Wendy Knight is a freelance writer and editor who contributes to the New York Times, Outside Magazine, the Toronto Globe and Mail, and Vermont Life, among other publications. She is the editor of Far From Home: Father Daughter Travel Adventures (Seal Press, 2004) which was featured on CNN, and Making Connections: Mother Daughter Travel Adventures (Seal Press, 2003) which won a 2004 Lowell Thomas Award for best Travel Book. Knight, who received a Bachelor of Science degree in Industrial and Labor Relations from Cornell University, lives in Vermont.
How did you get started traveling?
My dad was always packing us up to go camping in the Adirondacks in New York or the Green Mountains in Vermont. Later, as he started earning more money, we’d stay in B&Bs on the Maine coast or the Massachusetts Berkshires. He was restless — more at ease in the wilderness than our suburban existence. Thankfully, he bestowed that restlessness on me.
When I was in college, I went to Acapulco with my dad and his girlfriend. It was my first trip outside the country and I was overwhelmed by the sensory stimuli — panpipes playing off in the distance, smoke-fires simmering along the road, children living in cardboard boxes, the hot, salty air. Mexico is still a magical place for me.
How did you get started writing?
I’ve been writing since I could write — silly poems and short stories as a kid. I’m an old-fashioned letter writer and I’ve always kept a journal. I’ve got piles of them hidden in drawers that I’ll need to burn before I leave this world. My first published piece was a dense policy article I co-wrote with my boss for a health care journal. I wrote exclusively about health care — lots of trade articles, policy papers, and academic reports — for over a decade. When my dad died in 2000, I discovered the cliche was true: Life is too short. So I decided I was going to write about travel and the outdoors, things that I felt passionate about. My first adventure piece was a book review for a climbing magazine.
What do you consider your first “break” as a writer?
In 2001, I wrote a piece on spec about Burlington, Vermont, near my town, for Escapes, a new section in the New York Times. I got a note back from the editor passing on my piece because the Travel section had recently published something on Burlington, but he thanked me for “thinking of them.” I immediately shot back an email suggesting other towns and he assigned me a piece on Jackson, Wyoming, where I spend a lot of time. Later that fall, they published my Burlington article and I’ve been contributing to the New York Times since.
I sent my idea about mother-daughter travel adventures directly to Seal Press since I knew they specialized in feminist material and women’s adventure travel. I hadn’t seen anything on the subject matter and they responded right away. The book, Making Conncetions: Mother Daughter Travel Adventures was recently awarded a Lowell Thomas Award for best Travel Book by the American Society of Travel Writers Foundation. Timing is everything, no?
As a traveler and fact/story gatherer, what is your biggest challenge on the road?
When traveling to countries where the inhabitants haven’t seen many light-skinned people you often become the object of research — the interviewee, as it were. I was in a remote part of southern Sudan a year and a half ago. It was the first time many of the children had seen a white person walking around their village (many aid workers stay confined to their compounds.) They were wildly curious about me — my speech, skin, hair, mannerisms — and my tape recorder, paper, pen and camera were a source of endless fascination for them. It’s impossible to be the quiet observer with a horde of inquisitive (and adorable) African children at your heels.
What is your biggest challenge in the writing process?
Too many ideas. I have very definite stories in mind, but along the way I’ll meet an interesting character or discover a cool adventure in some exotic location and get jazzed about pursuing those story angles, as well. I’m easily enticed and I can’t say no. As a writer, you’re constantly observing the world through a narrative prism. Your my mind is always working. And that’s exhausting.
What is your biggest challenge from a business standpoint? Editors? Finances? Promotion?
I’ve been blessed with exceptional editors. My editors at the New York Times, in particular, are superb. They are exacting about word choice, story direction, and fact checking.
Since I work as a public relations consultant, I’m very involved in my book promotions. I enjoy the creative energy around marketing and promotion. I’m terrible about the financial end of the business, though. I just try to keep enough cash in the checking account and hope for the best. Denial works well for me.
Have you ever done other work to make ends meet?
I still take on public relations projects, which pay significantly more than writing. I’ve also moonlighted as the maitre de at Christophe’s on the Green, a lovely French restaurant in my town. It’s a great complement to the solitary life of writing. I dress up in fancy clothes and sneak wine and foie gras in the kitchen. Plus, Christophe assures me I’ll have a place to eat if I fall short on the writing prospects.
What travel authors or books might you recommend and/or have influenced you?
I remember being struck by the beautiful, fluid language of Madame Bovary: “The ground seemed to give beneath her like water, the furrows looked like vast brown waves breaking into foam.” I like Hemingway’s austerity. When Outside Magazine comes out each month, I immediately turn to Mark Jenkins’ column. He’s a talented storyteller who recounts his amazing adventures with self-deprecation, reflection and wit. I enjoyed Alexandra Fuller’s Don’t Lets Go to the Dogs Tonight. She writes with vivid, yet sparse prose — a killer combination. I devour anything Pam Houston writes — a truly gifted writer.
Jim Harrison is my literary hero. He’s an elegant, intelligent writer. I read his novel, The Road Home, when my father was dying of cancer. I was captivated by the descriptions of the Sand Hills in Nebraska, an area I would have never imagined so lovely until I read his book. After my dad passed away, I took a two-week solo journey through the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains and started in Valentine, Nebraska, where much of The Road Home takes place. It was the one of the most rewarding trips I have taken. Never underestimate the power of literature.
What advice and/or warnings would you give to someone who is considering going into travel writing?
Aim high. My first travel piece was published in the New York Times and now that’s a fairly steady gig for me. I’ve had better luck getting published in national publications than local ones. I read that Jon Krakauer (another one of my favorite authors) had similar experiences. You never know; the worst response you can get is “no.” (Well. I suppose “you’re a dreadful writer” would be worse.)
Don’t write exclusively about travel. Try poetry, book reviews, profiles, short stories — anything that will stretch your mind and influence and improve your writing.
What is the biggest reward of life as a travel writer?
Cesare Pavese wrote, “We don’t remember days. We remember moments.” Travel gives us many of those moments. Seeing the world is a privilege.