Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Interview with a Travel Writer…Abha Malpani

Today we talk with Abha Malpani who is in the process of developing her career as a travel writer. Currently she blogs for a number of sites - Written Road, Gridskipper, Vagablogging, and Gadling as well as writing for Map Magazine and Travel Mag.

I had the chance to meet up with Abha when I was in Madrid earlier this year. We sat and talked writing over a beer in the Plaza Santa Ana on a warm summer afternoon. Since then, I thought it would be interesting to interview Abha for My Year of Getting Published. Luckily, she agreed.

Hi Abha and welcome to My Year of Getting Published. Thanks for taking time to talk.

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

In school I used to edit the school magazine. I always enjoyed that. After that, I hardly wrote at all. Occasionally I would get writing fits and just write in my journal; sometimes I would gift people personal write-ups for their birthdays, that’s about all the writing I did.

Then I went to University, but the school didn’t accommodate journalism courses with my marketing and management major – so I missed out on any formal training at Uni. In attempt to nurture my writing into some form, I signed up to do the UK based Writers Bureau Writing Course, but never finished it!

After a working for a few years in advertising, I moved to public relations when I realised that was where I could blend my marketing skills with my desire to write. But public relations writing didn’t hit the spot as I couldn’t write what I wanted the way I wanted. I was whipped into writing subtle marketing copy for press releases of big multinationals that really wasn’t much fun.

So, as you see writing never was my primary focus – it has always been lurking around though. My Indian roots and pressure to have a high-flying career perhaps was another element that subconsciously didn’t let me fully focus on a writing career; but that’s retrospection.

So just wanting to write (and rant!) I opened a personal blog. Now I write for five blogs, two of which pay me! From blogging I have made quite a few connections and today do manage to get the odd paid gig in magazines.

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

Bored and depressed with my public relations job, I would spend hours online looking for a way out of it. I didn’t know what I wanted, what else could I do? I was so lost. All I knew was that I was 26, and this couldn’t be my life. I knew I wanted to travel. I knew that I wanted to leave Dubai (where I had been working in a high-stress corporate environment for the last 4-years). So I started looking for ways to move abroad with a mission to do with something I liked.

That’s when I came across the website Transitions Abroad where I found a piece written by Newley Purnell. He had a similar background as me, with similar interests and he was travelling the world, living where he wanted, teaching English and writing. I got hooked onto his life, read his blog religiously and one fine day, wrote to him. At the time, he was a contributor to Gridskipper, and when the editor of Gridskipper planned a trip to Dubai, Newley told him to get in touch with me. He interviewed me for a report on Dubai, and then asked me my plans. By then I had decided to move to Spain – so he asked if I would like to contribute to Gridskipper from Spain! That was my first break, and it was a really lucky one that resulted from random networking.

3. What advice would you give to someone who wants to break into travel writing?

Well, I think there are a few important things to keep in mind here. You have to write -- a lot -- all the time! And don’t give up your day job to be able to do so; or if you do, make sure you have some other form of income because it could take you a good while before you live off travel-writing.

After blogging continuously for 2-years, other than my blog, I now write for 5 blogs – all in the travel industry -- 2 pay me, but they really don’t pay for more than my beer. I teach English to pay my bills, and I don’t see that stopping anytime soon. I couldn’t have written as much as I do now with my PR job, English teaching allows me to work on my time, so it’s a good mix.

The other thing is networking. You have to know people in the industry, and keep a tab on what they are doing. There are many ways to make this happen; most of it can happen from your computer in your house. Know who edits what site / what magazine. Pitch stories, leave comments, interact with these people. If they are in your country, try to meet them.

Join a writers group. Every place has them. You will be surprised who you may land up meeting. In my writers group here in Madrid, I met a travel-writer who wrote the Moon Handbook to London. Now the book needs updating and he wants help – maybe I have an opportunity there. What did I do? Have a beer with him in some bar. I met Liz from this blog also through online connections. When she came to Madrid, we had a beer, now I’m being interviewed for her website! So yeah, network network network.

Lastly, be persistent and don’t give up. I got my Written Road gig from networking online and being persistent. The regular writing I did on my blog showed my writing style and skills, and that’s all I needed to demonstrate that I like to, and want to write. I was pushy about getting that gig so my determination coupled with persistence (and perhaps a tinge of aggressiveness) got me blogging at Written Road. Things just rolled on from there really.

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

I think a plethora of opportunities have opened up for writers, thanks to the shift online. Even though they don’t pay as well as print media, I definitely think online travel-writing is the future. Be it news, features, opinion, experiences, advice or even travel guides, it’s all moving online at an incredible rate. The amount of content available and needed continuously is phenomenal so I think it is easier to get published online, and the demand will only increase. Yes, it is competitive, but everything is.

5. Which travel writers and/or travel books have influenced you?

I read Rolf Pott’s Vagabonding about two years ago. That book gave me the final push I needed to quit my job and pursue my dream of travelling, living abroad, and writing. The book is narrated beautifully, and is full of personal stories and anecdotes from Rolf, as well as from a dozen others who have done the same. Very inspiring indeed.

The other two writers who I enjoy reading, and I’d like to match (one fine day I hope!) is Bill Bryson and Pico Iyer. Bill Bryson has this warm and friendly voice, and a great sense of humour that jumps out of the page. Pico Iyer has this profound style of writing that takes you to another world. His descriptions are fascinating and written in a way I wouldn’t have imagined, yet I can completely relate to.

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

You have to write a lot. I am currently committed to write about 25 (blog) pieces a week. It’s hard and I don’t always make it, and I hardly make any money. I find myself perpetually at my computer trying to write. It’s a lonely and many a times frustrating profession, so I’m glad I teach English as it gets me out of the house and talking to people. I work on my own time, but that also means that there is no such thing as weekends -- I often feel like everyday is Monday. But when you see your writing out there, and you see people commenting and reacting to it – it makes it all worth it.

Another challenge is keeping up with things. With the Internet, things are moving so fast that it’s easy to be left behind. If I don’t check my 1000 RSS feeds one day, the next day I have way too much catching up to do. This can be overwhelming. But I suppose this refers more to online blogging.

And lastly, it has all got to do with self-discipline. It’s very easy to switch off and say, today I don’t feel like writing so I won’t, and that’s easy to make into a habit when no-one is breathing down your back. Once that happens, it’s a deep black hole you will have to claw yourself out of. You perpetually need to get over your tiredness (that often leads to laziness) and get on with it, many times at the expense of not going out. So yeah, it can be tough.

7. Finally, what is your favourite place and why?
This is the most difficult question to answer! I have loved and enjoyed many a places to be able to pick just one!

One of my super-favourite places is Havana, Cuba – simply because of how different it is from the other places I have visited. The communist regime, rum for breakfast, cigars, waiting in line to get your ration for the day, and dancing son on the streets is all so surreal, yet that’s how they live in Cuba. And, they always have the biggest smiles. I loved it there and would like to go back and spend some more time travelling around the country.

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