Jason Wilson is the series editor of The Best American Travel Writing (Houghton Mifflin) and a contributing editor at Trips. He has written freelance pieces for a broad variety of publications, including Salon, the Washington Post Magazine, Travel & Leisure, The New York Times, McSweeney’s, Maxim, the North American Review, Conde Nast Traveler and Hemispheres. Wilson’s travel writing has garnered two Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism awards from the Society of American Travel Writers. His main areas of travel include Central America (particularly Nicaragua) and Scandinavia (particularly Iceland). He lives near Philadelphia, and is working on a memoir based on his travels in Iceland.
How did you get started traveling?
My family always traveled. Not anywhere particularly exotic, but we were always going somewhere. One trip that stands out is that my parents, my two brothers, and I drove around Portugal in a van for a couple weeks one summer. In college, I lived with a family in a small village in Italy, did the typical backpacking through Europe, and soon realized that I would be very unhappy if traveling was not a major part of my life.
How did you get started writing?
I wrote my first book at age 8. It was a blatant rip-off of Star Wars. Since then, I’ve always wanted to be a writer, through high school, college, grad school, etc. Travel writing just happens to be where I’ve ended up for the time being.
What do you consider your first “break” as a travel writer?
About five years ago (I was about a year out of grad school) I was working on a novel that wasn’t happening, and I decided to get out of town. I decided to visit a family friend, my brother’s college roommate, who lived in Managua, Nicaragua, and so I cashed in some frequent flyer miles and ended up spending several weeks there, pretty much rent free. Nicaragua fascinated me. My friend had just returned from about ten years in the U.S. and so had his friends — it was like Managua’s prodigal sons had returned, and this repatriation, too, was fascinating. While there, I decided I wanted to write a long piece about this trip, the people, the place. I ended up publishing this initial piece in a small journal. But soon enough, that essay got noticed by some editors at larger magazines, and pretty soon I had an assignment from one of the big glossy travel magazines.
As a traveler and fact/story-gatherer, what is your biggest challenge on the road?
Language barriers are often difficult. And that’s a factor because the biggest challenge is always meeting people in a foreign place. Meeting new people is the most important job that a travel writer has to do. Finding interesting and informative local contacts is essential. And you have to do it even on days when you’re not feeling very social.
What is your biggest challenge in the writing process?
I find that after I return home, with all my notes and journal scribblings and snapshots and information, I have a very difficult time deciding what to leave in and leave out of a travel story. I mean, I need to resist the urge to tell about everything that happened, everything I have experienced and learned. I need to remind myself that omission can be a virtue.
What is your biggest challenge from a business standpoint?
Well, editors take way too long to make decisions on story ideas and manuscripts, but I guess that’s the way it is. That, to me, is the biggest challenge because you can’t pitch a hundred ideas at once, yet you’d starve if had to rely on one editor consistently. Also, a travel writer needs to remember that their job is to write, not only to pitch. It’s easy to forget that in the beginning. Keeping a balance, keeping enough money coming in without overloading yourself with assignments is tricky, but it is the key.
Do you do other work to make ends meet?
I teach creative writing at a local college. And do some editing, like the Best American Travel Writing anthology.
What travel authors or books might you recommend and/or have influenced you?
D.H. Lawrence’s “Sea and Sardinia” is my favorite travel book. Anything by Pico Iyer. Iyer has been particularly influential to me. I like a lot of travel books that perhaps don’t fit so neatly into the “travel category” — but I consider them travel books all the same. William T. Vollmann’s “The Atlas” while perhaps a travel/fiction hybrid, I feel is an incredible work of travel writing. Bill Buford’s “Among the Thugs.” Ryszard Kapuscinski and Ted Conover. A current release that will become a classic is Jeffrey Tayler’s “Facing the Congo.” It’s impossible to put down.
What advice and/or warnings would you give to someone who is considering going into travel writing?
This isn’t a profession for the meek. You have to be someone who is willing to live by the seat of his pants for a long time. But most all, you have to be someone who is genuinely curious about the world.
What is the biggest reward of life as a travel writer?
The throngs of groupies? The stock options? Thousands of screaming fans? Well, none of that. On the other hand, travel is what most people save for and dream about for 50 weeks of 9-to-5 days, then try to cram everything they’ve dreamt about into 2 lousy weeks. It’s a great reward to know that what most people dream about, you actually get to do as a job all year long.