In June 2006, three friends and media professionals — Jennifer Baggett, Holly Corbett and Amanda Pressner — were hungry to break free from their predictable routines and to explore how people in other countries lived. So after nearly 18 months of planning and saving, they left their jobs, boyfriends, apartments, and everything familiar behind in New York City to embark on a year-long search for adventure. Journeying across four continents and more than a dozen countries, they shared their experiences with other aspiring vagabonds on their blog, LostGirlsWorld.com. They’ve turned their tales into a travel memoir, The Lost Girls: Three Friends. Four Continents. One Unconventional Detour Around the World., which was published in May 2010.
How did you get started traveling?
Holly caught the travel bug when she went on a study-abroad program in college called Semester at Sea. She circled the globe on a ship with about 450 college students, and fell in love with the sense of freedom and adventure that comes with getting lost in a foreign land.
Amanda was eight years old her mom and stepdad decided to spend the summer driving across country (twice) in a blue Chevy van called “The Blue Moose.” It was during that trip that she acquired desert survival skills (if you’ve got a plastic bag and a twistie tie, you’ll never go without water), learned how to navigate (using a roadmap, not GPS) and found her bearings as a traveler.
With a mouth full of metal, 5-inch bangs coated in Aquanet and day-glow pink scrunch socks, Jen hopped her first foreign flight at the age of 16, embarking on a 10-day mother-daughter tour of London, Paris and Rome. Witnessing the changing of the guard at Windsor Castle, coming face-to-face with Mona Lisa in the Louvre and gazing up at the iconic Hand of God at the Sistine Chapel, sparked a powerful sense of wanderlust. And though she returned home with the same embarrassing hairstyle, she was forever altered on the inside and vowed to make international journeys an integral part of her life forever.
How did you get started writing?
Holly has kept a journal since she was 10 years old, but after graduating with a degree in journalism and moving to New York City from Syracuse, she landed a five-month temp job at Concierge.com, Conde Nast’s travel website. She then managed to break into the writing business when she landed a job as an editorial assistant at a national women’s magazine in New York after graduating.
Using a Fischer Price, PXL2000 toy camcorder, Amanda used to interview her parents, neighbors and pets in her own ultra low-budget version of “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.” When serious on-camera journalism didn’t pan out, she pursued a writing career instead. She started as a copywriter for Conde Nast Media Group, but eventually scored a gig as an editorial assistant at the same women’s magazine where Holly worked.
Although she used to pen imaginary sequels to Annie as a child, Jen never dreamed she’d become a writer as an adult. Until she started blogging about her round-the-world journey on LostGirlsWorld.com she’d had a successful career in television marketing and promotions which she intended to return to at the end of the journey. And while she did just that, she’s thrilled to have cut her teeth on The Lost Girls and even prouder to call herself a co-author to Amanda and Holly.
What do you consider your first “break” as writers?
As a team, our first big “break” into travel writing was when a few agents and one editor at a major publishing house stumbled across our blog while we were still traveling, and wrote to express interest. Of course, no one actually wanted to meet with us until we’d composed a polished book proposal, so the three of us holed up for an entire month at Holly’s family’s house in Syracuse to put together our 60-page document together. Once we’d completed the proposal (including three sample chapters), we found an agent whom we really trusted at Writer’s House, and he managed to sell our book to HarperCollins.
As travelers and fact/story gatherers, what is your biggest challenge on the road?
Our biggest challenge was trying to figure out how to minimize the cultural lens through which we view the world in order to keep from altering the truth of the people and places’ stories we visited. It’s one thing to record the color of the Indian ocean or the sound of Balinese gamelan music, but quite another to try to interpret the meaning behind what our Cambodian guide’s tone said as he described The Killing Fields.
What is your biggest challenge in the research and writing process?
Having three writers! Figuring out how to divide up and cover the various places we’d encountered amongst three different women, and then mesh our individual and collective experiences into a single memoir, took quite a lot of planning. Everything seemed to take much longer because we had to coordinate with each other whenever we wanted to change an angle or write about a place we hadn’t originally decided upon in our outline.
On the upside, it forced us to be more organized since we had to map out exactly how we saw the book being organized right from the start. And having two other co-authors to be accountable to acted as added motivation to stick to deadlines.
What is your biggest challenge from a business standpoint?
Definitely finances! After exhausting our savings (and going into the red) during our yearlong adventure, we naturally had to devote the majority of our time to day jobs (and outside freelance assignments whenever we could get them!) to restock our bank accounts when we returned. In an ideal world, we’d have been able to devote much of our working schedule to writing the book, but Amanda and Holly went back into magazines and Jen into television in order to pay the bills, and we fit book writing into late evenings and weekends.
Have you ever done other work to make ends meet?
Over the course of our lives and our careers, Holly has delivered pizzas, cocktail-waitressed, worked as a makeup artist, and done public health outreach. Amanda taught gymnastics, waitressed at sports bar, and even babysat for her magazine editor-in-chief’s kids. Jen has served as a newspaper delivery girl, lifeguard, retail associate, beach waitress and worked at Six Flags amusement park as an events coordinator.
What travel authors or books might you recommend and/or have influenced you?
Franz Wisner, the author of Honeymoon with my Brother and How the World Makes Love, has been a tremendous influence on us. He isn’t afraid to take chances and get off the beaten path when he travels, and he writes about his experiences with compassion, humility, and humor.
We looked to Sarah MacDonald, who wrote Holy Cow, as an example of a female travel writer with a sassy, unapologetic voice that made us laugh so hard that we couldn’t breathe at times.
For conveying travel as a means of spiritual and self exploration, Eat Pray Love and Committed author Elizabeth Gilbert is an inspiration. Also, she doesn’t hold back on many of her most intimate moments, both within herself and with her interactions with others, which is a cornerstone of any great memoir.
Bill Bryson, who penned A Walk in the Woods and I’m a Stranger Here Myself among many other books, is a great example of a writer who can take a mundane moment and turn it into something both transcendent and absurd. Plus, he has a talent for making otherwise dry history fascinating.
What advice and/or warnings would you give to someone who is considering going into travel writing?
Do it for the love and not the money. Get lost in the messiness and the beauty of travel. Then, start blogging about it to practice honing your voice. Post blogs regularly in order to have a better chance of attracting an audience. That way, you’ll have more leverage when you’re ready to pitch your stories to other sites, newspapers, magazines, or publishers.
What is the biggest reward of life as travel writers?
Getting to experience the journey twice. Writing is a way to relive the trip all over again.
The act of translating travel to the written page (or virtual one!) asks us to recall the feel of a place, with all its colors and sounds and smells. Experiences take on even more layers as we question and try to offer up interpretations of people and places — and of ourselves in the context. Remembering a trip, looking for meaning in the chaos, and weaving it into a narrative makes us appreciate it all the more.