Mark Johanson is an American travel writer based in Santiago, Chile. His writing has appeared in Newsweek, GQ, Bloomberg Pursuits, The Guardian and the Chicago Tribune, among others. He is also a frequent Lonely Planet author and a regular contributor to Men’s Journal and the BBC.
How did you get started traveling?
My mom grew up in South Carolina and my dad in Cape Cod so the concept of long road trips away from our home in the DC suburbs was something I got used to from a young age. As I grew older (and relatives passed away) the family road trips grew grander in scale. The five of us would pile into the minivan and drive as far as we could get, so long as we could still return in two weeks’ time. I think these trips instilled in me from an early age the ways in which travel can open your mind to the world beyond your front door. Most of our trips were to America’s national parks, and my parents were wise in using these as learning opportunities for their kids. My mom likes to say my very first bit of travel writing was a guide to Yellowstone’s geysers written in pencil on wide ruled notebook paper. I was eight.
The travel bug hit hard once again when I studied abroad in London my sophomore year of college. As I backpacked around Europe thereafter my curiosity for the world really kicked into overdrive. I moved back to Virginia, finished college and headed to New York to start a career in film and television. But within two years I was off again, this time to live and work at an eco-resort in the Virgin Islands. When I got tired of the tropics I applied for a Working Holiday Visa, moved to New Zealand and started a travel blog. Then I backpacked through Southeast Asia and India for six moths. With a whirlwind of life-changing experiences under my belt, there was no turning back: Travel would have to be a major part of my life.
How did you get started writing?
When I decided I wanted to give travel writing a go I quickly realized that the best way to force myself to both travel and write every day was to create a blog. The blog forced me to work against my own self-set deadlines, travel to new places and take notes on what I saw, felt, smelled and heard. It forced me to explore the world from a new perspective. The blog wasn’t great, but it was honest and intimate, and it seemed to catch on with a growing number of readers (particularly middle-aged women). I initially blogged about my experiences traveling through New Zealand. Later, I began blogging about Asia. I wasn’t making any money off of it (I picked up odd jobs as I traveled to make ends meet) but the experience taught me a lot about my strengths and weaknesses as both a traveler and writer.
When I returned to New York I was – quite surprisingly – able to parlay my blogging experience into a paying job as the travel editor at a young digital publication. I took every opportunity I could get to go on trips and write the kind of deep, hard-hitting stories that I knew I’d need as clips. I was also fortunate in that the publication grew massively during my three years as the travel editor and acquired a well-respected print magazine (which increased my visibility). Even more fortunate was the fact that my editor in chief rejected my resignation when I decided to move to Australia to reunite with my partner and instead asked me to do the job remotely. This allowed me to travel throughout Australia, write long-form magazine articles on the region, and make connections in a totally different media landscape.
What do you consider your first “break” as a writer?
I don’t know if I’ve ever had a single “break” as a writer. I think it’s been more of a long slog. When I went freelance and moved to South America about three years ago I had no idea how it would pan out. It took some time for me to reestablish myself, but I think I was able to do so for a number of reasons. For starters, the cost of living was far lower than in the US, and that gave me a buffer to find my place in the freelance world. I also think by taking myself out of New York or Sydney or other major hubs I was able to put myself at a slight advantage over the competition and market myself as a Latin America specialist (though this can sometimes make it more difficult for me when I seek to write about destinations further afield). Over time, I’ve been able to do less of the dreaded story pitching and more fielding of story requests from editors looking for South America content.
I’ve also never looked at my home country, the US, as the only market I can write for. Consequently, I’ve been able to work for publications around the world from Australia to the UK and UAE.
As a traveler and fact/story gatherer, what is your biggest challenge on the road?
Keeping up with emails. When I’m on the road I want to be fully engaged in the destination and the characters I’m meeting along the way. I don’t want to be fishing around for my phone to answer emails. Yet, the nature of my work is that I’m my own boss, accountant, and agent. I’m my own small business. Thus, there is nobody else to answer questions about bounced wire transfers, or story edits or my availability to travel on X date. Travel writers have to be pretty diligent at multitasking and living in two worlds at once.
What is your biggest challenge in the research and writing process?
I often come back from trips with a notebook full of facts and ideas that will never find their way into an eventual story. It’s challenging to whittle down your experiences on the road to meet the rigid requirements of your brief or the specific angle of your story. There is always that moment when I return from a trip and think: That was great, now what does it all mean? What was my main takeaway from this experience? How can I relay all of these jumbled notes into a cohesive story that not only makes sense, but is interesting to the reader? Once I nail down the crux of the story I need to find the right intro, which is often the toughest part. I’ll typically write two or three options and see which one sticks.
What is your biggest challenge from a business standpoint?
Getting paid. Every publication has its own paperwork, billing requirements and (often ridiculously delayed) payment schedules. There are so many hoops to jump through just to get a paycheck. It can be disheartening writing countless emails reminding editors that you haven’t yet been paid for your work. I have a color-coded Excel spreadsheet to keep track of payments – otherwise I would lose out on thousands of dollars each year in unpaid invoices.
Have you ever done other work to make ends meet?
I occasionally write about business, expat issues, global trends and things along those lines, though it’s less and less these days. I also work as a fixer for video shoots in Chile (where I live). I certainly took plenty of odd jobs on my road to becoming a travel writer. These include ski resort ticketing clerk, eco-resort manager, script reader for an indie film company and production assistant on the teen soap opera Gossip Girl. It’s been a fun ride.
What travel authors or books might you recommend and/or have influenced you?
I’ve devoured most of Paul Theroux’s books and particularly enjoy the ones involving train journeys, including The Great Railway Bazaar. I’m also a fan of Pico Iyer, Colin Thubron and Rory Stewart. I love the way William Least Heat-Moon digs into the soul of America in PrairyErth and Blue Highways. Other favorite travel books include Arabian Sands by Wilfred Thesiger and In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin. I think Paul Salopek’s stories for National Geographic during his Out of Eden Walk have been pretty inspirational.
What advice and/or warnings would you give to someone who is considering going into travel writing?
I think if you’ve got the talent and you work really hard there’s nothing that can stop you from becoming a travel writer if you get just a little bit of luck along the way. Of course, I think you make a lot of your own luck by putting yourself in the right places, meeting the right people and never letting the inevitable rejections get you down. Like any job, networking and self-branding can be a big part of whether you toil in obscurity or make the necessary connections to move up in the world.
All of that said, any travel writer will tell you that this is not a profession to get into for the money. You will never become rich in this field, though you can often live like you are. This is also not a profession for those easily depressed. Travel writing can be a terribly lonely job. I spend the vast majority of my travel time alone, eating alone in restaurants and sleeping alone in dingy guesthouses. If you travel quite frequently for work it can also take a toll on friendships and relationships. Get ready to miss out on a lot of birthdays and weddings.
What is the biggest reward of life as a travel writer?
I think I’ve always been a curious person and this job allows me to satiate my thirst for knowledge of the earth’s farthest corners and disparate cultures. A lot of people collect things that make them happy, but I get to collect stories. I may never have a fancy car or house, but I will always have the memories of the places I’ve been and people I’ve met along the way. As much as I may complain at times, I couldn’t ask for a more fulfilling job than to travel, meet new people and tell great stories.