Mary Morris is the author of fourteen books, including four travel memoirs. In her memoirs she has traveled through Latin America, traversed Siberia, infiltrated New Age groups in Latin America, and sailed down the Mississippi River in a houseboat. Currently she is writing about tigers. Each book has marked a significant moment in her life both as a traveler and as a woman. Morris has published extensively in such magazines as AFAR, The New York Times, Travel & Leisure, Islands, and Town & Country. Her classic travel memoir, Nothing to Declare: Memoirs of a Woman Traveling Alone was named one of the top travel memoirs in the 20th century by Suite 101. Her books have been translated into ten languages, including Italian.
How did you get started traveling?
I’m going to paraphrase my own work here. As I wrote in Nothing to Declare, my first travel memoir, it was my mother who made a traveler out of me. Not because of where she went but more so I think because she didn’t travel. She longed for it, but my father was adverse. She wanted to be wandering the streets of Paris and touching silk in Hong Kong. Instead she found herself ensconced in the PTA, girl scouts, and card games. We lived in Illinois and spent our vacations on Wisconsin lakes and once or twice in Idaho where I learned to ride a horse. My mother hated all of this. When I was fifteen, she scooped me up from school one day and took me down to the passport office. That summer we traveled through Europe together for six weeks. I got a taste for buses and trains. I guess that was when it began.
How did you get started writing?
I began writing poetry and short stories in high school. I was writing all the time from an early age. I cannot pinpoint it, but I began to seriously keep journals during college and have kept them ever since. I have sixty-two journals at last count.
What do you consider your first “break” as a writer?
If you mean my first break as a writer, it would have to be when I sold my first short story to Redbook Magazine in about 1974. But my real break as a travel writer was when I published Nothing to Declare. Before then though I’d traveled a lot and kept extensive journals, I’d never written about travel. That book seemed to strike a nerve, and since then I’ve combined my fiction writing with travel memoirs and essays about place.
As a traveler and fact/story gatherer, what is your biggest challenge on the road?
Well, when I was younger, it was just those of being a young woman on the road. You can fill in the blanks. But I’ve been married and had a family for a long time. I’m going to be honest here. Despite the title of my first travel memoir and subsequent books I’m really not such a big fan of traveling alone. Not at this point in my life anyway. I feel as if I’ve done that and yet I still do a fair amount of solo travel. My husband and I travel so well together (basically we have the same rhythms, or he just lets me alone). I guess I’d have to say that I’m fine all day but once night falls, I don’t really want to have dinner alone.
What is your biggest challenge in the research and writing process?
I’m not great with numbers and facts. History confounds me. I tend more towards the story — the human story. But sometimes I just have to get the larger context of a place and that’s a struggle for me. I guess I’m not a very good abstract thinker, but I can remember almost every word in a conversation if I want to.
What is your biggest challenge from a business standpoint?
It used to be easier for me to find the right pitch to the right magazine. And also there were more magazines that published more literary travel writing, such as Islands and the New York Times‘ “Sophisticated Traveler.” I miss those publications, and have been struggling a bit to find the right narratives to tell in the newer, more commercially oriented press. I hold out a lot of hope for online travel publications, but those won’t pay the bills. So I guess what I’m saying is that I’m playing the same game, but the rules have changed and I’m still trying to figure them out.
Have you ever done other work to make ends meet?
Yes, I teach and have taught for many years. Once one of my students found a picture of me in travel magazine. I was riding a white horse at a gallop across the high sierra. I’m told that he pointed to the magazine and said to his brother, “I think that’s my teacher.” I have at times been compared to Indiana Jones, but only in that I teach and seek adventure, and the two often don’t seem to intersect.
What travel authors or books might you recommend and/or have influenced you?
For me it’s always more about the language than the journey. So the early travel writings of such writers as Willa Cather, Edith Wharton, and Henry James made deep impressions on me. It was Henry Miller’s The Colossus of Maroussi that first made me want to write about travel and place. Since then I’ve enjoyed the work of such writers as Pico Iyer, Bruce Chatwin, Paul Theroux, Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams. I love Michael Ondaatje’s Running in the Family. And more recently the works of women who write about place such as Gretel Ehrlich’s The Solace of Open Spaces and Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost. And the work of Jenny Diski. And I love women writers such as Annie Dillard who are writing more about place than about journeys per se. I had a teacher once who said that there are only two plots in all of literature: You go on a journey or a stranger comes to town. Outside of the early women adventurers the plight of women was mostly to await the stranger. But now women are more empowered and we are going on those journeys. Cheryl Strayed’s wonderful book and amazing journey on the Pacific Coast Trail, Wild, definitely reflects that.
What advice and/or warnings would you give to someone who is considering going into travel writing?
If it’s the marketplace you care about, then really study the magazines you want to write for. But if it’s about your personal vision of the world, then find the story you want to tell and write about it in your own voice.
What is the biggest reward of life as a travel writer?
Recently I was invited to a conference in the Canary Islands. I was to be their only keynote speaker, and the only visitor from abroad. A member of the audience asked me how being a travel writer has changed my life and I said, “Well, I’m in the Canary Islands,” which brought some laughter. The biggest reward for me is the thing itself. I’ve gotten to Japan and Verona, sailed down the Mississippi River, reveled in a spa in Napa, and crossed Siberia on a train thanks to my life as a travel writer. My mother wanted to see the world, and I’ve had the privilege and good fortune to do so. That is my reward.