind, and I’m proud of the book. But it sure exhausted my curiosity on serial killers.

Beacon: What was the impetus for Outside Magazine and where did you fit in?

Cahill: Rolling Stone had started a magazine called Outside and I was one of two guys in the office who liked going outdoors, so I suppose I was a natural fit. The stories that came along, whether it was looking for ruins in Peru or learning to fly a hot air balloon, they seemed to me a lot more psychologically healthy than doing investigative work about serial killers. And even while doing those stories I would be getting offers to do pieces on Jeffrey Dahmer. But I decided I would rather climb mountains. It seemed, as I think about it now, that I may have been a richer individual had I pursued those darker projects. But I certainly feel like I am psychologically healthier than I would have been. I feel like I have had the opportunity to lead a pretty rich, fulfilling life, in what for a lot of people is the dream job in the field of American journalism. So who could say there is anything wrong with that?

Beacon: What made Outside stand out at the time?

Cahill: It seems like a slam-dunk today, but you have to remember back to ‘75 or ‘76, when such a thing as literate writing about the outdoors was not done. Outdoors writing was mostly service oriented. The existing publications showed you how to choose a backpack or a pair of boots, but did not offer a lot of great writing about the outdoors, and we thought American literature, from James Fennimore Cooper to Melville to Faulkner and Hemingway, was always about the outdoors, but that strain of literature was not being helped by magazines about service.

The literary pundits made a great deal of fun of us back at the time, saying, ‘who is going to read this?’ Here now you have Pulitzer Prize winners writing about ice climbing. But it was a well-known fact in 1975 that people who went outdoors were knuckle-draggers and mouth-breathers and they wouldn’t have any interest in reading such elevated literature.

Beacon: Has the magazine changed?

Cahill: I think it has changed quite a bit. After that ... run of National Magazine Awards ... the major editorial department, almost en masse, had a disagreement with the publisher and pretty much everyone quit. That was around 2001. I don’t read it much anymore. They seem to be targeting a younger audience than we had, which makes some of the editorial copy, in my mind, a bit snarky.

Beacon: Some of your most memorable stories involve misadventures or overcoming obstacles in terra incognita. Do you find that the most absorbing adventure stories involve mishaps and drama, or are the ordinary stumbling blocks of a layman’s journey enough to electrify a narrative?

Cahill: I have found, and I sometimes say this tongue in cheek, that the secret of an adventure story is something has to go wrong. And you can’t plan for something to go wrong. You cannot pick the exact wrong traveling companion. It’s got to be stuff that goes wrong organically on the road. And believe me, stuff will go wrong. You don’t have to worry about that.

Beacon: Did environmental activism ever enter your outdoors writing?

Cahill: Never. I try to stay away from issues. When we first started Outside magazine back in the mid-70s, there was a magazine coming out of San Francisco that was about the outdoors. Its whole purpose was to deal with the various depredation in the outdoors around the country. I often got the feeling that the writer was shaking his or her finger in your face, saying, ‘we are going to lose this particular part of the country and it’s your fault, reader.’ And I don’t think readers care to read about an area they’ve never heard about being ruined. I think the point is to write lovingly and skillfully about the area and enlist the reader in a kind of conspiracy to care about those areas rather than hit the issues too hard. But I’m not saying that such issue-based stories are not worth reading.

Beacon: Does Montana still have the glut of talented writers that it once did?

Cahill: We have a lot of good writers and there are more coming up every day so I am pleased with the literary scene in Montana. And I have to say that even though many of us may write about the out of doors in one way or another, and that is probably what brought us to Montana or kept us here, we are also very different. Writers are very happy to see their compatriots here in Montana succeed. Because we are not doing the same thing, we are not competing with one another, and it’s actually very encouraging. It’s not so cutthroat nor is it infused with envy. In my experience we like to see our friends and neighbors, who happen to write for a living, achieve success.
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