Richard Sterling is both a travel and food writer. The principal author of Lonely Planet’s World Food series, he has been dubbed the Indiana Jones of Gastronomy for his willingness to go anywhere and court any danger for the sake of a good meal. His now 14 books include The Adventure of Food; The Fearless Diner; and the award winning Traveler’s Tales Food: A Taste of the Road. He has been honored by the James Beard Foundation for his food writing, and by the Lowell Thomas awards for his travel literature. His lifestyle column appears monthly in San Francisco magazine. Though he lives in Berkeley, California, he is very often politically incorrect.
How did you get started traveling?
I joined the navy. I haven’t dropped anchor since. And when I die I’ll be buried at sea. It’s already arranged with the navy. Not that I’ll die any time soon, mind you. Hey, I’ve got a lot of living to do! And a lot of beer to drink!
How did you get started writing?
Writing letters home. The experiences of war and travel and exotic new peoples were so intense that they begged expression. I found taking up the pen to be one of the most satisfying exercises in life. My mother would read my letters to the family, and they begged for more. My younger sister would take them to school where her history and geography teachers would read them to their classes. A few were published in the local newspaper. I later took my degree in English and have plied the trade of scribe ever since.
What do you consider your first “break” as a travel writer?
Meeting and befriending Joe Cummings and then shamelessly dropping his name among editors and publishers. I always led them to believe that I had some special dirt on Joe and that if they gave me plum assignments I would let them in on the dish. Shhh! Don’t tell Joe. Oh, and then of course there was winning the Lowell Thomas award for best travel book.
As a traveler and fact/story-gatherer, what is your biggest challenge on the road?
Loneliness can be hard to bear. On long solo trips that special loneliness of the road can fall on you with a ponderous weight. There’s really nothing for it, though. You just have to work through it. And worse than loneliness can be those countries that forbid beer. But I don’t visit them anymore.
What is your biggest challenge in the writing process?
Hey, writing is easy. You just sit down at the keyboard and open a vein. Seriously, the big challenge is simply to make the commitment to sit down and do it. It can be daunting. You never really know where it will go or how it will end. It’s like navigating by dead reckoning and you never know what shore you’ll gain until you get there.
What is your biggest challenge from a business standpoint?
Early in my career it was editors, and learning not to hate them. Then I took a few editing gigs and learned to hate writers, so things balanced out. Finances can be a problem if you don’t stay on top of them. But if you mind the pennies the pounds take care of themselves. Promotion can be the biggest challenge of all. It depends on how much support you get from your publisher, how much time you have to promote, where you’re going to be at a given time, what’s in the news. Promotion isn’t inherently difficult, but it is such a moving target.
Do you do other work to make ends meet?
Sometimes I edit. But mainly I just write. I used to do some teaching. I taught writing, and I hope to do it again. I’m slowly developing a creative writing program for primary school kids. They don’t get enough of language arts and so are badly hindered in their ability both to express themselves and even to have things to express, to categorize and classify their universe and their experience of it. I want to help them acquire the power of the word.
What travel authors or books might you recommend and/or have influenced you?
How the list could go on! I consume books as much as food. I revisit Mark Twain every couple of years in Roughing It, and in The Innocents Abroad. Paul Theroux can be a right royal pain in the ass, but I’ll always be grateful to him for The Great Railway Bazaar. M.F.K. Fisher is my muse when it comes to gastronomic writing. I dedicated my first book to her. For tapping into the sheer power of the English language nothing can compare with Shakespeare and the King James Bible.
What advice and/or warnings would you give to someone who is considering going into travel writing?
Never succumb to the illusion that it’s easy, glamorous, or that I welcome the competition. Understand that you will not write for a living. You will write for the love of it. For a living you will be a traveling salesman. And just like a shoemaker or a maker of green widgets you must make and sell your product. So get a book on salesmanship, and don’t use Willie Lohman as your model. Words will be your stock-in-trade, so get a good dictionary and make it your favorite book. Really. I can’t stress this too much. And if you would be a good writer, then you must read great writers. No more Danielle Steele for you. I would even read your local newspaper with a jaundiced eye.
What is the biggest reward of life as a travel writer?
All the freebies! But no, I kid. I swear I kid. Okay I get a freebie now and then. But that’s not the biggest reward. How about the fact that I get to do the things I most love to do and people actually pay me for it. So my work is my play and my play is my work. And I don’t have to commute. And I can work in my underwear. And play in my underwear. And drink lots of beer.