Todd Pitock’s work has appeared in wide-ranging publications, among them National Geographic Traveler, Discover, The Atlantic, Nautilus, and the New York Times, and he has been anthologized and noted in Best American Travel Writing, Best American Science and Nature Writing, Best Jewish Writing, and other anthologies. He’s a three-time Lowell Thomas Award winner, including Travel Journalist of the Year in 2015. In 2015 he was also a double-winner of the American Society of Journalists & Authors Award, for editorial writing and for lifestyle writing. He lives in Philadelphia.
How did you get started traveling?
My first place was Haiti at age 10. My grandmother took me on a cruise. But I was appropriately shocked by the poverty and intrigued to get up close to it, and that led, with a gap of a few years, to my first bylined article. My first real travel was as a 17-year-old to Cuba as part of a mission of my Friends (Quaker) school, which sent six students for two weeks. That was quite a deep experience for me. Perhaps the biggest value was that it got me started as a reader, something I regard as an essential part of serious travel.
You ask about writing and travel in separate questions but for me they’re almost inextricable. I had two completely contradictory views of what it meant to be a writer. One was working in isolation; the other, I don’t know why, was roaming or roving all over the place. The writers I read complained about sitting still but always seemed to be doing it in a different place. As a child, I had this picture of myself writing in northern India. I don’t know why northern India, just that it was the other side of the world I guess, and I often had the feeling that I wanted to be half a world away from wherever I was. Then, a few years ago I was in northern India, writing in my hotel room, and I was like, “Oh, wow, I’m here!” And I would have felt really content that I’d arrived except that I was in a miserable hotel with a horrible rancid smell that made it hard to concentrate.
For me an experience only really matters if I’ve written it down and made some sense of it. To write is to notice, and I was never a traveler who just wanted to tick off places I’ve been. I wanted to really know them, and writing — meaning the process of gathering the information, the interviews, the experience of a place in order to write it down — was a way to do it, to really get inside a place. In fact, that’s how I often feel as a traveler, as if I’m moving inside of a story, ready to find out what happens next.
How did you get started writing?
I always just had these two impulses, to travel and to write. My first puzzles were maps and I’d look at the colored pieces and wonder what was in places like Arkansas or Indiana, or India. I tried writing even before I could do it mechanically. My first attempt at a book was dictating to my mother, who recorded it on a manual typewriter. She still has the manuscript, which clocked in at a full page. I must have been five.
I published some articles in high school, but I never took a journalism class. I just wanted to write, and like most people I intended to write fiction, and I was pretty naive. My first job was an editorial assistant at New York book publisher. I was miserable sitting in a cubicle, where my main task was to beat down other aspiring writers with rejection letters. I really wanted to see the world. It was not a vague or passive desire. It was more like a gnawing, existential need. I was also blessed with a horrible landlord in Brooklyn, and after a judge slapped him with a small monetary judgment, I had a wad of cash to go overseas for a year.
That year became five years, the first two in Israel and the last three in South Africa. The latter was during the transition from apartheid and there was a lot of interest in the place, and I started writing for publications there and in the U.S. So, in short, doing this was simultaneously destiny and a certain amount of randomness.
What do you consider your first “break” as a writer?
In South Africa I was volunteering once a week at a homeless shelter for children and heard that street children were being illegally imprisoned. I knew the area well, knew a lot of people, and managed to gain access and document what had previously been reported — and dismissed by authorities — as rumors. That was helpful in getting some attention and a strong portfolio clip. (I also was charged by the South African police, but that’s another story.) I hasten to add that while getting a break is important, I have found that this is work that requires getting a lot of “breaks.” I’m not sure that as a writer you ever really feel like you “made it.” You’re always paying your dues. I take solace, and counsel, from Winston Churchill, who noted that success is never permanent, failure is rarely fatal, and that the key is to keep coming back each time with undiminished enthusiasm.
What is your biggest challenge on the road?
To travel is a privilege, and to be paid to write about it is an extraordinarily lucky thing. But consider the un-romantic side of it: It might be cool, it might even be fun, but you’re going to do a job, not to have a holiday. You’re responsible for reporting and writing, so you have to be thinking about what’s going on and what is going to be useful for your story. I like to push boundaries, but the further you go the less comfortable and more lonely you might get. I prefer to travel alone because it forces me to engage in a place. If I’m with other travelers a lot of energy goes into those relationships, even if they’re only going to last for the short period we’re traveling. I try to allow for double the time I need on the assumption that half of the things I try won’t work out.
I recall a certain Afar story in Morocco. The assignment was to go and find intact Berber communities in the Lower Atlas Mountains. By “intact,” we meant people who were still connected to traditional life and living in a full and dignified way. But after we began traveling we weren’t finding the places or the people and realized we didn’t even know if they existed. The clock was ticking — the clock is always ticking — and we were driving in remote places, sometimes really rough roads for 12 or 14 hours a day, five of us crammed into an SUV with all of our stuff, and not everyone was getting along all that well.
Another time a magazine asked me to write a story about Islam and science. When they offered it, I said, “That’s a topic, not a story. What’s the story?” They said, “That’s for you to figure out.” So there I was in the Middle East with an old cell phone, and lost, a special kind of lost, meaning that I didn’t know where I was and also didn’t know where exactly I was trying to go, which mirrored the intellectual problem of not even being sure what it was I was meant to be asking anyone. Somehow it came together. But that’s how it is. Somehow it always, or usually, comes together.
When you tell war stories later, they sound kind of cool, and romantic, but when you’re in the midst of it it can feel like a pin in your eyeball, and you’re wondering if you’ll be able to find a toilet and a packet of Immodium, and hopefully not make a complete jackass of yourself. Then, of course, you come back with a lot of material and have to make sense of it. In other words, only then does the real work begin.
