L. Peat O’Neil is the author of Travel Writing: See the World, Sell the Story (2nd edition, Writer’s Digest Books, 2005) and a co-author of Making Waves: 50 Greatest Women in Radio and Television (Andrews McMeel, 2001). For nearly two decades, O’Neil worked in the newsroom of The Washington Post and she continues to freelance for periodicals, websites and newspapers, including National Geographic News. Her short fiction, reviews and essays have appeared in Potomac Review, Pearl, Pleiades, Bloomsbury Review, Canadian Theatre Review and other small journals. O’Neil currently teaches online for UCLA Extension journalism program, and she is at work on a book about walking the Pyrenees.
How did you get started traveling?
As I report in my book Travel Writing, I started traveling at an early age, on a bus trip from Canada to Washington with my little sister for company. I was eight, she was six. Needless to say, I was a rather mature kid with iconoclast parents. As a family we traveled around Canada and the United States on long car trips. By age 13, I was planning a solo trip through Europe. But first I had to earn the money, my parents said. I cleaned houses, typed notes for teachers, ironed shirts for the neighbor ladies and looked after toddlers whenever I wasn’t in school. Took my first big solo trip when I was 16, during three months summer vacation between 3rd and 4th years of high school. I stayed in hostels and with friends of my parents or slept on trains. I flew over on Icelandic Air, which was the cheapest trans-Atlantic carrier at the time, and possibly still is. Back in the 1960’s, there were ships that crossed the Atlantic offering really inexpensive fares, so I booked passage on the M/S Aurelia nearly a year in advance to arrive back in New York just before high school resumed. Most of the passengers were college students, but I fibbed and told everyone I was already a college student. I’ve been traveling ever since, mostly alone, but occasionally with a companion or a few friends — especially for outback adventuring, when you need extra hands to portage kayaks.
How did you get started writing?
On that first solo trip when I was a teenager, I kept a travel journal and wrote long detailed letters home. This was back before e-mail, and my parents saved the letters, so the letters provided a record in addition to my journal notes. During my teens I started writing fiction, and all through university I wrote journals and contributed some news stories and film reviews to the University of Toronto daily newspaper.
What do you consider your first break as a writer?
I didn’t know much about the process of how to put my articles in the hands of editors, so my break came with an essay contest sponsored by the Toronto Sun newspaper. As I recall, the topic was writer’s choice and I wrote on the topic, “Child by Choice, Not Chance”, about family planning and lifestyles. The paper actually paid me for the essay. That spurred me on and I started sending out short opinion pieces to newspapers. I was interested in art and history, and researched and wrote short pieces on these topics for small literary journals that paid little or nothing. During this time I also collected a fat folder of rejection letters, but I published a few articles. My first break as a travel writer came later when I sold a freelance story to the Washington Post on camping in Algeria.
As a traveler and fact/story gatherer what is your biggest challenge on the road?
I tend to do too much research and then lose interest in the story because I’ve spent my passionate energy on gathering information. My challenge is to write the story immediately after the trip, even if I don’t have an editorial deadline. If I have a deadline, there’s no problem, I’m on the case. Without someone waiting at the end of the fiber optic line, I tend put off the final writing stages. I use a notebook computer if I’m on deadline on the road, but usually handwrite my notes or send e-mails to myself. If I collect lots of paper materials, I mail the paper home from wherever the postal service is secure. The packages arrive home before I do.
What is your biggest challenge in the research and writing process?
As I mentioned above, I tend to accumulate information ‘ interviews, personal observations, researched facts, quotes culled from other writers. An editor at the Washington Post Magazine once ordered me to stop researching and told me to ‘just write the dang story.’ So, to get moving, I imagine that scene and take on that editor’s voice and you know, it works. You just hunker down and write the thing, inserting what you need from the heaps of research. Fortunately, I have no shortage of story ideas and no issues of finding people to interview or mapping out unusual places.
