Gayle Keck has written for Gourmet, National Geographic Traveler, GQ, Islands, Executive Traveler, ForbesLife Executive Woman, VIA, and AARP: The Magazine. She’s a frequent contributor to the Washington Post, where she created a monthly column on travel magazines; her stories have also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Christian Science Monitor, Denver Post, San Francisco Chronicle, New Orleans Times-Picayune and other major newspapers. Her stories have been selected for the Best Travelers’ Tales 2004 and Best Women’s Travel Writing 2008 anthologies. Gayle has visited 49 US states (sorry, North Dakota) and more than 40 countries — though her favorite trip was a flight from Chicago to San Francisco, when she met her husband on the airplane.
How did you get started traveling?
I’ve always loved a trip of any kind. As a kid, I cried every time we drove back home from our annual summer stay at YMCA Family Camp (what kid wouldn’t have adored those dining room tables with the big lazy-susans, where a swift spin could launch a bowl of mashed potatoes into orbit?). OK, this is a far less exotic beginning than, say, Pico Iyer’s. But when you’re a land-locked midwestern kid, it doesn’t take much to amaze. I try to take that same sense of wonder with me when I travel today.
How did you get started writing?
It’s the best excuse for rude curiosity. I was always on student newspapers, then went to journalism school at University of Missouri. I should mention that my dad was a newspaperman early in his career, so words are in my blood. (He once took a trip down the Mississippi River on a commercial freighter — all the way to pre-Castro Cuba — sending back dispatches along the way. I’d like to duplicate that adventure some day.) After j-school, I went to work at big ad agencies, as a copywriter. I was intrigued by working in multiple media — print, radio, TV. It was actually great practice at writing compelling ledes. If you know how to capture somebody’s attention when you’re trying to sell toilet bowl cleaner, it’s a snap to write an eye-catching opener for a story about sailing the Turquoise Coast.
What do you consider your first “break” as a writer?
A friend challenged me to stop talking about wanting to be a travel writer and actually do it. He gave me a deadline to complete a story. Pinned and wriggling, I wrote 2400 words about a spa in France. I submitted it to the San Francisco Chronicle Magazine, and it ran in one of their all-travel specials. Through sheer luck, I happened to have written a piece that fit their theme for that issue.
As a traveler and fact/story gatherer, what is your biggest challenge on the road?
There’s always a tension between living a place and reporting a place. In most cases, I prefer that people not know I’m a writer – but there’s a fine line between asking enough questions, getting enough information, and being “outed” as a reporter. On the other hand, there’s sometimes a temptation to just relax into a situation and be a “normal” traveler. I did that once at a friend’s wedding. And, of course, when I was chatting with an editor a few months later, she was looking for a story about that very destination. After an insane amount of time on the Internet and telephone, I finally gathered the research I could have collected along the way.
What is your biggest challenge in the research and writing process?
I almost always have too much to say — and word counts are getting shorter.
What is your biggest challenge from a business standpoint?
With many newspapers on the financial skids and general interest magazines floundering, we all need to figure out what Travelwriter 2.0 is going to be.
Have you ever done other work to make ends meet?
Yes, I do marketing and branding consulting — for people and products I respect.
What travel authors or books might you recommend and/or have influenced you?
Here are writers I admire because they take us to amazing places, whether they’re considered traditional “travel writers” or not: M.F.K. Fisher, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Anais Nin, Milan Kundera, Jan Morris, Susan Orlean, Tim Cahill, Michael Pollan, Ron Suskind, Joseph Conrad (Heart of Darkness is perhaps the best travel story ever). Plus the members of my travel writing group: Connie Hale, Michael Shapiro, Laurie King, Bill Fink, Bradley Charbonneau, Laura Read and Camille Cusumano. Their writing and their feedback constantly inspire me to be better.
What advice and/or warnings would you give to someone who is considering going into travel writing?
1. For better (and at rare times for worse), travel will never be the same again.
2. Don’t quit your day job.
3. It’s 10% travel, 10% writing and 80% other stuff that’s not nearly as much fun. But it still beats any other job I can think of.
What is the biggest reward of life as a travel writer?
Traveling twice — once at the destination and a second time as I write the story.