Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Interview with a Travel Writer…Barbara Sjoholm.

Today’s interview is with Barbara Sjoholm. Barbara's travel articles and essays have been published in the New York Times, Smithsonian, Los Angeles Times, and Slate. And she is the author of Incognito Street or How Travel Made Me a Writer.

Hi Barbara. Thanks for taking the time to stop and talk with us at My Year of Getting Published.

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

Yes, I wanted to be a writer from the time I was eight. I never wanted to be anything else in spite of the fact that everyone around me thought my ambition was fairly hopeless. I started by writing and writing and writing. Much of it was not very exciting. Eventually it seemed to improve. I had my first short story published when I was 25. Right around that time I also started writing for a non-profit biweekly newspaper, doing reviews and features. So then I began to be published all the time. It seems to take on its own momentum.

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

I wrote mainly fiction for years and also translated from Norwegian. I had a mystery series about a Spanish language translator named Cassandra Reilly, who was based in London, and I sent her all over the place. So I suppose I snuck into travel writing through the back door. I went to Transylvania and Venice taking notes for where Cassandra might go. Eventually it occurred to me that I could just write about myself on the road—or at sea, as it turned out. My first travel book was about my journey around the North Atlantic in search of stories about women and the sea.

Along with fiction I had started also writing essays and memoirs. I published essays taken from my book The Pirate Queen first, and then essays about Lapland, which was my next destination. It was relatively late before I considered doing travel journalism. Not knowing any better, I started at the top. I decided I'd like to be published by the New York Times, so I sent them a few pieces, and they accepted one. After that Smithsonian magazine sent me to Newfoundland and Slate to Lapland. However, much of what I write is still longer essays about travel and places for literary magazines and anthologies. I seem to need a lot of space to get into the story I want to tell.

3. What advice would you give to someone who is considering going into travel writing? Any tips to breaking into newspapers and magazines?

You must be persistent in this field just as in any other. Probably the most important thing to do is read travel magazines and newspaper articles and attempt to copy the style of articles you enjoy. Literally copy! Write the piece out in your own handwriting and feel how the sentences work and what seems interesting. Notice the transitions, the way details are used. Pay more attention to your writing and less to getting published at first, but when you have a piece you really like, send it out over and over until it gets into print or online.

It doesn't hurt to get to know editors, go to conferences, and in general just get savvy about the business. But in general it's the writing that sells the story, not just the contact.

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

Electronic publishing and blogs have really opened up an avenue for beginning travel writers. On the other hand, there's more competition. More people travel, more people write well these days. The articles in magazines are getting shorter, and the fees aren't getting any higher. It's a very difficult profession to make a living from, I think. Literary magazines rarely pay much, though you have a chance to really tell a story that means something to you. Learning to be a traveler who has something to say about those travels in a thoughtful, fun, beautiful way is worthwhile in itself, even if most of your income is from another source.

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

Homesickness, weird food, strange people, uncomfortable beds, snowstorms, airports, and did I mention homesickness?

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

I am always very happy in Barcelona. I like the tapas, the coffee and pastries, the night life, the art and architecture, the little squares in the Barri Gotico. And it reminds me of my youth and being happy there long ago.


Previous interviews:

Mike Gerrard
Heather Hapeta
Thomas Swick
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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