Leigh Ann Henion is the author of Phenomenal: A Hesitant Adventurer’s Search for Wonder in the Natural World. She has contributed to Smithsonian, The Washington Post Magazine, and Oxford American, among other publications. Henion has received a variety of accolades, including a Lowell Thomas Award from the Society of American Travel Writers, and her work has three times been cited as notable in The Best American Travel Writing.
How did you get started traveling?
When I was a kid, I went to summer camp every year. That was the first place that gave me a real sense of identity outside of my family. I think that early experience empowered me to become an exchange student to Australia when I was fifteen. I was the first student from my rural North Carolina high school to ever go on exchange, and my participation led to a steady stream of host students who were probably less than thrilled that I’d put my sleepy little town on the program’s radar. I lived in the middle of a cotton field, but I went to school with kids from Sweden and Argentina. That international influx was a fantastic bonus!
How did you get started writing?
My mom used to make me blank books out of scrap paper. I filled those with pictures before I could write, then I moved on to short stories. In high school, I journaled in composition notebooks. I gave up on writing for a little while in college — where academic styles made me feel stifled — and turned to photography as a narrative tool. I later married writing and photography in my work as a community newspaper reporter. The paper was a small operation, so I wore many hats and was given a great deal of freedom. I cannot imagine better training. I still do some photography, but my interest has gravitated to writing.
What do you consider your first “break” as a travel writer?
Some early publications, which encouraged me to keep going, included World Hum. But I’d say my first life-changing career break came after cold contacting The Washington Post Magazine. An editor there took a chance on me after reading a submission that was, in hindsight, not a good fit. But he saw something in my writing worth exploring. We went on to work on many stories together, including the one that ultimately inspired my book, Phenomenal.
As a traveler and fact/story-gatherer, what is your biggest challenge on the road?
My biggest challenge is actually getting on the road. My book’s very long subtitle includes the word “hesitant.” Because I am a hesitant traveler. It sounds ridiculous, I know, a travel writer hesitant about traveling! But it’s true. Once I’m in motion, I’m fine. In fact, in some ways, I’m probably my best self — open to spontaneity and keenly aware of my surroundings. But the anxiety experienced before departure is often great. It’s tough to break out of patterns and routines, to leave what’s comfortable. I’ve done some fairly adventurous things — cave exploration and tropical glacier hiking among them — but those experiences don’t necessarily come easily. I’m afraid, but I move forward. I push myself in order to learn and grow. My work is driven by curiosity, but those first steps toward the unknown are always intimidating. Still, I love to go!
What is your biggest challenge in the writing/publishing process?
Time and money. There never seems to be quite enough of either. But, all considered, I value time more. It is an undeniably finite resource. Also, as the mother of a young child and a working writer, I sometimes feel about time the way a man dying of thirst might feel about water.
Have you ever done other work to make ends meet?
I’ve worked as a copywriter, a reporter, a photographer, a teacher, and lots of other things. These gigs were outside the realm of travel writing, per se, but they all dealt with narrative — everything does if you look closely enough, I think. Those jobs offered me new ways of thinking about storytelling. And I believe perspective is one of the greatest skills a writer can hone.
What other travel authors or books might you recommend and/or have influenced you?
In high school, I carried a copy of On the Road with me everywhere I went, even when I knew I wasn’t going to have time to read it. That book became a tangible reminder that there were different ways of approaching life. Early on, it showed me that the world was big and made me believe that I could build my days around exploring it.
What advice and/or warnings would you give to someone who is considering going into travel writing?
When you wonder if you’re crazy for choosing a nontraditional path, be assured: You probably are! But that doesn’t mean you aren’t headed in the right direction. What seems practical to those around you might be terribly impractical given where you’re headed. Success is a moving target. Try to find joy in the process of striving.
What is the biggest reward of life as a travel writer?
When you’re a travel writer, your life becomes your art. What could be better than that?