Suzanne Roberts is the author of the memoir Almost Somewhere: Twenty-Eight Days on the John Muir Trail (winner of the 2012 National Outdoor Book Award) as well as four collections of poetry, including Three Hours to Burn a Body: Poems on Travel. She was named “The Next Great Travel Writer” by National Geographic Traveler, and her work has appeared in many journals and anthologies, including Traveler, Matador, The Pacific Crest Trailside Reader, and Best Women’s Travel Writing 2013. She currently teaches at Lake Tahoe Community College, and for the low residency MFA program in creative writing at Sierra Nevada College.
How did you get started traveling?
My mother is from England, so we traveled to Europe when I was a child. We also took car trips to National Parks and also to the mountains for skiing, and I think that’s where I fell in love with wilderness and outdoor travel. As soon as I was out on my own, I didn’t have the money for international travel, so I took road trips to Mexico for surfing and to the local mountains for hiking, backpacking, and skiing.
How did you get started writing?
My father was a writer, so I grew up with the idea of storytelling. I started writing before I could write. I told my mother stories that she would dutifully write down, and then I would illustrate the stories with my drawings. We would then staple them into little books, some of which my mother has kept. Because we always want to rebel against our parents, I studied Biology in college, trying to deny my writer self, though I kept writing poems and stories. I eventually went back to graduate school and studied creative writing, and then earned a doctorate in literature and the environment, connecting my background in the sciences and literature. As a way of procrastinating the writing of my dissertation, I wrote two books of poems and a memoir that ended up in the drawer. Since then, I have written two more books of poems (one that is entirely composed of travel poems) and my memoir Almost Somewhere.
What do you consider your first “break” as a writer?
The first thing that comes to mind probably isn’t what people would expect: I won “The Greatest Mystery Writer of Ladera Elementary School” prize in the fourth grade. It was the first time the award didn’t go to a sixth grader, so it was a big deal. I won a T-shirt and had to read my story to the entire school at an assembly. I read it so fast no one could understand a word. I guess I think of this as my big break because it was the first time the universe said yes to my writing. Since then, the universe has sometimes said no, but sometimes said yes in a series of small “breaks.”
As a traveler and fact/story gatherer, what is your biggest challenge on the road?
While I love to write about place and the people who inhabit those places, I am aware that by writing place, and trying to make sense of it, I am probably categorizing or stereotyping. It takes a long time to get to know a place, and even in long-term travel, we are always looking at things and people from an outsider’s point of view, from the lens of our own culture, and when we do that, we tend to simplify complicated situations in order to feel as though we have understood them. I am also afraid that the very act of “travel writing” is another version of imperialism — by trying to make sense of a place, we sometimes overlay the values from our own culture onto it.
What is your biggest challenge in the research and writing process?
I am really slow, which is why I will never be a blogger. I need perspective from my experiences, and I need to rewrite my stories over and over. For me, there is no good writing, only good re-writing.
What is your biggest challenge from a business standpoint?
I guess my biggest challenge is that people don’t read enough. Even my students who want to be writers don’t read enough. I ask them, if you aren’t reading, and you want to be a writer, who is going to read you?
Have you ever done other work to make ends meet?
I teach full-time. I could not support myself with my writing, but for me, that means I get to write exactly what I want, even if that means writing poetry, which isn’t exactly going to pay the bills. I sometimes feel frustrated because my writing time is limited by my teaching schedule, but I don’t have to take on writing assignments to make money — I only tell the stories that I want to tell. Certainly, I think writers should be paid a whole lot more than they are, but there is a certain freedom in not having to depend on making my living by writing.
What travel authors or books might you recommend and/or have influenced you?
Gilgamesh, Homer’s The Odyssey, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Matsuo Bashō, Charles Darwin, Herman Melville, Joseph Conrad, Mark Twain, Henry David Thoreau, Isabella Bird, Graham Greene, Mary Austen, John Muir, Annie Dillard, Elizabeth Bishop, Jack Kerouac, Edward Abbey, Jamaica Kincaid, David Foster Wallace, Colin Fletcher, David Sedaris, Pam Houston, Jan Morris, Carolyn Forché, Ellen Meloy, Susan Jane Gilman, Bill Bryson, Gretchen Legler, Susan Orlean, Gretel Erlich, Barry Lopez, Rolf Potts, and more — that is just off the top of my head.
What advice and/or warnings would you give to someone who is considering going into travel writing?
To be a travel writer, you do not have to be a good traveler, but you do have to be a good writer. The writing has to come first. And in order to be a good writer, you have to be a good reader. So my advice is to read a lot. Read widely and read deeply. Read as a writer. Try to figure out how each piece of writing is constructed. What are the moves? How might you borrow those moves in your own writing?
What is the biggest reward of life as a travel writer?
Storytelling and connecting to readers. Also, when I write about a place, I get to revisit it in my mind.