Seth Stevenson is a contributing writer for Slate. His work has also appeared in the New York Times, New York Magazine, Newsweek, Rolling Stone, and other publications. He’s received multiple Lowell Thomas awards from the Society of American Travel Writers, been excerpted three times in the Best American Travel Writing series, and won the 2005 Online Journalism Award for commentary. His first book, Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World, was published in April of 2010. He grew up in Brookline, Mass., graduated from Brown University, and lives in Washington, D.C.
How did you get started traveling?
My parents pulled me out of fifth grade a month before classes ended so we could spend the entire summer driving across the country and back in a minivan. I adored the feeling both of being on the road and of being apart from the workaday world (or, as I called it then, school). I think that’s when I caught the travel bug. Once I was old enough to travel on my own, I began with a short jaunt around Europe with a college pal. Then a visit to a friend who was living in Ecuador. At that point I was hooked and there was no looking back. The next, more difficult step was finding someone to fund all these adventures.
How did you get started writing?
I’ve known I wanted to be a writer since I was a child. From elementary school through high school, I only really lit up when given a chance to write stories or poems. In college, I began writing essays for the student newspaper. As graduation neared, I figured my best shot at making a steady living through writing was to be a journalist.
What do you consider your first “break” as a writer?
I was incredibly lucky to be hired straight out of college by Slate — before most people had ever heard of Slate. (These days Slate gets a flood of applicants for every job opening, but back then I had to beat out only a handful of other candidates.) Slate was small and freewheeling and open to letting young writers experiment. Early on, my editors allowed me to file dispatches from a NASCAR race in North Carolina and a Willie Nelson concert in Texas. It was so exciting to get out into the world and write about what I saw. I realized it was all I ever really want to do.
As a traveler and fact/story gatherer, what is your biggest challenge on the road?
It’s incredibly difficult to predict which places and events will provide great writing material — and which (though they may be amazing life experiences) will lose something in the transition to the written word. I also find it hard to balance the urge to plan out in advance my days on the road versus the urge to let serendipity determine my path. Both approaches have their perks and their pitfalls. Finally, as a shy person I’ve always found it challenging to chat up strangers in foreign lands. I’ve often longed to be an extrovert. Preferably an extrovert who speaks nine or ten languages.
What is your biggest challenge in the research and writing process?
It is a brain-melting challenge every single time I attempt to fit my vivid, three-dimensional travel experiences into a piece of writing that will cohere on the page and be entertaining to readers. I’m never quite able to express my emotions, or the vibe of a specific moment, precisely as I wish I could. I’m always acutely aware that at some level I am failing. With every travel story I’ve ever written, there has come a point where I’ve had to fight off a powerful urge to throw my laptop at the wall — out of frustration and despair at my utter inability to capture the vision in my head. I have to take a deep breath, put my fingers back on the keys, and keep doing the best I can.
What is your biggest challenge from a business standpoint? Editors? Finances? Promotion?
I really can’t complain about any of this stuff. I’ve been fortunate. I have a wonderful travel editor at Slate and she lets me pursue most of the projects I propose to her. Budgets are tighter these days, of course. But frankly I’m still grateful and amazed that anyone gives me any money at all to travel and write.
Have you ever done other work to make ends meet?
Since I left college I’ve never earned (or sought to earn) money for doing anything except writing. Some of that writing was not, ahem, especially close to my heart. But it was still writing.
What travel authors or books might you recommend and/or have influenced you?
For me, it’s all about voice. As a reader, I’ve had a blast tagging along with funny dudes like Bill Bryson and Dave Barry. Paul Theroux is at times too dour for my taste, but his insights and turns of phrase can be startling. Some Hemingway books are travel memoirs masquerading as novels, and gosh are they fantastic.
What advice and/or warnings would you give to someone who is considering going into travel writing?
I once trekked through the Himalayas with a man who’d spent a lifetime wringing his salary from the world of travel and adventure. He gave me a terrific piece of advice about being a travel guide, which I think also applies to being a travel writer. “You can live like a millionaire,” he said. “But you can’t be a millionaire.” I would add to that: You can see the world. But you won’t be seeing it on vacation. There’s a tremendous difference between taking a trip for pure pleasure and taking a trip for a writing assignment — if you try to do both at the same time you might succeed at neither.
What is the biggest reward of life as a travel writer?
Traveling is always wonderful. But there’s something so vital and alive about traveling when you have a sense of mission.