Elisabeth Eaves is the author of Wanderlust: A Love Affair with Five Continents. Her first book, Bare, about striptease, was called “a first-rate, first-person work of social anthropology” by the Washington Post, and “utterly engrossing” by Booklist. Her travel writing has been anthologized in The Best American Travel Writing 2009, The Best Women’s Travel Writing 2010, and Lonely Planet’s A Moveable Feast: Life-changing food adventures from around the world. Elisabeth has freelanced widely, including for Slate, Foreign Policy, Harper’s, the New York Times, and the Washington Post, and has worked at Reuters, the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, and The Daily, where she is editor of the opinions page.
How did you get started traveling?
With my parents. When I was 10 and my brother was 6, my father had an academic sabbatical and we all moved to Spain for a year. We lived in a house in an orange grove outside of Valencia. When the school year ended we piled into our Volkswagen van and drove south to Morocco, and then back up through Portugal, Spain, France, Italy, Switzerland, Austria, and Germany. My parents made me feel like I had a say in where we were going, letting me pick out campgrounds and encouraging me to follow our course on a map.
How did you get started writing?
I had a few internships and small freelance assignments, but I didn’t pick up speed until I became a reporter for a wire service. Working as a reporter teaches you to interview, meet deadlines, and produce clean copy. Those skills take longer to evolve as a freelancer because editors aren’t invested in you, and so don’t have much incentive to give feedback. That said, to develop my own voice I think it was important to move beyond straight news reporting.
What do you consider your first “break” as a writer?
There were different breaks of different kinds at different times. When I was trying to put together my first trip as a freelance travel writer, I wrote to an editor at Slate and told her who I was. I said that I’d written this book about stripping and that I was going to Yemen. She gave me an assignment. I pitched two other magazines, Islands and Foreign Policy, and got assignments from them. I went for a month and broke even, which I thought was fantastic.
As a traveler and fact/story gatherer, what is your biggest challenge on the road?
Charging batteries, backing up files, making sure my belongings remain my belongings, and packing light. For having traveled the amount I have, I’m not a very good packer, but I’m getting better.
What is your biggest challenge in the research and writing process?
Time. I love observing, interviewing, and writing, as long as I have enough time.
What is your biggest challenge from a business standpoint?
I no longer freelance full time, but when I did, it was making enough money to do better than scrape by. The freelance writers I know who live comfortably have other jobs, spouses who make more than they do, or extremely low overhead. Those who succeed are some of the most focused and hard-working people I’ve met, and behave in many ways like entrepreneurs.
Have you ever done other work to make ends meet?
All my work in the last 12-odd years has been in writing or editing, but I’ve done a lot of different things within that world — from working as a reporter to writing two books. When I freelanced full time, in addition to doing my own writing I had a regular gig ghostwriting articles, speeches, and book chapters for policy wonks. I could do as much or as little ghostwriting as I wanted, so it jibed well with travel writing.
Before I found my way to journalism I worked as a waitress, a bartender, a deck hand, a landscaper, an office temp, and a peep show girl, and was a grad student for a couple of years.
What travel authors or books might you recommend and/or have influenced you?
I love writing that gets inside someone’s head as they travel — that of either the author or another character. Capturing the feeling of a place, which goes beyond mere description, is also important. And I like a good old-fashioned story, with suspense and a beginning, middle, and end.
Not all of the books below would necessarily be called travel writing, but I’ve found all of them very compelling and often return to them when I’m writing:
-Everything by Joan Didion. Nobody calls the essay “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” a travel story, but it perfectly captures a time and place, San Francisco in the sixties.
-Various books by Ryszard Kapuscinski, including the beautifully evocative Shah of Shahs, and some of the stories in The Soccer War, where he weaves his personal story with reporting.
-Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines, one of the best books out there that explores why people travel.
-Many books by Paul Theroux, including My Secret History, a semi-autobiographical novel about a traveler’s life.
-Pretty much everything by the novelist Graham Greene. If you haven’t read him, start with The Quiet American, set in Vietnam, The Comedians, set in Haiti, or The Heart of the Matter, set in West Africa.
– Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, about a disaster on Mt. Everest, and Into The Wild, where he retraces the steps of a dreamer who wanted to live in the wilderness.
-More true adventure: David Grann‘s The Lost City of Z, which follows the explorer Percy Fawcett, and Robert Kurzon’s Shadow Divers, about divers who discover a lost submarine wreck off the New Jersey coast.
-The novelist Somerset Maugham, especially The Razor’s Edge and The Moon and Sixpence.
-I like the themes explored by Pico Iyer, who writes a lot about cultural dislocation.
-Finally, I like to read books set wherever I’m headed, so, for instance, I read Theroux’s The Mosquito Coast and O. Henry’s Cabbages and Kings when I was in Honduras.
What advice and/or warnings would you give to someone who is considering going into travel writing?
If you just want to travel, there are easier ways to get around the world. Do it because you want to be a writer. You know if you want to be a writer because it feels like a need — you can’t not do it.
On a more practical level, be an ideas machine and know your publication. Editors are hungry for copy, even at the biggest magazines. It’s a question of meeting their needs. Also, develop an specialty (or two) that you’re known for. You’ll be able to write in greater depth, and editors will start to think of you as a go-to person for a particular subject.
Unfortunately a lot of the copy in demand is stuff I have no interest in. I’ve never wanted to review hotels or write top-ten lists—in fact I find travel lists along the lines of “top ten destinations for 2011” absurd. They don’t have much to do with actually traveling — they’re mostly dreamed up to sell advertising or generate online traffic.
What is the biggest reward of life as a travel writer?
On one of those first travel assignments in Yemen, I slept on a beach on the Indian Ocean and went diving with manta rays for a story about some remote islands. I had to remind myself that I was working.
It’s hard to pick out a best part. There’s the travel itself. There’s the satisfaction of interviewing and finding things out. And then I enjoy sitting down and trying to make meaning out of what I’ve seen.