Jeremy Hance stops by Travel Writing World to answer a few questions about his career as a travel writer. He is the author of Baggage: Confessions of a Globetrotting Hypochondriac.
How did you first become interested in writing travel books?
It wasn’t a straight shot. The travel came first; the idea of a travel book much later. As an environmental journalist, I found myself traveling to remote and spectacular parts of the world, often chasing down rare species. But given that I live with extreme anxiety and OCD, these trips would invariably involve myself getting into ludicrous situations. Over a number of years, and more trips, it became clear that there was a potential story here—one that would hopefully be funny but also about resilience, both within ourselves and in nature.
How did you manage to get your first travel book published?
It took several years of determination, as most authors will tell you. First was writing up a proposal, having it looked at by a professional editor, and then pitching that to dozens of agents. Once, I found a great agent, the next step was trying to find a publisher. That also took a long time, given this was a pretty unusual book. From writing the proposal to getting a publishing contract took a couple of years.
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?
Most of the trips in the Baggage took place several years before I began writing, so I turned to journals, notes, emails, photographs to retell the stories of these trips. Essentially, I’d deep dive into a trip and spend a month or so almost reliving the trip as I wrote the chapter highlighting it. If you include research, writing, and editing, the book took probably a good two years of sustained work.
What travel books or travel authors influence or inform your own work?
Baggage is a mesh of travel, memoir, and nature, so it’s been informed by a lot of writers. My favorite travel writer hands-down is Patrick Leigh Fermor and his attention to detail and intricate, cathedral-like descriptive style has definitely influenced me for years—though I’m by no means attempting to mimic his genius, but rather take lessons from how he writes.
David Quammen and Carl Safina, both nature writers with some travel thrown in, also influenced me. Elizabeth Gilbert’s super popular, Eat, Pray, Love was really helpful in how to interweave travel with one’s more personal, internal journey. John Gimlette’s Wild Coast was also incredibly helpful as he’s one of the only other travel writers I could find who’s spent time in Suriname and Guyana—his work brought back so many memories for me. Finally, Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard, has long been an inspiration as it is as much an internal journey as an outward one and one of the most brilliant travel books of the last hundred years.
What advice would you give to someone interested in writing a travel book?
Ask yourself, why? Why a travel book and why you. In other words, what is it about your experience and your travels that befits a book? Questions like this strike to the core of what the book could be. What themes will it explore? When the last page is turned, what will it leave within the readers?
Travel books, like any narrative, aren’t just descriptions of events, but essentially tell a story, even if that story is somewhat hidden and opaque. Sometimes the story is of a personal nature, sometimes it’s the story of your place you’re visiting or the people you meet, sometimes it’s both.
I avoided writing this book for years because I wasn’t certain I wanted to do it. But when it wouldn’t leave me alone—when it hounded my consciousness for years—I finally gave in. Don’t just jump in. Sit with it. Test it. If it doesn’t leave you alone then give it a go. Book ideas, I think, need time for seasoning, like how a good stew tastes even better a few days later.
What is so appealing about the travel book as a literary form?
Travel books are somewhat strange, admittedly. They aren’t fiction obviously. But they also aren’t necessarily a personal story like a memoir, nor are they a non-fiction book focused on a single topic. Instead, travel books have this weird discursive power: the ability to jump from topic to topic without feeling odd. They are essentially observations of novel places and novel people, strained through the perception of the individual. This gives writers a lot of freedom—but that freedom can be dangerous. For example, I think, you still have to find a through-line, a narrative to fit it all together, otherwise the book will read little different than a daily journal.
To me, the best travel writing doesn’t just record adventures abroad but dives into the location’s history, culture, and the natural world. The travel writer provides that essential thing: context. I love reading travel books where I discover things that surprise and enlighten me. In many ways, good travel books should do what travel itself does: expand our horizons.
Why write about travel?
The ability to travel is one of the most exciting and strange things a human can do. Travel tests us, broadens us, enlightens us, instructs us, leaves us with memories and experiences that last a lifetime—so, of course, it’s something that should be written about.
Travel writing can encapsulate both our species’ flexibility and adaptability and our cultural rigidity. It also allows us to “see” places that we will never see in person—and sometimes places and cultures already lost to time—and allows us to experience the joys and anxieties of travel from the security of our own hearth. I’ve been so fortunate to travel to many far-flung places and, like so many travel writers before me, felt the need to tell these stories so others may experience them as well
Jeremy Hance is the author of Baggage: Confessions of a Globetrotting Hypochondriac.
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