Books, News & Commentary, Non-Fiction

Top American TV writer Steve Hely wanders to Australia with his new book

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Author and TV writer (30 Rock, The Office and American Dad!), Steve Hely is on the promo trail in Australia for his latest book The Wonder Trail. Part travel book, part pop history, part comic memoir, The Wonder Trail documents Hely’s experiences on a trip from Los Angeles to South America. Daily Review asked Steve about genetic wandering disease, travelers’ real fears and his thoughts on ‘bipolar’ America.


This is your second travel book. You ponder in the The Wonder Trail if you have some ‘genetic wandering disease’. Have you unpacked where your fascination for foreign lands comes from?

I’m curious, that’s my main drive as a writer. I find the world ridiculous and absurd. We’re plopped here on this planet as babies with no idea what, if anything, we’re supposed to be doing or why.

Over our history we’ve come up with every kind of answer and fought about it and worked on it and gone down every bizarre road of exploration you can imagine, pursuing goals real and illusionary and meaningful and odd.

We’re here sharing a planet together and the ways we’ve worked out how to do that varies from the beautiful to the horrible. The systems we’ve evolved to manage all that and take care of ourselves and each other are sometimes wonderful and sometimes terrible and often just plain weird.

All that makes for an interesting patchwork to explore and examine and consider. What people are up to, what places look like, what people eat and how they entertain themselves and how they live and what they’ve tried and what works and what doesn’t – it’s always been interesting to me. “What’s over there?” seems like one of the first human questions, and I’ve never got bored of having a look.

America is bipolar as a country, it’s a place for maniacs and nuts of all kinds.

Fear is one of the key factors that stops people from travelling (especially to countries like South America) yet with terrorism events seemingly a weekly occurrence now around the word – many might question leaving home to explore anywhere. Your thoughts?

Terrorism is dramatic and scary and an upsetting thing to see on your TV or computer screens, but as far as I can tell, your actual odds of being killed violently are far smaller than they’ve ever been through the history of the world. In the Middle Ages, say, you were likely to be knocked on the head just for being a stranger.

There are places in Central and South America that are dangerous and unstable, but there are also places that are safe and pleasant. The vast majority of people across that part of the world are trying to go about their business and enjoy their lives and families without causing any trouble for anyone.

The fears that really stop people from traveling I think are more a jumble of anxieties: I won’t know where to eat! Where will I sleep?! It’s easy to get comfortable and not want to rattle that. Which, hey, I understand, I like being comfortable too.


What do you make of America at present – the possibility of Trump being president, escalating racial tensions and the ever-present issue of gun control? If you were writing a travel brochure for America right now what would it say?

America is bipolar as a country, it’s a place for maniacs and nuts of all kinds. Much of it was settled by various bands of religious fanatics, then populated by the desperate or crazy. Our founding documents go on about liberty but were written by slaveholders. Every kind of race and nation is represented here yet somehow we twist ourselves up trying to decide who’s really “American.” We can be the most generous and good-hearted country on Earth but we also act half the time like a paranoid uncle holed up in the attic. When we’re not saving the world we’re usually on the verge of destroying it. When we’re convinced we’re saving the world, that’s usually the most dangerous of all. We seem to enjoy terrifying ourselves and everyone else with our own craziness.

But on the other hand, anyone who’s met more than a few Americans will tell you they can be almost ridiculously open and welcoming. We’re blessed with an incredibly rich and beautiful and varied stretch of the world and half the time we can’t wait to share it with everyone and half the time we’re convinced God gave it to us because we’re special.

That makes for a pretty wild and interesting country, scary sometimes. But a visitor is unlikely to be bored.

The Wonder Trail is a collection of short (in some cases very short) chapters that knit together to tell your story. Was brevity and getting to the point deliberate or is this your style?

I try to write books that I myself would enjoy reading. Sometimes historians and other experts can get bogged down in details. If you have an entertaining friend who’s knowledgeable about a subject, he or she can often get down to the crucial bits and tensions and challenges of their specialty in a blunt, effective way that’s really enlightening. I try to write like that, I try to sift out the key, most interesting information and give it to the reader like they’re a good friend.

What can audiences expect from your book tour this month and do you have any plans to explore Australia while you are here?

They can expect total enthusiasm from me. I love Australians and find I get along with them very well, I love the sense of humor and sense of the ridiculous you find in Australia, and I intend to be as entertaining as possible on little sleep.

Man, I wish I had a year at least to see Australia. I’d love to bash around the Kimberley and see the Barrier Reef while that’s still here and get underground in Coober Pedy and see what exactly they’re up to out there in Perth. I’ve got a pretty packed schedule, so I’m not sure how much I can do. But some friends in Brisbane have promised to show me some Queensland weirdness so I’m looking forward to that.

[box]Steve Hely is touring Australia now and appearing at the Melbourne Writer Fest from September 2. Visit or more info.

The Wonder Trail by Steve Hely is published by Black Inc Books and is available at all good book stores.[/box]

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