Ash Hoden is a writer, foreign correspondent for a California-based design studio, and architect currently living, working, and writing about living and working in Qatar. His pursuits have always involved creation. He firmly believes social contribution is a fundamental requirement for a happy existence. He attended Colorado State University where he received the American Society of Landscape Architect’s Honor Award for exceptional academic design work. In addition to ongoing contributions in the business world, he previously founded an independent design firm and organized CambodiaFund, a method of providing basic school supplies to Cambodian children in need.
The Idiot of Funkyville is his first published book.
Q: Can you tell us why you wrote your book?
During a 13-month around-the-world backpacking trip I wrote a series of emails describing these travel experiences to friends and family. The emails gradually became more involved, taking weeks to write and usually going through several revisions before I would send them out. By the time the backpacking experience drew to a close I had the foundation for what became this book. I never really sat down and said, “Hey, I think I’ll write a book.”
Q: Which part of the book was the hardest to write?
The chapters covering events prior to my backpacking trip were by far the most difficult part of the book to write. I had to go back through old journals or memories and try to recreate the feel and essence for experiences that happened 10 or 18 years ago.
Q: Does your book have an underlying message that readers should know about?
Yes, it definitely has underlying messages. By documenting all of the questions I was asking myself about life and travel, and sharing the answers I either found or didn’t find, The Idiot of Funkyville is a very human story with common human feelings. The big idea is that each person has their own personal truth, which I call Funkyville, and that the best decisions are made when you are able to access that truth on a moment by moment basis. The ‘Idiot’ part of the title comes from the idea that the village idiot is the best person to find when you want to know the truth about an unfamiliar society. So my book, ‘The Idiot of Funkyville’, is about a quest to find and live my own personal truth and how travel, through the unfamiliar situations I encountered in other countries, was a great tool for doing so. It’s a memoir, but the book isn’t really about me. It’s about seeking.
Q: Do you remember when the writing bug hit?
Writing has evolved for me. It began in my mid-20’s as a daily journalling practice. Then I wrote some really bad poetry as a first step into doing something more creative with words. Even though the product wasn’t very good, the process of writing poetry became this great experience that taught me to use writing as a contemplative practice. After spending hours at a time working on a poem I often felt really silent in the brain department. As a writer, that’s the place you want to get to. From silence comes the best work you can offer. That’s when writing changed for me. I saw the amount of effort it takes to improve, but I also felt the rewards you can get from putting so much focus into something. For me, that is a very meditative feeling.
Q: Besides books, what else do you write? Do you write for publications?
I still keep a basic journal, mostly as a means for venting my thoughts. It’s a good exercise for me to spill my day-to-day concerns prior to sitting down and working on the book are any other prose. I also just started a blog which is primarily an intermediary between my journal and any other book-type work I’m doing.
Q: Do you have a writing tip you’d like to share?
Writing is a practice. It takes consistent attention and effort to get anywhere with it. I don’t know whether it is the same for other writers, but writing has a mystical element that makes it a contemplative tool for me. The more I can tap into that contemplative realm through writing, the better my writing will be. I think that’s why it’s important to make it a routine practice. You keep that contemplative aspect more readily accessible when you contemplate on a daily basis.
Q: Would you like to tell us about your home life? Where you live? Family? Pets?
My life is in a state of flux right now. I bought and renovated a small house in San Diego about 5 years ago but I just returned to the US after working overseas for the past 2 1/2 years. A friend of mine is living in my house right now and I’m bouncing between guest rooms in the homes of friends and family in a variety of different cities and states. The odds are pretty good that I’ll end up back in San Diego fairly soon but I’m still not decided. It’s a transitory stage I guess. No wife. No pets. Just a backpack and my car and the hospitality of others.
Q: Can you tell us a little about your childhood?
