Thursday, May 22, 2008

Interview with a Travel Writer...Carolyn McCarthy.

Today we talk with travel writer Carolyn McCarthy. Specializing in wilderness travel and all things Latin America, Carolyn’s articles have been published in National Geographic Magazine, Salt Lake Tribune, Toronto Sun and the Boston Globe. She has also written about Argentina, Costa Rica, Chile, Ecuador, El Salvador and Yellowstone National Park for Lonely Planet.

Carolyn blogs at Wild Blue Yonder and recently wrote an interesting guest post for Perceptive Travel Blog about why A Guidebook is not a Guru.

Hi Carolyn. Welcome to Write to Travel. Thanks for taking to time to chat.

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

I recognized early that I wanted to be a writer but didn't know how to get from point A to point B. After a series of random jobs after college I realized that, though comfortable with my daily latte, good friends and nice surroundings (Boulder, Co), I was on the wrong track. I backpacked through Mexico through South America, eventually getting hourly work as a teacher in order to have free time to write. It was my first solo journey and the discoveries of the road lit a fire under me. I wrote, wrote, wrote and kept with it.

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

South American Explorer magazine published a piece I wrote chronicling some pathetic dating experiences in Buenos Aires called "Isn't it Romantic". That encouraged me to continue.

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

It's hard work. Write about what intrigues, puzzles or fascinates you so you have the drive to stick with it. Rejection becomes a big part of your reality, so you can’t become too attached to one idea or commercial success.

I would also recommend that new writers knock on doors. When I was first starting out I mostly eavesdropped. I don't like disturbing people. I didn't realize that being a writer was a credential I could use.

Then I went to check out a famous Panama hat factory in an Ecuadorian village. Closed! But there were people inside. It was so out of the way that I didn't want to turn around, so I convinced the guard to let me look around. I was crashing a farewell party for management. The weavers--all women--were decked in their Sunday best, prodding their German boss to dance with them in the courtyard. The scene gave me a real sense of who they were and how they worked together.

Of course, not everyone on your path is welcoming, but it still amazes me how willing people can be to let you drop in on their existence for a few hours or days.

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

I think we live in a tricky time. On one hand, there are fascinating contradictions that we see when we travel---with the modern world interacting with old cultures and great landscapes getting gobbled up by development. There is plenty to write about. But newspapers and magazines have gotten more focused on service pieces, forsaking, I think, great stories for vacation fodder (like Top Tens). As a guidebook writer, I've obviously covered this material, but think there's room to explore the complexity of travel, to talk more honestly about travel's contradictions and its discoveries. Right now, the Internet (through travel websites and blogs) is where these kinds of stories are ending up.

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

I was born in Jack Kerouac's hometown of Lowell and have to say, On the Road was the first book that made me want to chuck it all, write breathless run-ons and inhale life.

Travel writing favorites include Bruce Chatwin's Songlines, Redmond O'Hanlon's In Trouble Again and the essays of Pico Iyer and Susan Orlean.

But rather than scoping the travel shelf at bookstores, I tend toward literature that gives a strong sense of place. Gabriel Garcia Marquez is a certain version of Colombia, there's also Edward Abbey's Utah and Lucas Bridges' portrait of early Tierra del Fuego.

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

After five straight years of travel, mobility and trusting my instincts are not a problem. But it is hard to have a sense of community when your surroundings change so often, so there's a difficult balance to strike between stoking the home fires and being present and living in the present.

Another challenge is to stay open to spontaneous opportunities--no matter how tired you are, or prone to cop out for an easier plan. There is always one big one which ends up being the best eye-opener and somehow defines your trip.

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

Chile's Puelo River valley. I spent over a year there on grant writing about Patagonia's fading pioneer culture. It's remote, wild and taught me a lot about the independent human spirit.

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greenygrey said...

Cool interview and great attitude. Kerouac was also my main influence; great you grew up in Lowell!
Good luck with the future, Marc (greenygrey)

Amyee said...

Thank you for this interview - it's such an inspiration to hear these things from other writers!

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