Judith Babcock Wylie has tracked birds in Jamaica’s interior, explored Dogon villages in Mali, ridden an elephant to the Amber Fort in India and also slept in a few hotels where the butler draws the bath. A travel writer and editor for 20 years, her articles have appeared Travel & Leisure, TWA Ambassador, the London Financial Times, Walking, the Denver Post, the San Jose Mercury News and more than 70 other publications. She teaches travel writing workshops at New York University, UC Berkeley and UC Santa Cruz. Her stories have appeared in several Travelers’ Tales anthologies, and she is editor of “Travelers’ Tales: Love and Romance, True Stories of Passion on the Road.” Her latest book “Best Places: California Central Coast” came out in April, 2002.
How did you get started traveling?
I think it started because I grew up a Methodist in Ohio farm country. I waited all year for missionary night, when pious people stationed in exotic places came to our church to show slides, tell of their experiences with native peoples, sing songs in another language and pass around handmade crafts. For years I thought you had to be religious to get to any place exciting. Fast forward to adulthood: when my first marriage was going south, I left town for a weekend to be alone and think. The rambling stone inn where I had a reservation had overbooked and was full when I arrived, so I was taken to stay at the owner’s horse farm and mansion several miles away, where I met people who lived in a world quite different from mine. This experience reinforced my fantasy of being Grace Kelley recovering from some emotional trauma, and during that short trip I realized that while traveling I had become the heroine in my own life. I was hooked.
How did you get started writing?
I always wrote in my spare time. My first published essay appeared in the LA Times, then I wrote a column for a friend’s city magazine. My first book came about because I liked to go to destination health spas for a week’s rejuvenation. At that time there was no guidebook on spas, so a friend and I decided to write one. The result was The Spa Book, published by Crown. A year after finishing the book, and having written articles for several magazines, I left my university administration job to write full-time.
What do you consider your first “break” as a travel writer?
Developing a good relationship with the magazine editor who assigned my first travel story, and who called me for many stories later and passed my name on to other editors.
As a traveler and fact/story-gatherer, what is your biggest challenge on the road?
There are three. One is finding a way to connect with people personally and not just as a traveler passing through. Having a quest, and telling people what you’re seeking, no matter how minor, helps. The second is learning the language. Gaining even a small grasp of the language before you go is terribly important. I always write the most critical words and phrases on the inside back cover of my notebook so I can quickly find them when I’m trying to buy three figs in an open market. If necessary, I find and hire a guide/interpreter to help. The third challenge is overcoming sudden waves of shyness that prevent me from approaching a person to talk. I was recently in a restaurant in New York and noticed Spike Lee sitting alone at a nearby table, waiting for friends. He sat there for a half-hour, but I couldn’t get up the nerve to go over and ask him why he thinks people should come to New York now. Looking back, I could kick myself, but when the moment is upon me, I never want to intrude. I guess that comes from being a brought up a nice Methodist girl, too. It’s a constant struggle.
What is your biggest challenge in the writing process?
On the road, it’s making myself fix my notes every night and then write the narrative of the day. If I do these things regularly, it makes the writing later much easier. Back at home when I begin to write, the biggest challenge is homing in on the angle or theme I want to get across. It’s never a matter of not having enough information—it’s always having too much and not knowing what to discard to make the strongest story.
What is your biggest challenge from a business standpoint?
Income flow is one. Checks do not always come in the order in which the work was done. You expect to get the money by a certain date, and often due to office delays or an editor’s distraction, it comes weeks later. Another issue is fewer markets. The fact so many magazines and newspapers are buying less travel, and even book publishers are cutting back on contracts for new titles, means that markets across the board have shrunk. Even Web sites have pulled back and are buying less. Many editors are also using more in-house writers already on salary to write travel pieces in order to save money they would have to pay to freelancers.
Do you do other work to make ends meet?
I teach travel writing.
What travel authors or books might you recommend and/or have influenced you?
Any Travelers’ Tales book is a treasure chest of great travel writing. I love Jonathan Raban’s work. Ditto Mark Salzman, Pico Iyer, and Mary Morris. Stories by all of them (and hundreds more good writers) appear in Travelers Tales editions.
For learning about experiences that lead you close to a culture, I like Arthur Frommer’s now out-of-print book, New World of Travel, Fifth edition (1996) in which he includes everything from yoga retreats to folk dance schools, to volunteer- involvement travel experiences; they are all great ways to connect with people in another country. You can find it used on Amazon. I’m sorry he stopped updating it every year.
What advice would you give to someone who is considering going into travel writing?
Write about what you love, write often and keep sending out queries. Develop a specialty. Don’t expect it to become a major source of income until you’ve been at it for quite some time. Keep another job and do travel writing because you’re passionate about it. If things work out later, you can choose then to make it your career.
What is the biggest reward of life as a travel writer?
A travel writer has dozens of peak life moments, when most people get just a handful in their lives. A few of mine: rowing the Ganges at dawn, looking out on temples glowing in the sun on the Bagan plain in Burma, sitting among chattering monkeys in an Amazon rain forest, sipping tea in a tea shop in Shanghai where there were no other non-Chinese. Whenever the travel-shivers go up your spine, you realize what a privilege it is to live this life.