Lucy McCauley’s life as a traveler began on her fourth birthday, when she boarded a plane with her family to Panama, where they lived three years. Now a writer of travel literature and other creative nonfiction, she has edited three essay collections for the Travelers’ Tales series of books: Spain (1995); Women in the Wild (1998); and A Woman’s Path (2000). Her own essays — set in such places as Latin America, Spain, Italy and Eastern Europe — have been published in The Atlantic Monthly, Harvard Review, The International Quarterly, The Los Angeles Times, Salon.com and in a number of Travelers’ Tales anthologies. Once an editor at Harvard Business Review, McCauley has also worked as a freelance writer/editor of academic and business prose for more than a decade, writing case studies in Central and South America for several departments at Harvard University, working as a contributing editor to Fast Company magazine, and as a “book doctor” for publishing houses. In 1999, after 15 years in Cambridge, Mass., McCauley moved to Dallas, where she lives with her husband, Charles Bambach, a professor of philosophy at the University of Texas at Dallas. She is now at work on a book based on a journey she made to Turkey, where she followed in the footsteps of an ancestor who’d lived there a century before.
How did you get started traveling?
As a child in a military family. Memory began for me the day I took my first oversees trip, on my fourth birthday when we moved to Central America. I still remember that experience today. Maybe that’s why so much of my writing has to do with both memory and place. Even as child I understood how travel wakes up your senses, puts you squarely in the here and now. Later, I studied on a junior year abroad program in Spain, from where I traveled down to Marrakech, part of the way on a drafty old wooden train. And I was hooked.
How did you get started writing?
Second grade, with poetry. I was a pure plagiarist-unconsciously cribbing phrases from Madeleine books, from songs I heard on the radio. My parents were so proud of my poems, never recognizing what a little mimic I was-or at least never making a point of the fact. But at some point I realized it, and by third grade had put my life of crime behind me to write my own poems and stories. Looking back on those early poems, though, I think that mimicry isn’t a bad thing when you’re learning to write. It can teach you a lot about things like cadence, language, and structure, and lead to a place where you eventually develop your own voice.
What do you consider your first “break” as a travel writer?
I had a friend, Alan Andres, who happened to be an editor at a Boston publishing house, so that when I told him of an idea I had for an anthology of essays on Spain, he gave me the following advice: 1) You can either peddle that idea yourself to publishers and hope they’ll give you the time of day, or 2) you can do the smart thing and hook up with a press that’s just starting to do that same kind of country-specific anthologies, Travelers’ Tales. I picked door number two, and soon found myself on the phone with Larry Habegger, cofounder (with James and Tim O’Reilly) of Travelers’ Tales.
He was on one coast and I was on the other — yet I immediately knew that I’d found kindred spirits in the people at that press. A year or so later Spain became the fifth country book in a series of anthologies that’s now more than 70 titles large. That led to another two books with Travelers’ Tales, to my first bookstore appearances and radio interviews, to teaching workshops, to future publications in nationally recognized magazines.
Before I spoke to Larry that first time, I’d already published a few travel essays in literary magazines, like the Harvard Review and International Quarterly. One of those was a “break” too-I had a contact with the editor. Did he publish my work because he liked it or because I knew someone who knew him? I’d like to think it was purely because of the former, but I know that the latter played a role too-at least in getting my essay into the editor’s hands, rather than sitting in the “slushpile” waiting for an intern to read it.
As a traveler and fact/story-gatherer, what is your biggest challengeon the road?
You wouldn’t know it, given the kinds of work I’ve done, but I’m shy about approaching strangers. I’m hypersensitive to acting respectfully in foreign cultures, to not perpetuating the image of the ugly American. So why become a travel writer of all things, someone whose job is to be nosy and at least a little intrusive, right?! But I’ve come to believe that we pick things in life to do that we most need to learn. I’m still working on this one.
What is your biggest challenge in the writing process?
