Life of a Travel Writer: Interview with Lara Dunston
If you have ever dreamed of becoming a travel writer, chances are you may have shrugged that dream off as impossible. To many, making a living as a travel writer seems fanciful, well and truly beyond reach.
This week, I had the chance to interview Lara Dunston, a professional travel writer from Australia who has penned guidebooks for Lonely Planet, Dorling Kindersley and Thumbnail Guides, and written articles for National Geographic Traveler, Lifestyle+Travel, USA Today and many other publications. Together with her husband Terry, a professional photographer and writer, she is in her third year of perpetual travel. From her current location in Turkey, she was happy to dispel some myths about the world of travel writing, while sharing a little about her personal experiences.
You’ve been perpetually travelling for 25 months now. Do you ever get tired of always being on the move?
This is the start of our 27th month on the road actually and we’re exhausted. We’ve just spent 2 months in Cyprus and Crete updating guidebooks and researching stories and both trips involved lots of driving for my husband Terry, which on those narrow mountainous pot-holed roads is tiring. And when Terry drives it means I take on more research/writing, so, yes, we’re both a little weary. We’re about to spend a month of much needed R&W (rest and writing) at a friend’s villa on the Mediterranean in Kas, southern Turkey. I don’t think I’ve ever looked forward to anything more – to be staying ‘still’ and having a ‘home’ for a while.
We never intended to stay on the road for so long. It was only ever meant to be a year-long experiment. We had 12 month’s worth of work lined up that would have meant bouncing from one country to another – it seemed silly to keep an apartment in Dubai, so we put our stuff in storage and took to the road. The idea was that we’d find out if it was really possible to live out of suitcases and make a good living out of being travel writers, then we’d settle down and write a book about it. The problem has been that the work keeps coming in and each opportunity to travel to a country or live in a city for a couple of months is always so tempting. We had decided that this year we’d stop mid-year and write the book, but just this morning an email has come in about a project that could take our work through to October…!
You have travelled for the past 17 years with Terry. How much of a difference does it make having someone to travel with?
It’s great to be able to laugh over something ridiculous with someone who’s also experiencing it, and to be able to share anger, boredom, and euphoria together.
I’ve roamed the globe with Terry for most of our adult lives, but I’ve also travelled with friends and taken my mother on trips, and as a teen I travelled around Australia for 5 years with my family in a caravan, which has actually become a bit of a must-do experience for Aussie families these days. But I’ve also travelled solo. I first went to South America for a year over a decade ago to do research for a Masters degree. I travelled the length and breadth of the continent, and I’d often hook up with other travellers. Travelling alone can be very liberating and it’s the best way to meet locals.
But I love to travel with people I love – I would never travel with someone I didn’t like just for the sake of having a companion – but I really enjoy experiencing new things with someone I care about. It’s great to be able to laugh over something ridiculous with someone who’s also experiencing it (those stories are never as funny when you re-tell them to others later), and to be able to share anger, boredom, and euphoria together. If one person doesn’t ‘get’ something, the other will, so it’s also easier to digest cultural experiences with two people. I also enjoy being able to appreciate a breathtaking landscape with my partner, knowing he’s seeing what I can see too.
Did you dream of being a travel writer when you were younger?
As a child I wanted to be a writer but I dreamt of authoring a Dr Zhivago – my family on Mum’s side is Russian and our life was always very melodramatic. In my late teens I chose journalism, but when I got to university I switched to film studies and production, with a sub-major in writing. I have worked in media relations/PR, made films, handled publicity for a band and an art gallery, wrote arts-based features and film criticism, authored a teen novel, and taught film. I took a short travel writing course with a friend somewhere in there (around 13 years ago) and contemplated embarking on travel writing for a while but instead chose to focus on film and post-grad study. Terry worked as a book designer then publishing manager for a publisher in Sydney, Australia, in a former life, and his company gave us our first travel writing opportunities. I remember writing a tiny boxed text on ‘Yum Cha’ that took me days – now I could churn something similar out in an hour! Terry and I also wrote our first guide then, ‘The Sydneyside Guide’.
Whenever I interview travel writers, I like to ask them what their advice is for aspiring writers. One piece of advice they often give is: “Keep your day job.” Would you agree with that?
Only if they prefer their ‘day job’ to travel writing. If not, then definitely not – especially if you know you’re good and you have what it takes. Your success depends on those factors. My advice?
- 1) Work on the craft of writing: read and critique as much travel writing as you can; experiment with writing in different genres, forms and styles; set yourself writing assignments; develop your research techniques; develop your own style of writing, but also develop an ability to adapt to different styles depending on the audience/publication.
