Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Interview with a Travel Writer...Olivia Giovetti

Today’s interview is with Olivia Giovetti, travel writer and blogger. A couple of weeks ago I choose Olivia’s blog High Culture on a Low Budget as the Travel Blog of the Week. This week we get to meet the person behind the blog.

Besides blogging, Olivia has written for Brave New Traveler, GoBudget Travel, Vagabondish, Eurocheap, and Papermag.

Hi Olivia, and welcome to Write To Travel. Thanks for stopping by and taking time to talk.

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

Yes and no. I was raised in part by my grandparents and my grandmother is a
retired teacher. To say they (along with my mother, who will harp on me if
I don't say that she drove me from our house in Lowell, MA to their house in
Pawtucket RI on a daily basis while listening to a cassette of The Barber of
Seville and who later took me on weekend trips to the New York City Opera)
jump-started my education would be an understatement. I gave myself
homework assignments, usually writing, and by the time I was 5 I had several
book ideas. I think one was an opera libretto that I cobbled together using
an Italian dictionary and my mother's phrasebook "Wicked Italian for the
Traveler." I wrote a lot in school and in high school won some local
playwriting contests and had a play put on in New York the summer of my
junior year. So I first went to college as a playwriting major, then
switched several times to music to business to marketing to culture and
communications. Which is where I stayed.

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

In terms of publishing, I got two simultaneous jobs after a trip to Prague.
Before going, I pitched Paper Magazine and wrote a story on the local art
scene for their online division. I also wrote a series of guest posts for based on the same trip. Earlier that year, however, I met my boyfriend's parents (both working screenwriters in LA...although I suppose there are no working screenwriters now due to the strike) and they really made the idea of being a working writer tangible. They're great people to have in your corner.

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

Date a guy (or girl) whose parents are writers. Or awesome cooks, because
then you don't have to worry about eating. Also, read. Compulsively.
Addictively. Novels, historical pieces, non-fiction books, coffee table
books, blogs, websites, news feeds, RSS feeds, the books
Amazon.comrecommends you, the magazine's in your doctor's office, the
daily rags, the links that Gmail throws up in your tool-bar....

Get yourself out there. And by there, I generally mean the Internet.
It's so easy to set up a website or a blog and to use it as a platform for
your writing. High Culture on a Low Budget started as a book idea that was halted and stalled by outside sources. When that happens you can either bitch and moan about it, or you can take matters into your own hands. For me, I started blogging about one find per day, and through some serious networking got it read by people who aren't my mother, my boyfriend, or my dog (although she loves when I write about Prague).

Network. Make friends with other travel writers. Read their blogs. Write
them an e-mail or a letter. Go to readings and events, have some cheap
business cards made up. And don't be afraid, as you make friends, to ask
for people's editors.

Like David Farley, I also signed up for a MediaBistro account and have pored over the How To Pitch, Pitches That Work, and seminar transcripts. When you read a "How to Pitch" article, see if you can tailor a story idea to what the publisher is looking for (rather than the other way around). I'm also a fan of writing guidebooks (such as Zissner's On Writing Well and Ariel Gore's How to Be a Famous Writer Before You're Dead), although I'm wary of spending too much time reading about writing and too little time actually writing. Another good book for writers (or cubicle expats in general) is Michelle Goodman's The Anti 9-to-5 Guide. And pick up a Suze Orman book while you're at it. Knowing how to manage your money always helps.

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

I have a nagging fear that many magazines may soon find fates like Chow; where their existence goes from in-print to online. This is only so much a fear as I'm a romantic and love words printed on paper. I think the online travel medium will allow more writers to break into the genre (hopefully without compromising the quality, which is a general concern with online versus print media).

One of the greatest things about online media is that it allows travel writers to connect with their colleagues and editors easily regardless of distance. I think that has helped and will continue to help our community grow tighter (it definitely eases networking a bit).

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

My first major influence was The Kingdoms of Europe, this massive book my mother had on all of the different ruling powers on the continent. That sparked my first interest in travel. I also read a lot of outdated guidebooks that were on sale for $0.99 at Borders as a kid. Geoff Dyer is my main inspiration when it comes to travel writing, I'm a bit obsessed with his stuff. Ayun Halliday and Anthony Bourdain are two other biggies. I'm a bit of a voyeur and love to see how working writers progress and publish, especially in periodicals/dailies (as opposed to books) and David Farley is great for that (his website lists all of his published articles and pieces, which are also very well-written). I also love reading expat novels (Prague by Arthur Phillips quickly comes to mind, as does Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises). And the letters of Mozart. It's fascinating to see his perceptions of everywhere from Bologna to Munich to London at varying ages while being the rock star of 18th Century Europe. Marisha Pessl (Special Topics in Calamity Physics) is also a huge influence on my style and language. I like to listen to Physics on audio book when I'm struggling with cadence or language.

There are also some books--like Mozart's letters--that inspire me to travel and then write in turn about the experience, sort of like Geoff Dyer's piece on going to Algiers to read Camus. I have a similar hope to do the same thing with War and Peace once I have enough money to go back to Russia.

There are also two great films by Cedric Klapisch (both featuring Audrey Tautou) that are brilliant travel and expat pieces, L'auberge Espagnole and Les Poupees Russes. L'auberge is what inspired me to move to Europe. They also have prominent themes on writing and life in general. Also, the making of Amadeus on the director's cut version got me really hooked on Eastern Europe.

I could go on all day with this question...

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

I'm obsessive about getting as many details as I can. I take business cards, menus, write down addresses, and then I photograph the street signs and exteriors, and sometimes I get too wrapped up in those details to see the bigger picture. I also have American-guilt over not knowing the language of each country I visit. I work with phrasebooks and speak a few other safety languages fluently, but I still feel that ugly-American stigma.

Also as a traveler, I have terrible food allergies to the most common things, so I always have to learn how to say in whatever language I need "I'm allergic to" and then the long list of things I can't eat. Fortunately, I always have an Epi-Pen and Benadryl in my purse. (And with that admission, I wholly and completely sound like the Jew that I am.)

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

Eastern Europe. My first out-of-country experience (if you don't count Canada) was Russia and I fell in love with the grey-ness of the city, the fact that it gets dark at 3:00 p.m. in the winter there, the whole other-wordliness of it. I've gone back since and lived there for a bit and can't get enough. I've branched out and been to the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Slovenia, Latvia and Lithuania. I like the cold (which is why I apparently live in California).

I'm also a huge fan of Austria, which I guess counts in some part as Eastern Europe. I dig the whole fallen empire thing and I've always connected with Viennese culture on a deep level. Though I was recently diagnosed with a potato allergy so I don't know how I'm going to make it through the next time I'm back there. I'm already allergic to mushrooms so the combination of those two allergies alone basically rules out half their cuisine. Thankfully most vodkas are wheat distilled.

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anja said...

I really enjoy reading these interviews by fellow travel writers. Great idea!


Thanks Anja. I really enjoy the interviews too and learn heaps from them.

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