Q & A with Ayun Halliday, Author of The Zinester’s Guide to NYC and Sarong in my Backpack

author-of-the-zinesters-guide-to-nyc-and-sarong-in-my-backpackI am a little bit in love with Ayun Halliday. I read her book Sarong in my Backpack on my honeymoon and I laughed so much that I decided that we had to become friends. People this hilarious don’t come along every day.

I emailed her and to my surprise and delight, she emailed me straight back. After a decidedly sunny exchange, Ayun revealed that she has just published the Zinester’s Guide to NYC so I thought I would ask her to share her many secrets with us. Read on for an insider’s guide to NYC …

1. Please tell us your favourite NYC places to do the following…

A) get a coffee: The Buon Italia grocery in Chelsea Market – it has little table overlooking the olive oil where you can sit and sip.

B) go for a walk: The side streets of the East Village with a lap or two in Tompkins Square … preferably at dusk during the holiday season.

C) get drunk with your friends: The drinking’s been scaled way back, my friend, but Otto’s Shrunken Head on 14th St, and Decibel Sake Bar on East 9th remain forever dear to me.

D) take your kids to play: Empire Park between the Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridge … though these days my kids prefer to play by going to a comic book store. I was just playing in Jim Hanley’s Comic Universe across from the Empire State Building today …

E) buy crack (that’s a joke): Duly noted. Now if you’d said sell crack …

2. How did the new book come about? Joe Biel of Microcosm Publishing called with an offer I couldn’t refuse – someone with better financial sense would’ve refused it in a second, but assignment-wise, it’s a dream come true. I’ve always loved yanking visitors from the beaten tourist paths of NYC.

3. How long did it take to write? Nearly two years. My first order of business was to rustle up some fellow zine publishers and get them to contribute some of their favorite haunts, and then get them to revise what they’d written and flesh their listings out a bit more. That first go round yielded a lot of bare bones observations on the order of ‘Pakistan Tea House is yummy’. My own listings took a surprisingly long time to write – as you may have guessed from reading No Touch Monkey! (That’s Sarong in my Backpack for all of you in Australia and the UK), I have a tendency to rattle on forever. It was hard distilling my favorite things about a location or an event to just a few sentences. Then there was the infernal looking up of addresses, phone numbers and nearest subway stops, and figuring out how to categorise everything – grunt work I presumably wouldn’t have had to sully my soft authorial hands with, had I been working with a bigger publisher. The creative control working with an outfit like Microcosm can’t be beat, however. Everything was very collaborative and personal in the best way.

4. In Sarong in my Backpack, you had some pretty wild times on a teeny tiny budget. Do you have any tricks for surviving on the cheap? Eat in street stalls and the type of restaurants that could be mistaken for street stalls should the walls fall down. Try to time your visit for the months when that locale’s weather will likely be at its most pleasant, so you’ll be inclined to stroll and make al fresco meals of stuff culled from the local markets. That’s also the best time to partake of free outdoor events. Remember that your best souvenir will be any journal you keep, preferably illustrated and peppered with addresses of those you meet on the road.

5. Which countries are the best budget countries? I wouldn’t presume to dictate – it’s a matter of taste, and there are still a tonne for me to discover. I will say that traveling in India offers such a wide variety of experiences that visiting it can feel like visiting dozens of countries, all of them manageable on a tight budget. You certainly won’t be the first Western backpacker to visit, but particularly if you are travelling alone, there will be times when you will be glad not to have to reinvent the wheel – the infrastructure is there in terms of places to stay, transportation, cheap eats…

6. And the worst? Quite possibly the United States, though surely it’s gotten better with the advent of Chinatown buses. They started as a way for Chinese restaurant workers to travel between New York City and Boston for a pittance. The rest of the populace caught on and now they run everywhere. But as far as traveling internally, a large portion of this country remains car-centric to such a degree that you will have trouble getting anywhere without one. I’d suggest making lemonade from those lemons by going on a cross-country bike trip, hitting small towns that don’t get a lot of tourists – I think you’ll find yourself receiving a warm welcome from the locals. It will be good for them to meet you too. Australians are great travellers. Americans, less so. I think it’d be a better world if every American had to visit at least one foreign country before they’re allowed to turn 19. And not as a soldier, thank you very much.

7. What is the strangest thing you have ever done to make money when you’re overseas? I got some garden variety coloured chalk and used it to make drawings on the sidewalk, expecting people would toss down coins. Hey, it worked for Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins. Meanwhile, there was some art student laying down a picture perfect replica of some Old Master a few paces further on…

8. Where will your next trip be to? I’m hoping a newspaper or magazine will pay to send me to my hometown, Indianapolis, Indiana, to cover the opening of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library. And lately, the movies of Fatih Akin have given me a major hankering to visit Istanbul … which is funny, because they’re mostly set in Hamburg.

9. Do you have a wish list of places you would like to visit? If so, where? Always. Mexico City. Oaxaca. Guatemala. Morocco. Ghana. New Orleans. London, now that one of my very dearest friends is living there.

10. Any plans to visit Australia soon? I’d love to – I’m either going to have to win a free trip or stand beneath the tree that dumps buckets of money on people’s heads to make it happen, though. My old friend David Kodeski has wonderful things to say about a performance festival in Perth – they keep flying him out and treating him like a king. Perhaps they need a queen?

11. Any tips for aspiring writers out there? How did you become such a media starlet and get published, especially when you talk about things like farts and vaginas? Media Starlet!? Where!? The best advice I can give is to cite something the late monologuist Spalding Gray told Tricycle Magazine, that he started performing the autobiographical monologues that garnered him a lot of recognition because he ‘got sick of waiting for the big infernal machine to make up its mind’ about him. I’ve never had much of a gift for going after success in a traditional, mainstream way. Starting my zine, The East Village Inky, is what led to my first book contract.

Forty-five issues in, it still sustains me creatively during periods when everything else feels like it’s beyond my reach and/or control. Writing is only part of being a writer. You’ve also got to get it out there, particularly if no one else seems interested in doing it for you. Dare to be Heinie!

Aussies, get your copy of The Zinester’s Guide to NYC here

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