Mitch Moxley has written for publications including GQ, The Atlantic, Grantland, TIME, and the New York Times, and he is the features editor at Roads & Kingdoms, an online journal of international reporting. He’s the author of Apologies to My Censor: The High and Low Adventures of a Foreigner in China, a memoir about the six years he lived in Beijing.
How did you get started traveling?
My parents took my brother and I traveling quite often when we were young, and not just on resort holidays. (My dad and I once flew his small propeller plane across Canada, for example.) So my eyes were opened to the possibility of travel at quite an early age. Later, in college, I took a semester off to backpack in Australia and a summer to study and travel in Europe. When one trip was done, I started planning the other.
How did you get started writing?
Halfway through my undergrad I started contributing to my university’s student newspaper, and I was hooked. I often wrote dispatches from my previous trips — those were my favorite stories. I went on to do a graduate degree in journalism, freelanced a few articles, and then got an internship at the National Post, a newspaper in Toronto, which led to a one-year contract and my first real job in journalism.
What do you consider your first “break” as a writer?
Getting a gig at the National Post was definitely a big break for me. It was exciting to be publishing in a national paper. The problem was that I worked in the business section. I had no real interest in business — I often wrote about bonds, dividends, and EBITDA without ever truly understanding what any of those things were. I even helmed an investing column when I had a grand total of zero investments myself! Needless to say my tenure at the Post was short-lived, but it did give me a platform to launch into freelancing. After I left the paper I traveled to Japan and Southeast Asia and wrote a few features, including one about the legacy of Agent Orange in Vietnam. It was great, but making it work financially was a whole other story.
As a traveler and fact/story gatherer, what is your biggest challenge on the road?
Finding those people who will really bring you into their world and make your story come to life is the biggest challenge. Because that’s ultimately what is going to make a story great — not the scenery or whatever event you’ve gone to witness, but the characters. It took me a long time to learn that.
What is your biggest challenge in the research and writing process?
One of the biggest challenges is coming up with original ideas. There’s a lot of good writing out there and it’s no fun going out to report something that other people have already covered in a lot of depth. When I’m trying to cook up ideas, I’m looking for counter-intuitive angles — something that makes me go, “Really? That exists?” Once I’ve found that a whole new set of challenges emerges: How feasible is this story? How expensive is it going to be? Can I sell it?
What is your biggest challenge from a business standpoint?
Money, 100 percent. It’s no secret that writers in general are poorly paid. It’s a crazy industry where the same writer might get paid two dollars per word from one publication and 10 cents per word from another. It takes a long, long time to get to a point where you can make a comfortable living as a freelance writer.
Have you ever done other work to make ends meet?
Over the tens years I’ve been in journalism I’ve done all sorts of odd jobs to supplement my income. In Beijing, I did part-time voice recording work, reading mind-numbing texts that would go on English-learning CDs for Chinese students. I’ve also taken on a lot of writing and editing work that I didn’t really enjoy in order to be able to do the stories I really love. These days, thankfully I’m able to earn enough from writing and editing for publications I care about (no more voice recording!), but it’s never going to be an amazing living.
What travel authors or books might you recommend and/or have influenced you?
Dispatches, by Michael Herr, introduced me to the possibilities of creative non-fiction. A few books that influenced me in different ways include Down to This (Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall), Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It (Geoff Dyer); and River Town and other books by Peter Hessler.
What advice and/or warnings would you give to someone who is considering going into travel writing?
I say go for it. As grim as recent years have been for the travel writing profession, it is still possible to make it work. There are a number of magazines that do ambitious features and pay good money for them, and there are new online publications that pay well and are doing great work. For a young writer just starting out, I would suggest moving abroad for a few years, somewhere not too saturated with freelance writers, or not too off the radar. Go to Africa or South America, for example, and start working your way up the ladder, gathering bylines in good publications. Have a career goal in mind (say, writing for big American magazines) and figure out what it takes to get there. Talk to people who have done it and carve out a path for yourself. I find it inspiring how many talented young people are still working hard and creating great stories even in an industry in flux.
What is the biggest reward of life as a travel writer?
By far the biggest reward is the opportunity to live out truly incredible experiences. In the past year, I attended a film festival in North Korea, enrolled in a kidnap prevention and survival school, and spent a week with basketball players in Haiti. And I got paid for it! That’s pretty incredible, and on the days when I’m feeling not-so-great about my career choice, I have to remind myself of that.