Most people know Andrew McCarthy for his iconic movie roles in eighties mainstays like Pretty in Pink, St. Elmo's Fire, and Weekend at Bernie's, but over the past decade the actor has carved out an unexpected second career as an award-winning travel writer whose work has been featured in National Geographic Traveler, The Atlantic, and the New York Times.
His first book, The Longest Way Home (Free Press, $26)—out today—chronicles the globe-spanning series of trips he hastily scheduled while trying to come to grips with an impending second marriage he wasn't quite ready to face. McCarthy spoke to Details about how he got into travel, why he can open up on the page but not in real life, and getting readers to accept him as a writer.
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DETAILS: So the obvious question is one you probably hear a lot: How did you suddenly become a travel writer?
ANDREW MCCARTHY: [Laughs] You'd think I'd get that down to one sentence, but I haven't. It's a long story. It was all an accident. I had no intention of ever becoming a travel writer. I'm a big believer that travel changes your life—travel changed my life. I would just sort of write up stories that had happened to me on the road. I tried to keep a journal, but I was terrible. I found that sort of a silly indulgence and embarrassing. So I ended up trying to capture scenes. And then when I came home from my trips, I would throw these little notebooks in the drawer. After about 10 years of doing this, really, I just decided, "Yeah, I could try and do that!" So I met with an editor from National Geographic Traveler and somehow convinced him to give me a shot at writing an article for his magazine. I said, "Look, I'll do it, and if you don't like it, you don't have to pay me." So he goes, '"All right, here's a freebie, so why not?" I wrote one that worked, and then another, and it just sort grew from there.
DETAILS: How did you convince that editor you were worth a shot?
ANDREW MCCARTHY: I met him at a bar. I knew somebody who knew him, and the guy agreed to meet me for a drink. I said, "I want to write for your magazine." And he's like, "You're an actor, dude." I was like, "Yeah, but I know how to tell stories, it's all just storytelling, you know?" He thought that was a good answer, and then eventually, after a year of me sort of e-mailing him and pitching him ideas and going back and forth, finally he said, "Enough! Leave me alone! Fine, go do it!" I just wore him down. Most people wouldn't have bothered and given some actor that chance to do that.
DETAILS: Were these trips for acting jobs, or were you traveling on your own?
ANDREW MCCARTHY: I definitely traveled a lot for work, but I had begun to travel on my own. I had walked across Spain, along the Santiago de Compostela. I would go down to Southeast Asia for months and through Africa for just months at a time. I would often use where I was working as an actor as a jumping-off point, but yeah, I was traveling for myself.
DETAILS: Michael Caine once said that for a long time that's the main way he used to pick his movie roles: He based his decision on where they were shot and where he could take vacations.
ANDREW MCCARTHY: Yeah, it showed, didn't it? [Laughs] I can't say that I've ever done that, but I'm certainly glad when I'm in a good location.
DETAILS: When discussing your acting career, you've often said that you wouldn't wish success on anyone under 30, and you intimated that if you had it to do all over again, you'd probably make different decisions. So it's interesting to hear how methodically you've approached your writing career.
ANDREW MCCARTHY: Well, I'm older. At 22, I didn't know fuck-all. I didn't know what was going on, and I didn't know anybody in show business. It's not like I was one of the Kennedys, who were bred for success. It was just sort of like, "Wow, what's happening?" So, you know, those movies have become iconic in a certain way, but that's all in hindsight, really. At the time, they were not the most respected movies being made. But I've been trying to be a little more awake in the sense of what I want to be working with and what I want to be writing about.
DETAILS: Is the absence of being recognized one of the attractions of travel for you?
ANDREW MCCARTHY: No, I just go. All that stuff is sort of on the outside. It's not like I'm Tom Cruise.
DETAILS: When did you decide that you you wanted to write a book, and particularly one about about your engagement?
ANDREW MCCARTHY: Well, travel writing for magazines is great, but it is a formula, and there's a limited [number of things] that you can do. I had a notion that I wanted to find a way to tell that the real journey we're taking no matter where we go is an inward one. I had all these stories lined up for magazines that I had to do, and my wife and I had just decided to get married, and I was sitting in the back of the cab going to the airport to Patagonia, and literally the whole thing came in a minute, and I was like, "Wait a minute…" You know, I was sad to be leaving, because we had just gotten engaged and were all lovey-dovey. At the same time, I was just thrilled to be going and to be going alone, and I was like, "Well, how the fuck do you reconcile that? I'll solve it the way I solve everything—by traveling." I knew exactly where I was going, and I knew I was going to end up in Kilimanjaro. The whole book just kind of laid itself out to me in those two minutes in the back of that taxi. And I knew that the internal journey would play out on top of that physical one. The book is not is not a question of "Will he or won't he get married?" There's no false suspense about whether I'm going to show up, it's more like, "How come I'm so thrilled to be going away from the person I love so much? How can I reconcile that?"
DETAILS: So why do you like traveling alone?
ANDREW MCCARTHY: I don't know, I guess I'm just more of a loner than most people are. I've traveled with my kids and family, and it's great, but at heart, traveling is just a like a laboratory for me. You put yourself in a vulnerable state, I think it's a really good thing. And you get very lonely when you travel alone, and I think that's a good thing. People go to great lengths not to be lonely, and I think that's silly. I find being lonely on the road to be much more tolerable and much more informative than being lonely at home. I don't think there's any reason to avoid being lonely.
DETAILS: You seem to be a very private person in a lot of ways, but in this book, you reveal some intimate things. It's interesting that you can do that in writing, whereas you might not be able to say the same thing out loud to someone.
ANDREW MCCARTHY: It's odd, isn't it? I think there's a strange sort of "push me, pull you" desire for connection and separation. That's one of the themes of the book. Was it Joan Didion who said, "I have to write to know what I'm feeling"? I had to write it out, and then I discovered it. A lot of stuff with my father, and my son, and the similarities that sort of define a parent when you haven't felt parented, was a discovery I made during the writing. People who've known me slightly say, "I can't believe you would write this book!" And I'm like, "Why?" And then they say, "Well, it's very revealing." So I reply, "It's not like I'm telling tales—it's just human emotions. Don't we all feel these things? It's not about anybody else, it's about me and my stumbling, one-step-up, three-steps-back journey towards trying to figure it out. And I think everybody is out there trying to figure it out.
DETAILS: Have you ever considered writing fiction?
ANDREW MCCARTHY: Yeah, I had been writing the travel stuff for a while and I had an idea for a novel and basically finished it and then I was very aware that I was "the guy from Pretty in Pink who wrote a novel." So I put that aside and went at this book full-force. It seemed like a natural platform to move out from, a travel memoir coming from a guy who had some legitimacy in the travel world. So, yes, I have some fiction that I'd like to inflict upon the world. [Laughs]
DETAILS: When you meet someone for the first time, if they don't know who you are, what is it you say you do? Do you say you're an actor or a writer?
ANDREW MCCARTHY: That's a good question. It's depends on who they are and if I want to deal with their questions. Because these are both romantic careers, being a travel writer and being an actor. So, whichever one I think they're going to react to less is what I say.
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—Timothy Hodler, research director at Details