Pam Mandel is a freelance writer and photographer. She’s been blogging since 1997. She’s written travel stories for Conde Nast Traveler online, Afar, World Hum, Gadling, Perceptive Travel, and a handful of food, travel, and in-flight magazines. She’s worked on two guidebooks — BC and Hawaii — for Thomas Cook. And she’s spoken about blogging and social media — at Book Passage, SxSW, Blog World Expo, BlogHer, TBEX, The Adventure Travel Show, and The Oregon Governor’s Conference on Tourism. She’s a cofounder of Passports with Purpose, a group that works with travel bloggers to raise money for NGO projects around the world. She’s working on her first book; it’s about the ukulele.
How did you get started traveling?
We moved a lot when we were kids and there were many summer road trips with my family, but my first real adventure as a traveler was that summer as an exchange student in Sweden. I was 16, everyone was so much taller than me, and when it was over, I did not want to go home. It wasn’t that I was so enamored of Sweden, though my host family was so kind and I have nothing but very fond memories of that summer. It was that I’d become addicted, almost immediately to that feeling of being Somewhere Else.
How did you get started writing?
I have always written in some capacity; after a recent move I tossed out the journals from my early teen years (the horror), but I started thinking of myself as a writer in a professional sense, in the sense of someone with an occupation, or — forgive the cliche — a calling, in 1997. That’s when I started to blog about my life as an expat in Austria. I sat down to write one winter day and I haven’t stopped.
What do you consider your first “break” as a writer?
I had a few small successes — World Hum published one of my first stories — and a few publications were interested in my insider’s view on the traditional alpine region where I’d been living. But the break, the one that shifted things, was when I landed a guidebook gig with Thomas Cook. Guidebook work helped me build my credibility in a way that writing little 400 word sidebar pieces in newsletters for expats did not. I’d returned to Seattle and an online friend, a fellow expat blogger, recommended me for the job. I managed it badly. The pay was terrible, the deadline was ridiculous, and I had no idea what I was getting into, but I delivered good work and having that line on my resume made a difference.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my blog, though. I started blogging very early on, when it was much easier to find interesting work, interesting people on the web. Travel blogging was not a thing, it was just blogging, and even that was considered a somewhat odd, vain pursuit by critics and outsiders. Because I showed up early, I was invited to participate in some projects that are now wildly successful — I was the travel editor for BlogHer (the women’s blogging network), and an adviser for the Uptake travel network and I spoke at the first session about travel-blogging at SxSW, the huge interactive media conference in Austin, Texas. I was on Twitter early, too, and Conde Nast Traveler flew me out to New York to cover their World Savers Congress on Twitter. It was ridiculous — because I used new media and wrote about travel, opportunities just appeared, seemingly from nowhere.
As a traveler and fact/story gatherer, what is your biggest challenge on the road?
I like things that are overlooked, I like things that are in the corners, or that reveal themselves over time. I like things that are small and seemingly unimportant at first. Finding the things I want to write about takes time, time to sit and look, time to explore. I do my best work when I am able to do unscripted wandering. So much of professional travel writing involves getting in, getting the story or the facts and getting out again, but the world doesn’t reveal itself to me like that. Time. Time is my biggest challenge, there is never enough. I return from almost every trip thinking, “That trip could have been four times longer.”
What is your biggest challenge in the research and writing process?
Writing isn’t hard for me, I recently wrote a package of articles about Seattle, my home, and I loved everything about it, including the research. I loved picking up the phone and talking to people, hearing how excited they were to talk about what they do, to have someone ask them questions about it. Making a living, finding markets, that’s hard, but the writing itself? I love to write, and it’s so rare that I find it difficult. And when I do struggle, it’s because something is deeply personal (not just for me, but perhaps for the people I’m writing about) and I want to be respectful of that.
What is your biggest challenge from a business standpoint?
Health insurance for freelancers in Washington State is expensive and crappy. I’m not a good accountant. I don’t enjoy marketing myself. My income is erratic. In the online markets where I get most of my work, writing is wildly undervalued. I can go on and on.
Have you ever done other work to make ends meet?
I have always done other work to make ends meet. It would not be possible for me to live the life I have without other work. I probably make about 70% of my income as a freelance technical writer and content strategist, but I’ve done production work for a boating magazine, sold art supplies, stuffed envelopes, did data entry, worked as a fact checker… I do not make my living as a travel writer.
What travel authors or books might you recommend and/or have influenced you?
I am crazy for Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, and yes, I do think it’s a travel book, even if it’s a work of fiction. I started reading classic travel with The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux, and while I’ve developed some more complicated opinions about Theroux’s work, I found him wildly inspiring. I’m always overcome by Pico Iyer‘s poetic prose; everything I’ve read by him makes me think, “Oh, I wish I could write like that.” I like Alain de Botton’s heady philosophical work and A Week at the Airport is just brilliant. I also feel really lucky to be connected to writers who are writing new work right now, David Farley, Eva Holland, Douglas Mack, Lavinia Spalding…they’re good writers and every time I crack a magazine or click on something they’ve written online, I’m inspired by their work.
What advice and/or warnings would you give to someone who is considering going into travel writing?
Do it because you love to write, not because you love to travel. The writing should always come first. And honey, don’t quit your day job.
What is the biggest reward of life as a travel writer?
I am overwhelmed, utterly overwhelmed, by the opportunities I’ve had as a travel writer. It’s easy to be distracted by that and think that the travel is the reward. But traveling as a writer has helped me develop an acute sense of observation and, by extension, the ability to describe places in the kind of detail that makes them real for my readers. In 2011, I had an amazing year for travel and writing, and during that year, my uncle was dying from leukemia. He and his wife would write me notes on Facebook, in email, saying, “We felt like we were there with you.” When someone says, “I felt like I was there with you,” I know I have done my job. There is great satisfaction in that, in sharing the world with people who, for whatever reason, do not get out to see it themselves.
Also, I just really love to write. Writing well is its own reward.