After years of assigning other writers to travel the globe — as editor of the award-winning Islands for 13 years and founding editor of National Geographic Traveler before that — Joan Tapper is now on the other side of the desk. As contributing editor for travel for Santa Barbara Magazine, she writes a column in every issue and does destination stories (as well as features about people, arts, and culture) for other publications.
How did you get started traveling?
I’ve had an interest in going places all my life. When I was a kid in Chicago, my mother used to take my sister and me on short trips to Lake Geneva or Starved Rock, Illinois, then when I got a bit older I visited the Field Museum a lot and fantasized about actually going to some of the exotic places they featured in exhibits. When I was in college and had more travel yearnings than cash, I put an ad in the London Times to be an au pair for a summer in Europe. That got me to a stay with a wonderful couple in Italy. They were both teachers, so when I arrived with a bunch of sightseeing brochures I’d gotten from the Italian Tourist Board, they read them and we all went touring together.
How did you get started writing and editing?
With me the interest in editing came first. I started out in publishing as a fact checker for Encyclopaedia Britannica between college and grad school. After grad school I worked in book publishing in New York and Washington. (Among one of the books I acquired for New Republic was Pariswalks, the first in an offbeat guidebook series that’s still around, I think.) Later, after I became a magazine editor, I was forced to write a story, when the person I assigned to do a piece on Leningrad (St. Petersburg again these days) couldn’t do it, and I realized that since I had studied Russian I was a good candidate myself. For me the key to writing something is to ask what do I bring to the story that no one else can.
What do you consider your first “break” as a travel writer?
The Leningrad story (see above) would have to qualify, I suppose, unless you rule out self-assignments. It was a break, though, because I realized that, yes, I could make people interested in a faraway destination, make them want to go.
As a traveler and story-gatherer, what is your biggest challenge on the road?
Reading my notes afterwards. Seriously, I’d turn the question around and say that one of my biggest advantages is that I’m a born tourist. I love to go places and see things, and I have a high tolerance for long walks and dusty museums.
What is your biggest challenge in the writing and editing process?
I think one of the hardest things to balance is pursuing something fresh or quirky without losing sight of some of the obvious important points that need to be made for a general (or even a sophisticated) reader.
What is your biggest challenge from a business standpoint?
For any writer or editor on one’s own, it’s a constant struggle to juggle long book assignments and shorter-term writing deadlines, while one is completing pieces and writing queries or making contacts for future work.
Have you done other work to make ends meet?
Most of my career has been in publishing, either books or magazines, and more often as an editor than a writer. I did try a very lucrative life as a creative director (in a non-publishing industry) for about 9 months, but there weren’t enough words in it for me.
What travel authors or books might you recommend?
I love great stylists and writers who have an unfailing ability to notice the famous telling detail: Pico Iyer, Paul Theroux, Jan Morris, Colin Thubron, Larry Millman, Adam Nicholson, Isabella Tree, Willy Dalrymple, Ken Brower, Chris Buckley, Bill Bryson. Tim Cahill. As an editor, I sometimes kept an eye out for accomplished science writers, because they had the ability to make abstract, difficult material accessible. David Quammen, for example, has written some wonderful travel stories.
As an editor, what do you look for in a travel story?
I want a lively narrative, not a list or a service piece, though I do think the best travel writing is full of information snuck in.
What advice would you give to someone who is considering going into travel writing?
Read, read, read; know as much as you can, and then talk to lots of people along the way. (It’s not a career for shy folk.) And don’t expect to get rich.
What is the biggest reward of life as a travel writer and editor?
I suppose it’s the constant reminder of the richness and variety of cultures in the world.