Lavinia Spalding is the author of Writing Away: A Creative Guide to Awakening the Journal-Writing Traveler, chosen one of the best travel books of 2009 by the L.A. Times, coauthor of With a Measure of Grace: The Story and Recipes of a Small Town Restaurant, and editor of the 2011 and 2012 editions of Travelers’ Tales’ The Best Women’s Travel Writing. Lavinia grew up in New Hampshire and Arizona. Upon graduating from the University of Arizona’s creative writing program, she took a one-year position teaching ESL in Busan, South Korea, and stayed for six years. An incorrigible nomad, Lavinia has traipsed through more than thirty countries on five continents, a blank notebook and a clutch of pens her constant companions. She is a practicing Buddhist, a Scrabble junkie, an avid kimchi maker, and an amateur knife thrower, but her greatest sense of accomplishment comes from her ability to say, “I love you” in 25 languages. A regular contributor to Yoga Journal, her work has also appeared in a wide variety of print and online publications, including Sunset Magazine, Post Road, World Hum, Gadling, and Inkwell. She lives in San Francisco.
How did you get started traveling?
The summer after I turned ten, my parents moved my family from New Hampshire to Arizona. We spent three weeks driving cross-country in a yellow 1965 school bus converted into a camper named “Gillie Rom,” or “Song of the Road” in Romany, the Gypsy language. We stayed at KOAs, crashed at friends’ homes, and got ourselves into all manner of family shenanigans. One night my father jimmied the lock on a rental paddleboat at a KOA, and we all floated along on a moonlit lake while he serenaded us with his classical guitar. That trip awakened in me a pivotal realization that the road was a mysterious place where anything could happen.
How did you get started writing?
From the time I was five, it was clear I’d either be a guitarist or a writer. I wrote in my journal constantly, and my idol was Harriet the Spy because she too scribbled in her diary nonstop. At the age of ten I started writing a novel called Lenny, Jenny, and Me, a tragicomedy about three siblings (Lenny, Jenny, and Penny), whose names rhymed because their parents—unlike my own—were not very bright. It was really terrible, but I wrote hundreds of pages. When I quit playing guitar at the age of thirteen, I knew from that point on that I’d be a writer; I never even considered another path.
What do you consider your first “break” as a writer?
My first break was having parents who supported my writing and never tried to convince me to pursue a more practical career. The value of this is incalculable. In terms of publishing, it was being hired by my sister and her business partner to write With a Measure of Grace, the cookbook for Hell’s Backbone Grill, their restaurant in Boulder, Utah. I had published poems, stories, and articles before but never tackled anything so involved as writing a book—I spent months interviewing chefs, farmers, Mormon ranchers, and teenage dishwashers, researching everything from edible flowers to oppressive Utah liquor laws to the virtues of unrefined table salt. Writing the book was an incredible learning experience that led to a lot of wonderful opportunities, including regular assignments for Sunset Magazine and Yoga Journal.
As a traveler and fact/story gatherer, what is your biggest challenge on the road?
Probably not grasping what the real story is while I’m actually on the road—it often comes to me later, with distance and perspective, and by then my sieve of a memory has dumped a lot of the important details. This is why I always try to keep a detailed travel journal about everything I do and everyone I meet, in case I decide later that the story needs that information. It’s also why I wrote a book encouraging others to do the same. There’s absolutely no way I could retain the who, what, when, and where, without paper and pen.
What is your biggest challenge in the research and writing process?
I love almost everything about the research and writing process. As a freelancer the biggest challenge is probably being my own boss. I find it almost impossible to finish a story or article without being given a solid deadline, so it’s always a joy working with other people who can give me one.
What is your biggest challenge from a business standpoint? Editors? Finances? Promotion?
Everything administrative is challenging, but my biggest obstacle is definitely promotion. When I start thinking about marketing, my mind triggers a horrific high-frequency emergency siren that doesn’t stop screeching until I think about something different. This is a problem, since a huge part of being a writer is heading up your own publicity firm. It’s not my favorite part of the process, but I’m getting better at it.
Have you ever done other work to make ends meet?
I have always done other work to make ends meet, as have almost all the writers I know. Over the years I’ve mostly taught, edited, proofread, and waitressed, but right now I’m also managing my apartment building in San Francisco. I won’t do this forever, but in many ways it’s an ideal situation because it allows me to work from home and make my own schedule. The downside is that after getting dressed up for a glamorous reading event and signing books, I can sometimes be found the next morning hosing out the compost bin.
That said, while many authors advise burgeoning writers to brace themselves for the harsh reality that they’ll need to do other work to make ends meet, my advice is to actually embrace that fact, because the supplementary work you do will likely offer a welcome social outlet to a career that’s inherently solitary. Having another job can also provide rich material—for example, I’ve been writing poems about being a building manager. If I ever publish a collection of them, I’ll call it Super. As in, “Here I am hosing out the compost bin again. Super.”
What travel authors or books might you recommend and/or have influenced you?
I tend to gravitate toward fiction authors who transport me to exotic locations. Some of my favorites are Lawrence Durrell, Gabriel García Márquez, Carlos Ruiz Zafón, Khaled Hosseini, Peter Høeg, Salman Rushdie, Amy Tan, Harriet Doerr, Isabelle Allende, Ann Patchett, and Barbara Kingsolver.
In terms of nonfiction travel writers and memoirists, I’m a big fan of Don George, Pico Iyer, Tim Cahill, Peter Matthiessen, Bruce Chatwin, Alexandra Fuller, Jan Morris, Anthony Weller, Stephanie Griest, Andy Isaacson, and I highly recommend a dose of Rolf Potts — especially Marco Polo Didn’t Go There, with its fabulously voyeuristic behind-the-scenes sections.
I also recommend reading the Travelers’ Tales anthologies, and one book I think everyone should read is Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome, written in 1889. It’s the funniest thing I’ve ever read.
What advice and/or warnings would you give to someone who is considering going into travel writing?
Start by writing, not necessarily trying to be a travel writer. Read voraciously and write obsessively. Nail the basics of dialogue, characterization, setting, and structure; practice writing with original detail and always with all five senses. Keep a journal. Write about everything: your childhood and your dreams and your breakfast and your siblings and your neighborhood and your grandmother’s hat collection and your father’s fascination with Kung Fu movies. It doesn’t matter: just write.
Meanwhile, study the structure of magazine features and the techniques of writers you admire. Read Travel Writing by Don George. Take yourself to far-flung places, reach out to locals, and get into some hijinks. Become comfortable traveling alone. Think of a story only you can tell, and apply everything you’ve learned about the craft of writing to it. Work especially hard on your lede—it should be nothing short of spectacular. Then, rewrite and rewrite until it’s as good as anything you’ve read in a magazine or anthology. Spell-check. Familiarize yourself with publications before submitting, so you know their guidelines and whether or not your story is a match. Then, finally, fire away! Be brave and send it off.
What is the biggest reward of life as a travel writer?
One MILLION dollars! Ok, not that.
What I’ve discovered about writing travel stories is that it forces you to pay closer attention, to lean more into your experience; it’s a quest of sorts, one that requires you to meet locals and ask weird questions and open your mind. Doing all this leads to a deeper understanding of the world, which in the end can’t help but make you a better traveler, and yes, maybe even a better human—more patient, kindhearted, tolerant, curious, and alive.