Joanne Miller has been on the road since childhood, traveling with her father while he photographed the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone for National Geographic. She has been to all 50 states, crossing the US by auto six times, and has lived in New York City, New Hampshire, Florida, Pennsylvania and California . Even after visiting Japan, Scotland, France, and Italy, and living in Henley-on-Thames in Great Britain, she still enjoys US travel the most. In addition to four comprehensive travel books — Moon’s Pennsylvania Handbook, Moon’s Maryland-Delaware Handbook, Moon’s Chesapeake Bay Handbook, and Best Places: Marin — she has contributed to Eyewitness Guides USA, Eyewitness Guides San Francisco, Travel Holiday and other publications. She is currently working on a new guide to San Francisco and Marin County, where she lives most of the year.
How did you get started traveling?
My father had an inexhaustible supply of wanderlust. He worked for the Southern Pacific Railroad when my mother finally persuaded him to settle down — but he did it his way: he worked double shifts for two weeks, then took two weeks off to go on road trips with his trusty old camera. One summer, he and I drove from California’s Diablo Valley up the Alcan Highway to Yellow Knife in the Yukon, over to Fairbanks, Alaska, then ferried south from Valdez via the inland passage. That was in the late 60s — we often didn’t see another car for days. Our worst arguments were over his cigar smoke versus the dust I had to inhale when we drove with the windows open. We both survived (he eventually quit smoking cigars, too), and I grew up thinking travel was an important part of life.
How did you get started writing?
When I graduated from college, I had grandiose ideas. I submitted an article to Ms. magazine about the anthropological basis for male/female interaction. The wording was stiff as week-old roadkill. It was rejected, and I threw it away. My writing career was over — I pulled an Andrew Carnegie. In his youth, Carnegie aspired to become a writer after placing one article in a Pittsburgh newspaper — then he couldn’t get anything else published. He was forced to become a mega-millionaire in the steel industry.
That wasn’t my fate, however. Many years later, after a long corporate career, I started writing profiles and interviews for one of my jobs, and realized I loved it. And I had always been a heavy reader — anything I could get my hands on, from science fiction to cereal boxes. I took a chance and wrote a novel in my off-work hours. I still think it’s pretty good — so publishers, contact me! Since my interviews were getting bought and printed, I went half-time at work and began to pitch a wider variety of publishers. Travel Holiday picked one up, which leads me to your next question….
What do you consider your first “break” as a writer?
I won a little award at Travel Holiday for my article on the goodness of strangers. I thought, “Jeez, this travel thing pays cash money!” Of course, I didn’t publish anything for a year after that, but unlike Carnegie, I didn’t turn to more profitable endeavors. I kept writing and pitching, and sold things here and there. Then, the BIG BREAK: I found out Moon Travel was looking for state books (I called them about becoming a part-time editor to keep tofu on the table). I submitted a four-page “why I should write a book about Pennsylvania”; when that was approved, I wrote a 30-page proposal that outlined the book and my published competition. All those years as a corporate marketing drone paid off. It took two months of unpaid research, not only to arrange the outline so that it matched their published format, but to get enough information to detail the book with some authority. I got the book contract, and Moon’s Pennsylvania Handbook is in its third edition, and still the best-seller on the state. Moon also asked to use my proposal as an example for other hopeful authors.
As a traveler and fact/story gatherer, what is your biggest challenge on the road?
Physical exhaustion. As a book writer, I pay my own expenses, and build what I think research is going to cost into contract negotiations with the publisher. Of course, I want to spend as little as possible, so I pack my research trips heavily. On the average, in one trip, I’ll stay in a different place every night for two weeks, driving up to 100 miles from destination to destination, visiting an average of five to seven restaurants, attractions and accommodations a day. I actually see everything I write about, occasionally adding (with the remark that it’s “recommended”) a restaurant from local sources. On each book, I rack up an average of 10,000 miles over several trips. I train for these trips like a marathoner. Then I come home and sleep for two weeks.
What is your biggest challenge in the research and writing process?
I bet everybody says this: research is the fun part (it is), and sitting down to write is the difficult part. In order to write a book as comprehensive as Moon requires, the author has to have a weird combination of traits: organizational ability (to plan the book, itineraries, writing schedule, a zillion details), an outgoing personality (for all those people you meet on the road), patience (books take one or two years out of your life), and a high tolerance level for hours and hours of sitting motionless in front of an ELF-emitting box. After a week or two, you get into a rhythm and the daily writing gets easier. I love deadlines — writing is such a creative endeavor that the concrete reality of a deadline is anchoring. I always need to work from an outline, as I have a tendency to wander off and stare at the inside of the refrigerator until my nose turns blue.
