Dave Seminara: Author Profile

by Travel Writing World
Dave Seminara

Dave Seminara stops by Travel Writing World to answer a few questions about his career as a writer. He is the author of Mad Travelers: A Tale of Wanderlust, Greed and the Quest to Reach the Ends of the Earth (Post Hill Press 2021).

How did you first become interested in writing travel books?

I come from a family of storytellers, and I got hooked on overland travel and my twenties. If you’re a storyteller, there’s a natural tendency to want to chronicle your travel experiences. I’ve wanted to write travel books since I started reading Paul Theroux books in the early 1990s.

How did you manage to get your first travel book published?

I’ll try to make a long story short. Several years ago, a literary agent in New York read an article I wrote about the Barkley Marathons in The New York Times and contacted me, offering representation. He wanted me to write a book about the Barkley, but I told him I wanted to write a book about wanderlust and why travel is so addictive. I put together a book proposal in 2015 and every major publisher passed on it. He lost interest in me and stopped responding to my emails. But I still believed in my story and kept in close contact with the characters in the book — a collection of the world’s most traveled people.

In 2018, many of these characters were scammed by a young con artist, or so it seemed. I felt like this was the ultimate example of wanderlust to build the book around and so I resumed work on the book. In 2020, having already been burned by all the majors, I developed a short list of smaller houses to pitch. By this time, I actually had two travel narratives to pitch, Mad Travelers: A Tale of Wanderlust, Greed and the Quest to Reach the Ends of the Earth, plus another book I wrote about traveling in the footsteps of Roger Federer in Switzerland (Footsteps of Federer: A Fan’s Pilgrimage Across 7 Swiss Cantons in 10 Acts). I sent out blind inquiries on Linkedin. A few small publishers were interested in one book or the other, but one publisher was interested in both books—Post Hill Press.

They made me an offer and I accepted. Both books were published in 2021. 

What is your writing process like, both on the road and at home? And how long does it take you to write a book inclusive of the research, travel, writing, and editing phases?

I scribble in my notebooks while I’m on the road and then I come home and realize that it’s all illegible and accept the fact that I’m going to have to make a lot of stuff up. Seriously, I do take a lot of notes in pocket-sized notebooks, and they are difficult to decipher, so if I have time, I try to transfer them onto my laptop at night. 

My first two (self-published) books are collections of travel stories. For those, I looked for commonalities in experience in grouped the pieces accordingly rather than by geography or date. Mad Travelers evolved over a period of six years, which gave me a chance to get to know the characters and let the story unfold. With Footsteps of Federer, I was on an assignment from the NYT travel section. I was supposed to write a 2,700-word piece but I knew by day two of my trip that I wanted to write a book. 

In that case, I just sat down with my notebooks when I got home from Switzerland and started writing. My 2,700-word assignment grew to 30,000 words. Then I had to work backwards and edit out more than 90 percent of that for the article. I don’t remember how long it took me to write Footsteps but it felt like a 100-meter dash compared to Mad Travelers. 

What books or authors influence or inform your own work?

Paul Theroux is my favorite travel writer. Other writers I admire include Jeffrey Tayler, Pico Iyer, Bill Bryson, Peter Hessler, J. Maarten Troost, Levison Wood, Tom Swick, Richard Grant, Thurston Clarke, Tim Parks, David Farley, Tony Horwitz and others.

What advice would you give to someone interested in writing a travel book?

Marketing, platform, and contacts are key. Even if you’re a brilliant writer with a great story, you still have to determine who your target audience is and figure out how to reach those readers, which is a big challenge! I found out that it’s easier to target a smaller but very definable market for a book about Roger Federer, than a more general interest book like Mad Travelers, which should have a broader potential audience. 

If you’re like me and don’t have a massive social media following, then know that you’re going to be reliant on other people to help you sell your book. Who are those people? If you think the Travel + Leisure’s of the world are going to help you but you don’t know a soul there, you’re delusional. Even if you have a major publisher behind you, very few of them will devote significant resources to advertising, so be prepared for an uphill climb in marketing your book. 

What is so appealing about the travel book as a literary form?

I love sitting down with a great travel narrative than can transport me to another part of the world. A great book allows us to vicariously do things we’d never do in real life. That’s why I enjoy adventure books by authors like Levison Wood and Jeffrey Tayler. I’m not going to take a pirogue through Congo or walk the Nile, but I do want to read about someone else doing it. I recently traveled to the Galapagos and read very little about it before the trip but ended up reading three books about the islands when I came home. For me, it was a bit like extending my trip. 

Why write about travel?

The conventional wisdom is to write about what you know. I’m a compulsive traveler, a mad traveler, a real addict, so it’s a natural subject matter for me. No one with any sense gets into travel writing to get rich. One of the things I like about it is that it brings a purpose and energy to my travels that I wouldn’t have otherwise. I wake up at or before sunrise when I travel. I take copious notes, even if I have no idea if I’ll ever write about the place. I’m more outgoing on the road than I at home because you can’t understand a place if you don’t meet locals and ask questions. My family says that I become a completely different person when I travel. 

Sharing travel experiences can also be very rewarding. For example, about ten years ago, I fell in love with a bluegrass jam in an old barn in a tiny town in Kentucky with just a few dozen residents called Rosine. It’s a weekly tradition in the birthplace of Bill Monroe, who pioneered bluegrass music. Rosine is an 8-hour drive from Chicago, my home at that time. But I liked it so much, I went back a few times and made friends there. I noticed that each time, the crowds were thinner and there were few young people in attendance. 

A few regulars told me that they feared the decades-old tradition might die out. I wrote a couple articles about the place but they didn’t help. Then, in 2016, I nominated it to be on one of NYT Travel’s annual list of places to go, and it made it into the paper. I started to get emails from people who road tripped to Rosine from around the country. Perhaps a year or so after it came out, I got an email from a woman who promotes tourism in the area. 

Rosine had never been on their radar screen before, but she was writing to tell me that visitor numbers at the barn had more than doubled, and they were building a Bill Monroe Museum in the town with donations. (It’s open now but I haven’t been yet), In an era of overtourism, I like to think that I helped breathe a little life into a wonderful place in a forgotten little corner of the world. 

Dave Seminara stops by Travel Writing World to answer a few questions about his career as a writer. He is the author of Mad Travelers: A Tale of Wanderlust, Greed and the Quest to Reach the Ends of the Earth (Post Hill Press 2021).

If you enjoyed this interview with Dave Seminara, you might enjoy our other author profiles for more behind-the-scenes interviews with authors of travel books.

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