Catharine Hamm has been part of The Los Angeles Times Travel section since 1999, serving as travel editor since 2003. She launched the “On the Spot” travel consumer column early in 2007, and it now appears in newspapers and on websites across the country. She was born in Syracuse, N.Y., but counts Virginia, Hawaii, the Philippines, Kansas, and, of course, California as among the 34 places she has called home.
How did you get started traveling?
My dad worked for the federal government, and in those days, that meant moving every two to four years or so..and that meant New York to Washington and Washington to Honolulu and Honolulu to Manila and Manila to Washington…and that was just the first 12 years.
How did you get started writing?
My mother’s family is Irish, and if you’re Irish, you’re all about the story and how it’s told. So genetics coupled with two terrific teachers in my growing-up years — Anne Obenchain of Langley High School in Virginia and Norma Tucker of McPherson College in Kansas — helped seal the deal. Or my fate, depending.
What do you consider your first “break” as a writer and editor?
Getting hired, with the encouragement of Dr. Tucker, at a twice-weekly suburban paper. I was 22.
As a traveler and fact/story gatherer, what is your biggest challenge on the road?
Focus. It’s all spread out before you like this incredible buffet…
What is your biggest challenge in the research and writing process?
Not over-reporting. Which sounds insane but if you know too much about your topic, you miss things. In the writing process, it’s thinking I’m funnier than I really am.
What is your biggest challenge from a business standpoint?
I’ve been in the newspaper business for 34 years. Twenty years ago, the joke was that we were like “cowboys on a dinosaur ranch.” No one’s laughing now. We have to find a way to deliver news and information to readers, regardless of the platform, and to do it in a way that meets their needs and desires.
Have you ever done other work to make ends meet?
Yes. I worked in a print shop at night during my first job right out of college. And I still run www.pickupchick.com, and no, I’m not kidding. Need something moved in the LA area? Call me.
As an editor, what do you look for in a travel story?
A right brain-left brain approach. Make me laugh, make me dream, make me want to pack my bags, then tell me how I can do it.
What travel authors or books might you recommend and/or have influenced you?
West With the Night, by Beryl Markham and, of course, Out of Africa, by Isak Dinesen. Oddly enough, Shadow Divers, by Robert Kurson, Into Thin Air and Under the Banner of Heaven, by Jon Krakauer. The Gulag Archipelago, by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott. Old Man and the Sea, by Hemingway. Nothing says “travel writer” like a totally eclectic list.
What advice and/or warnings would you give to someone who is considering going into travel writing?
Don’t, unless you’re prepared to be forever discontented with wherever you’re sitting right now.
What is the biggest reward of life as a travel writer and editor?
You mean besides being able to fall asleep just about anywhere, no matter how uncomfortable? OK, then I’d have to say that it’s the people whose paths I’ve crossed and whose generous spirits continue to teach and enrich me.