What is your biggest challenge from a business standpoint? Editors? Finances? Promotion?
I’ve been freelancing for 16 years, so I’ve overcome a lot of the falling icicles emerging writers need to dodge. I know I will have editors I’ll send roses to, and editors that will cause me to grind my molars into nubs. I have a number of fascinating hobbies to keep me busy between assignments (tatting, anyone?), and several people who are still good for loans. Alas, I’m way lazy when it comes to promotion. For my books in print, I leave it up to the publishers. This is not always a good idea. I believe the future of travel writing and publishing is on the Internet, so I put my personal promotional energy into that.
Have you ever done other work to make ends meet?
Oddly, no. But I also started out with enough money, and negotiated good contracts (the National Writer’s Union is a great place to learn about contracts, creative rights etc.). However, mine is not the mansion on the hill — more like the creaky condo in the questionable part of town. I spent several years in the business world, made lots of money, and was desperately unhappy. So it’s a trade-off, but I’m still here. I’m so jaded by years of sleeping until 9 or 10 a.m. I doubt even McDonald’s would hire me, so I’d better keep writing.
What travel authors or books might you recommend and/or have influenced you?
I’ve always been crazy about National Geographic and its offshoots — especially Priit Vesiland’s work. He used to write a lot for NG, then went over to their website, though I still see his byline now and then. Avalon/Moon Handbooks are exceptional for information, insight and good writing by a single, accomplished author (it smacks of nepotism, but it’s true, even if those other Moon authors never pay up). Personal favorites there are Josh Berman (Belize), David Stanley (South Pacific), Ed Hasbrouck (Practical Nomad), too many more to list. I think Jon Krakauer is an exceptional researcher and writer (*Into Thin Air*). *Shooting the Boh* (Tracy Johnston) is excellent travel writing from a woman’s perspective. Bill Bryson combines humor, sightseeing and blisters (*A Walk in the Woods*).
What advice and/or warnings would you give to someone who is considering going into travel writing?
Make sure you have enough money to support yourself for at least two years. Without getting too new-agey about it, I had a real moment of money panic when I first started out. I said, “God,” (I always call him by his first name), “if I’m meant to be doing this for a living, either remove the panic or let me know if I’m supposed to be doing something else.” The panic subsided, and I missed my chance to be a steel magnate. As a freelancer, you live from job to job, so if that’s a problem…
I think anyone can become a good writer given enough drive and real writing time. Whether your words end up in print or pixels or the dustbin depends on your persistence, desire, and ability to create fantastic origami figures from rejection letters. If you’re considering book writing, contact the publishers and make yourself available to individual authors for updates on a book that interests you. These are the book author’s bugaboo—lot’s of phone calls, details, Web research, and sometimes traveling to add new items—professional help is always appreciated. This kind of experience is invaluable, and the publisher now knows who you are.
What is the biggest reward of life as a travel writer?
The writer’s life, which is freedom, my dears, freedom. Picture a surreal, time-irrelevant cocktail party: Cicero (106 BC – 43 BC) fetchingly dressed in creamy draped linen holds up his martini and says, “Freedom is a possession of inestimable value.” Anais Nin (1903 – 1977) looks up from caressing her latest novel and replies, “There are only two kinds of freedom in the world; the freedom of the rich and powerful, and the freedom of the artist and the monk who renounces possessions.” Jean Cocteau (1889 – 1963), knowing full well that Anais is wealthy AND an artist cannot help but voice a subtle dig: “The instinct of nearly all societies is to lock up anybody who is truly free. First, society begins by trying to beat you up. If this fails, they try to poison you. If this fails too, they finish by loading honors on your head.” From across the table, Albert Camus (1913 – 1960) sneers in a particularly French fashion, “Freedom is nothing else but a chance to be better” (a line later stolen and misquoted by Janis Joplin in the song “Me and Bobby McGee”). Cicero, fed up with all this modern nit-picking and rag-haggling quotes in his deep, richly pebbled voice, from Thucydides (471 BC – 400 BC): “The secret of Happiness is Freedom, and the secret of Freedom, Courage.” Each person at the table nods, lifts their glass, and makes plans to pitch another book, real soon.