Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Interview with a Travel Writer...Thomas Swick

This week’s interview is with Thomas Swick, travel editor for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. He is also the author of two books (At Home in Poland and A Way to See the World), has had stories in The Best American Travel Writing Series (2001,2002,2004, and 2006), and is a guest blogger at World Hum. And that’s just the start of a list of where he’s been published.

Rolf Potts from Vagablogging thinks he is one the ‘…best travel-editors in America.’

So I feel very privileged that he was willing to be interviewed for My Year of Getting Published.

Hi Tom and welcome. Thanks for taking the time to answer a few questions about travel writing.

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

I got the idea in college. I wrote bad poems in high school, and then essays and humorous pieces for my college newspaper. After graduation I started writing travel stories and more humorous pieces and sending them around, with no success. So I went to France for a year.

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

A few years later I was living in Poland, during the rise of Solidarity, and my wife and I took a winter vacation in the Polish mountains. I wrote about it and got the piece published in The North American Review. Though nothing followed for quite a long time, you never forget your first magazine sale.

3. As an editor and columnist, what advice would you give to someone who is considering going into travel writing? Any tips to breaking into newspapers and magazines?

I’d recommend having another source of income. For years I worked at other jobs – teaching English (in Poland), writing for a medical magazine (in Philadelphia) – and in my off hours wrote about experiences I’d had in the past. I'd also take "working" vacations - i.e., with a notebook and pen - and write about those. The weekly paycheck gave me the luxury of writing what I wanted to write in my free time. Newspaper travel sections are really cutting back, not just their staffs but their freelance budgets. It is not a good time in the newspaper business. Most magazines have only editors on staff, using freelancers to supply the copy. Traditionally, freelancers start out doing short, regional pieces before they get any big assignments. And it’s tough to break into magazines if you don’t have an 'in'. But being persistent (without being pushy) and having good ideas helps.

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

The movement seems to be away from the written word, at least for mass audiences, but there will always be readers – people who are thrilled and moved by good writing. In 1980, Paul Fussell declared, in his excellent book Abroad, that travel writing was dead, and we’re still seeing wonderful travel books published (though, sadly, they're usually not the ones that sell the best). Most of the online travel writing is consumer-oriented, but there are some impressive exceptions, like

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

Getting a feel for a place, and penetrating beneath its surface, in a very short period of time. And part of that is finding interesting people to guide me and give me insight. Especially when I don’t speak the language.

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

Vietnam was my favorite place to write about. It was my first Asian country, and the people overwhelmed with their hospitality and curiosity. (There were not many American tourists there in 1994). Italy is my favorite place to visit. It's got amiable people, delicious food, beautiful landscapes, a sunny climate, animated cities, and countless art treasures. (Not many countries can compete with that.) And Poland is my favorite place to just be. I lived there for two and a half years - married, worked, learned the language, and found a second home.


Previous Interviews:

Leif Pettersen
Rolf Potts
Ian Mackenzie
Sheila Scarborough
Graham Reid
Candy Harrington
Terah Shelton
Rudy Maxa
Shannon Hurst Lane
Wendy Perrin
David Whitley

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Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing this information. Its great for anyone who wants to break into travel writing or just freelancing in general. I love to read how the pros got their start.


Hi Robyn, I'm with you...I find it fascinating how everyone got their start.

cheers, liz

Shannon said...

I keep a list of Thomas Swick's "Ten Sins of Travel Writing" posted next to my computer. He is so awesome! Thanks, Liz, for all the interviews.


Hi Shannon, that list of 'Ten Sins of Travel Writing' sounds really interesting. Any chance you could send it through to me...would love to know what not to do...

Cheers, Liz

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