Lola Akinmade Åkerström is an award-winning writer and photographer whose work has appeared in National Geographic Traveler, BBC, CNN, The Guardian, Travel + Leisure, Slate, MSNBC, Huffington Post, Travel Channel, Lonely Planet, Fodor’s, National Geographic Channel, and the New York Times online. She was in South Africa on a photography assignment for National Geographic Channel and was the featured subject in a vignette called “Through The Lens” which airs on the Nat Geo channel across the globe. Her photography is represented by National Geographic Creative. She is also editor-in-chief of Slow Travel Stockholm, which implores travelers to the city to spend more time exploring it on a deeper level. She is based in Stockholm, Sweden.
How did you get started traveling?
My first trip outside of Nigeria, where I was born, was before my first birthday. I come from a family of travelers — my grandfather was into shipping and he traveled a lot; my father is a geologist and he’s still constantly jetting all over the globe. It was only a matter of time until I got infected with the same spirit of wanderlust.
How did you get started writing?
I started writing fiction as a preteen and teenager, and my short stories seemed to be a hit at the tough boarding school I attended in Lagos. There was a check-out list (library-style) for those stories I scribbled by hand in notebooks. It wasn’t until 2002, when I volunteered as a field reporter with an expedition race, that my passion for writing about travel and place began to develop roots.
What do you consider your first “break” as a writer?
My first break as a writer came through Matador Network, when they were just starting out around 2007. Editor David Miller will always be that one crucial mentor that helped me find my voice when I was just starting out. While my voice has grown and evolved in its own way since my days at Matador, that was my first step into the world of truly writing for more than just my family and friends.
As a traveler and fact/story gatherer, what is your biggest challenge on the road?
As a story gatherer, my biggest challenge is always time. Time to truly spend in a place, and spend with people on a deeper level. While I’m a huge advocate of slow travel — which is a conscious effort to slow down one’s pace and explore a place deeper through fewer themes and experiences, it still feels like time will always be the bigger challenge. More so than language barriers or cultural norms. I have a young family of my own to get back to at the end of the day.
What is your biggest challenge in the research and writing process?
As with all research, making sure the information you find is factual remains key. But my biggest challenge is pushing through those moments when inspiration doesn’t come. Especially when I have a deadline. Gratefully, I’ve been able to manage it well. People often say the way to deal with writer’s block is to just write through it. Never really works for me. What usually works for me is to just go to sleep and then wake up 1-2 hours earlier than normal in the morning. Sleep does the brain good and purges out all preconceived angles to make space for new revelations.
What is your biggest challenge from a business standpoint?
I’m a lot better now at saying no. Especially as a freelancer during those inevitable ebbs and flows of income. The biggest challenge remains making sure I’m charging what my work is worth even though the industry seems to keep shrinking and shrinking with regards to travel writing. Every year, I publish transparent pitching charts that show my acceptance-rejection ratio of pitches sent out during the year. I’ve been doing this since 2008. It’s definitely been very illuminating in terms of helping me grow as a freelancing writer.
Have you ever done other work to make ends meet?
Absolutely! Before I became a full-time writer and photographer, I used to be a web application developer and solution architect, so my background is very technical. I have an MSc in Information Systems. So I take on the occasional web design work. I also do some freelance editing as well as travel and lifestyle copywriting in the corporate world as the need arises. I run all these different parts of my business under the umbrella company Geotraveler Media. I am also a professional photographer who is represented by National Geographic Creative, so the photography side of my business accounts for a sizable chunk of my freelancing work.
What travel authors or books might you recommend and/or have influenced you?
I’ve read a couple travel anthologies by several mutual friends, and I’ve already read Rolf’s books (here’s proof). I do love books, but I’m also the slowest reader ever. Mostly because my mind is always creating and visualizing and trying to make its own words and photos while still reading someone else’s words. I do enjoy DH Lawrence’s style of dramatic writing and short punchy sentences. Not so much the content of his books, but rather the way he can eloquently describe tension over several pages between a man and woman sitting in the same room not talking to each other. That is talent.
What advice and/or warnings would you give to someone who is considering going into travel writing?
It is a saturated industry, but don’t listen to the nay-sayers. The world may just be ready to hear your voice. I think of the amazing writer Amy Gigi Alexander, who only just started sharing her work publicly in the last two years, even though she’s been writing privately for years. Not only has her writing career soared through awards, publications, and anthologies, she’s already signed a solo book deal as well. The world is most definitely waiting for you to show up so. As long as you’re passionate enough about travel writing to remain resilient during the low times, give it a go.
What is the biggest reward of life as a travel writer?
Flexibility. I always say I gave up the “programmer” life for the “starving artist” life. It’s never easy to give up six figures for something much less, but the time I get to spend with my family, the flexibility to manage my time and my lifestyle, and to remain totally content with what I have while still having the opportunity to do work I thoroughly enjoy is the biggest reward. And in fact, a true blessing.