What is your biggest challenge in the research and writing process?
The writing process is like running uphill. It’s a grind and sometimes you get there by not looking up, just going step by step. At a certain point you realize you’re going to get there, and then the downhill side, the re-writing, is for me more pleasurable.
But let me say too that travel is challenging because it has a very high Who Cares? Quotient. To make readers care you need a story and the elements of travel writing can be like those of fiction: the characters and what happened to them that reveal something you need to know about the place. Story is more important than information, especially in the Internet and App age when the information is so abundant and accessible, and what you need is a story to make sense of it. Quality depends on a writer’s ability to observe and then shape what he learned into a narrative.
What is your biggest challenge from a business standpoint?
I hardly know where to start on this one. Editors who aren’t sure what they want. Egregiously lopsided contracts. I think of Calvin Trillin’s line about The Nation, that the pay was low but it was slow. I’ll keep this one short, because life is short, and art is long, and I have annoyed enough people on these issues.
Have you ever done other work to make ends meet?
I’ve done all kinds of contract jobs, mostly related to writing. I am always castigating myself for not being productive enough, but I am an inveterate query writer and have proposals out all the time. As with everyone in the media, I am concerned about the future. I think the business is easier than ever to break into thanks to blogs and proliferating websites whose contributors seem to have no expectation of being paid, or who are perhaps finding a way to monetize their efforts in ways that aren’t apparent to me.
On the other hand, precisely because of that, the business is getting ever harder. The same blogs and sites that have made publishing so easy and accessible are also a factor in the collapse of fees. Ten years ago, even less, $3/word was a reasonable national magazine rate. Now it’s rarely more than $2, and there are some places that consider $1 generous pay, which is absurd. Economically speaking, the business is stuck in an interregnum, a period when one thing is ending but the next thing hasn’t quite managed to get started. I’ve been versatile as a writer. I’ve written on science, business, politics, art, books, travel, food. I just wrote a first person story about gin. But one thing I haven’t been sufficiently on top of is blogging, video, things that might in fact point to a more lucrative future.
What travel authors or books might you recommend and/or have influenced you?
Many books helped me see the possibilities of “travel writing.” Paul Fussell’s book Abroad, about British travel writers between the World Wars, gave me a long reading list to get through, and some of those models — Graham Greene, Sybil Bedford, Evelyn Waugh, V.S. Naipaul — gave me a new framework to think about what it is I envisioned myself doing. I loved Beryl Markham’s West with the Night, Isak Dineson’s Out of Africa, all of that romanticized Africa travel, though I have to say when I look at some of it now much of it feels a bit off to me. Robert Byron’s The Road to Oxiana, Travels with Herodotus by Ryszard Kapuscinski (even though I have to look up how to spell his name every time). I like Granta. I read for information and background, but more than that I read for models and inspiration.
What advice and/or warnings would you give to someone who is considering going into travel writing?
Be curious. Interrogate yourself, why you want to do things and whether you really know what you think you know. Be a good, sympathetic, nonjudgmental listener — but still be skeptical, critical, analytical. Just because everyone in a place “knows” something doesn’t make it true, and just because they’re from a place doesn’t mean they know what they’re talking about. Have courage. Few things are really going to kill you. On the other hand, some things might, so be smart. If you’re on the Turkish border and two guys you don’t know offer to show you cool stuff in Syria, say no thanks!
Take note, and take notes. I’m very fond of reporter notebooks. Writing helps you make the connections that create stories. But sometimes connections and patterns aren’t entirely obvious. It’s when we reflect on them, by writing them down, that we start to notice them. Travel can be a big sensory overload, and writing can tamp it down to something more manageable. Note-taking also helps you break things down. You don’t need to write everything down as it happens but it helps to get more granular detail. Later you’ll remember larger themes, but the immediate details might not be there. And read. Learn the genre. Respect the genre. Read the magazines, the anthologies. Reading will also help you internalize the tradition. And when you do write, read it to other people. It’s not a failsafe method but it can often help strip out the stuff that’s just not necessary.
My answers are oriented around creative questions but there’s a practical, financial one, too. Think broadly about “travel.” When I’m on a travel assignment I’ll often look for other kinds of stories. On a recent trip to Israel, I interviewed a nuclear physicist, the mayor of Haifa, and various geologists working on the problem of sink holes at the Dead Sea. If I can write a second or a third feature, or find an idea for my next journey, I have made more of, and from, the journey.
My last bit of advice is that you should be a professional. Meaning, on one hand, how you conduct yourself and approach your work and responsibilities, and on the other, what you expect to get back from it. Read and understand the meaning of contracts. Do enough legwork that you have choices, which will allow you to negotiate better contract terms. Don’t treat the financial stuff as esoterica. In the end, if you’re serious, there’s a correlation between spiritual and material rewards of creativity, unless ultimately your real goal is getting junkets and writing thinly disguised advertising copy.
What is the biggest reward of life as a travel writer?
When things work, when you’ve taken something from an idea to publication, it’s a real joy. You are traveling with a responsibility to report, which means you have permission to ask people what you want to know. And people, most of the time, really want to share things with you, at least if they believe you’re listening and are capable of appreciating what they have to share.
I often don’t love writing, especially early in the process when I’m feeling a good deal of anxiety about getting words on the page. But there comes a point when it all starts to take hold and I can see where I’m going, and that’s a great feeling.
Travel can be an obsession, but it’s also a kind of possession. You’ve been to a place, and in a kind of odd, obscure way, it becomes yours. Writing about it takes it to a much higher level of ownership. People climb on bridges and vandalize trees so the world will know they were here. When you write and travel, you say, not just in print but in a kind of existential way, “I was here.”