Mary Jo McConahay was born in Chicago and moved with her family to California, where she came of age in an era when On the Road was a bible for young people. She traveled in Mexico and Central America before moving to the Middle East to work as a reporter on the English-language Arab News. In the 1980s she became a correspondent for Pacific News Service in San Francisco, covering the wars in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala, and the U.S. invasion of Panama. She lived in Guatemala in the 1990s, where she began work on her travel memoir, Maya Roads: One Woman’s Journey Among the People of the Rainforest.
How did you get started traveling?
When I was a child, our parents took my five siblings and me all over the American West every summer vacation, sleeping in tents, eating over campfires, awed by the beauty of canyons, desert and mountains. Traveling became an assumption, a need.
How did you get started writing?
I always wrote, encouraged by my parents and the nuns at school, from the grammar school paper beginning in sixth grade, to high school paper and yearbook. When I spent a year abroad during college, I took along my portable typewriter (typewriter!) as I traveled through Europe and wrote stories about what I saw, pretending I was on deadlines. I never sent them anywhere, but I still have some.
What do you consider your first “break” as a writer?
I was struggling along writing and taking pictures in Mexico for a small travel magazine, being paid in chits for hotel rooms and restaurants. I heard that many Americans were jailed in Mexico City for running drugs, mostly real amateurs with a dream of fast money — grandmothers, students, young couples looking for a stake. I visited the prisons for weeks doing interviews, and the story ran in Rolling Stone. That opened doors, which opened others.
As a traveler and fact/story gatherer, what is your biggest challenge on the road?
When I’m lonely, I wonder what I am doing far from home, missing people I love. Most of the time, however, the biggest challenge is honing in on the story is out of a wealth of possibilities, choosing one place and not another. Even the most easy-going travel writer inevitably faces the reality that time and money are limited. Will readers be more interested in colonial Merida or off-the-path ancient Maya sites? The buzz of Sao Paolo or small Germanic towns farther south in Brazil? If I follow my own personal curiosity, it usually works out well.
What is your biggest challenge in the research and writing process?
Over-research! I love the history of places, their literature, what they meant in other people’s lives. The trick is to absorb all this and let it inform the writing of a particular story, not to get sidetracked. Otherwise, the story never ends. There will always be another to write.
What is your biggest challenge from a business standpoint? Editors? Finances? Promotion?
I had no idea what “promotion” meant before writing Maya Roads. Now that the book is out, good reviews are really helping, but unless you are a household name, I’ve found the book author must do 95 per cent of the legwork to grow and nurse her networks, make initial contacts with booksellers and other venue managers for events, pursue the thousand and one avenues to getting her book out there. (This is even with responsive publisher’s associates who follow up and send press releases.) If you had told me six months ago I would be the one to create my book’s website, I would not have believed you. I’ve had to stretch and learn new skills, but that’s the business end of what I love doing so it’s learn — or else.
Have you ever done other work to make ends meet?
I worked as a model and a flight attendant to help pay for college. But soon after I promised myself I’d live — even meagerly — from writing, no matter what kind. I wrote a lot “on spec” at first, and created student orientation booklets in Mexico in exchange for language school lessons. Selling travel photographs helped. Finally I began to work as a journalist, including free-lance for Time, Newsweek, Vogue, the Los Angeles Times Magazine and more than two dozen other periodicals. Most of that time the work was as a foreign correspondent, which fed my desire to travel.
What travel authors or books might you recommend and/or have influenced you?
I admire Pico Iyer for his intelligence, and Bruce Chatwin for his use of language. I love reading novels set in places I want to visit; recently it’s been Jorge Amado’s Pen, Sword and Camisole and Michael Sledge’s The More I Owe You, about Brazil, and The Price of Escape by David Unger, set on Guatemala’s Caribbean coast. At school I studied eighteenth century English literature, and acquired a taste for classic old travel writing. The Travels of John Mandeville, who lived in the fourteenth century, is delicious reading even though it might be partly imagination, like the dragons and sea creatures drawn on ancient parchment maps. No one writes about Arabia like the great explorer Wilfred Thesiger, who describes some places gone forever, like the southern Iraq of The Marsh Arabs. On the other hand, John L. Stephens’ several travel volumes on the Yucatan, Chiapas and Central America, still best-sellers even though published in the middle 19th century, can almost be taken along as guidebooks in some places, so little has changed. I found myself re-reading them as I wrote Maya Roads.
What advice and/or warnings would you give to someone who is considering going into travel writing?
Before boarding the plane, make sure you have a stash that will support you if you make no money from travel writing for a year. Otherwise there can be a strong temptation to take a non-writing job just to survive. I’ve seen that situation unravel the dream for more than one person.
Be prepared: Learn as much of the language as possible of the lands where you want to go. Make contacts with half a dozen travel publication editors before leaving, with a prospective story idea if possible, and re-contact them again as soon as you’re on your feet abroad. Keep your name in front of them, even if they pass on the first stories. It will happen!
Writers are expected to take photos, which fortunately is easier than ever. It’s still important to develop the eye, however, which can be practiced before leaving, too.
What is the biggest reward of life as a travel writer?
I’d say the biggest reward comes in small, transcendent moments rather than finally standing before the post card-like image of a world-famous castle or waterfall. In Brazil the American poet Elizabeth Bishop asks herself in “Questions of Travel,” if she should have stayed at home, whether it was right to pursue a life determined “to see the sun the other way around.” Then she lists what she sees and hears — small moments that describe the place, that she might see or hear nowhere else: a line of stunning trees blooming pink; a fat brown bird singing above a broken gas pump in a bamboo church; two “disparate” notes of clacking wooden clogs which “in another country” would be quality-tested and each sound the same. I love this poem. That’s how I feel, that noticing the small elements which characterize a place is a practice for the mind and the imagination, a reward any writer might value.