Gary Warner is the travel editor for the Orange County Register in Orange County, California. A 44-year-old native Southern Californian, he has undergraduate degrees from Cal Berkeley (history) and Cal State Long Beach (psychology), and he has a masters in journalism from Columbia University. A former legislative aide in Sacramento, he worked for The Pittsburgh Press as a political reporter before coming to the Orange County Register in 1987. He was on the Register’s government team, with his longest and last stint as military writer. He became travel editor in 1994. His wife, Debra, is a former Register journalist who is now a freelance writer. They have two kids, Thomas, 9, and Elizabeth, who will be 2 on Valentine’s Day, along with two dogs and two cats.
How did you get started traveling?
Like a lot of American kids in the 1960s, I was a captive of endless car trips with my folks and little brother. Mostly to San Francisco and the Redwoods, but sometimes as far as Western Canada. I loved airliners, so my parents would take me to the theme restaurant (now called Encounter) at Los Angeles International Airport for my birthday parties. I was especially fond of the old BOAC VC-10. People were inside that sleek jet flying off to London — I wanted to be one of them. It took longer than I wished. My first big solo trip was to Hawaii at age 23 to Maui, followed by a great week in New York City. The travel bug hit late, but it hit hard. I didn’t make it to Europe until I was 30, but have made up for lost time.
How did you get started writing and editing?
I began by writing speeches for local politicians, then writing political essays for an alternative weekly in Long Beach, Calif. My clips got me into Columbia University and it all took off from there.
What do you consider your first “break” as a travel writer?
Laura Bly was the travel editor at the Register when I was the military writer. Laura encouraged me to write travel stories off some of my odder overseas assignments – Korea, East Germany, Hawaii. By the time she moved on (she’s at USA Today now), I had about 10 travel bylines. I got the job and have Laura to thank for the opportunity. I’ve tried to repay the debt by encouraging reporters at the Register to try their hand at travel writing.
As a traveler and fact/story-gatherer, what is your biggest challenge on the road?
Keeping a fresh eye. Being open to people and places — going out and talking to locals even if I’m bone tired after a day on the train or driving. Getting beyond the tourist spots and trying to find a little bit of authenticity. Then fighting fatigue long enough to write longhand in my journal while the conversations and images are still fresh. If I write later, ever with good notes, I lose texture. The stories kind of flatten out.
What is your biggest challenge in the writing process?
Finding the time to really relax and get a sense memory of a place while I am writing. Notes are one thing, but you have to return to the feel of a place to really nail the story. Music helps a lot — I make a tape or CD for every trip, then listen to it back at the office when I am writing my stories. As an editor, my biggest challenge is fighting the impulse to rewrite and instead allow the author’s unique voice to survive — while getting writers to shape a piece to fit our section’s readership.
What is your biggest challenge from a business standpoint?
I don’t take freebies and travel anonymously whenever possible. I want to see a location, hotel or restaurant from the perspective on the average person. My paper has made the financial commitment, but each year is a struggle as travel costs climb. It helps that we are in a competitive market with the LA Times, who put out a first rate section. We’re trying hard to steal their lunch.
Do you do other work to make ends meet?
No. I write for other Register sections when warranted — news, business and features. But my salary is my only income and all rights to my work are held by the newspaper.
What travel authors or books might you recommend and/or have influenced you?
Mark Twain’s travelogues for humor, Ernest Hemingway’s “A Moveable Feast” because travel writing is about conjuring special memories. I like Jan Morris’ eye for detail and Robert Hughes’ playfulness with language. P.J. O’Rourke can be a smug elitist, but “Holidays in Hell” is a great read.
What advice and/or warnings would you give to someone who is considering going into travel writing?
Do it for the writing, not for the travel. If you are doing it for the travel, then the freebies will entice and you’ll end up a shill. If you just want to travel, go on vacation, work for an airline or cruise company or go into public relations. Write travel because you want to write. I loathe stories that read like the all-expenses-paid commercial they really are.
As an editor, what do you look for in a travel story?
A good story, well reported and written with wit and savvy. I prefer first person stories, but 50 inches of someone’s solo ruminations is usually a crashing bore. I want to hear other voices. Secondly, a hook. What’s the story? Just being there isn’t enough. I hate “went here, went there, the end” types of stories. I don’t want a guidebook. A good travel story is simply a good tale that involves travel. Good travel writing uses all the senses — I want to see, hear, feel, smell and taste a place. Transport me. Finally, give it to me unvarnished — don’t try to sell your destination. I can spot a freeloader’s phony “everything is wonderful” story within three paragraphs. I don’t like or trust those kind of stories and neither do readers.
What is the biggest reward of life as a travel writer?
The chance to experience how different the world is, yet how it’s the same. The way mothers cuddle their babies in Chicago or Cape Town. How the cottonwoods send out the white bits of fluff on the breeze in July whether they’re in Siberia or Montana. Travel is a sure cure for arrogance.