The writing globetrotter
Travel writer Stephan Orth studied English/American Studies in Wuppertal
A backpack, a sleeping bag and a tent are the most important props a globetrotter needs to get along in the most diverse places. Stephan Orth is such a traveller, but his destinations are anything but conventional. He uses them to travel to countries like China, Russia, Iran or Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, the 41-year-old has written books about these journeys that have conquered the bestseller lists. On his way there, he stopped off in Wuppertal for a few years and completed a degree in humanities.
A parental home full of books
"My parents always had a house with very full bookshelves. They both read a lot and that certainly shaped me," Orth says at the beginning of the interview. He wrote his first book when he was six years old and tells us: "It was called 'The Ten Soldiers', printed out on DIN A 4 and later even ten pages long. It was a completely crazy story about soldiers in China who fight dragons and kill criminals, sometimes very brutally. This work is still waiting to be published, he explains with a smile. After that, his attempts at writing rested for several years and Orth, like many young people, dealt with the challenges of new technologies. "I then got an Amiga 500 (computer) when I was 12, which I also spent a lot of time with," he confesses, "including computer games. But I never left the books and in my early 20s it restarted.
Master's degree at the University of Wuppertal
Orth reaches the University of Wuppertal and completes a Master's degree with a major in English/American Studies and minors in Psychology and Economics. "I then wrote for some media in Wuppertal as well. For the Coolibri, for example, and I did an internship at the Westdeutsche Zeitung." After successfully completing his studies, Orth looked for additional practical experience and decided to do a Master of Journalism, which he added on for three semesters in Brisbane, Australia. "I wanted to appear more clearly on the job market and experienced more practical orientation there." The positive side effect: his wanderlust then really took off.
Australia - New Zealand - Fitchie - Cook Islands
"During the semester break, I then went on a three-month backpacking trip to New Zealand, Fiji, the Cook Islands and Australia. I travelled a lot on my own," he reports. "And I realised how great it can be to travel alone, too." The notes of this trip were thus the starting signal for what Orth makes successful today; travel books of a somewhat different kind.
Couchsurfing - travelogues about special encounters
Now, four books entitled "Couchsurfing", are on the bestseller lists. In them, he presents countries that are not easy to travel to. "For me, it is about travelling to countries with a bad reputation and then getting into everyday life and seeing how ordinary people live there," he explains. He is concerned with questions like: "How do you get along in a dictatorship, for example? What moves people? What are the differences and similarities, also in comparison of exotic countries to our own country?" Orth often comes to the realisation that people have much more in common than they thought, and such encounters made the books particularly interesting. At the same time, he does not conceal the fact that there are also sometimes frightening and delicate situations on these journeys. These make undesirable research difficult, but that does not prevent him from continuing on this path.
A new surf couch in Saudi Arabia
His latest book deals with Saudi Arabia, a country between wealth, progress and a controversial legal system that Orth subtitles with the words: My Journey Through a Country Between the Middle Ages and the Future. "I found it very interesting to be able to experience really new territory in 2020," he explains. "In other words, to travel to a country where tourism has been virtually non-existent." Only since the end of 2019, there have been visas for individual travellers. Before that, only pilgrims or guest workers could enter the country. "It was very interesting to be one of the firsts, even though it is a very highly developed country. People have the latest smartphones and state-of-the-art vehicles to drive around." However, in total contrast to this forward-looking population, is an extremely conservative interpretation of Islam that dominates all of life. Mixed with an ancestral Bedouin tradition, Saudi Arabia is certainly still one of the most conservative countries on earth, Orth explains. "With extreme gender segregation and a legal system where people are still beheaded in public."
For these trips, Orth prepares himself for a long time. He tries to learn the respective language and attends language courses. In many countries at least greetings or thank-you phrases are indispensable in order to make contact with the people. He uses additional translation programmes and, of course, the language skills of his local hosts, who help out as translators.
Sorry, we missed the runway
Many students dream of publishing their books one day.
"In my case, it started with my job at Spiegel online," Orth says. There, he worked for eight years as an editor in the travel section. "That is when I realised my first book projects. A book called 'Sorry, we missed the runway' was a book about funny sayings from the plane, collected by Spiegel Online readers. That immediately became a bestseller in cooperation with Spiegel-Verlag, who then also established contact with the book publisher." That was the entry point. "To a newcomer, I would actually recommend to rather try to find an agency, i.e. a literary agent, whom you can convince with your exposé," he advises. "They have good contacts with publishers."
Orth, whose books have meanwhile been translated into 10 languages, cannot yet say where he will pitch his tent soon. The Corona situation makes planning difficult with its travel restrictions. But, he reveals at the end, one thing is certain: "I can only say that it will not be a book about Tuscany or Majorca. I will be true to myself on that one."
Uwe Blass (Interview on June 25, 2021)
Stephan Orth studied English, psychology, economics and journalism in Wuppertal and Brisbane (Australia). From 2008 to 2016 he worked as an editor in the travel section of SPIEGEL ONLINE before becoming an independent author. His latest book "Couchsurfing in Saudi Arabia: My journey through a country between the Middle Ages and the future" was published by Malik Verlag in February 2021.