Cleo Paskal has contributed to everyone from The Economist to the (better paying) Weekly World News. Along the way she has hosted BBC radio travel shows, appeared in several anthologies, wrote an Emmy-winning TV series, taught at universities in the U.K., Canada and New Zealand, and won ten major travel writing awards (including the Grand Prize from the North American Travel Journalist’s Association). She claims that the secret to her success is that her TV is broken and she is allergic to alcohol. Cleo’s travel column appears weekly in Canada’s National Post.
How did you get started traveling?
You know what? The answer to this is really kind of personal and a bit difficult to talk about. I don’t really feel like I know you well enough yet to try to explain. So let’s move on to the next questions for now and we can come back to it, ok?
How did you get started writing?
Rather ridiculously, I went to elementary school in rural Quebec. There was one teacher for grades 1, 2 and 3, and another for 4, 5 and 6. No one spoke English, not even the teachers. And I arrived in kindergarten with no French. By grade 2, I could speak Quebecois like a proud toothless local. Sadly, it wasn’t enough to help me fit in. Halfway through grade 5, I refused to go back.
Stick with me, there is a point.
We moved to Montreal. I continued in a French language school, but I had a friend, H., who was in English school. I would write essays for her and, in exchange, she would deign to be seen with a country kid (and even, occasionally, lend me clothes).
Suddenly, writing was buying me friends. I became a prolific junior ghostwriter, unconstrained by marks, relationships with teachers, or peer comments. (Ethological aside: throughout my entire high school, I would write cheery doggerel in English for fun, while all my French creative writing for class ended with the protagonist dying a brutal death. You don’t need Freud to figure that out.) This is not an approach I would recommend.
But, because writing in English was easy (especially compared to writing in French), I soon drifted into journalism. I ended up doing teen-movie reviews for the local CBC station and filing teen-culture reports nationally.
Which sort of brings me to the answer to the first question: In my teens I finally had to come to terms with… No, I think I, well, do you mind if I wait just a bit longer?
What do you consider your first “break” as a writer?
I won a French ghost story writing competition at the local library when I was 7 (finally, the brutal deaths were appropriate). The prize was a book (in French) on making Christmas ornaments. This was a big deal for me at the time.
What is your biggest challenge in the research and writing process?
Blocking off a big enough chunk of time to really focus. I tend to write anything up to about 1500 words all in one sitting (with breaks for aimless wanders around the house and, vicious fridge raids). As a result, I often end up starting to write around 11 pm — once the phone has stopped ringing and all normal happy people are in bed. By the way, I don’t write every day. I write when I have a deadline.
What is your biggest challenge from a business standpoint?
I’m a lousy seller. I feel embarrassed pitching pieces. I’m just too Canadian. I think it might be because of my… Damn. Still too soon. Sorry.
Have you ever done other work to make ends meet?
Oh I regularly meander away from the One True Path. I work in radio and TV, teach, win bar bets. Whatever it takes, eh?
What travel authors or books might you recommend and/or have influenced you?
I’m not a huge fan of travel writing for the sake of travel writing. I like the travel to be integral, but in the background. Homer’s Odyssey, for example, is not only a cracking good yarn, it also functions as a pretty good navigational guide to the eastern Mediterranean. Most of the early ‘classics’ (Beowulf, a lot of Herodotus, the Icelandic Sagas, much of the Bible, The Epic of Gilgamesh, etc.) are great road stories.
As for writers that haven’t been dead a few thousand years, no one writes about Canada better than Stompin’ Tom Connors. With the added bonus that he then sets his creations to country music. A wee sample from his classic “Sudbury Saturday Night” (Sudbury is working class northern Ontario town largely built around the Inco nickel mine): “The girls are out to bingo and the boys are gettin’ stinko / And we think no more of Inco on a Sudbury Saturday night.” Tells you just about all you need to know about Sudbury. And it rhymes. Take that, Paul Theroux.
Books have always been very important to me. It was reading that saved during my… No. I guess we’ll save it to the end.
What advice and/or warnings would you give to someone who is considering going into travel writing?
There are a lot of different ways to be a travel writer. You can make a great living churning out front-of-the-book and back-of-the-book hotel reviews. Don’t scorn. After researching the latest ‘It’ place, those people are then free to wander off on private adventures. And they’ve actually provided a useful service to the readers (assuming they aren’t puff pieces). Or, you can live out of a fanny pack and try to get into Granta. Another perfectly fine model.
Obviously, good advice for one would be snake venom for the other. Regardless, here is a random list:
- Register your own domain name, and to set up a website. Great democratizers, websites.
- Treat it like a business. There are start-up costs (which could mean eating Kraft Dinner for a few months while you intern and make contacts). Make rough short, medium and long-term plans (is your goal Conde Nast Traveler or Granta?). Reread those plans regularly to see if they still make sense.
- Know that a lot of time is spent neither traveling nor writing (planning trips, tracking down sources, fact checking, etc.).
- Meet deadlines.
- Spell check.
- Don’t call the editors a million times to see what they thought of your work of genius.
- Don’t take rejection personally – rejections often have nothing to do with the writer or story idea. It could be that the editor just ran something similar, that they are over-stocked, that they are having a bad hair day.
- Find a comfortable niche. It is a huge industry. Figure out what you like then become an expert in it (I have dibs on the world’s smallest countries).
- Set realistic goals. If you send one cold pitch a week, you’re doing ok. Find another writer and set up regular pitch sessions in which you go over magazines, brainstorm ideas and then actually send them in.
- Join relevant writers groups. At least at first. It will give you and idea of the parameters of the industry. Whether you choose to respect those parameters is another thing…
- Short sentences speed up the pace.
- Try to remember that you are always telling a story. Even if it is while filling out a random list of questions. That’s right: There is no big secret in my life (that I’ll admit to for free). I am not constantly traveling to escape the bad memories that keep clutching at my heels. I have no problem with long-term relationships. I travel because I am curious and have a lot to learn. I am looking for overreaching patterns of human behavior, irrespective of local cultures. By spending time in Tonga, I am learning about Montreal. But what is of relevance to a newbie is that I tried to create some sort of suspense — some sort of narrative in this quiz, building to a proper ending. Which might have worked, except there is one more bloody question.
What is the biggest reward of life as a travel writer?
Miss America Pageant Answer: I get to publicize small, owner-operated businesses that are interesting and doing a good job. The coverage can really help make (or break) someone’s lifelong dream. Also, I get to broaden the world view of my readers, making them think beyond the horrors that are reported in the foreign section of the paper. The world really is an amazing, wonderful place.
Answer To Guy Who Dumped Me: I am writing this from a Cathay Pacific business class seat on my way to Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan. In Taiwan, I’m hoping to meet the Papal Nuncio. What are you doing this weekend?