Kelsey Timmerman is a freelance writer and author of Where am I Wearing: A Global Tour to the Countries, Factories, and People that Make Our Clothes. His writings focus on globalization, travel, and the outdoors. He has spent the night in Castle Dracula in Romania, gone undercover as an underwear buyer in Bangladesh, and played PlayStation in Kosovo. His stories have appeared in the Christian Science Monitor, Condé Nast Portfolio, and have aired on National Public Radio.
How did you get started traveling?
I don’t think there was a start, as such. There was just travel and I loved it.
I traveled to faraway realms in books my mom read to me.
I traveled regularly by car 8 hours to visit my grandparents in Illinois. I sat with a small fold-open table on my lap and played with matchboxes. The car smelled like McDonald’s French fries.
I was in the Boy Scouts and we traveled to hike.
At 14 I became a certified SCUBA diver. We started to take family vacations to tropical places.
In college I majored in Anthropology because I enjoyed learning about the way other people lived all over the world. When I graduated my grandparents gave me $5,000. I took the money and I was gone. I’m not sure what grandpa thought about that. Six months and a few continents later I returned.
I was hooked.
How did you get started writing?
After my first vagabonding episode, I settled in Key West where I worked as a SCUBA instructor. Key West has a fine literary history full of tall tales, romance, and empty bottles of rum; my story lacks all of these things.
I lived in an attic. Seriously, it had pull down stairs and was pretty much uninhabitable during daylight hours because of the heat. From my attic I started writing a travel column that one of the island’s local papers started running. Then I proceeded to pitch my column and individual stories to every newspaper from Key West to Seattle. For the most part, it was a monumental waste of time. But, after awhile, my writing began to suck less and so did my pitches.
What do you consider your first “break” as a writer?
One of the hundreds of papers I pitched was the Christian Science Monitor. I sent them a story about spending the night alone at the crumbling castle of Vlad the Impaler — the historical Dracula. The editor showed interest, but passed because I wasn’t early enough to hit the Halloween angle.
Months later, I attended the Erma Bombeck Writer’s Conference in Dayton, Ohio. The editor I pitched, Judy Lowe, just happened to be there and I just happened to share an elevator with her. I introduced myself, and she remembered my story.
I didn’t exactly stalk her. But I did end up sitting by her at lunch, and we really hit it off. She published a story of mine about teaching an island village off of the Mosquito Coast in Honduras how to play baseball.
A producer from the World Vision Report read my story and contacted me. The next think I knew, I had bylines in the Monitor and essays airing on NPR.
Ms. Judy Lowe is one of my favorite people.
As a traveler and fact/story gatherer, what is your biggest challenge on the road?
Finding the right person to be my partner in crime.
My writing focuses heavily on people — garment workers in Bangladesh, villagers in China, etc. And things go much more smoothly if I have a translator that can see the purpose in what I’m doing and is willing to go the extra distance to make the story happen.
Perhaps the best ever partner-in-crime I found was in Bangladesh while I was trying to track down the factory and workers who made my Jingle These boxers. Dalton worked in the country’s only Motorola store, spoke great English, and, unbeknownst to me, told people that I was a garment buyer looking to place a large order of underwear with a factory. Because of Dalton I went undercover as an underwear buyer, which played a key role in the experience that became my book, Where Am I Wearing?
What is your biggest challenge in the research and writing process?
Often what I write happened weeks, months, or years ago, and it’s essential that I capture what I felt the moment it happened. I review my notes, photos, and recordings in an attempt to recapture a moment. Sometimes I’ll sit down to write a story that I think will work, but I just can’t feel it. Those stories remain unwritten.
What is your biggest challenge from a business standpoint?
My biggest challenge is finding the time and inspiration to pitch a publication or program that I haven’t worked with. I’ll have an idea that I know will work for X publication that I’ve worked with in the past, but I also think it might work for Esquire, or National Geographic Adventure, or This American Life, or some other big glossy publication or show that I would love to write for. Most cold pitches are a waste of time, but if I don’t pitch these places, I’ll likely never have a chance to write for them.
Have you ever done other work to make ends meet?
SCUBA diving instructor. Shoe salesman (actually, I worked at an awesome store that sold outdoor gear, but reduced to its lowest terms — I sold shoes. I hate Danskos!)
I still work three days a week with my parents’ wood truss plant. It’s the only steady job I could have that allows me to take a week off to write, or months off to go to Bangladesh because my underwear was made there. While my writing income would have more than supported my lifestyle a few years ago, a wife, a mortgage, and a baby on the way, require a bit more steady income. “Ends meeting” isn’t what it used to be. One of these days, I’ll probably make the jump to writing only, but not quite yet.
What travel authors or books might you recommend and/or have influenced you?
This might sound sacrilegious, but I really struggle to read full length travel narratives. I’m not a very good armchair traveler.
However, I’m a big fan of the writing in National Geographic Adventure, Outside, and World Hum. I’ve always enjoyed reading Tim Cahill, Bill Bryson, Rick Reilly (sports columnist once with Sports Illustrated and now with ESPN), Craig Wilson (USA Today columnist), David Sedaris, and Dave Barry. Each has probably influenced my own writing in one way or the other.
Also, even though this might sound like I’m sucking up; I read your “Storming the Beach” piece during a very formative time of my writing development. I think it helped me realize that often you have to make your own story. Unlike other types of writers, travel writers can’t just think up their narrative, they gotta live it.
What advice and/or warnings would you give to someone who is considering going into travel writing?
Love to write as much or more than you love to travel.
What is the biggest reward of life as a travel writer?
Having someone from my hometown in rural Ohio, who hasn’t necessarily been out of the country, approach me and ask, “Aren’t you the fella that travels?” and then proceed to tell me about someone or someplace that I introduced them to through my writing. That’s better than any byline or book advance I’ve received.