A Homage To Travel, Freelance Writer, Tom Miller, by Mark D. Walker

Tom Miller has spent years writing about the Americas, Africa, and Spain. His many books have been uniformly praised, and as a freelance writer for more than fifty years, he has been, as he puts it, “successfully unemployed.”

Our paths crossed after I read an article in the Peace Corps Worldwide blog on February 18, 2018, entitled, “Tom Miller seeks writer for Moritz Thomsen book (Ecuador)”. Miller goes on to say:

One night over 35 years ago, I met Moritz Thomsen, a writer, and former Peace Corps Volunteer. This occurred in Quito, Ecuador’s capital, where Thomsen had served. His account of his Peace Corps years is wonderfully detailed in Living Poor, the first of a handful of terrific nonfiction books that ranked the author among the best American ex-pat authors of the twentieth century. I describe him like this:  He was a man of almost insufferable integrity and undeniable charm.

I responded to the blog editor, John Coyne, the next day.

Thanks for the heads up, John. This is an incredible opportunity. Moritz Thomsen is my favorite RPCV author–his books on the Esmeraldas are classics, and the “Saddest Pleasure” provides a unique perspective on many things, as does “My two Wars” – some travel and lots of personal insights. Ecuador is one of my favorite places (after Guatemala), making the project more interesting.

Miller asserts that he was fortunate that he’d come to know him personally and, along with fellow travel writer (and a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer) Paul Theroux, decided to compile a “Festschrift “(literary tribute) in his honor, and although this never came to fruition, he amassed an enormous number of materials on Thomsen going back to his military services, as well as letters he’d written to others. The University of Arizona’s Special Collection acquired his archives in 2004, and he said he’d entertain requests from writers to pursue the book and help them sift through these materials.

Although I’d only published one book at this point, I lived close by (in Scottsdale) and was enthusiastic about the project, so Miller guided my efforts for five years. After several months of interaction, I visited Tom’s home office. I helped him transport an additional six boxes of materials about Moritz Thomsen to the Special Collection, which was an arduous task, as Tom had Parkinson’s and needed a walker. But he was true to his word and set up several sessions with me to sift through this treasure trove of materials about and by Moritz Thomsen. He became a writing coach and supporter of this project for years.

One of the first letters he pulled out was to Paul Theroux, in which he sums up the plan to write the book in honor of Thomsen. February 18, 1997,

“Paul, Memo time—time to take stock of our Moritz project (sounds like the code name for some failed CIA scheme). First, what we’ve got; then what we’re anticipating; next, giving it shape; and finally, the publisher end. This could all wrap up by the middle of the year if you & I are diligent.

Over the years, he introduced me to many of the Returned Peace Corps Volunteers who knew Thomsen personally and had written about him. I’d ask them to include their writings about him: Craig Storti, John Thorndike, Marcus Covert, Christopher West Davis, Mike Tidwell, Pat Wand and Mark Lowry II, among others. As late as May 2022, he sent this message:

Your lead graf should only have MT, not Th(Theroux) or Conrad. Also, you’ve compressed an enormous amount of data in that opening graf. Why state that you didn’t know M(Moritz)? That sounds defensive, so what if you didn’t know him? My brother wrote a book about Thomas Jefferson and didn’t know him. The opening graf should be far more literary and far less filled with encyclopedic entries. 

He says, “The facts you use should be secondary to the sun in the day and the moon at night.”

Occasionally he sent a motivational thought:

“We missed Moritz’s birthday. It was July 3.”

He helped me write a series of essays about Thomsen, one of which was published by ELAND Press in London, which Tom endorsed with:

Mark —

By far and away, your best work about M(Moritz), keep it up!



