Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Interview with a Travel Writer...David Farley.

Today’s interview is with travel writer and editor David Farley.David writes for publications such as Condé Nast Traveler, Travel + Leisure, Washington Post, Sherman’s Travel, and epicurious. He also writes for online sites Perceptive Travel and World Hum.

He has contributed to and edited a number of Travelers' Tales books such as the Travelers' Tales Prague and the Czech Republic and 30 Days in Italy. And he has a book due out in Spring 2009 tentively titled Remnant of the Divine: the Search for Jesus' Foreskin, a travelogue/narrative history based on David's search for Christianity's most curious relic.

More on David and his writings can be found at his blog travel writing and its (dis)contents.

Hi David and welcome to My Year of Getting Published. Thanks for taking some time to talk with us.

1. Did you always want to be a writer? How did you get started in writing?

No, not at all. I’m sort of envious of those writers who say they knew they wanted to write from an early age. Instead, I was busy dreaming about winning the heart of Princess Leah and throwing rocks at things. I had great aim! And that was in college. Just kidding. Really though, I wanted to be a rockstar and in high school—in Los Angeles—I really pursued this with some vigor, playing clubs with my band and cutting demos in garages and so on. I actually didn’t throw my pen into the proverbial ring until I was in my late 20s. and I’m only 35 now. So, really, I haven’t been writing very long.

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

My first big break was when the Chicago Tribune ran a story I wrote about my wedding in Rome. But my very first break—or “opportunity” might be a better word—came when I was an editor at a San Francisco Bay Area arts and entertainment magazine. The day that I was going to turn in my notice so that I could go live in Europe for a while was the same day the editor in chief announced the magazine was adding a travel section. And after I told him my plans, he suggested exactly what I was hoping (as if I were willing him to suggest it): that I should be the magazine’s travel editor-at-large, filing stories from wherever I’m at. It turned out to be a lot of fun because the magazine didn’t necessarily want service-oriented stories, which allowed me to go looking for bizarre religious relics in Rome and illegally imported apes that were—apparently—occasionally set loose on the general public in the Paris suburbs (I brought a few rocks with me just in case I encountered a face-scraping ape).

3. What advice would you give to someone who is considering going into travel writing? Any tips to breaking into newspapers and magazines?

It’s different in other English-speaking parts of the world, but in the United States, newspaper travel editors don’t want pitches; they want the piece totally polished and ready to publish. They want to the piece to have a clear angle and for nearly all the information in it to relate to that angle in some way. They want the angle to be original and unique and about something that’s service oriented (i.e. something a traveler can do too); finally, they want a sidebar with the usual where to sleep and where to eat information. For someone who is new to travel writing, this is good news—it means you don’t need the obligatory clips to send along with your story pitch. You just need to write the piece and offer it out there.

My other suggestion is to consider the front-of-the-book section of magazines. This is the section in the beginning of a magazine that features short 100- to 300-word pieces about newsy stuff like new and noteworthy restaurants, up-and-coming neighborhoods, and travel gear and so on. This is where the magazines take chances on new writers. The key though is that nearly everything they feature is brand new. I was recently in Turin, for example, and found a cool new supermarket that was sanctioned by the Slow Food movement; I thought it would have been perfect for a food or travel magazine and so I pitched it to a front-of-the-book editor and she wrote back saying she loved the idea, but because the supermarket opened up in January and they were working on the September issue, the story was already too old.

Finally, learn as much as you can about writing and about the business of writing. When I first started out, I really educated myself by reading William Zinnser’s On Writing Well, and James B. Stewart’s Follow the Story; I signed up for’s Avant Guild membership ($50 annually) so that I could read all the articles in the “How to Pitch” section as well as the transcripts on breaking into travel writing; I read travel stories like a writer—thinking about why the lede of the story was good or bad and I read every story to figure out what the angle was. It wasn’t out back than, but Don George’s book Travel Writing (published by Lonely Planet) would have been incredibly helpful.

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

All indications point to the internet. At least that’s what my Magic 8 Ball told me this morning! No, really, the web is making a huge comeback, which I guess is good for trees. As for the future of travel writers, for reasons that are valid and not-so-valid, I don’t see us getting any more respect from our journalist/writing peers than we have now (which is not a lot).

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

Getting to know a place well enough that I feel comfortable writing about it with confidence. It’s a never-ending philosophical dilemma: when do we know a place well enough to be able to write an informed piece about it? Sometimes when I’m on assignment, I’ll have only a few days in a place before I have to move on to the next. And I have to end up churning out a story with authority and confidence. For that reason, I spend hours and hours doing pre-trip research, reading everything from the place’s history to newsy stories about it to the dining and nightlife scenes. I want to step off the place and feel like I’ve already been to that place dozens of times. I’ve been mortified when I’ve heard stories about hack travel writers going to a place having not even read their guidebook yet.

6. Finally, what is your favorite place and why ?

I have a book coming out that’s partly about a hill town north of Rome called Calcata. I love sitting on the square on Sundays when all the locals—most of whom are artists—come out of their studios and apartments and stand around smoking cigarettes and chatting. I also love my friend Pancho’s restaurant in Calcata, La Grotta dei Germogli, which is a mosaic-bedecked cave that’s been fashioned into a terrific eating space. It’s quite special. Whenever I’m there, Pancho gives me a key and I go there and write when the restaurant’s not open.

(note from Liz: to hear more from David, listen in to his podcast interview with Eric Olsen over at Gadling)

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