Sally Shivnan’s travel writing has been featured in anthologies such as The Best American Travel Writing, as well as in The Washington Post, Miami Herald, Nature Conservancy Magazine, Washingtonian, Saturday Evening Post, railstotrails.org, baltimore.org and many other publications and websites. She was the winner of the 2011 Travel Classics International Travel Writing prize, among other awards. Her short story collection Piranhas & Quicksand & Love is due to be published in fall 2016. Her fiction and essays have appeared in The Georgia Review, Antioch Review, Glimmer Train, Rosebud, and other journals. She teaches creative writing at University of Maryland Baltimore County.
How did you get started traveling?
My parents moved from England to the U.S. when I was five, and we went back for long stays in the summers. We had family there so it was sort of a second home, although I felt very much the American little kid in a lot of ways — the beginning of that feeling of being inside and outside at the same time which is such a part of travel. These trips to the UK always included some other destination — as a child I got to romp all over the British Isles and Europe. As I got older I transitioned to grown-up travel — a month on a Greyhound bus pass when I was eighteen, a three-month cross-country road trip with friends in a ’67 Rambler a couple years later. And on from there.
How did you get started writing?
In grade school the nuns were always looking over my shoulder, encouraging me as I wrote my little books and plays. I wrote bad adolescent poetry, and then lost my way for a while, as far as writing — I lacked the courage, knowing deep down somehow how demanding it would be, how much it would require of me. I found it again, the courage and the writing, in my thirties.
What do you consider your first “break” as a writer?
My first paycheck for a piece of writing was $500 from Glimmer Train for a short story. That was a rush. My first break in travel writing was the first travel essay I ever wrote — on a whim I wrote up a story about my experience of the desert in winter, and sent it to The Washington Post travel section without the least clue about the impossibly long odds of freelance on-spec travel writing, and The Post bought it. So I thought, this is pretty easy! Wrong! That was back in 2001. After that, I found out how tough and competitive it was, as I continued to write stuff, mostly on spec and occasionally on assignment. I have to say, if my very first submission hadn’t been so lucky I might not have continued so blithely on.
What is your biggest challenge on the road?
I guess getting to see enough of a place, when you have limited time there. It takes a while to get an authentic feel for a place, an authentic view of it, because when you first arrive somewhere there are layers to peel back — the first layers you see, which can be dazzling and really engaging but which you have to get past to start to have a real experience. I’m fairly conservative in my travel lifestyle, I’m not sleeping on beaches or dancing all night, so getting immersed can take me a bit of time.
What is your biggest challenge in the research and writing process?
Just time. Research and writing both take a lot of time, and the pre-writing and the pre-research do too, when you’re trying to learn what the story is that you need to tell. And I always have other writing projects and teaching that I’m doing. Travel writing, for me anyway, has a very high hours-to-words ratio compared to other writing.
What is your biggest challenge from a business standpoint?
This is also kind of a time thing. The amount of effort and time that goes into pitching and following up with publications and responding to editors can often feel out of proportion to the actual work you are able to get out there. Some editors are amazingly great to work with, but some are not. I had, for example, one experience with an editor that involved so many passes back and forth that eventually she told me to change a bunch of things back to the way I had them before she had forced me, several passes previously, to rewrite them. The editor had no clue she did this. It was weird fun to tell her, although it was also awkward.
Have you ever done other work to make ends meet?
I’m a full-time college writing teacher, mostly creative writing and some other writing courses. I’ve always worked full-time. The down side is that my time for writing and time for travel are constantly challenged. I can’t do nearly as much writing as I want, except in summer. Although I can’t write every day, right now I am managing the equivalent of about one to two days of writing time per week. The plus side of this is that because I’m not dependent on income from writing I can write whatever I want. The vast majority of the travel writing I’ve had published has been on spec — I write what I want, and then hope somebody else will like it. It’s a risk, because often as not, I don’t find that somebody. But I’m okay with that. I also realize it’s a great luxury to work this way — I’m very lucky.
What travel authors or books might you recommend and/or have influenced you?
The first travel writer I went nuts over was Tim Cahill. He’s so original and funny and playful and real, with amazing heart. I like classic writers like Martha Gellhorn, Freya Stark, M.F.K. Fisher. Joan Didion, John McPhee, Ian Frazier, Gretel Ehrlich, William Langewiesche all write about place in astonishing ways. Janisse Ray writes beautifully of backwoods Florida. C.M. Mayo, of Mexico. Sarah Wheeler, Colin Thubron, Tom Swick, Simon Winchester, there are so many fine writers out there.
What advice and/or warnings would you give to someone who is considering going into travel writing?
Solo travel is the ideal way, if what you want to do is write about it. Having someone else with you filters the experience, and changes the equation between you and the place you’re in, in subtle, strange ways. Take lots of notes, about everything, because it’s likely you won’t know what the story is until later, and until you discover that story, you’ll have no way of knowing what details will matter, so if you don’t have them written down, it’s too late, they’re gone— If you do writing, or any kind of creative work, do it because you love it; do it because you hugely enjoy the play in it as well as the work in it.
What is the biggest reward of life as a travel writer?
The writing. The travel is a close second.