Going On Record As A Travel Writer With Rolf Potts' Interview Series

Excerpt from a travel writers interview by Rolf Potts at his Vagabonding site, 2006. View the full interview here. How did you get started traveling?

My fascination with a wider world cropped up early.

As a toddler in countercultural Berkeley, CA my favorite pastime was "French Lady", a tea party with Continental accents.

I began traveling even further when I learned to read -- comic books.

Instead of poring over Archie & Veronica, perky storylines that revolved around characters who never graduated from high school nor breached the border of their staid hometown, I was entranced by the global expanse of history and people and culture revealed in the Belgian-made graphic adventures of Tintin.

Tracking a drug-smuggling ring in Egypt, discovering a meteorite with a Polar research vessel, surviving a plane wreck on an Indonesian island -- this was life!

Tintin's travel tales, and many others after them, remain reference points. Last fall at a museum in Nazca, Peru one long-haired, head-banded Incan mummy stirred a pleasant flashback to "The Seven Crystal Balls", as well as the awe of my twelve-year old self. It's no wonder I pursued a degree in archaeology.

How did you get started writing? AA: In the early  '70s I kept a journal on childhood road trips where I recorded preferences for the wildness of Baja's bumpy sand roads and discovering the mother-lode of sand-dollar graveyards in San Felipe to a sedate spin around British Columbia's Lake Victoria and a fur-seal keychain from the gift shop.

Later I was a correspondent, trying to explain my own culture to teen pen pals in Wales, Northern Ireland, and Malaysia, while I searched for clues about theirs hidden in precise penmanship, tarty vocabulary, and postage stamps with monarchs -- some butterflies, some queens.

During a slew of 20-something media and entertainment jobs I wrote and edited for years, whenever the opportunity presented itself, for a book packager and literary agency in New York, and for television, theatre and film producers in Los Angeles.

What do you consider your first "break" as a writer?

AA: Reviewing Pico Iyer's essay collection Tropical Classical: Essays from Several Directions for the Far Eastern Economic Review in 1997. The newsweekly magazine based in Hong Kong was equivalent to TIME in Asia. I was living in Malaysia and devoting more attention to my writing career, so it was a breakthrough to write for a major publication and huge audience about subjects which mesmerized me.

What is your biggest challenge in the research and writing process?

AA: Calling up facts. Seeing the larger story. Sitting down and doing the writing!

What is your biggest challenge from a business standpoint? Editors? Finances? Promotion?

AA: Publishers and acquisition editors and publicists seem to have narrow expectations for travel literature so for my next book I plan to devote a lot of energy to a detailed marketing plan which will accompany the manuscript in its rounds to publishers. Jennifer and I learned quite a bit about marketing to publishers with Tales from the Expat Harem, which was initially turned down by 10 New York houses who liked it but couldn't fathom its market (Turkey's too limited a subject, they said).

We've since determined that it addresses a multitude of distinct groups beyond the basic cells of travelers, expatriates, women writers and travel writers. In fact, we found enough specific target markets we were able to fill a hundred pages of our marketing plan with actual contacts of potentially interested people and organizations, like Turkish American associations, women's and Middle Eastern studies programs at hundreds of North American universities, and specific Turkophile populations like the alumni of the Peace Corps who served in Turkey.

And the beauty of a marketing plan which breaks down readerships is that a writer (or if you're lucky, a publisher) can contact all of these people.

Jennifer and I also compiled more practical subsidiary audiences for the anthology, like multinational corporations with operations in Turkey, and embassies and tourism organizations which might use the book as a cross-cultural training tool or a promotional vehicle. We were successful enough in our initial efforts in academic marketing that the book is currently used in at least three university courses and is stocked by more than 100 academic and public libraries worldwide.

Have you ever done other work to make ends meet?

AA: Always. Often my most satisfying work has been poorly compensated. I do believe that will change, eventually! Until then I continue to be a proponent of pursuing the work you love rather than the work which pays best.

An essay about a transformational subway ride which I wrote for an obscure website in 2002 not only led me to be quoted in the New York Times and brought me my literary agent, but it also now appears in The Subway Chronicles book published by the site's creator, alongside venerated New York writers like Calvin Trillin, Colson Whitehead and Jonathan Lethem.

What travel authors or books might you recommend and/or have influenced you?

AA: Recently I enjoyed Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before by Tony Horwitz for its mix of historical research, personal experience, and contemporary journalism.

Historical travel writing also connects me to the lands I find myself in, and points to the parallels which still exist.

My steamy days in Kuala Lumpur were enriched by reading Somerset Maugham, whose Malayan fiction was entirely believable. A series of historical Asian travelogues and contemporary scholarship released by Oxford-in-Asia jogged my imagination and similarly, now that I am based in Turkey, I'll be turning to the Cultures in Dialogue series at Gorgias Press, which resurrects antique writings about Turkish life by British and American women travelers and refreshes them with contemporary academic analysis.

What advice and/or warnings would you give to someone who is considering going into travel writing?

AA: Advice: Read the bulletin boards at Travelwriters.com. A lot of very fundamental wisdom there about the life and business of travel writing. Warning: Don't post a word at Travelwriters until you've read the boards for a week or two and have a good understanding of what topics have already been covered, and how best to introduce yours.

What is the biggest reward of life as a travel writer?

AA: Sharing my view of the world with others. Adding to the conversation. Having every excuse to adventure.