Lea Aschkenas has written about travel, literature, and life at large for the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, and Salon.com. She has also contributed stories to the books, Travelers’ Tales Central America, Travelers’ Tales Cuba, The Unsavvy Traveler, Two in the Wild, and The Best Women’s Travel Writing 2006. In her book, Es Cuba : Life and Love on an Illegal Island, she examines the personal legacy of politics via the window of her relationship with a Cuban man and with the three generations of Cuban women she lived with in the year 2000. Lea currently lives just north of the Golden Gate Bridge, where she teaches Spanish and poetry to children and works at a public library, escaping to the mountains to run whenever she can.
How did you get started traveling?
Really, it was by chance. I studied in Spain for a semester, but planned to return home after my program ended. I had applied for several summer newspaper internships, but when none of them panned out, I made plans to travel through Europe for six weeks with an American friend I’d met in Spain. But just a few days into our trip, she injured herself and ended up in the hospital, soon to be flown home. When I said goodbye to her on our last night together, I asked someone at the hospital (located in the outskirts of Geneva) which train I should take to get back to our hotel in the center of the city. I misunderstood the directions, and just as I was sitting on the train thinking that it sure felt like it was taking a long time, an immigration officer came aboard asking for our passports, informing us that we were now entering France! In that moment, as I disembarked the train in some sketchy, poorly-lit border town to wait for another train heading in the opposite direction, I felt very alone and a little scared about the next six weeks. But in retrospect, I’m grateful that I was forced into solo travel because I think that when you’re out there on your own, that’s when you find the best stories.
How did you get started writing?
You might begin to sense a theme here, but the first travel story I wrote — still one of my favorites yet one I never managed to get published — I wrote almost unintentionally. Or rather, I wrote it not thinking, ‘Okay, I’m going to write a travel story now’; I wrote it somewhat out of desperation, hoping to make sense of things by recording them on paper. I wrote my story on a pad of thin airmail letterhead in a nine-hour rush of adrenaline while sitting atop a pyramid in Tikal, Guatemala. I had recently graduated college and was working at a newsmagazine in Costa Rica. I went to Guatemala to meet a friend I’d met at my job who had since relocated to a newspaper in Guatemala City. Just a week before I planned to meet her, though, I received a hastily handwritten fax from her at my office informing me that her boss was racist and reactionary, and that she had quit her job and was unemployed in Guatemala with less than $500 to her name. Surprisingly, though, my friend wrote that she wasn’t that worried. Other aspects of her life were going very well, and she’d explain once I arrived. To meet her now, she wrote, I should catch a bus from the capital three hours through the mountains to a small town called Panajachel. When I got off, I should walk toward the volcano and on my left I would see The Sunset Café. Ask for Ricardo, my friend wrote. Everyone knows who he is, and he’ll know where I am.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to get to Guatemala until a week after I’d planned, and I had no way to reach my friend and tell her. When I finally arrived, I found Ricardo, but my friend was long gone. Ricardo told me that she had waited for me for three days, then she and Ricardo had gotten in a fight and she’d run off and no one knew where she was. A few days later, Ricardo received a telegram from my friend, who was back in the U.S., saying that she never planned to return. Once more, I found myself unexpectedly alone in a foreign country and, once more, it ended up to be the start of an unforgettable adventure.
In Guatemala, I wrote that story, and I wrote another one about a homeless woman I befriended in the town of Antigua. That second story was published soon after I returned home, and then I wrote three stories about Costa Rica, all of which ultimately found their way into anthologies.
What do you consider your first “break” as a writer?
I think it was having my first Costa Rica story published in the Vintage Departures anthology Two in the Wild. I responded to a call for submissions in Poets & Writers magazine, and I sent the editor a story, which she rejected, but she said she liked the writing. She explained more about what she was looking for and encouraged me to send her something else. So I did, and she took it, and because the way these travel book anthologies seem to work is they publish a mix of new writers with several big name writers, I got to be published alongside accomplished authors like Mary Morris, Pam Houston, and Diane Ackerman. I felt that having a story in a book lent legitimacy to my writing, and I was working at a bookstore at the time, so we featured the book when it came out, and it was really exciting to get to sell people a book with my story in it.
As a traveler and fact/story gatherer, what is your biggest challenge on the road?
Getting down all the details while I’m there (which is often before I really know what angle I’ll take for my story), because some things can be really hard — and sometimes even dangerous — to track down afterward. With my Cuba book, for example, when I was back in the U.S., there’d be small details that I felt I needed for a chapter but didn’t have. And with Cuba, I don’t know, I just didn’t really feel I could call up a government office to ask them what an inscription on a revolutionary statue read; when I’d stopped to look at it at the time in Cuba, a police officer had approached me and asked for my passport. So I’d have to convince friends in Cuba, who felt comfortable doing so, to do the footwork for me. One time I sent an American friend who was visiting Cuba on a scavenger hunt to find this ice cream shop whose exact location I couldn’t recall and tell me what flavors they served! And then in the end, for space, I had to cut that chapter. I felt bad about that.
