Erin Byrne writes travel essays, poetry, fiction and screenplays. She is author of Wings: Gifts of Art, Life, and Travel in France, editor of Vignettes & Postcards From Paris and Vignettes & Postcards From Morocco, and writer of The Storykeeper film. Her work has won three Grand Prize Solas Awards for Travel Story of the Year, the Reader’s Favorite Award, Foreword Reviews’ Book of the Year Finalist, and an Accolade Award for film. Erin is occasional guest instructor at Shakespeare and Company Bookstore in Paris and teaches on Deep Travel trips.
How did you get started traveling?
I’d skipped around the U.S. since I was in my twenties, but it was about twelve years ago when I traveled abroad, first to the UK and then to France, that I became obsessed with histories, cultures and characters, and let them begin to change me. Since then, I’ve traveled to many other countries, but have been drawn most often to France.
How did you get started writing?
I wrote my first travel story when I was six years old with a #2 pencil, a tale about a trip to the beach. I remember it clearly because I knew I’d found my fuel. Writing was always that thing that propelled me, but I veered away from it over years of teaching, then raising two sons. After that first trip abroad, I wrote a story about Charles d’Orleans, a 15th-century French nobleman imprisoned in the Tower of London who wrote poetry and created these astonishing illuminated manuscripts. It was published in The Literary Traveler and that began my mid-life career change.
What do you consider your first “break” as a writer?
I wrote a series of political travel essays for Matador back when it was Brave New Traveler, and Ian MacKenzie provided a great first experience with an editor. Then, in 2009, an essay I wrote about Paris won the Grand Prize at Book Passage Travel Writer’s Conference. Having the legendary Don George read my story in his effervescent voice was a pinnacle, and my work began to be recognized by Travelers’ Tales Solas Awards and included in The Best Travel Writing anthologies. In 2010, I met Dutch filmmaker Rogier Van Beeck Calkoen, who wanted to make films of some of my stories. We eventually collaborated on a documentary about occupied Paris, The Storykeeper.
As a latecomer to writing, instead of getting an MFA, I acquired some really demanding and rather kick-ass mentors, whom I credit for continuing to whip me into shape. “Join me,” Georgia Hesse might say, “in never using that phrase again.” “Your first line sucks,” barked Tim Cahill. “You might not want to put the entire history of France into one bit of baguette,” Don George counseled, etc.
As a traveler and fact/story gatherer, what is your biggest challenge on the road?
My biggest challenges on the road are my own preconceived notions and expectations. I find the Fez Medina hideously claustrophobic, but eventually its magic works me into such a state that when I’m home I long to crowd into a narrow space with crowds of humanity. I find myself in a crisis in some far off place and it is the very people whom I’ve kept my distance from who come forward to help. I have come to enjoy sensations I used to hate: Being jolted out of my comfort zone, finding I’m dead wrong about something, feeling clueless and awkward. The story only comes to me when I’m in this state.
What is your biggest challenge in the research and writing process?
As Lauren Quinn said in her interview, giving it time to percolate. The real story is rarely what we first grasp and it takes patience and intuition to get to the heart of things.
What travel authors or books might you recommend and/or have influenced you?
Phil Cousineau’s The Book of Roads, finely burnished prose that evokes history, philosophy, and mythology; Hold the Enlightenment by Tim Cahill, perfection itself; The Way of Wanderlust, in which Don George seeks and finds the good in remote corners of the world; and Jeff Greenwald’s Shopping for Buddhas, the adventures of a spiritual seeker written with wit and heart. I always love reading The Best Travel Writing and The Best Women’s Travel Writing. Marcia DeSanctis’s 100 Places in France Every Woman Should Go presents delightful vignettes of France written with panache, and Julian Green’s Paris is a favorite. For film, Out of Africa and the quirky documentary, Dinner at the No-Gos. For fiction, Naguib Mahfouz’s The Cairo Trilogy, and everything by Latin American writers Gabriel García Márquez and Mario Vargas Llosa.
What advice and/or warnings would you give to someone who is considering going into travel writing?
I work with a lot of writers and the ones who rise to the top are the ones who finish their stories, who go beyond the initial sparkly-eyed drafts and are not afraid to tamper with their own prose and work it until it is perfect. Marquez may not have needed to edit his work much, but the rest of us oh-so-desperately do, although it is a scary endeavor at times. As an instructor and editor, I notice that it is the more experienced writers who do this most eagerly and happily. So, honor the spark that ignited you to write the story by finishing it. It is a slog but it’s the only way.
I would advise anyone who wants to be a travel writer to take the time to read every interview in this series. There is an ocean of travel writing inspiration and brilliance packed into this collection.
What is the biggest reward of life as a travel writer?
The biggest rewards of traveling are the deep connections I’ve felt with so many people who are utterly different than me — a Peruvian boy marching in his school parade, a bartender in an Irish pub/hardware store (Foxy John’s in Dingle), a gifted Moroccan photographer, a young Indian filmmaker — instantaneous bonds that in some cases have deepened into lasting friendships. If I can introduce my reader to these people and their lands, or encourage anyone to travel with an open heart and experience such friendships themselves, the reward is rich indeed.