Wayne Curtis is a contributing editor at The Atlantic, Preservation and Down East magazines, and he’s also written for the New York Times, Canadian Geographic, American Archeology, Men’s Journal, Yankee, American Heritage, VIA, and This American Life. He was a Frommer’s guidebook author for five years, and in 2002 he was named Lowell Thomas Travel Journalist of the Year. He’s also author of And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails (Crown 2006), and writes a bimonthly column on cocktail history and drinking culture for The Atlantic. He lives in New Orleans, but flees the heat and yellow fever each summer for the pines of eastern Maine.
How did you get started traveling?
I got a mid-range French bicycle when in I was in college in the late 1970s, and at some point realized that I could pedal to the edge of town and then keep going. Twice I bicycled from the Hudson Valley to Maine, then spent four months biking across Europe after college. Then I found a copy of John L. Stephen’s accounts of travel through Central America in the early 19th century, and was intrigued enough to spend about six months traveling there. Whereupon I realized I needed to figure out a way to keep this going.
How did you get started writing?
In fourth grade I wrote a story about traveling by ship around the tip of South America (we’d been reading about the Gold Rush) and hitting an iceberg and sinking. It was a humor piece. When I read it aloud, the class laughed out loud a lot, which I found strangely rewarding. Making the first of many mistaken assumptions about writing, I thought, “This is really fun and easy.”
What do you consider your first “break” as a writer?
When I was in my early 20s I sent an unsolicted travel essay about the lighter side of Guatemala’s guerrilla war to Harper’s magazine, which at the time was my favorite publication. An editor called a few days later and told me it was unpublishable because, well, it was about the lighter side of Guatemala’s guerrilla war. But he invited me to New York to meet with them. A short time later I sat in an office with Michael Kinsley, Mickey Kaus and Jefferson Morely, and at the end they gave me an assignment. It was never published, but this brief episode helped me keep my head up through the next five years of steady rejections. Send stuff out, I realized, and it very well may get read by people you admire.
As a traveler and fact/story gatherer, what is your biggest challenge on the road?
Spending enough time in one place to get beyond the cliches. Reading a mess of earlier accounts of a place — seeing it through the eyes of someone who’d been there 50 or 100 or 200 years earlier — somehow helps speed that process.
What is your biggest challenge in the research and writing process?
Excising adjectives. When I see a lot of adjectives in a first draft, it’s a flag that I’ve been lazy or didn’t get a good feel for what I’d been writing about.
What is your biggest challenge from a business standpoint?
Coming to terms with the fact that there’s no downhill run in freelancing. When I sold my first story to the New York Times I thought selling stories would get easier. It didn’t. Same with The Atlantic, which I’d pitched for twelve years before getting an assignment. The boulder never starts rolling down the hill on its own — you always need to keep pushing it uphill a few inches at a time. It’s always a battle of tiny increments.
Have you ever done other work to make ends meet?
I worked three years as the editor of an alternative newspaper in Maine in the mid-1990s. The work didn’t really agree with me — I like being responsible for my own words, but not so much for the words of others. Otherwise, I’ve been full-time freelancing since 1987.
What travel authors or books might you recommend and/or have influenced you?
Probably the most influential travel book for me was Nicholson Baker’s first novel, The Mezzanine. The entire plot line is this: the narrator gets on an escalator at the beginning of the book, and steps off at the end. The rest is all thoughts and details. It made me realize a talented writer can weave something remarkable out of the tiny minutiae around him. A great travel story doesn’t need an exotic destination. An escalator ride can be just as fascinating as an African safari.
Otherwise, anything by Bill Bryson, Eric Newby, Tony Horwitz, or Susan Orlean (except her vacuous Twitter feed).
What advice and/or warnings would you give to someone who is considering going into travel writing?
Blog, baby, blog. Then hope for the best.
Seriously, the future belongs to entrepreneurial journalists. No one can count on newspapers or magazines footing the bill these days. Problem is, no one has yet figured out how entrepreneurial journalism really works. But somebody will soon enough, and my hat’s off to them.
What is the biggest reward of life as a travel writer?
The baleful stares of neighbors as I get in the cab and head for the airport again.