Shelley Buck and Diane LeBow, Ph.D.

Diane LeBow

Diane LeBow

Travel Writing Members

Interview by Catharine Bramkamp

Summer is travel season and to celebrate we asked two of our travel writing members, Diane LeBow who travels in and writes about Afghanistan, and Shelley Buck, author of East: A Woman on the Road to Kathmandu, 2013, to discuss the joys and adventures of travel writing.

Shelley Buck

Shelley Buck

Both authors caught the travel bug early from influential aunts. Diane’s mother read the Odyssey to her when she was small, which helped, but it was Diane’s Aunt Beatrice who owned a show exporting business and regaled with tales of Europe, South America and beyond. She instilled Diane with a burning desire to see and experience everything the world had to offer. Shelly, too, was fortunate to have a fabulous aunt who traveled; hers enlisted in the WACs during WWII and sent her stories and gifts, such as a doll from France while Shelley was growing up in Virginia. Both authors wanted to see the world since they were very small. And now they do!

So many writers think and dream of being “travel writers” as opposed to writers who travel. And while both Shelly and Diane acknowledged that a career as a travel writer is possible, it’s difficult. Shelly commented, “I don’t think anybody sits around thinking, ‘Hmm. I think I’ll become a travel writer so I can get rich!’ People can make a go of it, but the professionals who live exclusively by writing travel pieces have to be very productive, very hard workers, and extraordinarily good at what they do. Many travel blogs carry paid ads that also help feed their authors. Also, young people get certified to teach English abroad or otherwise patch together gigs that supplement their writing income.”

Diane agreed.  “There are levels of travel publications from the high end, like National Geographic and Travel and Leisure, to mid level, like small local publications, to unpaid or barely paying print and web publications. I’ve enjoyed publishing my literary narrative stories with anthologies like Traveler’s Tales publications, but normally anthologies pay only an honorarium. I was a tenured college professor for over 30 years and traveled during vacations until my retirement from teaching. Some travel writers have spouses who have gainful employment!” 

One caution Diane expressed is the fantasy of exchanging a luxury trip for a few complimentary articles. “One tricky aspect (of accepting a free trip) is that some of the top publications, like the NY Times, won’t accept an article if it’s the result of a sponsored trip. But the craziness is that you might spend $5000 on a trip and receive a few hundred dollars for your article.”  She recommends looking at a paid travel another way, “Even if your pay for the article is minimal, still you’ve had a great trip.”

Like everything in publishing, the requirements and trends in travel writing has changed.

Diane shared the different categories of travel writing:

1) Destination or Service piece, as well as guidebook writing, gives information on travel tips, accommodations, sites, transportation, etc.

2) First person narrative or literary travel focuses more on style and literary quality as well as a unique perspective, most often an epiphany or unexpected discovery.

Diane pointed out, “The trends are moving toward shorter pieces, with more difficulty placing literary or narrative travel, fewer print publications, and overall fewer opportunities to receive substantial, if any, financial recompense. Similar to photography where everyone shoots pictures with their cell phones and places them on their blogs and Facebook, many people write travel blogs that are self-published and free. However, there’s always hope that beautiful writing and well described unique experiences will find markets and readers.”

“In East, I try something different,” Shelly explained. “ I write about a long-ago journey which has remained vivid across time—a journey in which I traversed a world that has since vanished or become shuttered to Western travelers. The adventure was crucial to my becoming who I am. There are lots of names for this kind of writing: travel memoir, literary travel, or experiential travel, or even narrative nonfiction. Maybe it should be called passionate travel writing. Perhaps even obsessive. However, the name doesn’t really matter. What matters is the craving to understand.”

Shelly pointed out also, “There are all sorts of travel writers, the intrepid mountain-scaler, the diligent journalist who crafts four or five vivid stories for different markets out of  her visit to an exotic spot, the guidebook writer busily sketching a map, the Victorian explorer with her entourage of porters, the blogger posting in an internet cafe after climbing off a local bus loaded with chickens and goats. And a lot of travel writers become most of these, by turns.” 

Both authors recommend less talk and more travel.

In Diane’s opinion “there’s nothing in life that equals the adventure of exploring the world and meeting your fellow dwellers on this earth. Traveling as a writer encourages you, as well gives you license, to pay more attention, probe deeper, ask questions, and carve out records of what you find along the way. For me, like many other travel writers, travel and writing about it is so intertwined in my existence, I can’t imagine life without it.”

And the ultimate advice Shelly gives is “Go! Be bold but watchful. Write down your thoughts. The laundry can wait. Own your life.” 

In other words, travel first, write, then even if you never sell or place a piece, the experience and memories are worth every adventurous step.

Shelley Buck

Diane LeBow, Ph.D.  President emerita, Bay Area Travel Writers, Inc.
Winner of “Best Women’s Travel Writing 2010” Solas Gold Award and 2011 Silver Award.



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