Thursday, February 21, 2008

Interview with a Travel Writer...Caitlin Fitzsimmons.

Today we're talking with Caitlin Fitzsimmons, a London-based travel writer who has written for The Australian, The Guardian, Rough Guides and Anyway magazine. Caitlin also maintains the Roaming Tales travel website and The Gooseberry Fool, a food website.

Hi Caitlin, thanks for stopping by Write to Travel for a chat.

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

I wanted to be a writer from an early age, although I also wanted to be an actress, a circus performer, a barrister, a marine biologist, and Australia's first female prime minister. As a child, I was forever writing poems and stories and my family and teachers encouraged this creativity. One year for Christmas, when I was about eight years old, a family friend who worked at a publisher actually typeset my poems and did a short run of a little booklet for me to give to family and friends. It was called Queen Flutterby and Other Poems and had a little author bio on the back and everything.

When I left school I wasn't sure what I wanted to do but it seemed sensible for me to do a journalism degree, on the basis that I liked writing and was interested in current affairs. So I did a BA in Communications at Charles Sturt University in Bathurst. I actually majored in broadcast journalism, both radio and television, but my career has been exclusively in print and online. My first job was at a local paper in Sydney called The Village Voice, which has nothing to do with the New York publication by the same name.

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

I worked at The Australian for four years, first covering the technology beat and then on general news. I took the initiative to approach Susan Kurosawa, the travel editor at The Australian, with ideas and she published pieces on ghost tourism in Australia, Shanghai and Cappadocia (in Turkey).

When I went freelance in London two years ago, I was mainly writing about media and business. However, through another freelance writer, I was put in touch with a magazine who needed a writer to travel to Uganda to write about coffee. I was commissioned and that has led to an ongoing relationship with the magazine and the publisher's other titles.

Even so, it can still be a slog to get travel editors to respond to ideas, let alone get commissions. I find once you get that first commission with a publication, it will often lead to more work (assuming you do the job well) but getting that first foothold is the hardest step.

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

Establish a blog and start writing!

When I first started, the web was only new. These days young or beginning writers have a fantastic opportunity to self publish online. This is great because it gives them an immediate outlet and the opportunity to practise writing and get feedback from readers.

It's also a great marketing tool - when you pitch to editors you might not be able to give them a list of fantastic publishing credits but you can make up for this by saying "you can view samples of my writing at", which shows that you are serious about the enterprise and gives them the opportunity to sample the wares. Also, if it's a staff job you want, demonstrating proficiency with new media makes you more attractive to employers.

Also, I would say don't write for other people for free. If you are going to write for free, it may as well be for your own site, which could at least earn you money in the future. By writing for other people for free, youare doing yourself and your profession a disservice. Firstly, you mark yourself out as an amateur both with the publication itself and by the fact that it only helps win you clips in second-rate outlets. Secondly, you won't be able to give your best work, or else you'll go broke. Finally, you're undercutting professionals, which is what you hope to become, so you are essentially fouling your own nest.

Try to hang on to copyright if you can as this is potentially valuable in the future, allowing you to resell your work or self-publish online in addition to the primary pay cheque.

On the writing side, keep polishing your craft and always look for something unexpected. Think of a unique angle and pursue that but don't go with preconceived ideas - allow the magic to happen and then try to bring out something unique in your writing.

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

Self publishing is a definite trend and there are increasing numbers of writers making money from running their own travel websites. As more people establish websites and are hungry for content, it should also be possible to make money from syndication and reprints online (another reason to hang on to copyright), though I can't see this as a big money spinner.

At the moment print editors are trying to compete with the world of user-generated content by becoming more like them. I think this is a mistake. The blogging world is very crowded and in order for the professional publications to stand out, there needs to be a clear point of difference. I think people turn to glossy magazines and the travel sections of newspapers for professional quality writing and photography, not readers' guides that are readily available online anyway.

The biggest trend for travel writing in general is that we are facing a global environmental crisis and the social pressure needs to be for less travel rather than more. Air travel is an easy target in terms of carbon emissions, but people are also counting up the cost of road travel and cruising and questioning whether some ecologically sensitive places should be visited at all. I think there is still a role for travel writers. We are in a position to influence people's travel habits, encouraging them to visit local attractions, take the train, or otherwise avoid or mitigate the damage. And if we do end up with a world where people travel less frequently, then we may see the need for 'armchair travel'. This is more of an opening for the literary narrative style of travel writing, in books and magazines, than the "how to" guides so prevalent now. It's less attractive to advertisers, be they airlines or hotels, so there would be fewer travel outlets if this were the case.

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

There are a host of good travel writers, from Jan Morris to Bill Bryson and Colin Thubron. I have a great anthology called The Virago Book of Women Travellers, which has excerpts from women travel writers from two centuries ago until now. I did a course with London-based travel writer Dea Birkett, author of several books and regular contributor to national papers in Britain, and I respect the insights she gave into the craft and the business.

However, on the whole, I don't think I have been particularly influenced by travel writers or travel books. Instead, I have been influenced by travel and books. I have always been passionate about books and literature and I read voraciously. I have also had the travelling bug almost my whole life - right from the time my hippie parents took me backpacking around South-East Asia when I was two. I spent four months as an exchange student in southern Germany when I was fifteen and I went to Costa Rica to do volunteer work when I was twenty - after that I was well and truly hooked! I am a writer and a traveller so it makes sense to be a travel writer.

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

I'm not good at packing light and if I'm travelling for work I usually have to take my laptop, which doesn't help matters.

I also find it hard to eat healthy food and maintain a regular exercise programme when I'm on the road. I travel so often that it's important to make the effort so I often find myself pounding the pavements (going for a run is a great way to get to know a place, especially the out-of-the-way parts) or swimming laps in the hotel pool. Or I go on an active holiday, like when I went kayaking in the Arctic.

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

I've been to so many wonderful places, and there are so many places I haven't been to yet! One of my very favourite places is in my homeland, yet I had never been until last year, and that's Tasmania. I drove around the island in a campervan with five women from my family - my grandmother, two aunts, myself and my cousin - ranging in ages from 79 to 23. Tasmania is a glorious mix of rugged wilderness - though sadly much threatened by the voracious logging industry - and farming country. The landscape ranges from rainforest - Tasmania and Vancouver Island are two of the only places in the world with temperate rainforest - and alpine lakes, to pristine white sand beaches and farms with classic 19th century Australian homesteads. Both Launceston and Hobart are very attractive cities; head down to Salamanca Market in Hobart for great food and convict architecture on the waterfront. The food in Tasmania is also fantastic - fresh seafood including oysters and crayfish (lobster) from some of the cleanest waters in the world - and wonderful produce, including berries.

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Linda said...

Great interview, and excellent advice - I have linked here:

I'll update my blogroll accordingly.

Best wishes



Hi Linda, thanks for linking interview...Don't know about you, but I learn a great deal about writing from these interviews.


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