- 2) Study the publications you want to write for and understand their aims, advertisers and audience. Learn how to develop and pitch ideas and shape your pitches to suit the publications. If you pitch what they want and pitch well, you’ll get commissioned. (In the magazine and newspaper travel business that is – guidebook writing is a whole other game with complex machinations to learn depending on the publisher you’re writing for).
- 3) Meet your brief, hand in your work on time (or let them know in advance if you can’t meet the deadline), and hand in on word count, and – providing it’s a good read – editors should keep coming back for more.
If you’re getting commissioned and published consistently then you’re obviously good at what you do so it’s time to leave your day job! I can’t see how anyone can keep a day job and be a travel writer, unless that day job gives them enough flexibility to travel frequently, because if you’re not doing that, then you’re not a travel writer.
Obviously, you have made it to a place where travel writing is your day job. How did you get to where you are now?
Terry and I do make a nice living out of travel writing. If we didn’t we wouldn’t still be doing it. But we’re the kind of people who do whatever it takes to be successful, even if that means working 12 hour days (minimum), 7 days a week, 365 days a year. Really. It also might mean that if we have a break of a month or so between commissions, we’ll take the risk of paying for a trip in order to generate fresh content, or we’ll go and rent an apartment in Krakov or somewhere and spend the time pitching and writing. Because a travel writer is only as good as his/her content, you need to keep travelling. Terry and I both have a good sense of aesthetics and an eye for design (especially Terry, who worked in publishing), so we can visualize how images and words might work together on a magazine page, and that, combined with Terry being a professional photographer, means we’re able to sell words and pics that will work together as a package – always a relief for an editor. Ultimately though, the key to succeeding is treating travel writing like any self-owned business – know your market, know your product, know the value of your work, and never work for anything less than what it’s going to cost you to produce the work, and then some. If a magazine is paying $1000 for a story but another is only paying $300 then you should be giving the $1000 story the time and effort it deserves, and you definitely shouldn’t be taking a week to do a $300 story. You need to be super-organized, disciplined, and be able to work hard, but most importantly you need to network and be continually establishing new contacts so that you’re in touch with enough editors around the globe so that there’s always work coming in. There should never be nothing to do. If you’re not travelling, researching and writing, then you should be developing ideas and pitching publications.
Do you think the internet is reshaping the role of guidebooks in today’s society?
Absolutely and there are myriad ways to think about those changes. I love guidebooks, both as a traveller and as a writer. As tiring, thankless and poorly-paid as the task is to create a guidebook manuscript, I know what goes into researching and writing a guide, and those written by authors who know how to research, who know their destination, and who know how to write, are wonderful things. They will always be far more valuable to me than unchecked traveller-produced content on a travel blog or website. For travellers who have too easily given up the guidebook, the internet has made it challenging for them to discern the good content from the bad, but travellers are starting to realize that. Travel website producers are also starting to appreciate the value of content created by experienced travel writers. Take a look at Triporati or Sherman’s, for instance, where experienced travel writers produce guides to cities that are supplemented by user-generated content. That’s the way it should be.
The problem for some guidebook publishers has been that first they were very slow to see the impact of the internet on guidebook sales and then they were too slow to act to correct the downturn in sales. Some publishers have been impacted more than others and now seem to be struggling so much to keep up they’re going to desperate measures to compete by giving away so much valuable content. This is where authors lose out, firstly, because their work is being used in many more ways than it used to be and yet the author is only getting paid to write the book. Secondly, some guidebook publishers are now competing with authors on their turf. Let’s face it, for authors, the real money to be made is not in guidebook publishing but in the magazine stories you get to write based on the research and experiences you have while researching the guidebook. If your main source of income are magazines and newspaper travel supplements and guidebook publishers start giving away extracts from your books that are being sold as ‘articles’ with your name on it, then they’re essentially taking the food from the mouths of their babes by competing with authors. And if the content they’re giving away is over two years old, it’s not only going to hit the pockets of authors, but also our credibility.
For the consumer, the internet can provide a means for publishers to make current content available to travellers to download in between guidebook editions so they’re not relying on a ‘new’ edition of a book that contains information that is over a year old, but instead could be supplementing the guidebook content with new updates they download from the web. This is how I’d like to see the internet supporting guidebooks, however, in theory, that’s not what’s happening. Some publishers don’t always want to spend the money to keep sending experienced authors out on the road to ensure the content stays current, when they can upload old content and make it appear to look fresh.