What is your biggest challenge in the research and writing process?
With the writing process, it’s definitely organization. I often get overwhelmed with all the information I’ve collected, and with figuring out where to start a story. Luckily, outlines work well for me. With research, I often don’t know when to stop. With Cuba, because there’s not so much information about it in the U.S., I had this thought that I’d read every book published here about Cuba. But, of course, that still proved to be impossible. I also have this problem with research where I can be a little bit of a perfectionist and I may already have all the info I need, but I just want to get the next detail too. Again, with Cuba, I knew that I could say with a good amount of certainty that it is one of the most expensive places to call from the U.S., but I wanted to know how the rates compared with calling neighboring countries like Haiti, far-away places like Japan, and war-torn lands like Afghanistan. Writing this, it doesn’t sound like too difficult of a task, but it actually took quite a while to track down the info.
What is your biggest challenge from a business standpoint? Editors? Finances? Promotion?
In descending order of difficulty: finances, promotion, editors. I’ve been fortunate to work with good editors. Sometimes, in the start, before they know you well, they can be a little flaky, but I’m persistent. Promotion is not my favorite. I often feel that it’s at complete odds with writing, which is a very solitary, quiet process for me. Some days, just meeting with my writing group after a day of sitting alone working on a story can feel like a shock to the system, not to mention being the center of attention at a reading. But this is definitely a personal thing; I know other writers who love performing their works. And then there are finances. I don’t know many writers who earn their living from writing, so really the writing life is a series of compromises. I live very frugally, and I also feel like I’m constantly reinventing myself, constantly asking myself the question, ‘What other job can I do that won’t consume all my free time and that won’t make me so miserable that I’ll be too tired to write in the evenings and on the weekends?’ I don’t mean to sound too pessimistic, but really I feel that being a writer, unless/before you hit it big, is a process of lowering your expectations of financial reward. Also, and it’s taken me a while to get here, it’s about the realization that the job I ultimately spend most of my time doing, the one whose earnings I record on my taxes will not be my life’s calling but rather a (financial) means to the end of getting to do my writing. Of course, there are variations on this theme. I get anxious if I go for a long period of time without being able to save any money, but if you’re okay with that, you can say, okay, I’ll give myself seven years to work toward earning my living as a writer, and only after that will I consider compromising.
Have you ever done other work to make ends meet?
Of course. I teach poetry. I teach Spanish. I work at a public library. I’ve worked at a bookstore. I’ve worked as a reporter and a caption writer, both of which are definitely writing jobs, but they weren’t the type of writing I think about when I think of being a travel writer. At some point, though, I decided that if I couldn’t do the type of writing I liked for my main job, I’d rather not taint this career I so love, and do my writing, creative writing, on the side. I do, though, try to keep my jobs somehow related to books and writing and culture. To that end, I’ve just enrolled in library school, although I am a little concerned that this is more about technology these days than books.
What travel authors or books might you recommend and/or have influenced you?
Mary Morris’ Nothing to Declare influenced me immensely when I first read it, as did A Woman’s World by Travelers’ Tales. Robyn Davidson’s Tracks is a great classic. A newer travel book by a newer writer who has also very much inspired me is The House on Dream Street by Dana Sachs. It’s about Vietnam, a place that I (having been born at the end of the war) had given little thought to before reading Sachs’ book. Afterward, I was so intrigued that I went there myself. I also always recommend Alma Guillermoprieta’s The Heart that Bleeds, which unlike the other books I’ve mentioned, is not travel memoir but travel reportage, and I really admire that. She gets under the skin of these Latin American countries she visits, and she lets the people tell their stories.
What advice and/or warnings would you give to someone who is considering going into travel writing?
I would say to make sure that if you want to do humorous travel, you don’t do so at the expense of the culture you’re writing about. I think there’s too much of that out there. Instead, poke fun at yourself, at the situations you get into, at your inaccurate preconceived notions of what a place will be like.
Know, too, that while being a travel writer means getting to go out and explore the world, being a travel writer, especially if you’re going to write books, means hibernating (for an equal if not greater amount of time than what you traveled for) in order to write your story.
Also, when trying to publish, be persistent. Know that it’s often about timing more than anything else. Between my agent and me, I think my book was sent to sixty publishers before being accepted. The great irony, though, is that publisher number sixty was also publisher number one. I sent to Seal Press several years ago, soon after I started the book, but they weren’t interested. Then they were bought by another independent publisher, their offices moved, and they got new editors. I resubmit, and within two weeks, the new editor made me an offer.
What is the biggest reward of life as a travel writer?
That people so different from you open up their worlds to you; that you are constantly learning; that you get to see history — and the results of history — in action. That you get to learn about another way of living, which is always a good thing.