Marie Javins (mariejavins) Tue 3 Apr 07 03:00
I have one travel narrative book out (Dik-Dik), but it is as much a book about me as a travel book! I am, I suppose, as much a naval-gazing autobiography writer as travel writer. "Curse of the Hippo" is, if I have my way, going to be thinly veiled autobiography--all about some growth and recovery experiences against a backdrop of Africa and the Middle East. I do have a few other books out--guidebooks--as well as having my name attached to some children's books as editor (serialized pony/girl books) or writer (3-D world tour atlas coming out from Chronicle Books). I wanted to be a writer ever since I was a small girl, but was distracted along the way by things like making a living. Writing is possibly one of the worst paying professions out there unless you're one of the elite few--mostly because anyone who can write their name thinks they could be a writer, so it is not such a valued skill. And there are hundreds of would-be writers more than willing to work for free or "exposure," a tactic which more often than not brings on the prospect of... more free work. You can't live on travel writing income (there are exceptions). I do know people who make their living this way, but one of them jokes that he was a 17-year overnight success. Another supplements her income by teaching. Without the support of additional gigs or an employed spouse, it's almost impossible. If I tried to live on my travel writing income, I would be able to live like a king. In rural Ethiopia, that is. But since I prefer Uganda, Barcelona, or Thailand, I have to work at other jobs as well. I used to love to travel and I have a kind of "I write" built into me, so it was a natural evolution to begin writing about what I know. I prefer to think of myself as a writer rather than as a travel writer. "Travel writer" implies that I sell articles to magazines and newspapers, which I don't. Not because I don't want to, but because I don't have a clue how to start doing that sort of thing. It doesn't help that most places like to have articles that might actually convince advertisers to buy ads, and the places I go do not support big-money advertisers. I have a love-hate attitude towards "travel writing." On one hand, what is commonly considered travel writing revolts me as it is fluff, advertorial, and travel porn (the sort of thing no one can afford but people like to read about). On the other hand, there are some crack journalists writing precise and insightful articles that deal with more concrete issues than "which hotel offers a pool." And then there is service travel writing, useful material that gets out guidebooks and information, but this doesn't pay so well either. Am I a writer? Hell, yes! Do I make a living at it? Um, I don't edit comic books for fun. As an aside, there is an entire industry built up around teaching travel writing. Some of these classes, such as the Amanda Castleman one (disclosure: She's a friend) <http://www.amandacastleman.com/classes.html>, teach precision and word-crafting, as well as how to query. Others--I won't name them--are absurd and prey on people's dreams. The point of the workshops is to generate income for the organization offering them as well as providing a "press credentials" mill so that the aspiring writer can get press trips. "Travel writing will bring you exotic travel as well as income beyond your wildest dreams!" Um, if that's true, why is the "teacher" wasting their time running workshops? And press trips are another beast unto themselves, varying from fun to "a deal with the devil." But I digress...
Erik Van Thienen (levant) Tue 3 Apr 07 05:05
> more concrete issues than "which hotel offers a pool." The meme around here for that kind of travel writing/broadcasting is "which hotel offers a safe in every room."
paralyzed by a question like that (debunix) Tue 3 Apr 07 07:05
I was initially surprised to find fewer descriptions of the places you were traveling through in "dik dik" but then I realized that was not the point of this book. Do you think it takes specific training in journalism to write insightfully, non-travel-porn-ishly, non-autobiographically about a place?
