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Looking for Looby: Mic Looby profile

When I meet the unshaven man in plaid zippered jacket and vintage 70s shirt he looks more like a bass player than the crisp profile image of Big Issue columnist, Mic Looby. “I shaved especially for that,” Looby quips. His eyes are ringed with tiredness characteristic of too much computer time or caring for a young child. And this Mic Looby does both.

The Looby I’m here to interview is the author of Paradise Updated. His first novel follows newbie guidebook writer Mithra as she heads to Maganda in search of the legendary Robert Rhind who wrote the first version of the guide revered by travellers as ‘the Bible’. Complications arrive when Mithra realises she has to sack Rhind while researching Maganda. The story flips between exotic locales and corporate machinations as Looby satirises the “bogus authority of the guidebook which is at the heart of a lot of what I wrote”.

And Looby should know – he’s penned guidebooks to Burma, the Philippines and Australia as well as working as an editor for Lonely Planet. “It’s so easy to remember as an ex-guidebook author because it really stays with you… And as an editor you remember doing this book before and changing these words last time and they’ve been changed back again by the author.”

He’s keen to point out that this is fiction he’s writing, not a tell-all memoir. “It’s a novel that happens to be about guidebook writers as opposed to the other way round. People will just get into because most people are travellers.” There must have been a point where he considered doing it as a non-fiction book? “You can be more true with fiction in a way,” he pauses sipping his coffee. “Because with non-fiction you’re claiming this is real and then you’re holding yourself holding yourself up to critics to say ‘That’s not how I know it.’”

His fictional country has become part of the gentrification of the Banana Pancake trail as intrepid backpackers are nudged out by resorts with on-beach parking and cosmetic surgery for tan lines. Looby reckons this scene has become all too familiar. “As soon as a guidebook says it’s unspoilt, it’s spoilt. When you’re out on the road you get that sense of ‘Should I really be putting this in the book?’”

It’s just one of the difficult choices Looby found himself making as a new guidebook author. His first book was the controversial Burma, which some travel pundits recommend avoiding because they believe travel supports the military junta. Looby remains conflicted. “You do have to go there to understand what’s going on, but if you go there you’re supporting the regime.”

But his first guide was made more difficult because he was presented with a problem much like that of his fictional Mithra: he was replacing another author. “I did him [previous author, Jens Peters] out of his royalties,” Looby explains “I wrote the bulk of it and they said ‘If you repeat one word of this guy’s manuscript in the new guide we’ll all be sued.’… I still feel bad about that.”

As much as being about researching travel tomes, Paradise Updated lampoons travellers who don’t realise that guidebooks are just guides. “It’s out of date before you’ve flown home and yet your readers don’t know that,” Looby laughs. He has a cheeky cynicism about the books he once wrote: “The problem is that people look to the guidebooks for truth and it’s not that simple. The truth is slippery.”

Looby is as mercurial as his veteran author Robert Rhind (rumoured to have died from a peanut butter overdose and fought in the last revolution on an armoured elephant). His driver’s licence tells you he’s Keir Looby, son of Archibald Prize-winning painter Keith. The younger Looby himself is a cartoonist, an illustrator of more than five children’s books, plus a degree in journalism that led to a sub editor job in Hong Kong. “I came home and thought I’d end up in newspapers, but Lonely Planet were hiring as they always are, so I just signed up with them in the late 90s as an editor in house.”

He swapped identities again to become a guidebook author, his typo-friendly nickname in several guides. That name comes from a family joke about naming him Heironymus, later to be ‘Aussiefied’ as Heronymic then abbreviated to Mic.

Confused by the many Mics, I ask what he calls himself. “Idiot, wanker,” he laughs, “increasingly so.” One thing he doesn’t call himself is novelist. “No way! I also read somewhere that you’re not novelist until you’ve written three. I’ve noticed people don’t call themselves novelists until they’re in the double figures.”

So if guidebooks are the Bible and their writers are disciples then does that make him a heretic? He laughs his lungs out before replying: “I hope so. I’ve always wanted to be a heretic now that you mention it.”

First published in The Big Issue, No. 338


  1. Many's the time I've sat on the train and paged through my newly purchased copy of The Big Issue to start reading at Mic Looby's page.

    The remark about visiting Burma reminds me of the time I went on a trip to South Africa (1980, I think). I'm embarrassed to say I was so politically naive that the concept of supporting an evil system of government didn't even enter my head - I just wanted to see elephants and zebras.

    My eyes were soon opened. Apartheid was quite overwhelming to a naive young Aussie. If I hadn't seen the terrible situation I would have missed a vital part of my education.

  2. Sounds great! Am really looking forward to reading this one.


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