How did you first become interested in writing travel books?
I’ve been a reader and a traveler since I was 16; I think I’ve always known I had a book in me. I thought I wanted to do guidebook work, but when I landed that opportunity, it turned out I was wrong.
I wanted to write stories. It was reading that did it. My take on Paul Theroux has changed over time but reading him as a young traveler made me want to write like he did.
How did you manage to get your first travel book published?
My path to publication is quite unconventional. An acquisitions editor approached me on Twitter and that interaction ended in a deal. But I did all the traditional things–wrote a manuscript, wrote a proposal, pitched 75 agents, dealt with the rejection… I still don’t have an agent.
Point of order: I guess my first book was a tiny guide to Hawaii for Thomas Cook. A friend referred me to the job. She’d started at Lonely Planet so she couldn’t do the gig. Guidebook work is something I’m glad I got to do but won’t do again. I did not find it rewarding.
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 write almost every day, first thing in the morning. It’s 6:12 am as I’m answering this question and I’ve been up for an hour. I work best early in the morning when it’s quiet and I’m not too critical of my ideas. I go back and edit later, but for creative time, I prefer daybreak.
My book took three years from start to publication, but I wasn’t writing the whole time. I put the manuscript away to pitch the project for nearly a year. I spend four months writing the first draft (I hear this is fast, but I really did write almost every day). After that, any time I wasn’t pitching, I was revising.
What travel books or travel authors influence or inform your own work?
Like I said, I used to idolize Paul Theroux; now I think he’s kind of a crank, but I loved his early work. I like Pico Iyer’s deeply philosophical take on travel. I read Suzy Hansen’s Notes on a Foreign Country not that long ago and that’s probably the most influential thing I’ve read in travel books for a while. I don’t restrict my reading to travel, though. I like to read the classics, too–I just read a bunch of Henry James novels in which sturdy old aunts are taking wayward nieces to Venice, for example. And I like to read fiction with a strong sense of place–I am still thinking about Kawai Strong Washburn’s Sharks in the Time of Saviors. It takes place in Hawaii and Washburn writes Hawaii like I’ve never read, with this incredible mix of stark and magic realism.
What advice would you give to someone interested in writing a travel book?
Whew. Read like a mofo. There is so much to learn from reading good writers. When I asked for advice on writing a book, probably the most realistic answer I got was, “You gotta do all that butt in chair time. You have to just write.” Which is… not helpful, I think, but is very true. A thing I learned–and I this advice is true, probably for any kind of book, not just travel–is to really want to write the book just for the sake of having written it. If I’d been bogged down in getting it published or some other agenda, I don’t think I’d have weathered the rejections. I believed in the project, that it was worthy. You have to believe in the work yourself; if you don’t, why bother writing it?
What is so appealing about the travel book as a literary form?
Far away places! Interactions with strangers! That magical feeling of being lost but not scared! Challenges overcome whether it’s crossing a Himalayan mountain pass or figuring out how to get public transit to your hotel from the Philly airport! Travel stories are adventure stories. I think most humans love a good adventure story.
Why write about travel?
I write about travel because it is how I come to understand the world. My book is full of travel, full of crazy adventures, but I don’t think my book is “about travel” per se. It’s about coming of age in a specific era, about politics and sex and 80s music. Travel is the backdrop against which those things happen. Writing about travel without deeper meaning can be awfully boring. But travel, and writing about the experience, can be so revealing. It can teach us so much about the world and our place in it.
If you enjoyed this interview with Pam Mandel, you might enjoy our author profiles section for more behind-the-scenes interviews with authors of travel books.