Julia Dimon is a TV host, writer and travel expert who has traveled around the world four times, through six continents, across over 80 countries. Julia is co-creator and co-host of Word Travels, a 39-episode TV series broadcast nationally on OLN in Canada and internationally on National Geographic Adventure in over 40 countries worldwide. This show follows the real lives of two travel writers as they jet set around the world, under pressure and under deadline.
Julia has been featured as a travel expert by ABC Nightline, Forbes Traveler, MSNBC, Outside’s Go magazine, the New York Times Travel Show, Arthur Frommer’s radio show, as well as major Canadian media outlets.
How did you get started traveling?
I caught the travel bug at an early age. My mom was a travel writer and our family often traveled with her while she was on assignment. Visiting places like Venezuela, China, Costa Rica and Cuba as a child spawned an insatiable desire to explore the world and learn about cultures different from my own. Since those early days, I’ve been around the world four times, visited over 80 countries, across six continents. My mom is now editor-in-chief of a high end spa and wellness magazine and we still travel together. This time we’re both on assignment and I think she’d agree—I’m a lot less bratty.
How did you get started writing?
My writing career began at the age of 12, with a monthly movie-review column for the Toronto Star, Canada’s largest daily newspaper. My column “Julia’s Flicks” talked about new kids movies and was regularly published in the Star for over six years. I learned everything I know from my mom, who spent countless hours over the summer holidays teaching me grammar and correcting my misplaced modifiers.
From movie reviews, I moved into travel features. For four years, I wrote a monthly travel series for the Toronto Star, called “Confessions of a Backpacker” before I became a weekly columnist for Metro News. For the next four years, my nationally-syndicated travel column, “Travel Junkie,” appeared every Wednesday in newspapers across Canada. My column was also translated and appeared across Metro International, the “world’s largest global newspaper” with 23.1 million readers. A bunch of other writing ensued.
So I started young and I’ve pretty much been on deadline since I was twelve.
What do you consider your first “break” as a writer?
My first break into travel writing was a piece I wrote, “Pan-handling in Elba.” While I was backpacking through the expensive Italian island “paradise,” I ran out of money. I lost my bank card, my credit card was demagnetized and, out of sheer desperation, I was forced to pan-handle. Luckily, with the generosity of several tourists, I was able to escape Elba and reclaim my financial freedom. My story of backpacking gone bad, was published in the newspaper’s travel section. I got a real “byline buzz” out of it and have been hooked on travel writing ever since.
As a traveler and fact/story gatherer, what is your biggest challenge on the road?
It’s a challenge to really delve into the heart of the story when you have a limited amount of time. When I’m on the road filming the travel TV show Word Travels (a TV series about the real lives of travel writers) the production crew only has one week to capture an entire episode. My stories will take place over one or two days, so it’s hard to really flush out a complicated story in such a short amount of time. Being on-camera comes with certain responsibilities and it’s a delicate balance to fulfill the visual requirements for a TV show and the research requirements required for a print piece.
When I was traveling independently on a year-long trip around the world, I had plenty of time and stayed in a destination as long as it took to fully ‘get’ the story. In the travel writing world, that amount of flexible time is pretty uncommon, but when possible, I certainly prefer to work within this kind of loose schedule.
What is your biggest challenge in the research and writing process?
I’m a very slow writer. I think about each word very carefully and often agonize over how best to phrase a thought. Writing with tight deadlines or quick turn around times is a big challenge for me. Again, I like a lot of time to research and a lot of time to write, but the reality of the market place doesn’t always allow for such indulgences, so what’s a girl to do?
Have you ever done other work to make ends meet?
In my seven years of travel writing, I’ve been very lucky and been able to support myself almost exclusively on travel writing/hosting a TV show.
However, in order to gain additional income I could put towards a plane ticket somewhere exotic, I worked briefly in the promo biz staffing events, parties and product launches. I served food to Cher at her concert after party, danced with Tiki torches at a Hawaiian themed trade show, gave out free fake tattoos at race car events, popped champagne with high-rollers at the hottest new clubs, gave out free samples of sunscreen and hula-hooped on the streets of Montreal to promote denim. Not necessarily the best use of my education but promo work was good times, easy money and I met a lot of great people. I put the money I made towards funding my travel addiction and exploring off-the-beaten track destinations.
