Carl Parkes writes the Southeast Asia Handbook Moon Handbooks: Southeast Asia (3rd Ed.) for Moon guides, as well as Moon country guides for Thailand Moon Handbooks: Thailand (3rd Ed.), Singapore the Philippines Moon Handbooks: Philippines (3rd Ed.). He also contributes reviews and profiles to Reed Travel Group and Weissmann Travel Reports. His latest book, National Geographic Traveler’s Thailand will be released in spring of 2001. He lives in San Francisco.
How did you get started traveling?
My father was in the U.S. Air Force and we traveled extensively during my childhood to California, Alabama, Nebraska, Utah, Colorado and Japan. I continued my travels after graduation in Economics from UC Santa Barbara in 1973.
How did you get started writing?
In 1979, on a one-year backpacking trip around Asia, I bumped into Bill Dalton in Singapore at a budget hotel on Bencoolen Street. Bill had recently founded Moon Publications, based on his groundbreaking Indonesia Handbook. Dalton and I become close friends and it was 8 years later that I proposed my first travel guidebook to SE Asia. After inspection by Bill’s first editor, we signed a contract and I began work on the 800-page guidebook. So you might say it was a personal connection and just plain good luck that led to my career as a travel writer.
What do you consider your big “break” as a travel writer?
Aside from that chance meeting in Singapore with Bill Dalton in1979, I’d say it was twice winning the Lowell Thomas Award for travel guidebook of the year. I also have high hopes for my forthcoming guidebook to Thailand for National Geographic.
As a traveler and fact/story-gatherer, what is your biggest challenge on the road?
The extreme heat and rain of SE Asia can make daily research a difficult assignment, as well as the need to constantly return to the same destinations to check the same research material. Bangkok may be one of the world’s great cities, but it loses some of its charm and character after the 50th visit. I now mostly get excited about visiting remote, untouched villages in the more mountainous areas of SE Asia.
What is your biggest challenge in the writing process?
Procrastination. I tend to find a million things to occupy my time rather than turn on the computer and get to work. However, once I’ve started a new chapter, then everything seems to fall into place. Another problem is that my cat enjoys sleeping in my lap, and it’s tough to get much writing accomplished when a furry creature is hogging my keyboard.
What is your biggest challenge from a business standpoint? Editors? Finanaces? Promotion?
Editors seem to come and go with the seasons and I rarely let their erratic quirks bother me with the writing process. I’ve managed to support myself for over a decade as a freelance travel writer, so I can’t really complain too loudly about my finances. Work seems to fall into my lap on a fairly regular basis and I’ve never had to go out searching for new job assignments. The lack of truly comprehensive promotion and book distribution from Moon Publications is certainly my largest source of frustration, as there’s nothing more discouraging that visiting bookstores that don’t carry your books.
Do you do other work to make ends meet?
I’ve lectured and been compensated on several cruise ships around SE Asia and occasionally make paid lectures and personal appearances here in the Bay Area. But 95% of my income remains royalties from Moon Publications, flat fee payments from companies such as National Geographic, and assignments from trade publications such as Reed Travel/Star Service and Weissmann Travel Reports.
What travel authors or books might you recommend and/or have influenced you?
I’ve never bothered reading any books about the mechanics of travel writing or writing in general, but am largely a self-taught writer as it’s not really necessary to be a Hemingway when it comes to writing travel guidebooks. A better idea is to read the great contemporary travel writers (Paul Theroux, Pico Iyer, etc.) for inspiration and instructions on the craft of writing.
What advice and/or warnings would you give to someone who is considering going into travel writing?
Very, very few people here in the United States are able to support themselves as a freelance travel writer. I’d say that most writers are actually housewives who have working husbands to support their hobby. But you must start small (stories for local newspapers), keep the day job, and slowly work yourself up into better paying jobs such as magazines and perhaps travel guidebooks. Be sure to write about destinations you love, since you might find yourself married to that destination for the rest of your life! Develop good relations with your editors and try to make most of your deadlines. Above all, enjoy your travels and your small successes, which may lead someday to real recognition and adequate monetary rewards.
What is the biggest reward of life as a travel writer?
To be a creative and free individual living in the great city of San Francisco, with plenty of time exploring the wonderful world of SE Asia.