What is your biggest challenge from a business standpoint? Editors? Finances? Promotion?
I have problems matching book length manuscripts with editors. I’ve never had an agent, and selling a book manuscript without one seems to be problematic. I also have to confess I’m still a bit timid about approaching new editors. I tend to stick with the editors I’ve already worked with, publications that know me. A couple of years ago, I decided to push myself to approach a completely different publication — Gastronomica, a food history quarterly — and my query was received enthusiastically. At a certain point, we have to push ourselves as writers and move into new publication arenas. Or find a great agent! Promotion is easy enough — just arrange a free workshop or a reading at a bookstore or travel-related venue and people show up. E-mail blasts are useful to let the mailing list know you’re still in the game, but I’m not sure they sell books.
Have you ever done other work to make ends meet?
Of course! If you’re going to travel you have to have a day job, or some steady work gig. I don’t like the sense of obligation that press junkets and familiarization trips put you under. For me, travel writing means going my own way, nosing around in the back corners and talking to people the tourist bureau representatives steer travel writers away from. That means paying my own way, unless I’m on assignment for a publication that covers expenses. I worked for many years on the news staff at the Washington Post and taught writing workshops while also keeping up a grueling freelance writing schedule. The Post was great about letting me take unpaid leaves to pursue my travels for months on end. I’ve also lived long stretches when I was a full time freelancer, and it can be difficult to focus on writing when the bank account is dead empty. Some of my short term jobs have included public relations account exec, legal secretary, gardener, editor, telephone directory delivery, seamstress in a sail loft (making gear for racing sailboats), commercial painter, paid volunteer for medical research, motorcycle courier, office manager, data entry clerk, high school substitute teacher, columnist, ghost writer, and more. I currently teach writing online for UCLA, write freelance, and work for the U.S. Dept of State as a foreign service specialist.
What travel authors or books might you recommend and/or have influenced you?
One of the first travel books I read was Caroline Mytinger’s Headhunting in the Solomon Islands, published in 1942. When I read it I had vague ideas about writing up my own travel experiences, and reading her adventures made it seem more possible to write about travel. I like to read travel books covering time periods before my birth, so I can learn what travelers experienced. I usually read literary travel writers like Evelyn Waugh, Norman Douglas, D. H. Lawrence, Henry James, and Freya Stark. Rebecca West, Gertrude Bell and T. E. Lawrence also struck chords of adventure in my heart. I’ve read all the usual contemporary suspects — Bruce Chatwin, Graham Greene, Paul Theroux, Colin Thubron, Jan Morris, Francine Prose, Norman Lewis and so on. And lesser-known adventure travelers also inspired me — Alexandra David-Neel and Isabelle Eberhardt to name just two — because they were intrepid women who risked comfort and complacency to move out into the world and explore difficult regions — David-Neel in Tibet and Eberhardt in Algeria. Patrick Leigh Fermor has always been a great source of inspiration because he wrote his brilliant narratives of cross-European walking tours decades after he jotted notes in his journals. These days I’m trying to focus on reading travel narratives (in translation) written by non-English mother tongue authors.
What advice and/or warnings would you give to someone who is considering going into travel writing?
Pursue a strong education. Don’t be satisfied with what the school dishes out. Seek more. Don’t quit your day job until you have at least three steady clients who produce checks when you turn in the writing. If you can, steer away from publications that pay on publication. Insist on payment when you deliver the work. Save your energy and experiences for writing the story. Don’t tell people about your travel experiences until you’ve done the writing about the trip. Travel alone. Live in the moment and learn new languages. Don’t put off your real life or wait for someone to give you permission to follow your dream. The right job and enough money is the least of it; put your thought and energy into moving yourself forward on the path you choose. Read widely.
What is the biggest reward of life as a travel writer?
I’ve had the great good fortune to meet fantastic, engaging people all over the world. I only wish I could visit them all again!