Limiting the scope of the writing. Finding the “it,” the “so what?” in the journey. Focusing on the essence of what a trip meant and then doing the hard work of cutting scenes close to my heart — experiences, dialogues — that take the essay in a different direction. Understanding what a journey meant, or capturing the essence of place, doesn’t happen overnight, so the challenge is to be patient. To do what you can, to do your homework and read through your notes and other sources, to begin somewhere and write what you think might be the story. And then to be willing to massage it, to rewrite it, to let other (trusted) people give you their opinion on where the piece might be going, and to edit, add to it, rewrite some more. And then, as the Runes say, to “wait on the will of heaven”-and trust that you’ll recognize it when it alights.
What is your biggest challenge from a business standpoint? Editors?
What writer doesn’t face challenges with finances? That’s why I decided a long time ago that I’m not in this for money. It would take away the pleasure for me.
Do you do other work to make ends meet? If so, what kind of work?
Absolutely. I teach occasional writing workshops, but I pay the bills mostly by freelancing as a business writer and editor. Until recently, I was a contributing editor at Fast Company magazine, and now I’m a “book doctor” (ghost writing and substantive editing) for publishers like Harvard Business School Press. This works for me, first, because it’s freelance, which leaves me freer to travel. Second, business writing occupies a completely differently part of my brain than my travel work does, yet I also find the writing incredibly satisfying; I love helping to bring other people’s ideas to life in a clear and compelling way. And third, business writing tends to pay well — which usually funds my travel habit nicely.
What travel authors or books might you recommend and/or have influenced you?
Travelers’ Tales collections, of course. What better way to understand a place than by reading about the experiences of other people who’ve been there? Apart from those, I’m a big fan of Bruce Chatwin, for the way he would weave a travel tale together with many disparate layers; Gretel Ehlrich for the pure beauty of her writing and how she connects nature and the spirit; Mary Morris, whose book Nothing to Declare showed me in the late 1980s that it was possible to write a modern-day travel memoir, compelling as fiction. Robyn Davidson’s Tracks did the same thing. I also recommend Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, a work of fiction that’s nevertheless a travel memoir of places imagined and magical, told through the figure of Marco Polo.
What advice and/or warnings would you give to someone who is considering going into travel writing?
First, consider funding your travels yourself, at least at the beginning. Later, as you build your portfolio, more people will be willing to foot your bills up front. Second, when you travel, take notes. Sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised how often even seasoned writers think they’ll retain an experience until they’re back at their writing desks. But what’s often missing are the specifics, those idiosyncratic details that make travel writing come alive. Besides the obvious — like the exact varieties of birds you saw, or the quirky way that someone turns a phrase — you also want to get down the sensual aspects of the place. The sounds you heard there, what you felt on your skin, the distinct flavors you tasted, the color and quality of the light. Then try writing a few paragraphs or scenes before you go to sleep or the next morning at breakfast-something that just captures an experience, dialogue, or the place itself. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve later been able to lift some of those late-night journal entries on the road straight out of the notebook and into an essay.
Last, I’d say to someone considering travel writing: write what you want to, what you feel passionately about, what you feel you must write about or burst. Yes, you have to keep one eye cocked toward the market if you hope to sell your work. But don’t let that completely determine what you do. Otherwise, what’s the point, really? This business isn’t generally one where people get rich, so you’d better enjoy the process.That said, never underestimate the role that pure luck plays in the trips you take and the places where you’ll publish, in how your career will develop. I’m a prime example of that. It really does help to be at the right place at the right time, to network, to go to conferences and workshops and talk to the instructors, to follow up on a contact you have with an editor at a magazine or publishing house — even if it’s through a friend of a friend of a friend.
What is the biggest reward of life as a travel writer?
Getting to travel not just as a tourist but also with a purpose. And no matter how many trips I’ve taken, I’m surprised again and again at how travel helps me gain perspective on life, and how writing about travel helps me to understand my own experiences. So many people travel and do the most amazing things, yet how many ever figure out how those things fit into the scheme of their lives? Travel writing challenges you to work through the experience — so when you return from a journey, you’re left with far more than just photographs to show your friends.