You lived and travelled around the Middle East, a region which many Western travellers are somewhat hesitant to travel around due to concerns about safety. What would you say to someone who might be considering travelling in the Middle East, but has reservations about going there?
It irks me when people travel to the region and are so astounded to discover that they are pleasantly surprised at what’s there and what they’re experiencing – what did they expect from the world’s oldest continually inhabited cities and cultures?
Have no reservations. Buy a ticket to Damascus via Dubai – that way you’ll get to see both the past and the future of the Middle East. For me, the Mid East region has the richest culture – it certainly has the longest history – and it’s home to some of the most hospitable and friendliest people in the world. It has so much to offer – the world’s best archaeological sites, great architecture, beautiful landscapes, rich cuisine, incredible art, crafts, music, and literature, and a vibrant contemporary culture that’s also worth investigating… Dubai, Damascus, Amman, Cairo, and Beirut all have impressive contemporary art scenes, all of the region’s cities have interesting youth cultures, the pop music is fun, and the films are some of the most fascinating in the world. It irks me when people travel to the region and are so astounded to discover that they are pleasantly surprised at what’s there and what they’re experiencing – what did they expect from the world’s oldest continually inhabited cities and cultures? As for safety, I hate to say it, but, if you look at statistics, a 20 year old American is more likely to be gunned down in a high school in the US than they are to blown up on a bus by a suicide bomber in Damascus, Beirut or Dubai. Syria lost their first foreigner last year – ever – when a young Canadian backpacker went missing (and they’re doing their best to ensure it never happens again), yet people go missing in Australia all the time.
Did you find it particularly difficult travelling through the Middle East as a woman?
Not at all. The region is very safe and crime against individuals are rare compared to Western countries. Single women travellers often find that they’ll be watched over by other women or adopted by families. The problem will not be danger or security but that people are too friendly and it can often be hard to be by yourself when you want to be to find alone time.
Besides living in the Middle East, you have also lived in Amsterdam, Brussels and Buenos Aires – all of which you also wrote guidebooks about. Did the fact that you were writing about those cities help you experience them in a deeper way than the average traveller might?
Experiencing a city as a traveler, as an expat/resident, and as a travel writer, are three very different things. I had first lived in Buenos Aires over the course of a year as a film student-cum-traveller, and then Terry and I went and lived there for a few months last year when we wrote Lonely Planet’s Buenos Aires Encounter book. Both were very different experiences. As a film researcher I was able to meet locals (filmmakers, academics, film buffs) and that was an amazing experience that gave me extraordinary insight that the travellers I was sharing a room with at the hostel weren’t getting. However, I also enjoyed the times in between research when I’d travel with other travellers and be able to get into the travelling scene and be able to look at a place and its people as an outsider. Living in a city to write a guidebook is something completely different again. You’re forced to get to know every inch of a city as you have to walk it and map it and visit everything in the book. You’re living there, however temporarily, so you do develop a routine and get to know the people in your neighbourhood (which I love doing). You get to meet lots of locals, especially if you’re also doing photography for a book – although they’re mainly working in hotels, restaurants, cafes, bars, shops, galleries, etc – which is lots of fun.
But by far the best experience of all for me is being an expat and living in a city longterm – that’s the only way you really get to know the country and culture and get as close to living like a local as you possibly can. We moved to the UAE ten years ago as expats, first to Abu Dhabi then Dubai, so I could take up a job in education – that has probably been the greatest single experience of my life – my work and our everyday life there enabled me to get an insight into Emiratis (especially women) and their culture, into Arabs, into Islam, into the Middle East… that I could never get as a travel writer or traveller.
Finally, if you had to settle in one place, where do you think it would be?
If I knew we’d probably be ‘settled’ somewhere already! The problem with Terry and I has always been that we’ve never known where we’ve wanted to live. We’ve changed our minds so many times over the years… Mexico City, Marrakesh, Saint Sebastian, Venice, Zurich, Antwerp… We’ve come to the conclusion that when we finally stop living out of our suitcases we’ll probably have to have several small ‘homes’ around the world. Dubai has been a great base – it’s so central for exploring the Middle East, Europe, Asia, and also handy to Australia – but we’ll return to live in Abu Dhabi, our first home in the Middle East and a much more livable city. We’re buying a small apartment in Buenos Aires to have another base from which to travel South America and have a place to write. We’ve always had a dream of buying a riad somewhere in Morocco, but it’s a little harder to get up and go from there when a great offer comes in. And as a travel writer, you need to be able to travel at a moment’s notice, after all, travelling is what we do.
Lara’s blog is Cool Travel Guide, where she shares her perspective on travel.