Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Interview with a Travel Writer...Lara Dunston.

Today we talk with Australian travel writer Lara Dunston who, with her husband and co-writer Terry Carter, have been on the road for the last two and a half years. And they have no plans at this stage to stop traveling. So far they have been to over 60 countries and have had their travel writing published in magazines and newspapers all over the globe, including National Geographic Traveler, Lifestyle+Travel, Get Lost, Paperplane, USA Today, and The Independent, as well as an array of in-flights and hotel magazines. Together they have also written, contributed to, and updated around 30 guidebooks for Lonely Planet, Dorling Kindersley, AA Guides, and Thomas Cook, and this year will add Footprints and Rough Guides to their ever-expanding list of publishers.

Lara also maintains the Cool Travel Guide Blog and with Terry also blogs at Grantourismo.

Hi Lara. Welcome to Write to Travel. Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts on travel writing.

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

When I was a teenager I dreamt of writing a sweeping melodramatic epic like Dr Zhivago or Anna Karenina (one side of the family is Russian!) but thought a career as a journalist was more practical. My main passion was film, however, so after a year of an arts degree I switched to a communications degree and majored in film and writing, so I ended up making films and wrote film criticism for Australia's most respected film publication, the now-defunct FilmNews.

While at uni, I had also written for the student newspapers, first at Sydney University, then UTS (University of Technology Sydney) - mainly film reviews, but also on arts, culture, comedy, book reviews – and that taught me a lot. My day jobs all involved writing in some form or another – I worked in PR/media relations in government, I was a publicist for a band, I did PR for a photographic gallery – and in all of those jobs I was writing. I wrote press releases, letters, articles, did interviews with photographers, and so on – all of those experiences were value in learning about language and how to create narratives.

My first feature film (and my last, I might add!), a low budget road movie, attracted a bit of attention and I was invited to teach film, so then I found myself trying to write educational yet entertaining lectures for all the different courses I taught. My film (Come By Chance) was two years in the making and it nearly killed me as we travelled all over New South Wales and Queensland in Australia making it, so after I nearly had a nervous breakdown, I found myself retreating to anything except film. I did a Masters degree, I wrote a teenage romance novel for HarperCollins, and after doing a short course in travel writing and photography with a friend, I got into travel writing.

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

My husband Terry, who I co-write with, was working as a publishing manager at Universal Press in Australia. They published travel guides, street directories, camping and caravanning books, travel and incentives magazines, and so on. Terry had actually started with them as a writer before moving into graphic design, book design and desktop publishing. I was freelancing then – teaching film, writing my teen novel, doing some PR etc – and they needed some bits and pieces of travel writing for their magazines, which you could call my first ‘break’. They then gave Terry and I the opportunity to write The Sydneyside Guide, which was probably one of the first compact guides in Australia then – that was before Lonely Planet’s ‘Best Of…’ series – it was a mini-guide to Sydney’s best sights, restaurants, bars, cafes, etc, and it’s still published as part of their funky little Compact Street Directory.

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

Aspiring travel writers need to focus on a few key areas.

Firstly, they need to know travel: they need to do a lot of it; they need to get to know a wide variety of destinations and develop specialization in one or two; they need to get experience in travelling by different means and on different budgets (for example, they need to have experienced both low-cost airlines and business class, to have stayed in youth hostels and five star luxury resorts, and so on, and to be able to appreciate why a traveller would choose one or the other); they need to develop their knowledge of geography, ethnography, anthropology, architecture, art, culture, cuisines, languages and so on.

Secondly, they need to learn the craft of travel writing; they need to studying everything there is out there; read widely; understanding different genres and audiences and markets; and develop not only their own style of writing but the ability to move between different styles.

And lastly, they need to get to know the business side of the travel industry and travel media and publishing in particular: how it works; the impact of advertising and marketing; how to trust your instinct and identify trends; the publishing process; the production process; how commissioning editors, editors, art directors, photo editors, designers, and cartographers work, and how to work with them; they need to learn how to pitch, and then begin to network and pitch ideas for stories or guidebooks.

Most of all they need to treat it like a profession, and if they’re operating as freelancers, treat it like a business.

Forget this idea of travel writing being such a dream job that they’re lucky to get a project that takes them to some wonderful place they never imagined going. Whatever job they get offered they need to sit down and create an itinerary and a schedule and figure out the daily/hourly fee and expenses and whether they’re going to make money out of it or not. They need to learn the value of their work and never work for anything less than what they’re worth. There are too many publishers out there and a wealth of opportunities - travel writers shouldn’t consider themselves ‘lucky’ to be working for a particular publisher, no matter what ‘name’ the publisher might have, and they shouldn’t let themselves be exploited.

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

I think traditional publishing still has a future, alongside web content and digital publishing, I just think some of these people who run some of these publishing companies are clueless when it comes to technology and have panicked and in the process given away far too much content than they should have thereby exploiting their authors and giving away the very thing that represents value for their company. Other publishers have been a lot more smart about it, giving away a certain amount of content, just enough to entice the reader to go and buy the book, or created innovative products, such as DK’s custom guides where you can create your own covers – they’re very cool.

