Dennis O'Brien

Stuart Woods is an archetypal man of mystery. He's hard to keep an eye on: he has homes in Florida, on an island off the coast of Maine, and in New York City. He can drive or pilot pretty much anything you can think of: he has his own powerboat and is a licensed airplane pilot. He also has quite a way with words: he's written 25 mystery novels—one of which, Chiefs, won the Mystery Writers of America's Edgar Allen Poe award and was made into a CBS miniseries starring Charlton Heston and featuring Danny Glover and John Goodman. Woods took a couple of minutes during his 18-city book tour for his latest Stone Barrington novel, The Short Forever (published April 15, 2002), to speak to T+L about the benefits of flying his own jet and about how his travels have shaped his books and his life.

1.How often do you travel?Is it usually for business or pleasure and how do you do it?
I seem to travel constantly, and I always fly myself, except when going abroad ... and sometimes then as well. I fly a 1998 Piper Malibu Mirage, that has had its piston engine ripped off and replaced with a turbine—that's a jet engine turning a propeller. It's pressurized, fast (260 knots), and flies high—up to 27,000 feet. I never drive more than a hundred miles; driving ages you.

2. Where are you off to next?Where have you just come back from?Where would you love to go that you have never been?
I was just on a cruise to the Florida Keys and back. I'm a partner in a lovely, antique motor yacht called Belle; she's 77 feet, sleeps eight in four cabins, and is crewed by a skipper, cook, and steward. And I've just come back from a couple of days in Palm Beach—a dinner party at the home of friends and a dinner and cruise aboard another antique yacht of 122 feet. I'm flying myself on this 18-city book tour, coast to coast. I'd like to go to the Far East, especially Hong Kong, and I'd better get there quick, before terrorism shuts off another part of the world from safe travel.

3. What is the strangest travel experience you have had?
This one is about fate. I was living in London in the early '70s, working in advertising, and an airline client invited me to fly somewhere on his airline—but on a space available basis. I made plans for Rio, then Morocco, then Genoa, and all were cancelled for lack of space. Finally, I was told I could have a guaranteed seat to Palma, Mallorca—but I had to fly the following day. I arrived there knowing nothing about the place and knowing no one, but at dinner the night before, a friend had referred me to a guest house in the town of Calla Ratjada. There I found a lovely little place, stocked with interesting people, and met a couple who, when I needed a place to go and write my first novel, invited me to come and live near them, in the courtyard of a castle in Ireland. As a result, my life took an unexpected turn: I lived in Ireland for three and a half years, learned to sail, made many good friends, wrote my first book—a memoir of my Irish years—which got me a contract for the novel, which I finally finished eight years later. Everything good that has happened to me since then seems rooted in that experience—and all because three flights were cancelled and Mallorca was the only place I could go.

4. What's the best thing about flying your own plane between stops on your book tour?Any extra security hassles post-Sept. 11?
The best thing about flying my own airplane anywhere is the absence of the airport experience: no lines, no surly airline employees and security personnel, no waiting for my luggage. I land, a car backs up to the airplane and takes my luggage, and minutes later I'm having a massage in my hotel room.

5. How do you keep track of where you are going next and what you will be doing there?Any tips on how to plan for a 18-destination month-long whirlwind tour?
I keep my schedule on my Sony Clié, plus a printed schedule from my publisher—a page a day. I've learned to travel with a blue blazer, a pair of slacks, some extra khaki pants and four changes of underwear and socks. Since I'm not seeing anybody twice, it hardly matters that I wear pretty much the same thing every day. I insist on spending two nights in most cities, so I can get my laundry and dry cleaning done and have dinner with friends. My luggage consists of one leather duffel bag and a briefcase. The overnight laundry service available from good hotels is a big help. The hardest part is not gaining weight on room service food.

6. How do you pack for a trip that takes you to different climates, and what must you always have with you?
I'm very warm by nature, so my clothes are always tropical weight, no matter where I am. If I'm traveling to a colder climate for a few days, I take a lightweight cashmere topcoat, gloves and a soft hat that folds for packing. That works for everything except March in Chicago.

7. You've sailed across the Atlantic in a yacht, stopping along the way in the Azores, Madeira, and the Canaries. What was your favorite part of that trip?Any recommendations for people trying to do the same?
My favorite place was Horta, on the island of Faial in the Azores. About the only Americans who ever visit the town sail there, and the only tourists are yachties. I've spent a total of about a month there, on various cruises. The island and the town are beautiful, the food is good, and it's remarkably cheap, compared to nearly anywhere else in the world. No one should ever sail across the Atlantic without stopping there. You can fly to the Azores, too, on daily flights from Boston, but most of the passengers are Azoreans who live in the States and are visiting home.

8. How do your experiences as a traveler affect your writing?Do those experiences work themselves into your character developments?How are your plots affected by your travels?
I have set 24 of my 25 novels in places I've lived or visited for periods of a week to several years. As a result, I don't get email from readers telling me that I got it all wrong. Often, I've set scenes in novels that are based on something that happened to me, and that makes them easier to write. Only once have I set a book in a place I haven't been—Idaho, as it happened. I meant to go, I really did, but I just couldn't get it done. Oddly, I've never heard from a reader that I got Idaho wrong, and I made it all up.

9. What has been the biggest obstacle you've had to face in your travels?
Customs. I used to be an inveterate smuggler (this was many years ago, if you are a customs official). I would smuggle a few shirts, a suit, some shoes—something on every trip. Although I always sweated a bit each time, I never got caught. In fact, only once was my luggage thoroughly searched, and on that occasion, I was smuggling the luggage.

10. What piece of travel advice do you most often give to anyone willing to listen?
Go somewhere! It's astonishing how many people don't. Pack light, live a little better than you can afford, tip well, and always speak English to the French. They may not acknowledge that they understand the language, but at least they won't complain about your pronunciation.

Interviewed by Robert Maniaci