Marie Javins (mariejavins) Tue 3 Apr 07 07:43
I don't like travel porn, but you'll find some wonderfully trained journalists writing it, and writing it well. Meaning that journalism has many applications, which may or may not appeal to me or to certain readers. How a piece is written depends on the assignment and what the writer is trying to accomplish. Travel porn sure does sell. People eat up stories about gorgeous bargains at only $500 a night, and those advertisers have deep pockets. Lyrical phrasing, expertly crafted sentences, disguised inverted pyramids with enticing leads... these can all be part of a story about a place so obscenely expensive that no consumer buying a mag to read on the plane can really take it seriously. People read these as fantasy, but they still might be seriously written, by seasoned journalists. Perhaps even journalists who could never afford such a trip themselves, but who need to make a living. I do think journalism experience benefits every professional writer. Journalistic standards should be applied to any style of writing, of course. Meaning that whether one is writing about the silk bedspreads of a resort hotel or the terrible depression one went through after returning from Bali, the writer should get the facts right and attribute things correctly. I understand that sometimes it is necessary to enhance or rearrange the truth for the sake of humor or drama (though I'm a bit of a stickler on this point), but the inherent facts shouldn't be altered. When rattling off the names of the Big Five, it's best to name them correctly to maintain credibility, for example. Like learning painting techniques before becoming a painter, one should get a solid grounding in "how-to" before taking up writing. A class or two helps, but a season writing local stories for a newspaper helps more. It can also give you experience in meeting deadlines and letting go. The piece will never be done, and you can tinker with it forever. But sooner or later, you have to let it go. There's an editor waiting. Oh, and what was I trying to accomplish? (Besides the personal narrative about me evolving as a human, I mean) I had two points. 1) I wanted it to be realistic, so a reader could feel like they were dirty and exhausted and on the trip themselves. 2) My point is that I'm no Lara Croft, I'm lazy, normal, like to have hot water, and anyone can make this kind of trip, provided they can get enough vacation time off work and can figure out how to board a bus. Knowing how to put up a tent optional. I want to encourage others to go out and travel to places they've always dreamed of. It is not as expensive as people think and doesn't require superhuman effort. Just get on the bus and the driver will do the rest.
mother of my eyelid (frako) Tue 3 Apr 07 07:59
Marie, could you describe your first forays in getting people to pay for your travel writing?
paralyzed by a question like that (debunix) Tue 3 Apr 07 08:19
You definitely achieved the goal of making this kind of travel seem very reachable for anyone with the time to be flexible and patient while doing it. I am not likely to have that kind of time (more than a month's vacation at one time) until I retire, but if I keep in good shape and can save a little along the way, I hope to try it.
Scott MacFarlane (s-macfarlane) Tue 3 Apr 07 08:26
I'm enjoying your comments on yourself as a writer (who also travels). Last week you made a comment about how you considered applying for an MFA program in creative writing, but didn't feel you could afford it. My immediate thought was that here is this woman who has prioritized her life so she could travel to the distant reaches of the world. There are so many of us, bogged down with the obligations of job/mortgage/car payments/bills who, in this common circumstance, don't believe we can afford to travel as you do. My own choice to pursue an MFA was, financially, a decision to assume one more monthly payment (through a student loan). More fundamental, like the decision to travel extensively as a way of life, I made a choice to extend myself as a writer and explore my art as fully as I could. Interestingly, your conversation on how hard it is to make a living as a writer is one that echoes down the hall of every MFA program in America. (Ask the poets, especially). And your comments about how learning the who/what/when/where/why of traditional journalism has helped you as a writer, totally makes sense as advice for anyone who wants to write professionally. You also demonstrate the ability to write in a sensory way, with an eye on telling your stories with dramatic flare. This approach to writing tends to be more heavily emphasized in the studio/workshop environments of the MFA world. Many of us write because writing is an integral part of who were are. After keeping up with all this fine discussion on traveling, I'm beginning to see that there are many who travel because it becomes part of who they are.
mother of my eyelid (frako) Tue 3 Apr 07 08:50
Hi Scott, great to see another inkwell.vue interviewee here!
Marie Javins (mariejavins) Tue 3 Apr 07 09:17
Scott, I guess I decided that writing a book would be my own MFA. I'd do it, and that process would teach me a lot. And the year's travel around the world cost me a grand total of around $16,000. Not bad, and I could easily have done it cheaper if I weren't so interested in hot water and decent hotels. But it still wouldn't hurt me to get that MFA. But it would probably help me even more to sit down on my butt and write the next damn book already. (It's all I can do to blog every day, but it helps me a lot!) One area I am interested in exploring is creative nonfiction. And yes, like you, I write 'cuz it's what I do. I travel these days for work more than any other reason, and since 2001 if it hasn't involved work, it seems it's involved a man. Someone asked me a few weeks ago in Cairo if I travel to "run away" or "run towards." I looked at him blankly and said "I'm working." Just what I do now, I reckon. Course, it's way cheaper to travel than people realize. But that's another topic.
