American by birth, Amanda Castleman spent much of her adult years abroad in places like England, Italy, Greece, Cyprus and Turkey. Her articles have appeared in the International Herald Tribune, MSNBC.com, Wired, Salon, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Italy Daily and the Athens News, as well as the UK’s BBC, Guardian and Mail on Sunday. She has contributed to dozens of books, including Greece, A Love Story and Single State of the Union, as well as titles for Frommer’s, Michelin, National Geographic, DK Eyewitness, Time Out and Rough Guides. She teaches through Writers.com and is now based in Seattle, her native city.
How did you get started traveling?
My folks spin great stories about Ellen Castleman (mamma) hiking seven-months pregnant. After some teenage gonzo-antics in the North Cascades, I moved to Europe, hoping to learn manners, not mannerisms. I failed ï¿½ and bumbled into a travel-writing career. Now I can horrify the bel mondo with stories like “a stripper stole my wig at Mardi Gras” and “I road-tripped the Balkans ï¿½ trading wander for lust ï¿½ after my Inappropriate Beau ran off with a German backpacker with a diamond tooth.”
How did you get started writing?
Can I blame this on my family too? My earliest memories are of John Castleman (dad) ï¿½ a house-husband ï¿½ bashing out novels in his makeshift office. I’d nap in the closet’s corner, lulled by the typewriter’s staccato.
What do you consider your first “break” as a writer?
Age 18, I landed my first journo job at the University of Washington Daily, one of the few collegiate papers to pay a living wage. Its newsroom walls were creamsicle-colored and scrimshawed with the smart-assery of the ages (the famous graffiti dates back decades). The glamour sidetracked me from a lucrative career as a Latin professor into writing.
As a traveler and fact/story gatherer, what is your biggest challenge on the road?
Grapefruit gum is not available outside Croatia. An army lives on its stomach, after all ï¿½ Also, business often hijacks my adventures. Sometimes I travel half the year, editing, filing copy and teaching travel writing en route. Here’s the good news: it can be done. It can even be done sans safety net: no partner, no day job, no trust fund.
Ideally, every travel writer would earn $2+/word and expenses, eliminating the need to peddle chewed pencils on the black market to make ends meetï¿½
What is your biggest challenge in the research and writing process?
‘Monkey mind” is how Buddhists describe an excitable, easily distracted state. A friend once noted: “Amanda, you don’t have monkey mind. You have a whole barrel of monkeys.”
What is your biggest challenge from a business standpoint?
Ever tried to herd monkeys? Worse than catsï¿½
Have you ever done other work to make ends meet?
After eight years in Europe, I moved to Seattle with two suitcases and four boxes of books. Nesting parched my bank account like a salted slug. So I took a short gig as a promotional model, demonstrating camera phones to drunk sports fans. The company issued me a cigarette-girl trayï¿½o-tech and a white satin warm-up suit (the XS shirt sagged to mid-thigh, so corporate-gangsta!). Every night I pitched stories until I drooled asleep onto the keyboard. Humiliation is a terrific motivator.
What travel authors or books might you recommend and/or have influenced you?
Adventure writer Tim Cahill sneaks great insights and turns of phrase into mainstream publications. I also enjoy Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard, Wade Davis’ Serpent and the Rainbow, Martha Gellhorn’s Travels with Myself and Another and Eleanor Clark’s unfinished symphony Rome and A Villa.
I’m a greedy, quick reader, who trawls through Abbey, Bryson, Dillard, Durrell, Horwitz, Fussell, Hoagland, Iyer, McPhee, Mehta, Miller, Morris, Newby, O’Hanlon, Raban, Theroux and Thompson (as in Hunter S.) for inspiration. Recent discoveries include Down Time: Great Writers on Diving, William Least Heat-Moon’s Blue Highways, Michael Paterniti’s Driving Mr. Albert and Geoff Dyer’s Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It. My friend Marie Javins also has a title that’s irresistible to name-drop: Stalking the Wild Dik-Dik.
And I can’t stop quoting Kent Nerburn’s Road Angels: ï¿½I’ve watched the light go out of too many of my friendsï¿½ eyes as their lives turned from a crazy garden of weeds and wildflowers to a well-manicured lawn. Iï¿½m not ready for that yet. I need ï¿½bears behind treesï¿½ ï¿½ surprises in life that are bigger than a plugged sewer line or an unexpected finance charge on my credit card … If I donï¿½t have them, my life becomes just a long-term maintenance project.”
What advice and/or warnings would you give to someone who is considering going into travel writing?
Read and compose exhaustively. Ray Bradbury once advised: “write 52 short stories in a year, I defy you to write 52 bad ones.”
The fact you can write does not make you a writer. Hone those chops. And be gentle with yourself in the process. This field is intensely competitive: even more rough and tumble than journalism at large, I’d wager.
Start slow and build a portfolio of published work. And if you volunteer ï¿½ a time-honored aspect of any apprenticeship ï¿½ make sure you’re not devaluing the market. A beginning writer can contribute to a new e-zine without damaging the industry much. Donate that same piece to a major outlet and you’ve done everyone a disservice, especially yourself.
What is the biggest reward of life as a travel writer?
The groupies, gotta be the groupies ï¿½ Plus I get to explore, learn and grandstand creatively ï¿½ on the clock. My friend and colleague Edward Readicker-Henderson summed it up best: “the entire world is a huge playground, and all you have to do is go out and play, be attentive, and it will reward you endlessly.”
Yes, absolutely. And I’ll up the ante one Rilke stanza: ” Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror. Just keep going. No feeling is final.”
Any job that lets you surf that edge is worth the price of admission.