Poet, travel writer, novelist and teacher Linda Watanabe McFerrin is a contributor to numerous journals, newspapers, magazines, anthologies and online publications including the San Francisco Examiner, the Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle Magazine, Modern Bride, Travelers’ Tales, Salon.com, and Women.com. She is the author of two poetry collections and the editor of the 4th edition of Best Places Northern California.
How did you get started traveling?
My parents got me started. My mother is Japanese and Welsh. She was raised in Shanghai by her father — a journalist and educator — and her mother, a Japanese actress. My father who was raised in North Beach was an outdoorsman. I grew up in England, in the U.S. and Japan. I started traveling on my own in high school. My first trip, sans chaperone, was a party through Mexico with 8 other 15 and16-year-old girls. We found we could order drinks if we could pay for them. What an amazing discovery. That’s why I love travel.
How did you get started writing?
My first book was written at the age of 6. I lived in England at the time. In the back of my classroom was a book table, and we who had learned reading skills in nursery school and kindergarten, would go to the table constantly. I decided I could write a good book, so I took my wide-lined paper, folded it in half, and using an extra-fat pencil, wrote “Tom and the Weed.” It was a story in verse and though I lost the book long ago, I still remember those first lines: “A boy named Tom found a seed. He wanted a flower but he got a weed.” It was brilliant actually. The whole thing was a metaphor for appreciating the hand you are dealt. I tucked it in with the other books. I don’t remember if it was popular or not. My first published piece was a poem about brownies that was written and published when I was 7 in a paper in the northwestern U.S. Of course, I kept going. I have an undergraduate degree in Comparative Literature and a graduate degree in Creative Writing. My first published book was my creative thesis.
What do you consider your first “break” as a writer?
As a novelist, I think it was finding my first agent and writing my first novel, Namako: Sea Cucumber. As a travel writer it was meeting Donald George, who is an amazing writer and editor. I had the winning essay at the Book Passage Travel Writers Conference and met a lot of my future editors there. I actually found my agent because of a piece Book Passage published in their newsletter. I guess the biggest “break” though was growing up in a family of writers. There are writers on both sides of the family and I grew up surrounded by books and stories. I’m thankful for that.
As a traveler and fact/story gatherer, what is your biggest challenge on the road?
Staying healthy. I’m not the healthiest or the most graceful of human beings and I tend to be extraordinarily accident-prone. I have launched myself over the handlebars of bicycles in other countries and fallen in my own backyard. As a result, I have metal parts in some of my appendages. I’m also hideously and dangerously allergic to many things, so I have to travel with an Epi-pen and be constantly vigilant, which doesn’t always work. I have a ridiculous regime. I am the weirdo exercising in the galley crawlspace in the back of the plane. I still consume alcohol, which is the only thing that keeps me from being an utterly boring travel companion. Let me put it this way, I am in no way a distraction from the wonders of new places and I am about as interesting as the fly on the wall, which can be an advantage.
What is your biggest challenge in the research and writing process?
Getting lost in the research. I call it research rapture and it is profound and intoxicating. It’s like traveling; it’s so fascinating I don’t know when to stop. My latest novel, Dead Love was like that. It’s about zombies and it takes place all over the world and it took me ages to write because I was fascinated by the research. My zombie character, Erin, lives in a virtual world full of dark information and blogs EVERY day. I can’t get her to quit.
What is your biggest challenge from a business standpoint?
Oh, time, time, time. There never seems to be enough. I silently mourn the stories not told.
Have you ever done other work to make ends meet?
I’m also in love with graphics and design and I spent years in the apparel industry working for various companies, like Levi Strauss &Co. where I was a product manager and merchandiser for a kids’ clothing line. I did what they tell you NOT to do: I quit to write, mainly because we traveled all over the world for the job, but there was never any personal time. So, I was frustrated about not being able to write about it. For a long time I worked as a consultant and helped develop clothing lines on a contract basis. In fact, I wrote my novel, Namako, going back and forth on the ferry while I was working for LS & Co.
What travel authors or books might you recommend and/or have influenced you?
I love Tim Cahill. I could read him forever.
What advice and/or warnings would you give to someone who is considering going into travel writing?
Do it for love.
What is the biggest reward of life as a travel writer?
Traveling and writing and being able to do justice to the dual addiction.