Amanda Jones is a writer and photographer living in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her work appears in books, magazines and newspapers worldwide, including Vogue, Travel & Leisure, Town & Country, Islands, Brides, Food & Wine, Condé Nast Traveller, the London Sunday Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the San Francisco Chronicle. She has been published in several travel anthologies including Salon.com’s Wanderlust: Real-Life Tales of Adventure and Romance, and Lonely Planet’s literary anthologies The Kindness of Strangers and By The Seat of My Pants. She is frequently invited to speak at literary conferences, workshops and festivals, and teaches writing at the annual Book Passage Travel Writers and Photographers Conference. Amanda has done story development for National Geographic’s Explorer television series and her black and white photographs of African tribes were exhibited at the United Nations film festival. Prior to becoming an independent writer, she worked for Condé Nast’s Vogue in Sydney, Australia. Samples of her writing and photography can be seen at www.amandajonestravel.com.
How did you get started traveling?
I am a New Zealander, which means I have the Kiwi wanderlust rooted in my DNA. New Zealanders travel. That’s what we do. I think we travel because we’re curious and active people as a whole. We tend to want to live the adventures ourselves, not just read about other people having them. I have been traveling with my family since I was very young. I moved to California when I was a naive college graduate of twenty and have been coming and going ever since.
How did you get started writing?
The hard way. I didn’t make freelance writing my profession until I was thirty or so. When I moved to America I had a degree in neurophysiology and was looking at graduate school. Then I had the ugly realization that this would mean life in a lab. I knew I didn’t have that in me, so wondered what the hell to do with my life. I’d always fancied clothing, so I had the idea to into fashion. It was the early 80s and Esprit in San Francisco hired me to do some terribly glamorous, but low-paying job that required me to hang out with people who cared deeply about the way other people looked. I hated it, and after two years left to go traveling in Europe and the Pacific for a year. Then my husband and I moved to Sydney as newlyweds and, shockingly, I landed a job with Vogue magazine (surrounded by people who cared even more about the way other people looked). I was the only woman on the entire staff of 80 who cut her nails with a toenail clipper and who thought spending a month’s salary on a Chanel suit was a stunningly flawed idea. It dawned on me then that I was not cut out for fashion. However, during that time I was given an assignment involving a camel back trek through India’s Thar Desert. I had no notion of what to expect, having done very little travel in the third world at that stage of my life. I was terrified I’d hate India, hate camels, hate the desert. But I found my proverbial calling on that trip. I had never been happier out there in a tent, on a camel, loping across that strange landscape.
What do you consider your first “break” as a writer?
I would have to say that camel safari. I was 25 at the time, and although it took me five years to get back to adventure travel writing, I knew I loved it, I knew I could do it and I had the clips. That was when I first picked up a camera too, which led me to take photography more seriously. I also shoot some of my own stories these days.
As a traveler and fact/story gatherer, what is your biggest challenge on the road?
Making myself do the work, take the notes, ask all the fact-checking questions. I tend to get swept up in the moment and have such a good time that I don’t always want to retreat to my tent and write notes. I want to sit around the campfire and chew the fat with the locals.
What is your biggest challenge in the research and writing process?
I think there are two big challenges for me. The first is the lede. It is so important to get the right lede and hook the reader into wanting to learn about the place I’m writing about. The second would be the ease with which the words come on each story. Some stories write themselves. Those are typically the journeys where things went wrong, or there was a fabulous character who shows up, or something dangerous or miserable happened. It’s the trips that go perfectly nicely that are tough. Sometimes I bore myself just writing those. And that’s a really bad thing.
What is your biggest challenge from a business standpoint? Editors? Finances? Promotion?
I make a point of only working with editors I like. Life is too short to work with malicious or inept people. I can honestly say I have enormous respect for, and typically a friendship with all my editors. They are good people, they generally improve my work and keep me honest. As far as finances, I’m sure you haven’t had a single writer answer these questions and tell you they make a splendid living from travel writing. If you have, they’re an anomaly. I am not in this for the money, that’s for sure.
Have you ever done other work to make ends meet?
Well, other than my checkered career in fashion, I was the editor-in-chief of an art magazine before I went freelance. But for the last 13 years, I have been on my own and done nothing but writing and photography. I don’t think I’m capable of much else actually. Although I guess you could say I have supplemented my income with photography. That has doubled it actually.
What travel authors or books might you recommend and/or have influenced you?
For travel I recommend Isabelle Eberhardt, Ryszard Kapuscinski, Peter Matthiessen, Tim Cahill, Redmond O’Hanlon, and Wilfred Thesiger. For novelists that write about other places, Salman Rushdie and Barbara Kingsolver are my absolute favorites.
What advice and/or warnings would you give to someone who is considering going into travel writing?
1. Marry or move in with someone who understands your life, your passions, your addiction to travel. Perhaps someone who likes to travel too.
2. If, like me, you become a mother halfway through your career (this probably goes for fathers too), you will have to make certain compromises. I still travel, but not nearly as much as I used to. Also, I recommend discussing this with your spouse before you go ahead and have the kids. Get an agreement written in blood that they are supportive of your continuing to travel. The good news is you can also take the kids with you at times, and that’s fantastic.
3. You will not make a fortune doing this.
4. The beauty of this business is there is no barrier to entry. You can have a degree in journalism from Columbia and editors won’t give a damn. You can be fresh out of the local community college and if you can write well, you’ll get your stories published. This is the ultimate meritocracy. You’re good, you get work.
5. Work on the lede. Work on the lede. Work on the lede.
6. Don’t make the stories all about you. Make it about you in context of the place, the history, the people, the environment.
7. Take photographs. Even if they are not good, they will help bring back memories and remind you of the physical sense of the place.
8. Do not drone on without an actual story. Populate your story with characters and dialogue, and try to have a basic storyline that runs throughout.
What is the biggest reward of life as a travel writer?
I am one of the richest people I know in experience (with the exception of my other travel writer friends). What I have not earned by way of money is more than compensated for by wealth of experience. It has shaped me as a person in a way no office job could. I am braver, calmer, wiser, more tolerant, more competent, more interesting, more amused and possibly more amusing than I would be if I were not a traveler. The road teaches many things.
But perhaps the best thing is that my two daughters have been raised traveling themselves. They have seen incredible poverty and great riches; and they know the rest of the world’s people do not think or look or live like Americans. Because of this they are wonderful little human beings. That alone makes it all worthwhile.