My childhood was very up and down. Until the age of 9 when my parents divorced, it was like a magic playland. My dad made a good enough living for my mom to take care of us without having to work. When they split, my mom had to take a fairly menial job, put herself through school, and raise my brother and I on her own. Times were tight and their split shattered this sheltered world I lived in. I was pretty scarred by it. In my teens I started using drugs and alcohol as a way to cope with that unresolved pain and had some times of great depression. But at the same time I also had some fabulous times and enjoyed quite a few successes at school. It was a mixed bag. The college years were much better. I developed a much stronger sense of who I am and how I like to live, but I ultimately had to face up to the fact that I have an addictive personality and the drugs and alcohol had to go. In the end, all of the ups and downs taught me to see the ups and downs for what they are and not to gauge my sense of self by that roller coaster ride.
Q: Where’s your favorite place to write at home?
I do almost no writing at home. It’s way too quiet. Most of my writing is done at cafes or other public locations. I like to be around people even if I’m not being social.
Q: What do you do to get away from it all?
Generally I love being active and being outdoors, so I try to spend a good amount of time doing things like surfing, rock-climbing, yoga, or snowboarding. I’m really consistent with my yoga practice. The other activities tend to come and go depending on where I’m living or how much free time I have. Relaxing at cafes is also pretty great.
Q: What was the first thing you did as far as promoting your book?
My first promotional move was to hire a PR firm to arrange a virtual publicity tour. They help to spread the word through blogs and digital media.
Q: Are you familiar with the social networks and do you actively participate?
I’ve got Twitter and Facebook and all that stuff, but I don’t put a lot of my time using them to cultivate a strong online presence. I recognize that it’s valuable for a writer to have a community behind them but I still can’t bring myself to put energy into building my web presence. It may come back to bite me in the future. Time will tell. For now it’s a sacrifice I’m not willing to make.
Q: How do you think book promotion has changed over the years?
I think that in the past getting published was the big hurdle for an author. Now, with digital media, ebooks, and iTunes, getting published is likely to be the easiest part of the process. For those who don’t have a big audience waiting for their book to be released, promotion is going to be the focus. This is especially true for the writer who plans on making a living from writing. I see that as a positive trend for writers and writing in general though. Digital not only allows a writer to get his or her work in front of the masses, but it also allows them to launch promotional campaigns without needing a huge pool of resources. The value of your work will be judged by the many rather than the select few who control the traditional publishing channels. And for those who do go the traditional route to publication, promotion is still crucial for success. Publishing companies no longer have the ability to put a lot of marketing effort into the little known writers. If you manage to get published they will expect that you carry the burden of promoting your own work.
Q: What is the most frustrating part of being an author?
I primarily just like to write. The most frustrating aspect of authoring a book comes from the non-writing activities it involves, mostly the business-related stuff you find on the publishing side.
Q: What is the most rewarding?
Writing has this meditative quality that I love. It stills the mind. When I write on a daily basis it has the ability to relieve life’s stresses and helps me to sort my thoughts. When I can get to that quiet place in my mind that’s when I do my best writing.
Q: How do you think book publishing has changed over the years?
I think the publishing industry is generally being flattened by the digital revolution. Digital is making it possible for writers to have immediate access to their readers without requiring a major investment of funding and resources from a bulky publishing house. As a writer, you can be successful without an agent or publisher. There is still value in using a literary agent and having the support of a large publisher, but it’s no longer required. Getting published used to be the end goal. Now the greater difficulties lie in making your work stand out in a larger and larger crowd.
Q: If you could be anywhere in the world other than where you are right now, where would that place be?
If I could be somewhere else right now I would like to be in Zurich helping a friend of mine launch a startup company. He’s on the brink of being able to realize a long time dream and it has the potential to change the lives of all who are involved.
Q: Your book has just been awarded a Pulitzer. Who would you thank?
I would thank all of the inspiring people I met during my travels. If the book succeeds it will likely be due to their stories, not mine.
Q: Thank you so much for this interview, Ash. Do you have any final words?
Thank you for the opportunity to talk about my work. For those who are interested in seeing more, my website ashhoden.com contains sample chapters, travel photos, and other tidbits.