Experiences Being a Travel Writer

Picture of Lawrence MillmanAuthor: Lawrence Millman

Many people know you from your travel writing, but in an interview you mentioned that you thought of yourself as an ethnographer.  What do you see as the difference?  How do you approach your work differently than perhaps a travel writer might?

For me, a good travel writer is also an ethnographer.   He/she will visit locals, typically elders, in order to get a window on Place, since older inhabitants usually have a breadth of vision as well as a breadth of experience — good for insights on Place, also good for oral histories.   Likewise, my kind of travel writer will have an interest in local customs, many of which will doubtless be dying out, to be replaced by what Pico Iyer all too cheerfully calls “the global soul.”   Needless to say, I prefer local souls to global ones.  If I would never do ethnographic work in New York City or Paris (Paris, Maine: yes!), I also doubt that I’d write a travel article about such places.   Rather, I would light out for the remote, the unfettered, and the wild — places where I’d find individuals (sic) who can talk about (for instance) pre-contact customs, shamanism, or the pleasures of cannibalistic cookery.

What frontiers do you believe remain unexplored?  Where do you see travel writing going in the next ten years?

In travel writing, a place doesn’t come alive until it’s been consecrated in a point of view.   One’s own point of view.   Your book or article is saying, For better or worse, this is my trip.  Thus unexplored frontiers tend to be personal as well as geographical: What destinations haven’t my thoughts been to?   As for where travel writing itself may be going in the next ten years, who the blazes knows?   That’s a virtue.   You wander down the road, and you don’t know who you’re going to meet.   Travel writing is like wandering down the same indeterminate road.   Still, I’d say that there will be more travel books/articles about the so-called urban wilderness (i.e., cities) in the future, because genuine wildernesses are going, going, gone.

You sit down in an airplane, and the young person you’re sitting next to tells you that they would like to be a travel writer.  What do you tell them?  What qualities do you think a writer needs for this line of work?

Most would-be travel writers think of the genre as an embrace of far-off places, which alas! cost mucho $$$ to visit.   To such a person, I would say that you don’t need to travel far in order to travel wide.   Venture out your front door, and you’re traveling.   Board a bus, and you’re really traveling — all those exotic faces demanding that you write about them!   At the same time, I would tell that person not to give up his or her day job.   What qualities — apart from a love of words — does a writer need for this line of work?   The most important quality is curiosity.   Pay abnormal attention to all the minute particulars all around you.   Dump that iDevice into the trash, and cast your eyes on the actual rather than the virtual world — the former is vastly more interesting than the latter.

What makes working with editors such a struggle?  How would you change people’s conceptions of the editorial relationship?

Good writing should raise the roof, but most editors nowadays want that roof to be securely fastened, lest it collapse — in other words, they don’t want their magazine to subscriptions or their publishing house to go belly up.   Unfortunately, lots of roofs are collapsing these days, with the result that editors are all the more cautious, conservative, picky, etc about what they publish.   I would tell a would-be writer to ignore what I’ve just said!   Write what you please, in whatever manner you please.   For somewhere, somehow, there’ll be an editor willing to publish your work — if not now, then in the future.   If not hard copy, electronic copy.   And I’d tell that writer not to burn any bridges by telling an editor to (for instance) shove it where the sun doesn’t shine — there aren’t all that many bridges left anymore.

What’s the next big project on your horizon?  What are you most looking forward to in 2013?

It’s important for a writer to be able to switch gears.   Which is to say, change genres if the zeitgeist calls for it.   You may have noticed rather a number of references to mushrooms in Hiking to Siberia.   I am in fact a mycophile (mushroom aficionado), and my next project is a book of essays about strange and bizarre mushrooms, scheduled to be published in the fall of 2013.   The book will include (among other things) an essay about the world’s largest mushroom, an essay about hallucinogenic mushrooms, and an essay about a fungus that attacks platypuses.   As for what I’m looking forward to in 2013, a trip to Iceland in March — that’s when Iceland, perhaps my favorite place in the entire world, is grey, cold, windy, bereft of tourists, and absolutely lovely!