Over the years, I learned that Miller has been writing about Latin America and the American Southwest for over thirty years. My favorite of his books is The Panama Hat Trail, which took place in Ecuador and is how he met Thomsen in the first place. He’s also written a series of books on immigration, which I’ve read and reviewed, like Writing on the Edge: A Borderlands Reader. https://millionmilewalker.com/2023/01/writing-on-the-edge-a-borderlands-reader-by-tom-miller-reviewed-by-mark-d-walker/

Another favorite is How I Learned English, which included the stories of author Alvaro Vargas Llosa and Francisco Goldman, as well as baseball stars like Juan Marichal. Tom sent my wife a signed copy since she and Tom’s wife, Regla, who is Cuban, had their own stories. He later apologized for misspelling my wife Ligia’s name and for difficulty deciphering his message. Another indication that Parkinson’s was closing in.  https://millionmilewalker.com/2021/02/how-i-learned-english-by-tom-miller-reviewed-by-mark-d-walker/


And in May 2022, he wrote a review for my new book, a book Moritz Thomsen inspired,

“Thoughtful, affectionate, and slender – you look for these qualities in your friends — and find them in My Saddest Pleasures: 50 Years on the Road.”


One shared challenge we faced was finding a publisher for the Moritz Thomsen book and Tom’s memoir, Where Was I? A Travel writer’s memoir. His struggle with Parkinson’s was front and center, “My writing has been stalled by a medical condition, a situation that has given me pause to reflect on my career and its first-person nature…”

I participated in his book signing on April 30, 2022, at his friend and photographer Tim Fuller’s studio in Tucson. Seventy-five adoring friends and fans surrounded him. Although Linda Ronstadt didn’t attend, she’s expressed her enthusiasm about Tom’s work many times, “I am a Tom Miller fan. He has written eloquently about the Mexican American borderlands where I was born. Here he uses his impressive skill as a journalist to provide a vivid look at his own remarkable life and creative process.”

I found the book inspiring and spread my review on social media. https://millionmilewalker.com/2022/05/where-was-i-a-travel-writers-memoir-by-tom-miller-reviewed-by-mark-d-walker/

I understood the challenges of getting my Moritz Thomsen book published, but assumed that Tom wouldn’t have any problems getting his memoir published based on his writing acclaim and recognition. Still, he had to self-publish it because time was running out due to his health. The most obvious candidate, the University of Arizona Press, passed, even though he’d taught at the University for over 12 years, and they’d already published one of his books.

Tom showed me the message from the editor after I promised I wouldn’t make it public. They loved reading it and appreciated his many literary accomplishments, but they couldn’t “market” a memoir like this and suggested he approach larger university presses like the University of Nebraska. A sad end to an illustrious literary career, but an indication of changes in the publishing industry and some limitations for memoir and travel writers.

His writing peers had acknowledged Tom’s work for years. He sent me a “Festschrift in Honor of Tom Miller in June of 2020, and it was a second edition. According to the editor, it was “tributes gathered here are an informal variation on the academic festschrift—the festivals or feasts of writing dedicated to a scholar in recognition of a long and unusually distinguished career.” The last of 18 essays caught my attention. “Humor, sadness, and occasional triumph,” by Pete Hamill, journalist, author, and editor, New York. “He is not defensive; he is celebratory. He helps us all see beyond the ancient pulp fiction to the dailiness of life in that American place, and in doing so, he adds to its reality and magic. We should all thank him.”

I didn’t hear much from Tom after celebrating the publication of his memoir, and unknown to me, he had fallen in August and broke his hip—and never really recovered. On December 21, 2022, I sent him a message on how much I’d enjoyed his book, Writing on the Edge, which I’d picked up at his book signing in Tucson. And I recently learned that he’d passed away two days before that…

The book we worked on for five years, Moritz Thomsen: The Best American Writer You Might Not Have Heard Of, is looking for a home. And despite the challenges, Tom’s salutation, “Onward and Upward!” comes to mind.

Over the last few years, I’ve learned much from Tom about writing and recognizing the magic other writers bring through their work.  I agree with Tom that “Great travel writing consists of equal parts curiosity, vulnerability and vocabulary…We observe, calculate, inquire, and look for a link between what we already know and what we’re about to learn. The finest travel writing describes what’s going on when nobody’s looking.”

Posted in All, Book Reviews: About Writing, Book Reviews: Latin America, Book Reviews: Non-fiction, Book Reviews: Travel and tagged , , , .