Marie Javins (mariejavins) Tue 3 Apr 07 09:20
Debunix, short trips are a growing area! You might find something you could do in less than a month, and something affordable at that. It's airfares that are prohibitive. My Zambezi canoe trip was only 4 days long, my Namibia safari 10 days long, and and in SE Asia, you can see a lot of Vietnam and Cambodia in 2 weeks. But the problem is airfare. But there's always frequent flyer miles, right?
Marie Javins (mariejavins) Tue 3 Apr 07 09:24
"could you describe your first forays in getting people to pay for your travel writing?" Freelancing is not for the weak or the easily humiliated. If you're lucky, you get a rejection. Mostly, you just get ignored. And worse, as an editor, responding to unsolicited submissions is low on my list of things to take care of. So I'm as guilty as the next in the non-responsive category. There's a lot to do in the course of a day, and reading through a pile of things that I didn't ask for in the first place takes low priority. Same for most editors. I got a few nibbles early on from unsolicited queries. Sometimes this turned into "We might be interested in xyz at this other point," and then that person would change jobs. Sometimes I would generate a spec article, it would sit in a pile for a bit, and then that editor would change jobs. This still happens. Just a few months ago, I wrote a piece for The Boston Herald and then my editor was downsized, along with the travel section and my article. I placed a few articles on websites, for minimal money or none at all, then decided "Screw it, I'll do it myself. If no one wants to pay me to write, I'll just write my own way." And so I went around the world by surface transport over a calendar year for MariesWorldTour.com, writing on my website every day. It's not service writing, it's not writing for money, it's not journalism. It's just me doing what I like to do, traveling and writing. "Leap, and the net will appear!" People told me. There's no net. So at the end, I was finished, and I had a grand old website, and the job offers rolled in and I lived happily ever after. No. That didn't happen. Instead, I got really depressed. Now what? Sometimes I'd send an article over to Max at GoNOMAD.com and he'd post it. And that was nice of him. I sent out a book proposal to many agents and got back poorly photocopied, form letter rejection notes. Sometimes they were addressed to "Dear: " and my name wasn't even written in. One agent took it on as a graphic novel, couldn't sell it, and in the end said "Sorry." My lowest point was when I submitted a query letter to a magazine in Australia and the recipient hit "Reply" instead of "Forward" and asked a subordinate to find out what the hell I wanted from her. Things finally gave a little when Menasha Ridge Press needed someone to update their Virginia camping guide. I saw the listing the second it went up on travelwriters.com and responded, and because the commissioning editor saw that I'd been to Ethiopia and he too had been to Ethiopia, we started chatting. That gig led to me writing a book for the same publisher about tent camping in NJ. I'm sure it didn't hurt my credibility to have these behind me when searching for a publisher for Dik-Dik. Having written books already demonstrates an ability to follow through (eventually). Things have started to fall into my lap now, mostly from friends who know that I specialize in obscure destinations. "I saw this on a list of articles needed and thought of you because you're the only writer I know who saw Bam, Iran, before the earthquake and also had quad-biked in Namibia and been chased by a Nile hippo." And the world tour children's atlas was also through a friend, one I'd worked with briefly at Scholastic when I did a fill-in editorial gig there in early 2005. I suspect, reading back over this, that it's all mostly done through networking. Though I did get a job writing occasional travelogues about train trips for Amtrak through a blind submission. (I credit that the package I sent was covered in gorgeous hippo and leopard stamps, from Namibia. Even as I sent it, I thought it would either get me the gig or they'd have it quarantined and refuse to open it.)
Scott MacFarlane (s-macfarlane) Tue 3 Apr 07 10:24
Someone once said that the most important thing a writer needs is a strong butt muscle.
Marie Javins (mariejavins) Tue 3 Apr 07 10:37
And a broken internet connection, so that distractions are eliminated.
mother of my eyelid (frako) Tue 3 Apr 07 12:30
You occasionally compare your trips with that of other travel writers. For example, your 5-hour bus trip to Gedaref (Sudan) makes you feel lucky compared to âthe same trip [which] had taken Australian writer Peter Moore three days.â (265) (Moore wrote Swahili for the Broken-Hearted: Cape Town to Cairo By Any Means Possible.) How do you situate yourself among other travel writers whoâve taken similar routes? Or writers like Bill Bryson, who manage to write successful works out of âunsuccessfulâ treks (_A Walk in the Woods_)?
