Meaghan Hackinen: Author Profile

by Travel Writing World
Meaghan Hackinen

Meaghan Hackinen stops by Travel Writing World to answer a few questions about her career as a writer. She is an ultra-endurance cyclist from Canada and the author of South Away: The Pacific Coast on Two Wheels (NeWest Press 2019), which was shortlisted for two Canadian book awards. She holds an MFA from the University of Saskatchewan.

How did you first become interested in writing travel books?

The stories of seasoned travelers — from my wanderlust grandmother to tall tales shared around campfires with new friends — inspired my desire to see the world beyond my comfortable bubble. After embarking on a few journeys of my own, the process of sharing my unique experiences felt like a logical next step. My early travel writings came in the form of journal entries, mass email updates, and later a blog. Over the years, I honed my skill set, and eventually had the opportunity to pull everything I’d learned together when I enrolled in an MFA in writing program, in which I drafted a travel memoir as my thesis project.

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

I had the privilege of working with an amazing writing mentor, Candace Savage, on my travel-based thesis project. After I successfully graduated from the MFA and went out and found a real job, Candace suggested that I prepare a submissions package to solicit publishing houses. She was even kind enough to pitch it to her publisher! While my manuscript was ultimately rejected, the experience motivated me to make another round of revisions and continue my efforts. I pitched to seven Canadian publishing houses accepting creative non-fiction submissions directly from authors (I didn’t want to go through an agent) and waited not-so-patiently for a reply… cue the crickets. 

Four months passed. Then six. I was beginning to lose hope when, out of the blue, the General Manager at NeWest Press, an independent literary publishing house based out of Edmonton, Alberta, called with a publication contract. A year later South Away: The Pacific Coast on Two Wheels entered the world in print. I look forward to working with NeWest Press on my next project, a travel memoir about competing in the Trans Am Bike Race, scheduled for release in 2023. 

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?

For years, I kept a detailed journal while I was away. I have since shifted toward digital forms: my immediate documentation exists in iPhone notes, photos, voice memos, and messages to friends. Sometimes, for instance during the cross-country bicycle race that inspired my upcoming book, I simply don’t have time to write: every ounce of energy is wholly focused on sustained forward motion. But when I cross the finish line or come to some other standstill in travel, I take the opportunity to brain dump my thoughts into wildly unfocused free writes. Later, I go back to those primarily digital forms and use them as inspiration for crafting detailed scenes and capturing the essence of people, places, and interactions.

In my case, the process from travel to publication was a long one. The adventure that inspired South Away took place in 2009; the book didn’t enter the world until a full decade later in 2019. I had no inkling that the experience would become material for a book until I embarked on my MFA thesis project in 2015, but when I finally decided to go for it, I went all in: I hammered out the first draft in just four months. Then I spent the following four years revising, polishing, pitching to publishers, and working with an in-house editor to spruce it up some more.

Because I consider myself as much a memoir writer/personal essayist as a travel writer, I require some time after the initial journey to reflect on what the experience meant to me: What are the lasting implications? How has my worldview shifted? These are the areas I’ll eventually want to probe during the writing process. When I sit down to write, the notes, images, journal entries, online correspondence, and free writes aid in the creation of vivid, true-to-life scenes, but it’s also important to open up space between myself and the experience, and take time to reflect, research, and consider before I dive into a project.

What books or authors influence or inform your own work?

Creative non-fiction authors including Sara Wheeler, Joan Didion, Tobias Wolff, Annie Dillard, and Paul Theroux have influenced my writing path. Books specifically about bicycle travel that have inspired me include Emily Chappell’s Where There’s a Will, Andrew Pham’s Catfish and Mandala, Jill Homer’s Be Brave, Be Strong, and Dervala Murphy’s Full Tilt. In terms of craft, I turn to Philip Lopate’s To Show and Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction and Tristine Rainer’s Your Life as Story: Discovering the “New Autobiography” and Writing Memoir as Literature when I need guidance.

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

Hone your craft, find a mentor, and READ! My travel writing journey has been an iterative process of self-discovery through writing, reading, and studying craft. I consider both the abundance of terrible travel writing I produced in my emerging years, and the six months I spent working with a writing mentor, to be equally valuable from a developmental standpoint. 

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

I love travel writing because it’s a wild card: as a literary form, it’s difficult to pin down, incorporates techniques from other forms (fiction and poetry, primarily) and gazes inward even as it claims to look outward. Jonathan Raban said it well: “Travel writing is a notoriously raffish open house where different genres are likely to end up in the same bed.” The possibilities of storytelling, language, sequence, location, focus, etc. are limitless, making the travel book an exciting form for creative exploration. 

Why write about travel?

Travel is a transformational experience. Whether I hop on my bicycle and climb to a mountaintop for a picnic lunch, or I strap on all sorts of bags and pedal off across a continent, I do not return the same person as I was when I departed. Something subtle — or not-so-subtle — has shifted. Of course, it could be argued that as people, we’re constantly changing and evolving, but I still contend that travel has a way of really igniting a change in perspective. Documenting these personal discoveries — which range from revelations about my own underlying belief system to better understanding a foreign economy — is, in essence, what I hope to capture with my writing.

Meaghan Hackinen stops by Travel Writing World to answer a few questions about her career as a writer. She is an ultra-endurance cyclist from Canada and the author of South Away: The Pacific Coast on Two Wheels (NeWest Press 2019), which was shortlisted for two Canadian book awards. She holds an MFA from the University of Saskatchewan.

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

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