So, unlike some travel writers, I don’t think traditional travel publishing is dead but in the future people will have a lot more choices as to how they get their travel information and use it. I also think there’ll be a return to and desire for quality travel writing written by writers who actually travel and who have solid industry knowledge and destination expertise, and the skills of discernment that an ordinary traveller who vacations a few times a year and contributes to Trip Advisor or writes up their journal on a blogging site just doesn’t have. We saw recently with the whole Max controversy at the Guardian, which attracted hundreds of comments from irate readers, that readers are fed up with reading content produced by other travellers and want a return to quality travel journalism.

There are a lot of publishers out there and some pay extremely well, others pay fairly and some very pay poorly. And they each work very differently. Take guidebooks for instance: some publishers will provide letters of recommendations to help you secure media rates (like corporate rates but for travel journalists) or set up contra arrangements so you can trade ads for services, a tour for example, thereby allowing you to make much more money than the fee they pay. One I can think of, but which I won’t name, insists its writers pay for everything and doesn’t allow them to accept media rates, yet by the same token doesn’t pay fees large enough to cover all their expenses and then some so that writers who play by the rules might not make any money on some books and those who don’t follow the rules (and get away with it) can make a packet.

What aspiring travel writers need to appreciate is that there are a lot of publishers out there and they should cast their net wide. Business advisors always recommend investors don’t put all their eggs in one basket – that’s my advice too – develop relationships with guidebook publishers, magazine and newspaper editors, PR professionals who often oversee the writing of corporate travel publications, companies that produce in-flight and hotel magazines. Write for an array of publications and you can make a good living if you’re good.

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

Paul Theroux is both one of the most evocative and perceptive of writers and one of the wittiest and it’s rare that you find writers who can do both of these things well – make you imagine and feel like you’re in a place as well as laugh at the people, culture and places and situations he himself gets in. A couple of books that really inspired me when I was younger were Katie Hickman’s A Trip to the Light Fantastic: Travels with a Mexican Circus, and Henry Shukman’s Sons of the Moon. Both books really took me to those places, to Mexico and the Andes respectively and showed me how you could develop innovative angles to hang universal stories off. Robert D Kaplan is another writer I love because he doesn’t separate the history, culture and politics from the place and its people – his Mediterranean Winter is a must-read if you want to be a travel writer. And then I love reading the old 18th and 19th century travel writers – a lot of them available for free on the Project Gutenburg site. Contemporary writers have a lot to learn from the old travellers – they really new how to write descriptively and evocatively about a place and capture a mood. They were just so adventurous and audacious too.

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

My partner and I don’t write about war zones, we haven’t been to Afghanistan and we don’t write about sub-Saharan Africa, although I’m not ruling any of that out for the future, so our challenges are few and trivial really. We seem to be most focused on: avoiding excess baggage fees and the weight of our luggage (because we’ve been on the road for over two years now so we’re very weighed down with research materials, clothes for different seaons, and lots of technology); making sure we have internet access in hotel rooms (I’ve found that the commissions I mostly get are the ones I respond to immediately – first in first served) and there’s nothing worse than missing a deadline and having to blame it on not having net access (it sounds like the dog ate my homework but sometimes there’s just nothing you can do); getting the kind of hire cars we want (why is it that even though you pick a car out on the website you never get the one you book?!); and coordinating travel arrangements (we’re writing outlines for three first edition guidebooks at the moment and planning itineraries for research trips and making plans for all three at the same time – it can get very tricky!)

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

I don’t have one favourite place. I like different places for different reasons and at different times of the year or when I’m in a particular frame of mind. In the Middle East I love Damascus, Aleppo, Beirut, Dubai and Abu Dhabi and I feel a real connection to all of those cities – Damascus and Aleppo are so atmospheric and full of life, they’re the quintessential 1001 Nights cities with labyrinthine alleys you can easily get lost in but they’re living breathing cities at the same time; poor Beirut despite its troubles is incredibly vibrant and the Beirutis are the region’s party animals; Dubai is this dynamic dazzling city that’s forever changing, both steeped in tradition (Bedouin) yet open and tolerant and forward-thinking, as is Abu Dhabi; both cities are worth getting to know – it’s their Arabian heritage and traditional culture that I really find appealing. In North Africa I love Essaouira and Alexandria, white cities on the sea. In Europe, San Sebastian, Madrid and Barcelona, are my favourites – like the Arabs the Spanish know how to live – I love their late night culture, and focus on food and socialising. But then I also love St Petersburg, Venice (off-season!), and Zurich – once again all cities on water. I find ‘second cities’ really appealing – for instance I prefer Lyon to Paris – it’s more Parisian in some ways! I’m very fond of Thailand generally – mainly for the gentleness of the people, the general serenity of the place (chaotic Bangkok aside) and the spicy complex cuisine, but ask me to name a favourite town or beach and I couldn’t. I find most of the beaches very disappointing, but that’s because I’m Australian and we have the best beaches in the world. I’m drawn to landscapes too – deserts are favourites, the Australian outback, the Arabian desert, the arid landscapes of Morocco and Syria – but then I’m also drawn to the Mediterranean, and because we’ve worked on so many books in the Med, it’s a landscape I’m very familiar and am fond of, the wildflowers, olive groves, Aleppan pines and eucalyptus trees, a landscape that’s very easy to write about.

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lara_dunston said...

Thanks for the interview, Liz!

I know that even as a professional writer I learn a lot from your interviews with other travel writers - hoping this one will be as helpful as the others!



Hey Lara,

Learning from others is a great way to proceed and grow. Thanks for participating...

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