Brandon Presser, hailed as a “rough-and-tough adventurer” by Entertainment Weekly, is a seasoned traveler, author, and television personality. With visits to over 130 countries under his belt, Brandon’s adventures have been captured on Bravo TV’s travel series Tour Group, and in his award-winning book, The Far Land, which clinched the SATW Lowell Thomas Prize for Best Travel Book of the Year.
Brandon’s writing prowess extends beyond his book; his work is featured in a number of influential publications, including Bloomberg, Travel+Leisure, and Vogue. His early writing career took root in Paris at the Louvre, continued in Tokyo as an architectural apprentice, and deepened in Thailand as a scuba diving professional. He later joined the team at Lonely Planet, becoming the youngest writer in the company’s history and contributing to numerous guidebooks.
Currently, Brandon specializes in emerging travel destinations, exploring the intersection of luxury and adventure. His work is also defined by a keen interest in socially sustainable tourism. As a speaker, he regularly engages audiences on this topic, underscoring his belief that the human element of travel is what truly enriches storytelling, whether on television or on the page. Originally from a small town in Canada, Brandon is a Harvard University graduate with a degree in art history and architecture.
Hi Brandon, welcome to Famous Writing Routines, great to have you here with us today! You’ve visited over 130 countries and lived in places like Paris, Tokyo, and Thailand. What drew you to a life of travel and adventure?
I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t compelled by travel. I’m obsessed with the truth. I want to know what makes people tick. When I was little I would ask my parents for trips instead of toys for my birthday—the compromise was books about faraway places. Material World by Peter Menzel was particularly compelling. It depicts families from all over the planet with all of their possessions staged in front of their homes. Flipping through its pages helped crystalize my desire to travel: to better understand how others experience the world, and to fathom the similarities and differences that make us all human. I still have a copy on the bookshelf in my office.
What was your experience like working for Lonely Planet, and how did it shape your writing style?
Lonely Planet felt like my grad school. While there’s a template that governs guidebooking prose, my years at LP gave me a PhD in taking complicated ideas and crunching them down into bite sized morsels, easy for a reader to consume. Whole countries and all of their swirling complexities had to be rendered in a mere 300 words. It was an exercise in succinctness; in understanding the weight of each word and how to use them precisely. It also changed the way I viewed the world around me: everything became book fodder; every conversation; every street corner; every meal.
Your book, The Far Land, is a thrilling tale of power, obsession, and betrayal. How did you go about piecing together the full story of Pitcairn Island and its past?
I had originally visited Pitcairn on an assignment for a popular travel magazine, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was so much more to tell—a 100,000-word story instead of a 1,200-word feature—so I organized a trip to Australia where most of the island’s historical documents are kept, and where most of the island’s descendants live today.
There are enough primary sources gathered (namely the log entries of commander William Bligh and his loyal subordinates) to provide a full account of the Bounty’s journey and takeover, but historians have traditionally shied away from detailing the 18 years of solitude on Pitcairn thereafter. I read every piece of writing I could get my hands on, but the most valuable information was unearthed through less traditionally Western methods.
Oral storytelling is an important part of the Pitcairn canon, and I mined the descendants for stories and anecdotes, especially about the women who were largely marginalized from previous historical retellings. My book is a blending of verified sources to better understand the driving motivation behind the islanders’ actions, rather than an oversimplified laundry list of casualties.
You lived among the families on Pitcairn Island for a period of time. What was that experience like, and how did it shape your perspectives on life on the fringes of civilization?
Every man-made structure on Pitcairn is overwhelmed by nature—tree branches growing through window panes where glass used to be like some great conspiracy to return the island to its original, human-free splendor. A paradise, Pitcairn is not; nor is it trying to be—its gardens need tending, rutty roads need clearing, and there’s a general store and a post office open but a handful of hours a week.
Mornings start early—it’s too hot to remain in bed. And evenings tend to end early as well—showers and tea are an order before the island’s diesel-generated power shuts off for the night. Residents’ lives are dictated by the power cuts—nightly forced outages to save fuel.
The verticality of the island is deceiving—it feels much larger as a result, and everyone tools around on ATVs instead of walking, even to reach your neighbor’s house.
Locals communicate by VHF radio tuned into Channel 16, the international calling and distress frequency. Three shouts of a person’s name get their attention (only a first name needed), then you switch to a private channel to continue the conversation (and the rest of the island flips to the same frequency to eavesdrop).
There was a strange sameness and familiarity on the island, too—I thought about this often. The way people bickered; the way family treats one another; you love each other but you’re also stuck together.
Really, the island felt like a trailer park at the end of the world.
The human element of the travel experience is what informs your storytelling. Can you give us an example of a particularly memorable human interaction you had while traveling?
I was backpacking through southern Vietnam at the age of 19—my first solo trip—and was rather preoccupied with finding the perfect bowl of pho. A victim of the “a famous person ate here” apocrypha, I pulled up a chair in an unassuming noodle joint where Bill Clinton had apparently enjoyed a meal. A young Vietnamese couple sat down beside me—they were quiet and smiley at first, but 15 minutes later we were bonding over a shared disdain for the academic hazing of our respective architecture degrees. I motioned to pay for all three of our meals, but the server informed me that the bill had already been taken care of. It was indeed my perfect bowl of pho—I have no recollection of the quality of the soup itself—not because it was “local” or “authentic”, but because it was kind.
Can you tell us about your writing routine? What does a typical day look like for you?
As a travel writer, the biggest battle is carving out time on the road to sit at the desk in your hotel room and get words on the page.
I wrote most of The Far Land during the quiet of the pandemic and, for the first time, built a daily routine that worked surprisingly well. I woke up around 6.30am to drink coffee and read (mostly books, mostly unrelated to the one I was writing)—to fill up the tank. Then I sat at my computer from around 7.30am to 1pm. Sometimes 3,000 words would appear, sometimes 30, but I always committed the time. I’d then go for a run—usually three or four miles—shower, and have a late lunch. The rest of the day was devoted to other things, though when my deadline loomed I’d do a few more hours at the computer from around 6pm-8pm.
I also need a view—water is preferable. I’ll listen to YouTube videos of rolling ocean tides if I’m writing from somewhere without anything inspiring to look at out the window.
Ultimately, I appreciated that everything is part of the writing process—thinking in the shower, thinking on a run, dreaming in the middle of the night—such a small fraction of the time birthing your book is actually the clacking of keys on your laptop.
If you could have a conversation with any author throughout history about their writing routine and creative process, who would that person be?
I’d love to chat with James Norman Hall, author of numerous books including Mutiny on the Bounty; the novel which served as the source material for the famed Marlon Brando movie. Born in the American Midwest, he eventually moved to Tahiti after flying in three different air battalions during the First World War. I’ve had the opportunity to visit his home in the village of Arue in Tahiti (now a museum). His narrative style is so effortless and clear.
I’d love to know about the books you’re reading at the moment. What have been some of your favorite recent reads?
I want a book to entertain me—take me to a different place, tell me a good story and tell it to me well. It’s really that simple. That easy rule applies to both fiction and non.
Right now I’m re-reading Class by Paul Fussell, an author who always entertains but never quite reveals if he’s being genuine or an absurdist.
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