Imagine logging over 4 million miles during a decade of turning an idea into a multibillion-dollar company. And along the way, imagine eating everything from camel hooves to silkworms and signing a form labeling you an infidel — all in order to do business in foreign lands.
Jet lag, boardrooms, and high-pressure deals are what international business usually brings to mind, but for San Diego author R.F. Hemphill, it all meant so much more.
And he has catalogued much of it in his sometimes poignant, often funny book, “Dust Tea, Dingoes & Dragons: Adventures in culture, cuisine & commerce from a globe-trekking executive.”
Travel the world with Hemphill — without ever leaving San Diego — at 11 a.m. April 11 at Barnes & Noble Encinitas, or at 2 p.m. at Barnes & Noble Grossmont, and at 2 p.m. April 12 at Barnes & Noble Mira Mesa.
• You worked in the energy business for two decades before you began writing the pieces that eventually became your book. What prompted you to write them? What was the catalyst?
We started our fledgling business in the U.S. but soon decided to become “international,” and I drew the black dot to lead the charge. Subsequently, I went to many odd places, and it all seemed so interesting and strange to me that I wanted to capture the experience and share it with my family, especially my father.
• When you began writing the letters to your dad, did you think of them as a potential book, or were they just letters?
I thought they were worth saving, because I enjoyed writing them, but I knew little about books or publishing. It was more about just collecting the experiences.
• What did you particularly wish to convey in those letters?
Several things: first, how the business parts worked, since my dad and my whole family were not business people. In fact, my dad would have much preferred me to be an Air Force officer, as he was. So, I wanted to educate him about what I was doing. Second, the exotic nature of the places and the characters charmed me, and I wanted to pass that on as well. Few in my family traveled, so this was my attempt to let them do so vicariously.
• How would you categorize your book, “Dust Tea, Dingoes & Dragons: Adventures in culture, cuisine & commerce from a globe-trekking executive”? For whom is it written?
It’s a mix of memoir, travel book, business book, but it’s not a “how to make a million dollars” book. Most of all it’s interesting and humorous. I haven’t seen many funny business books — at least not intentionally funny — so there’s not a good model. Maybe David Sedaris if he had gone to the Harvard Business School.
• You have been enormously successful in the energy business. At what point did you realize that success would, in part, depend on your ability to immerse yourself in various cultures?
Oh, goodness, from the first day on the job! We were a small startup, undercapitalized, with no experience in the industry, and no one had ever heard of us. So we had to convince people in large organizations to deal with us. And that meant understanding their culture and their processes and values and goals so we could tailor what we were doing to their needs. Every business must do this to some extent. That requirement all doubles or triples when you add in the variable of doing all this in a country that is not your own, in a language that has to be translated for you.
• What was most disappointing about your travels?
Despite all the fun I was having and the interesting things I was experiencing, I missed the ability to simultaneously share it with my wife — to share it in real time and in person.
• The funniest?
The food was always a challenge in the places where we were. Even English food is pretty awful, and unfortunately we weren’t doing business in Italy. And far more than in the U.S., the business people in the other countries had a much stronger tradition of socializing with their business partners. In Japan it meant going to drinking clubs where “hostesses” came to serve you. Understanding that these hostesses were completely asexual and untouchable was a neat trick. The Japanese were perfectly comfortable with this. The Americans found it hard to get their minds around. Eating silkworms in China was funny, especially if you had had enough to drink.
• What was the most surprising commonality?
At the end of the day, you had to have a business case that made sense for everyone, you had to meet a need of a customer, or the whole thing was a long airplane ride and a lot of strange food for nothing.
• What do you enjoy most about travel? Least?
It was fun to go to places I had not only never been to, but had never heard of and couldn’t even spell — Ekibastuz in Kazakhstan and Bhubaneshwar in India. And then I had to master all the elementary stuff — where to stay, how to call a cab, what was the money worth, and so forth. It was modern exploring. The least fun was the long plane rides, inevitably in a middle seat in tourist class. But I got a lot of reading done.
• At this point, do you think of yourself more as a businessman or a writer?
I hope that I am more of a writer, but I have a large amount of “businessman’s thinking” that’s useful, and that applies to the business of writing and publishing.
• What, to you, is the most difficult part of being a writer? The easiest?
The writing itself is really the easiest. If writing doesn’t come naturally for you, then you might not want to be in the writing business. Personally, I’d like to be point guard for the Celtics, but they don’t really need a short, slow guy who can’t shoot to fill that position.
The hardest part is getting your message out, trying to get what you have written into wider distribution and acknowledged by others. Just about everyone who has read this book, including people who are not my relatives, has liked it a lot. And I am still waiting for the New York Times book review editor to call.
• What advice would you give to aspiring authors?
The best advice I have ever seen came from Nora Roberts, although it is also attributed to others: “ass in the chair.” If you want to be a writer, you have to write.
• What do you hope readers take away from “Dust Tea, Dingoes & Dragons”?
I hope that they laugh out loud at least once in every chapter, and then show their companion what they’re reading, and then have a fight about who gets to read the book first.
• What are you working on now?
A definitive biography of St. Thomas Aquinas, set to hip-hop music. No, just kidding, it’s set to ecclesiastical music.
Antoinette Kuritz and Jared Kuritz are the team behind both Strategies Public Relations and the La Jolla Writer’s Conference (www.lajollawritersconference.com).