mother of my eyelid (frako) Tue 3 Apr 07 12:34
I also wanted to quote a paragraph of yours, Marie, that was pretty demoralizing to me! At the equator in Kenya: "People who have seen the water drain in different directions swear that it really happens. Theyâve seen it with their own eyes. The reason theyâve seen it happen is because it does happen. Water does sometimes drain in different directions on opposite sides of the equator. And the beauty of this cool effect is that you can replicate it in the privacy of your own homeâeven when solidly ensconced in one hemisphere or anotherâwith a little skill and practice.â (180)
Joe Ehrlich (static) Tue 3 Apr 07 12:42
I noticed that as well, and thought that it would make a pretty nifty parlor trick to annoy the Feral Antipodeans that infest the backpacker trail.
Marie Javins (mariejavins) Tue 3 Apr 07 13:04
I'm sorry if I disappointed people. When I saw this water trick happened, I was suspicious but sure enough, the water was draining in opposite ways. Then I looked it up later. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coriolis_effect#Draining_bathtubs.2Ftoilets> A simple explanation: <http://www.straightdope.com/classics/a1_161.html>
Marie Javins (mariejavins) Tue 3 Apr 07 13:26
How do I situate myself compared to other writers who have done similar trips? Well, I can compare myself to Peter Moore favorably as far as the trip--we're friends, we travel in a similar seat-of-the-pants fashion, and he helped me a lot in my Sudan planning. And we talked for ages about his trip while he was writing his own book in Sydney. I like to think I helped him passively, just being a sounding board for him. His encouragement to me was invaluable. Writing a book is a relentless process where you are alone with your own doubts for far too long. He kept reminding me that I didn't have to be writing the Great American Novel, I didn't have to be Steinbeck. I just had to do it my way. That would have to be enough. (Plus, I had a deadline.) Paul Theroux took the same trip in reverse--Cairo to Cape Town--in the same year as Peter and me both. There were lots of differences in our routes and observations. And his Dark Star Safari was printed almost instantly. Peter's book saw print about 4-5 months later, and mine 5 years later. So I don't look so hot next to Paul Theroux or Peter. If I could compare myself to Bill Bryson, I would be very, very happy because it would mean an end to chasing other sources of income. Oh, and the trip that took Peter's truck three days: I thought it was because it was the rainy season. But Peter told me after reading my book that it wasn't the season--it was just a lousy truck that kept breaking down! <http://www.petermoore.net/sftb/slides/slide204.htm>
mother of my eyelid (frako) Tue 3 Apr 07 19:42
I love this photo from Peter Moore's site. Is it anybody you know? <http://www.petermoore.net/sftb/slides/slide223.htm>
mother of my eyelid (frako) Tue 3 Apr 07 19:55
OK, two more questions. 1. How did you get your Marvel Comics colorist/editor job, and then how did you get your job in Cairo? 2. While you were in Ethiopia and Sudan and the other countries that practice it, did you get any hint or mention of female genital mutilation? Or is that a totally hush-hush subject especially among faranji (foreigners)? OK, one more: 3. Is "faranji" from the same root of the Thai word "farang," also meaning foreigner?
Marie Javins (mariejavins) Wed 4 Apr 07 00:09
Frako, on the photo, it isn't anyone I recognize. But it must be a local or state politician. There is a running gag in Egypt that they have one photo taken once by some government agency and are forced to use that one forever. It sure isn't a celebrity.
