Marcia DeSanctis is the New York Times bestselling author of 100 Places in France Every Woman Should Go, a book of essays on where to go in France and why. A frequent contributor to Vogue and Town & Country, she has also written for Marie Claire, O the Oprah Magazine, National Geographic Traveler, BBC Travel, More, Tin House, The New York Times, and other publications. She is the recipient of four Lowell Thomas Awards for excellence in travel journalism, including one for Travel Journalist of the Year for her essays from Rwanda, Haiti, France and Russia.
How did you get started traveling?
I’m the youngest of four girls. Growing up, travels were highly organized family affairs. Each summer, we would fly to my father’s native Arizona, then rent a car and drive to different national parks — even all the way to Yosemite or the Badlands. I loved those pre-air-conditioning-era road-trips, how we crowded into a rented station wagon and stopped at A&W for root beer along the highway in the heat. My father was/still is a cardiologist who lectured all over the world, and after my three sisters left for college my parents often took me on his work travels. I really lucked out. I tagged along to England, Greece, the Soviet Union, Morocco. Even then, I loved to peel off on my own – I think I was born a solitary traveler. Along the way, I learned a lot about the human heart — the real, beating one that was the subject of my father’s conferences, and mine, the one I discover when I’m far from home.
How did you get started writing?
I worked as a television journalist for the first two decades of my career, and always kept diaries and notebooks, especially when I traveled. It took half of my lifetime to realize, alas, that the stories taking up most of the room in my head – torturing me with the exquisite latency of the unrealized idea – were not going to write themselves. I had to ask myself that profound and necessary question: What the hell are you waiting for? I needed to muster up a lot of courage and silence those inner naysayers that tried to tell me I would fail — to this day, they still try to do me in.
What do you consider your first “break” as a writer?
I had three milestones that I think added up to a break, or at least gave me the confidence to call myself a writer. I wrote an essay for my college alumni magazine — a story only I could tell, which I now understand as the secret not only to great storytelling, but also to getting essays published. Then, I wrote a piece for Huffington Post about Sarah Palin early in the social media days, which a lot of people read. Last, I proposed a column for my local newspaper, The Litchfield County Times. I got $25 for each essay, and to this day, it’s some of the most honest and raw stuff I’ve ever written. It was completely unedited.
What is your biggest challenge on the road?
Besides the utter beastly hideousness of contemporary airline travel? Sleep is probably my biggest challenge — let me explain. It comes from my tendency towards over-coverage and trying to do and see too much. Often I go to a place without any assignment and enter into kind of a hyper-kinetic, breathless gathering state to increase my options of selling a story when I get home. When I go to bed, I spin as I think about everything I want to explore. Of course, I’m well aware that this whole approach is all wrong, and that you can’t go looking for a story. The story finds you. But I can’t help myself — when I was in Singapore recently, I wanted to see the bars, the beaches, to climb the highest hill and to get lost in the markets and find the hawker with the most amazing satay or chicken rice. I’m sleep-deprived and completely exhausted. By about the fourth day, my vision begins to take shape. I slow down, find my way and start to find my stories. It’s an enormous relief – when I’ve finally been absorbed by the place and the people in it.
What is your biggest challenge in the research and writing process?
I despise transcribing interviews — I’m a really slow typist — and I tend to record too many of them (this is a habit born in my former television career, when you couldn’t have too much footage). Otherwise, I have difficulty editing down my material, especially when I have lots of good stuff and want to include everything. As for the actual story execution, it’s always a challenge to remain true to my writer’s voice (which tends to be an emotional one) without veering into sentimentality. I like my writing to retain some detachment and edge, and it takes work.
What is your biggest challenge from a business standpoint?
Many editors are completely slammed with pitches along with their regular work demands — I understand this — and it can be hard to get a response, let alone get a story approved. So I tend to stick with a handful of editors with whom I have relationships and I toss most of my ideas at them. This limits me, I guess, but it is better for my dignity and my career. Second, and obviously, there is a scarcity of paying outlets and they seem to be dying off.
Have you ever done other work to make ends meet?
Do the ends ever meet? It’s been years since I paid off a credit card. But yes — I’ve done some consultant work (nothing to do with travel or even writing, actually) and am fortunate to give the occasional paid speech, usually about my book.
What travel authors or books might you recommend and/or have influenced you?
Hundreds. First, not just because they have published me lots, the Travelers Tales anthologies are remarkable. The publishers are absolutely keeping the travel essay alive, and it’s a total meritocracy as to whose stories get accepted. Also: Arabian Sands by Wilfred Thesiger — the first book on place I ever read, and the one I still would like to emulate. I loved Travels in Siberia by Ian Frazier. To a Distant Island by James McConkey, because I adore Chekhov – this is not classic travel writing, but the journey it describes is much more than a physical one. Blown away by Down the Nile: Alone in a Fisherman’s Skiff by Rosemary Mahoney — I recommend it highly. Granite Island by Dorothy Carrington made me want to spend the rest of my life in Corsica. On the Road of course — it was fun to introduce Jack Kerouac to my son when he was a teenager, and In Morocco by Edith Wharton. I just discovered Willa Cather’s travel writings on France — Willa Cather in Europe — it was a revelation.
What advice and/or warnings would you give to someone who is considering going into travel writing?
You might want to consider being independently wealthy. Otherwise, here are a few tips. First: travel alone — there is almost nothing to fear when you’re on the road. I love to travel with my family, but that is called vacation. Solo travel is the only way for a person to weave their way seamlessly into another culture and locale, meet people, find relevance and meaning, to explore without limits. Next, remember that characters frame the best stories, so even if you’re an introvert, keep your head raised and yourself open to all manner of strangers. The rewards are huge. Next, be encouraged and not discouraged by the fact that work never ends. There is travel and pitching and editing and rejection, and most of all there is writing. Write, write, for God’s sake write — nothing is ever written in vain! And keep journals (Lavinia Spalding‘s book is a good guide for this). I just wrote a story from a diary I kept in Prague in 1989. Next, always be on cliché alert. It’s hard to describe sunrise at Angkor Wat without them, I know, but it’s possible and necessary, and you will astonish yourself and your reader.
What is the biggest reward of life as a travel writer?
Waking up and having that first cup of coffee in an unfamiliar place — right on the verge of discovery – is my ultimate bliss. Then, the moment of clarity that comes when I urge a single, tiny narrative out of the endless millions of stories all across earth. Also, ask me anything about efficient packing — it’s my specialty.
Photo by Kate Uhry.