Joshua Kucera is a freelance writer who has written a number of travelogues from the former Soviet Union and surrounding areas, including from Kazakhstan, the Russia-China border, Ukraine, and western China. Recently he published a series of dispatches from along the Europe-Asia border for Slate and Roads & Kingdoms. He was born in Des Moines, Iowa, and is based in Istanbul.
How did you get started traveling?
I got my feet wet with a school trip to London in eighth grade, but really started when I was in college and did a semester abroad in Budapest. This was 1993, so it was an exciting time in Eastern Europe. I fell in love with Budapest but also traveled for a month after the semester, including to places that were pretty chaotic at the time, like Bulgaria, Romania, and Croatia. I really had no idea what I was doing, so got into all sorts of minor misadventures. Those turned out to be the most interesting parts of the trip, and I was hooked.
How did you get started writing?
I never had any ambitions of being a writer or journalist, but after I fell in love with traveling (and having no career direction after college) I tried to think of a job that would allow me to spend time abroad. I had always been an avid news reader, due to a combination of my mother being a journalism professor, having a paper route for several years, and being on the debate team in high school. So journalism seemed like a logical choice. Actually making that happen took a lot of starting and stopping, though.
What do you consider your first “break” as a writer?
Honestly, being born in the richest country in the world, in a city with a great public school system, and to parents who always supported me even when I chose a pretty impractical career. Good luck to the kid born in a slum in Bangladesh who wants to make a career out of traveling and writing.
More concretely, probably getting taken on by Time to help cover the invasion of Iraq in 2003. It wasn’t a break in the career sense – I didn’t do a particularly good job and had trouble getting a job afterwards. But more in the sense that it really opened my eyes to the challenge of accurately describing a place and what was going on there, of fighting conventional narratives and stereotypes about faraway places. I had not been a very critical journalist before then but to whatever extent I do worthwhile things now, that experience was really important.
As a traveler and fact/story gatherer, what is your biggest challenge on the road?
For me it’s always difficult to find a balance between writing at least a first draft on the road (which helps keep details and color closer to the front of my mind) and waiting to write until I’m back home (which helps me gain perspective and see the bigger picture better). Possibly relatedly, I used to be much better at taking notes and keeping a journal as I traveled, but now I think the temptation to get instant feedback via social media posts has shifted how I process what I see and learn on the road. But I still don’t know what the right balance is.
What is your biggest challenge in the research and writing process?
Just trying to figure out what’s going on in the world. There’s a quote that I loved from an old travelogue that I can no longer find (if anyone knows it, please let me know!), but the gist was that there’s a tendency to regret that we weren’t able to see a place before it was so thoroughly traveled and well known. But imagine readers 50 or 100 years in the future – they’ll look back at 2017 and wish they were here “back then” so they could have seen what it was like before everything changed. So our challenge today is: what are the things worth paying attention to today that are going to matter in 50 or 100 years?
What is your biggest challenge from a business standpoint?
Obviously freelance journalism is one giant business challenge. The biggest challenge is probably just hanging in there through the lean times and not giving up and going to law school or whatever.
Have you ever done other work to make ends meet?
These days all my work is journalism-related, but in the early days of freelancing I took a variety of other jobs – editing/proofreading, business research, advertorial writing.
What travel authors or books might you recommend and/or have influenced you?
My biggest influence is probably Robert Kaplan, whom I loved when I first started traveling and was my first exposure to the genre of political travel writing. That made me want to try to do it myself. It was only later that I realized that what he wrote was mainly bullshit. I’m still struggling with the question of whether the entire genre is hopelessly rotten and beyond hope. More durable favorites include: Black Sea, by Neal Ascherson; Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, Rebecca West; Imperium, Ryszard Kapuściński; An African in Greenland, Tété-Michel Kpomassie.
What advice and/or warnings would you give to someone who is considering going into travel writing?
This is not travel-writing specific, and probably not anything you haven’t already heard, but read and write a lot. Even if you just write for a blog that no one reads, you need to work through the lazy cliches that every young writer is prone to and to develop your own voice.
What is the biggest reward of life as a travel writer?
The traveling. The writing, less so.