New ‘An Innocent Abroad’ has 35 great writers recounting their life-changing trips

One of the more unusual travel books out this year is “An Innocent Abroad: Life-Changing Trips From 35 Great Writers.”

“Great” includes Tim Cahill (a founding editor of Outside magazine), Jan Morris (war correspondent, author of 19 travel books, notably “Venice”), Jane Smiley (Pulitzer-winning novelist of “A Thousand Acres”), nonfiction best-seller Simon Winchester (“The Professor and the Madman,”) and thriller novelist David Baldacci (“The Innocent”).

But this $15.99 Lonely Planet anthology also features pieces by stellar storytellers you never heard of.

The tales, all short, were assembled and edited by Don George, longtime travel writer and currently an editor-at-large for National Geographic Traveler, and editor for the BBC’s travel website. We talked to him recently about the book.

Q. What do the 35 stories have in common?

A. Transformation. It’s the innocence the writer brought to experience. It’s an alchemical effect – something that changed the writer’s life.

In some stories, it’s something small. Jane Smiley’s is about taking a horse-riding trip through France. Her horse goes lame and she ends up traveling with her husband, who rents a car and keeps getting lost. But her experience leads to some beautiful, revelatory moments.

Then there are bigger stories, where a person’s life is actually changed. One I love is by Anna Vodecka; it’s an amazing story about a youth ministry trip to Europe.

Q. What’s the humor-tragedy mix?

A. I’d say maybe 80 percent have moments of mild or possible tragedy that end up being happy. The rest are sad but moving and meaningful.

One is about a guy traveling through Sri Lanka, just before the civil war began in the 1980s. He was in a charming village with charming kids. Later, he was reading news reports about revolutionaries who swept through that area and pretty much destroyed the village and killed the villagers. One night, back home, he looks up at the constellations – as he had during his wonderful trip to South Asia – and was thinking that the people he had such a good time with are probably no longer there.

Q. Which story has the least travel?

A. There’s one by a guy who lives in California and who spent his life traveling around the world. His story takes place in Nevada, at the annual Burning Man event. Of all his life-changing experiences, he chose this place just hours from his home to write about.

The story I chose to end the book was by an Australian who traveled around the world. She writes about coming home, and how home was so incredibly different than it had been. It’s poignant in a way – full circle – that symbolically everything changed. I think that’s what travel is all about: You have incredible experiences, come home, and because you’re now different the world you return to is different.