Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Interview with a travel writer...Leif Pettersen.

Today’s interview is with travel writer Leif Pettersen. Leif has contributed chapters to a number of Lonely Planet guides and is the co-author of Romania & Moldova ( Lonely Planet, May 2007). Lately, he has been hanging out in Tuscany, researching a doing research for Lonely Planets Italy 8 and Tuscany and Umbria 5. He is also the author of Killing Batteries, a blog about travel and travel writing.

Hi Leif and welcome to My Year of Getting Published. Thanks for stopping by and talking with us.

Did you always want to be a writer?

Not at all. Until my early-20s, I thought I'd be professional juggler (yes, really), or at least semi-pro while dabbling in acting. The allure of paid vacations, health insurance and my growing weariness of performing at back-yard birthday parties, being the tedious event before the serving of the cake, steered me into a nine year career at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis that turned into a fairly successful stint of feigning interest in electronic payments.

How did you get started in writing?

In 2003, an unpleasant series of events, both personally and in the world around me, inspired me to redirect my life onto a path that didn't suck quite so much. It was during this period of precarious vulnerability to suggestion that a reckless friend "Kramered" me into being a homeless travel writer.

I'd been fascinated with travel writing ever since a girlfriend in college made me read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson (rest in peace you savage bastard), which still ranks as one of my favorite pieces of travel writing in modern history. In my late-20s, I messed around with writing on my own - I've still never taken a writing class of any kind - but I'd never been paid to write, unless you count critically acclaimed application user guides for the Federal Reserve System.

My first year of traveling and writing could be charitably described as 'half-assed'. I started off with a six month, high-speed tour of Europe, kept an exhaustive travelogue and sent out embarrassingly inept, naïve pitches, mostly to American newspapers who roundly ignored me. I didn't have a clue about the pitching process and I didn't have time to properly educate myself as traveling, writing and the allure of €3 bottles of wine effectively filled those early days. It was a disaster, but an enjoyable, character-building disaster. Also, I simply didn't have the chops back then.

It took more than a year of writing 2,000 words a day (usually after exploring a new city or riding a train for eight hours!) before I started finding my voice and even longer before I could organize a piece of writing with marginal skill, something I still struggle with.

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

My first published travel writing story actually happened with alarmingly swiftness. During my first month on the road, I met up with and profiled a groups of friends doing a long-distance unicycling tour in Norway's Arctic Circle. It was an idiot-proof local-interest story, as such a weekly rag back in Minneapolis picked it up, chopped about 2,000 heart-breaking words off the piece and printed it. I was paid US$90. Incidentally, my expenses for that leg of the trip were about US$400 (Norway is mega-expensive).

After that, an agonizing series of failures ensued. It wasn't until over a year later that a US executive business traveler magazine asked me to clean up my travelogue entry about Lisbon, paid me and, since I was in the neighborhood (en route from Romania to Greece), asked me to drop by Istanbul to do another article. I spent five nights in Istanbul - three of those in a five-star hotel, my first taste of comped accommodations - wrote the article the following week on the floor, in the hallway of a hostel in Athens, knocked 'em dead, serious clippings followed and it's only gotten better.

What advice would you give to someone who is considering going into travel writing ?

Here's what little advice I can confidently offer: Find the time, even if you don't have the time, to educate yourself about the industry before you get started, so you have a good idea about what to expect and you don't waste your time sending blind pitches about the Amsterdam sex and drug scene to Christian newspapers in Tulsa. Writing and travel writing blogs ranging from Written Road, to mine (Killing Batteries), to this one are profuse and excellent sources of information - or in my case, cautionary tales.

The unfortunate fact is there are a billion squillion travel writers out there, many of whom will work almost for free, so breaking in and making a living means full time (and then some) dedication. I'm not gonna advise anyone to quit their day job, but it's almost a necessity. Nights and weekends just aren't enough, unless your only goal is to see your name in print (which is, admittedly, a nice buzz no matter how jaded you become).

Writing every day is vital and traveling a lot only fractionally less so.

Find a niche, especially in the beginning (e.g. my summer in Romania turned into a Lonely Planet contract, whereas visiting 18 European countries in six months turned into nothing – well, nothing initially). After that you can branch out, collect more niches, direct...

If you do decide to quit your real job and jump in the deep end, unless you start off with good contacts, exceptional talent and/or a clue, it's likely you'll lose money (a lot of money!) for at least a year while you build your name, so prepare yourself.

Finally, pitch carefully. You're more likely to get published by spending a full day on a single, well-researched, laser-guided pitch than you are shot-gunning 50 blind, generic pitches in the same amount of time.

What do you see as the future for travel writers in the printed media and online ?

My take is that printed media is still king and will probably continue to rule for at least another decade. But technology, delivery and consumer preferences are going to drastically affect everything in the not-so-distant future. I realize that this isn't popular opinion, but I actually think this evolution will create more opportunities for travel writers.

As the finite number of print media outlets die off, infinite numbers of web sites, ebooks and stuff that hasn't been invented yet will blast off and someone has to provide content for all that stuff. I could be painfully wrong, and I often am, but for the record I predicted that Jesse Ventura would be governor of Minnesota nine months before the election, so I like to tell myself I have a certain prophetic instinct usually reserved for shamen and people struck by lightning.

As a writer and traveler, what are the biggest challenges you face on the road ?

Negotiating obstacles, bureaucracy and unremitting culture shock (and staying cool) while deadlines loom.

Trying to figure out where the bathroom is in the middle of the night when I'm changing accommodations every other day.

Hostel room snorers.

Trying not to look like a loser while eating alone in a restaurant in full view of 20 people waiting for tables out in the rain.(read about it here)

Finally, what is your favorite place and why ?

As of this moment, I've been to 283 cities in 41 countries (not counting the US). I have a list of favorite places that would double the already incredible length of this interview (the art of brevity still eludes me).

Briefly, and by no means comprehensively, Salzburg, Paris, large parts of Italy, Malaysian Borneo, Myanmar, Romania (for travel, not for living or working), Moldova (ditto), the whole of New Zealand, Norway and Australia, Scotland for the cool accents, Bangkok (and not for the reasons that you're thinking), and Minneapolis which I've belatedly come to realize is one of the coolest cities on the planet (apart from January, February and March when I'd rather be anywhere else).


(note from Liz: If you haven’t already discovered Killing Batteries, then you need to. It’s one of the most entertaining (laugh out loud) travel blogs online…and it also has lots of great information about traveling and travel writing)

Previous interviews:

Rolf Potts
Ian MacKenzie
Sheila Scarborough
Graham Reid
Candy Harrington
Terah Shelton
Rudy Maxa
Shannon Hurst Lane
Wendy Perrin
David Whitley

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Sheila at Family Travel said...

I'm a major Pettersen groupie and just yesterday had my husband read Leif's latest Killing Batteries entry on hostel etiquette. He was wiping tears by the end.

We are now going to hog-tie our travel-loving teenager and make her read it.

Maybe one reason I like his work is his "problem" with brevity, since I suffer from the same affliction.


Yeah, Leif's blog is great...and hilarious...and wordy...but wouldn't be the same if he started cutting words. Sure hope your daughter likes it...

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