Marie Javins (mariejavins) Wed 4 Apr 07 00:41
"1. How did you get your Marvel Comics colorist/editor job, and then how did you get your job in Cairo?" At the tender age of 21, I was a senior at the central campus of Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Part of the program there is that you get sent off on frequent internships. My last internship was at Marvel Comics in New York. I stayed there until graduation (after devising a surreptitious plan involving off-campus housing permission and all independent studies--shh, don't tell) and then stayed on. For years, I talked of leaving. But every month, another monstrous student loan installment would come due and I'd keep going to work. (And some wonder why I don't want another huge debt. Wonder no more. It controlled my life for a decade. Not like a mortgage where you can rent the place out and it pays for itself.) Eventually, it became evident that the income of a 22-, 23-, 24-year-old would not match the outlay needed, so even as I was promoted up the editorial ladder from internet to editorial assistant to assistant editor to editor, it became clear that much more income was required to meet the monthly debt. So I took up coloring in the evenings. Another colorist, Steve Buccellato, showed me how to do it. This was pre-Photoshop so then we actually used watercolors and painted the pages. (There was a massive restructuring and change between 1995 and 2000 as coloring dramatically altered and those who couldn't adapt were push overboard, and those who did adapt found themselves paid much less for more work, because of the eventual proliferation of Photoshop artists.) I'd left Editorial in 1995 and gone to California to work with a Photoshop coloring company, but it wasn't long before I was back in New York working on a consulting basis with Marvel. This allowed me the freedom to travel for about two months a year while working in or out of the office the rest of the year. During this time, I was still really new at traveling and would go with Dragoman or Intrepid--Central America by overland truck, Peru by riverboat, Bali to Bangkok overland, loop through Laos and Vietnam and Cambodia, Kathmandu to Damascus by truck. That sort of thing. A guy in Marketing that I knew, Sven Larsen, also left Marvel in 1995, though he stayed gone, moving to the UK and working for various international book publishers before coming back to New York to work at Penguin for a while. Meanwhile, I left Marvel for good in December of 2000. The company had been going through bankruptcies and traumatic times, and I'd kept angling to get fired in order to get the payoff. But every time I thought I was close, the person I'd been asking to fire me would get fired. It wasn't the best time to be in comics. Finally, I left to go around the world. And I wasn't going back! No way! Comics and I were DONE! Then the economy of New York drastically changed while I was out, and when I got back, there weren't any jobs. This was 2002, post-9/11 and post-dot-com-collapse. And publishing was in crises anyway. I went through my savings for a few years, bouncing around Australia and the US, then sheepishly started coloring comics for a Disney licensor, while writing in my "spare" time. Then I went to work at Scholastic for a while, and started coloring a few reprints for Marvel. Then the opportunity arose to write Dik-Dik, and I decided to go to Africa to do it. Herr Marlboro then wrangled a summer assignment in Uganda and off we went. Fast forward to the end of 2005, with me having no work save a few poorly paying coloring Ducks gigs, returning from Africa penniless, unhealthy, and solo, rather beaten down by life in fact. Bleak. Sven then sent out an email announcing his move to Kuwait to work as COO for a new comic book company, Teshkeel. "Let me know if you need any help," I responded. I wasn't actually serious. Just a passing thought. Three weeks later, I was on a plane to Kuwait. I returned home to work freelance from New York (for Teshkeel) for the second half of 2006. Then in 2007, Teshkeel Cairo was born and I went off to work there for a bit. Currently, I'm en route to our new New York office. I'll stay there for several months before launching a new expedition. Personally, I'm hoping Teshkeel expands into Kenya in 2008!
Marie Javins (mariejavins) Wed 4 Apr 07 00:44
"2. While you were in Ethiopia and Sudan and the other countries that practice it, did you get any hint or mention of female genital mutilation? Or is that a totally hush-hush subject especially among faranji (foreigners)?" I was just passing through on the Dik-Dik trip. It would have surprised me if I'd gotten close enough to anyone to discuss this. Herr Marlboro knew quite a bit more about this, having been stationed in Sudan for two years, where he got to know people and they opened up to him. Also, as a development worker, it was an issue he'd been sensitized to. I did meet an Egyptian woman at a party in Cairo a few weeks ago who had done a film documentary on female genital mutilation. And it starred herself! Wow, I was impressed.
Marie Javins (mariejavins) Wed 4 Apr 07 00:49
"3. Is "faranji" from the same root of the Thai word "farang," also meaning foreigner?" Is certainly seems likely. Here's an explanation: <http://baheyeldin.com/linguistics/thai-word-farang-variations-in-other-languag es-arabic-origin.html> Perhaps the writers of Star Trek looked it up too.
Feral Antipodeans (cynthiabarnes) Wed 4 Apr 07 03:41
I have a pseud! And now I also know that <static> is alive and merely ignoring my repeated entreaties! I'm hiring travel writers to contribute to our new 2.0 website, Marie. Maybe you'd be interested? Email me. BTW, everything Marie has said about writing as a traveler is, I think, true. I've always made a living at it, but I've written a lot of travel porn to do so. She said, lavishing adjectives lasciviously on opulent accommodations....
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