What travel authors or books might you recommend and/or have influenced you?
While I was traveling through Eastern Africa, I read two books that deeply influenced me: Ryszard Kapuscinski’s The Shadow of the Sun, a beautifully written account of the author’s experience in Africa; and We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families, an insightful, gripping and tragic account of the genocide in Rwanda, by Philip Gourevitch.
What advice and/or warnings would you give to someone who is considering going into travel writing?
I often get emails asking for advice on how to break into the biz. I have a whole list of tips (which I’d be happy to share, just email me at firstname.lastname@example.org) but here are a few:
Write: Might seem like a simple statement but a travel writer writes. Write as much and as often as you can. If you’re not able to travel right now, write about new attractions or activities located in your local area. Become a travel expert in your very own city.
Find a Good Hook: Take a fresh point of view on an old subject or look for unusual new stories. Many of the places you will write about have been written about before, so you need to find something new and original to say that will grab a reader’s (and an editor’s attention.) Up-and-coming neighborhoods, trends and unique destinations always make for good story angles.
Be a Reporter: Traveling as a travel writer is different from traveling as a tourist. When you’re in the field, act like a journalist: take notes, ask questions, get quotes and notice the little details of your trip. How much did it cost, how long has it been open, how many people have visited, what’s the name of the district it’s located in, etc. Travel writing has been described as part reporting, part dear diary and part providing traveler information. Include the specifics to bring your story alive.
Write Vividly: Your goal is to paint a picture with your words and take the reader on a journey—even though they’ve never left the couch. Include sensory details. What did it taste like? Look like? Feel like? Smell like? What did the experience remind you of? What emotion did you feel? The best travel writing captures a sense of place. Tap into your five senses, adding depth and vividness to your descriptions. Add quotes and historical/political context to situate the destination you’re visiting.
One little warning: If travel writing is your passion, follow your passion, but if you like eating, don’t be too quick to quit your day job. The reality of travel writing is that few people can make a full-time living at it. While the perks of the biz may be good, the pay sucks. Either stick to your day job and write on the side, or become a full-time writer that focuses on travel and other passions, food, art, health or pop culture.
What is the biggest reward of life as a travel writer?
The biggest reward for me is meeting people across the world, learning their stories, feeling what it’s like to be in their shoes, then sharing that experience with readers.
My style of travel journalism focuses on quirky, human interest stories with an emphasis on culture, social activism and responsible travel. My mission is to create awareness of issues typically not addressed in the travel genre. While many travel pieces focus on mainstream sanitized tourist attractions, I’ve tried to push the boundaries of the genre, backpacking solo through off-the-beaten path locations on a quest for unique stories that often put me in uncomfortable circumstances. Check out this video of me eating a live jungle worm.
I’ve done some pretty cool stuff. From the depths of the Great Barrier Reef to the top of Machu Picchu, I’ve hiked with silverback gorillas in Uganda, snorkeled with whale sharks in Mozambique, climbed The Great Wall of China, dog-sledded in Greenland, camel trekked in Jordan, slept with lions in the Serengeti, lived as a Buddhist monk in Korea, survived a survival course in the jungles of Belize, wrestled with indigenous Cholitas in Bolivia, toured genocide memorials in Rwanda, trained as a gladiator in Rome, made lip-plates with the Mursi women of Southern Ethiopia, spent a night of “torture” in a Latvian prison and snacked on local delicacies such as silk worm, goat brain, six-inch scorpions, snake blood and severed human toe. Let’s just say I’m not afraid to get her hands dirty…or break a nail.
There is so much to learn from and share with other cultures. A desire to dispel cultural misunderstanding and stereotypes—this is what really fuels me. For me, the biggest reward of travel (writer or not) is gaining a global understanding, an appreciation for the on-the-ground reality of a particular destination and how things like policies, politics and pop culture effect local people. The travel lifestyle breaks the mold of conventional 9-5 existence, I feel like a student of the world, celebrating different cultures and reporting on my discoveries. That’s why I love to travel—that’s why I love my job.