I recently agreed to answer some questions about traveling and writing and travel writing for a website. For whatever reason, they now don’t want to run it. No harm, no foul. So I’m putting it up here instead.
Tell us about yourself … how did you become a travel writer?
Let’s see…where to start. I just bought the most delightful “antique” plate that has featured on it a monkey wearing a Star Wars t-shirt. I love it. I hung it above the door to my kitchen. As for travel, I’ve been obsessed with seeing the world since my first trip abroad when I was 20. As for writing, I’m not one of those people who knew I wanted to be a writer when I was six years old (like many writers claim). I was in grad school and was asked by a friend who worked at a website to write about what it was like living in Prague in the 1990s. I did. And I enjoyed it. So I started writing more. And what turned me on most was writing about those experiences that happened to me while traveling. The same thing could have happened to me down the street from my home but if it happened on the road it was somehow much more intriguing to me. I started getting these stories published. And so, by default, I became a travel writer.
So between pig-killing in the hinterlands and hunting for Jesus’s foreskin, it seems that you have a knack for getting into odd situations … how does this happen?
I ask myself: do I want good things to happen to me or interesting things to happen to me. I vote for the latter. Isn’t life more interesting when we’re in “odd situations”? I like placing myself out of my comfort zone. It’s in this area where we really live. And when we really grow. Plus, it makes for good conversation at cocktail parties.
Are you working on any tales of weird travel at the moment? If so, what’s it about? (please don’t tell us it involves more biblical nether regions)
Ha. I think I’m done with biblical nether regions for this lifetime. I was just in Varanasi, the Hindu holy city on the Ganges, doing a story for AFAR magazine in which I hung around the riverside cremation grounds for a week and a half chatting with the guys who work there and the mourners and such. It was all death, all the time. It was an odd experience, for sure. I kept asking myself: and so why did I want to do this again? For the answer see how I responded to the question above this one.
It looks like you’re pretty good at picking up awards for your travel writing – what about your work do you think catches readers’ eyes?
I ask myself that same question sometimes. It’s not easy talking about my own work and what might (possibly) set it apart from others’ writing. I think I have an eye for the offbeat and I use that to the story’s advantage. Also, when I read, I read like a writer. And by that I mean, I try paying attention to how great writers are writing, what words they’re using, how they’re structuring their sentences, the way they’re telling the stories.
What’s the most important thing you’re teaching your students at NYU about writing professionally?
I’m honest with them. Sometimes brutally. Not about their writing – though I’m gently honest in that way, too – but about the industry. I hate those ads for travel writing classes that boast that you can “travel the world for free and get paid to do it.” It’s really misleading. I don’t discourage them at all but at the same time I want students to know that, while it has its unique rewards, this isn’t really an easy job.
Finish this sentence: The best stories always have …
…interesting people and juicy dialogue in them.
Name some websites/books/publications you think every wannabe writer should check out …
“Travel Writing,” published by Lonely Planet and written by Don George. Also, “On Writing Well” by William Zinsser. Read the New Yorker and AFAR (and other travel magazines). Read the annual Best American Travel Writing. Read the newspaper and news websites and stay informed about what is going on in the world. Figure out who your favorite writers are (if you haven’t already) and read them. Then re-read them. For me, I love reading Joan Didion. She really makes me feel inspired to write.
What advice do you have about building an audience for a blog … how do you get people to read your posts?
I don’t have my own blog, so I can’t really fully answer. Social media is the way I spread the word.
What’s the most interesting place you’ve ventured to? What set it apart?
Anywhere off the tourist trail is interesting to me. Not all of us travel to see how real life happens in other parts of the world (some people want to escape that), but I do. And I find that by venturing out of the center of town and away from the beaches and historical centers.