Abbie Kozolchyk is the author of National Geographic’s The World’s Most Romantic Destinations. She’s spent most of her career in magazines, sometimes in the Glamour/Cosmo/Allure universe, sometimes in the National Geographic Traveler/Conde Nast Traveler/Travel + Leisure universe—and sometimes in both, such as the day she had to file copy on Reese Witherspoon’s bangs from a Tibetan yak-herding village. After 25 years in New York, she now lives in Los Angeles.
How did you get started traveling?
In utero. My parents were living—and traveling a lot—in Central America while my mom was pregnant with me, so on some primal level, I must associate wandering with comfort and warmth. We’ve also traveled regularly since then: My dad is an academic who considers every visiting professorship or guest lecture grounds for a family adventure, and I’m eternally grateful to have been one of the beneficiaries.
How did you get started writing?
My first stab at a book was a comically bad novella I wrote when I was (to be fair) eight or nine. I was so embarrassed for myself when I unearthed it a few years later that I threw the “manuscript” away. Now I wish I hadn’t, but if memory serves, all the reader ever learned about the protagonist—whom I’d mysteriously named Tarley Hedgson—was that she had an abiding fondness for boys, homework and snacks.
I’m not sure what made me pursue writing post-Tarley, other than lovingly biased parents. But by high school, I’d figured out I was pretty good at editing—and I did eventually become a magazine editor. My early years in the business were lean though, forcing me to write on the side under various pseudonyms. So I guess I started writing professionally out of financial necessity. Oh, the irony.
What do you consider your first break as a writer?
I interned at a magazine in college and was invited back after graduation, when an editorial assistant position opened up. And though my duties weren’t remotely editorial (The Devil Wears Prada isn’t exaggerated for effect), the dues-paying did eventually pay off. Soon enough, I was entrusted with my first caption, then blurb, then sidebar, and so on.
What is your biggest fact- and story-gathering challenge on the road?
There’s never enough time—especially because you’re often on deadline for one story, if not several, while you’re traveling for the next. And you’re also likely answering editors’ questions on pieces you’ve turned in already. Sleep is an early casualty of the whole operation.
What is your biggest challenge in the research and writing process?
Reconciling basic writerly curiosity with the magazine industry’s ever shrinking word counts. You can go down all kinds of fun rabbit holes as you research a story, but so little of what you turn up will fit comfortably into the allotted space. To put the issue in perspective: During my first stint as an assigning editor in the 90s, I was typically commissioning 2500-word stories. During my last stint as an assigning editor from 2012 to 2016, 500 words was the average. And even if the shift hasn’t been quite that pronounced across all publications, it’s definitely there.
What is your biggest challenge from a business standpoint?
With ever shrinking word counts come ever shrinking payments. And but for a couple of heady years in the early aughts, the per-word rates have stayed flat or gone down.
Have you ever done other work to make ends meet?
I’ve always gone back and forth between being an editor and a writer, and when I left magazine office life for the first time to pursue travel writing, I’d periodically return as a fill-in editor during my friends’ maternity leaves. (Magazine day rates are a beautiful thing, or at least they used to be.)
What travel authors or books might you recommend and/or have influenced you?
Oooh. So many. But one of the books I find myself recommending most is 12,000 Miles in the Nick of Time: A Semi-Dysfunctional Family Circumnavigates the Globe by Mark Jacobson. (Clearly, the family that schlepps together is a theme that resonates with me.) In the less funny/more weighty category, Over the Edge of the World: Magellan’s Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe by Laurence Bergreen is another all-time favorite. (Coincidentally, so is the headline of the attendant New York Times review: “Little Ship of Horrors.”) And in the just plain crazy category is Rosemary Mahoney’s Down the Nile, Alone in a Fisherman’s Skiff, every page of which left me awe-struck and jealous.
What advice and/or warnings would you give to someone who is considering going into travel writing?
Unless you’re independently wealthy, comfortable marrying for money—or devoid of material needs—you should have a professional plan B. So many conversations among mid-career writers and editors now revolve around the question of why the hell we never went to law/med/business/veterinary/mechanic school. Not that the publishing industry is disappearing altogether, but it’s contracting so quickly that entire Facebook groups have sprung up to address the panic.
What is the biggest reward of life as a travel writer?
You wind up with friends everywhere—all these fabulous people whom you’d never know otherwise.