Bonnie Tsui is the author of American Chinatown: A People’s History of Five Neighborhoods. A graduate of Harvard University and a former editor at Travel + Leisure, she is a frequent contributor to the New York Times and has written for the Atlantic Monthly, National Geographic Adventure, and Condé Nast Traveler. She is also the editor of A Leaky Tent Is a Piece of Paradise, a collection of essays on the outdoors, and is a recipient of the Radcliffe Traveling Fellowship, the Lowell Thomas Award for travel journalism, and the Jane Rainie Opel Award from the Radcliffe Institute.
How did you get started traveling?
I had always wanted to see the Sistine Chapel; my father is a painter, and I grew up traipsing through museums (especially the Met) with him in New York. The summer after my sophomore year in college, my roommate Melissa and I backpacked around Italy. An artist friend gave us a tip: go to the Vatican first thing in the morning, and run (don’t walk) straight through the galleries to the Sistine Chapel. You’ll have five minutes alone with Michelangelo’s masterpiece. I lay down on the floor and cried.
How did you get started writing?
I burned through library books at lightning speed when I was a kid. For an eighth-grade class project, I wrote a historical novella about a girl who dressed up like a boy and fought in the Civil War; my teachers persuaded me to enter the book in a national young adult novel competition sponsored by Avon Flare, and I won second place. That was the extent of my fiction-writing career (end on a high note, right?). In college, I discovered nonfiction as a literary form, in a couple of seminars I took with the writer Natalie Kusz: what a warm, brilliant woman. I could not have had a better teacher.
What do you consider your first “break” as a writer?
I studied abroad at The University of Sydney my junior year, and landed a job working two days a week at the Sydney Morning Herald. Susan Wyndham, the wonderful literary editor there, sent me out in the city on assignment and just let me write. It was an incredible opportunity to try my hand at the craft, one I hadn’t had in all my illustrious summer jobs in New York publishing: working the manuscript slush pile at Bantam/Doubleday/Dell, and interning at Vanity Fair magazine, where my most memorable moment was mercilessly assaulting Graydon Carter in a black-lit game of laser tag in Times Square. He later approached me with the following sinister question: “You work for me, don’t you?” (I didn’t get canned — I think he liked that I had the guts to “put him in a body bag,” so to speak.)
As a traveler and fact/story gatherer, what is your biggest challenge on the road?
Keeping up the energy day in and day out, and remembering to eke out a bit of downtime to rest and reflect on all the things that happen during a trip. Spending time with people and getting them to share their stories with me: it’s my favorite part of being on the road, but it’s also the toughest. It’s what you want to happen, and while it’s happening, you’re fully alert and sensitive to all the things they are telling you. But it’s exhausting, too. I find the process at once energizing and enervating.
What is your biggest challenge in the research and writing process?
Keeping a tight thematic focus. There are so many different ways a story can go, and sometimes I’m overwhelmed by the possibilities. Finding the clear vision around which to organize an article or a book chapter is golden — that vision can obviously change along the way, and that’s fine, too. It just has to feel right and true. But I’m so glad when it happens.
What is your biggest challenge from a business standpoint?
When I first started freelancing full-time, almost seven years ago, I felt so nervous; the toughest thing about starting out is that you haven’t yet gotten the cycle of payments going and so you wonder if you’re ever going to be able to relax. Assignments ebb and flow, and once I accepted that (and had my spreadsheet-loving husband help me get organized), I found a place of calm.
Have you ever done other work to make ends meet?
No, I haven’t. (Knocks wood.)
What travel authors or books might you recommend and/or have influenced you?
I love Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. It is simply delicious. It made me think about the craft of writing and the sense of place, together. For inspiration when I’m working, I love reading Susan Orlean (for her humor, irrepressible wonder, inventive storytelling) and Atul Gawande (for his clarity, simplicity, beautiful turns of phrase). They come at writing from different places, but they both write about people really well. When I’m not working, I’m almost always reading novels. I recently finished Richard Price’s Lush Life — it brought me back with great vividness to the Lower East Side, my old neighborhood.
What advice and/or warnings would you give to someone who is considering going into travel writing?
Don’t think about becoming a travel writer — think about being a writer first.
What is the biggest reward of life as a travel writer?
Having a wonderful lens with which to see the world.