Karin Muller is the author of three books — Hitchhiking Vietnam : A Woman’s Solo Journey in an Elusive Land, Inca Road: A Woman’s Journey into an Ancient Empire, and Japanland : A Year in Search of Wa — all of which she simultaneously produced as television documentaries for the likes of PBS, MSNBC Explorer, and the National Geographic’s global channel. Muller received her B.A. in Economics (Magna Cum Laude) from Williams College in 1987. She speaks English, Spanish, German, and Tagalog, and has a blackbelt in both judo and jujistu. She served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Philippines from 1987-90 and flies hang gliders competitively.
How did you get started traveling?
I moved around quite a bit when I was growing up — born in Switzerland, raised in the USA and Puerto Rico, high school in Australia. This allows me to blame my parents for almost everything having to do with my yearning to travel (and complete disinterest in settling down). I think my real formative experience was the Peace Corps, however.
How did you get started writing?
First book: I was eight years old and taped every page to the wall in my room when I finished writing it. By the time I lost interest it had gone around the entire room three times. Second book, a fantasy novel when I was eleven (with a remarkable resemblence to the Lord of the Rings, which I read a dozen times). Third book – on my time in the Peace Corps (unpublished). Fifth and sixth books will remain buried forever in my computer. I finally published some short pieces in small anthologies, then my first book on Vietnam. Nobody who decides to become a brain surgeon just picks up a scalpel and expects to start cutting – why do people think they can pick up a pen and immediately write a bestseller?
What do you consider your first “break” as a writer?
My first book getting picked up by Globe-Pequot — after being turned down by 72 agents and publishers. Tenacity, tenacity, tenacity.
As a traveler and fact/story gatherer, what is your biggest challenge on the road?
Fear. Terror that this time I’m not going to get the footage, that I won’t find the story, that everything that came before was just a fluke and this time I’m going to be unmasked as an imposter. Fear that the muse is gone.
What is your biggest challenge in the research and writing process?
I always learn the language before/during a trip. That is probably the single most time-consuming piece of research. When I’m writing (after I come back) the challenge is to be as absolutely fair as I can be to all characters involved – knowing that I have the pen in hand and therefore, the last word.
What is your biggest challenge from a business standpoint? Editors? Finances? Promotion?
You either finance the film and book yourself and then retain creative control but live by your financial fingernails. Or you sell it in advance (no easy feat) and then do exactly as you are told (“dumb it down!”). Either way there’s a huge challenge to be overcome.
Have you ever done other work to make ends meet?
Related work, certainly. Very, very few people can make it as either authors or filmmakers. I write articles. I give lectures. I sell photos. I try to create as many income streams as possible from each project.
What travel authors or books might you recommend and/or have influenced you?
A Year in Provence. Hemingway. Secret Life of Bees. Bruce Chatwin. If you are going to write, read. Read voraciously. Read great literature. Take whatever you like and incorporate it into your writing.
What advice and/or warnings would you give to someone who is considering going into travel writing?
Learn to love living in basements and eating ramin noodles. Second to poetry, it is probably the most difficult career to make a living. You must be utterly obsessed with it – more than you want a new car, a house, a family, a dog, houseplants – because you are competing with those of us who are willing to give up all those things in order to write.
What is the biggest reward of life as a travel writer?
Given what I said above, there is nothing more rewarding than living your life by the creative process. Nothing, nothing, nothing. If I retired tonight I would do the same thing tomorrow. If I won the lottery I wouldn’t change a thing in my life. Travel writing is complete happiness.