The Life of a Travel Writer: An Interview with David Farley

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Author and Professor, David Farley
When I started getting involved in travel writing in New York City, one name came up in conversation often: David Farley. He was a rock-star writer who taught at NYU and Columbia, wrote for AFAR, National Geographic,the New York Times, and many other publications. I always wondered who this guy was. He was almost mythical. Did he even exist? He was never at any event! But one day, he turned up and we met. We didn’t hit it off right away. But, over the years and through many encounters, David and I became very good friends. His writing tips and advice have helped me immensly, and his impressive résumé and keen sense of story are why I partnered with him on this website’s travel writing course. Today, I thought I would interview David about the life of a travel writer!

Nomadic Matt: Tell everyone about yourself.
David Farley: A few interesting facts about me: My weight at birth was 8 lbs., 6 oz. I grew up in the Los Angeles suburbs. I was in a rock band in high school; we played late-night gigs at Hollywood clubs, and we weren’t very good. I travel a lot, but I have no interest in counting the number of countries I’ve been to. I’ve lived in San Francisco, Paris, Prague, Rome, and New York City, but I currently live in Berlin.

How did you get into travel writing?
The usual way: by accident. I was in graduate school and my girlfriend at the time, a writer, proofread one of my 40-page research papers — I think it was on the exciting topic of the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s — and afterward she said, “You know, don’t take this the wrong way, but your writing was better than I expected.” She encouraged me to write stuff other than boring history papers. I heeded her call.

One of the first stories that got published was about a pig killing I attended in a village on the Czech-Austrian border. After that, enough of the stories got published, mostly in travel publications, that by default I became a “travel writer.” I was cool with this designation. Who wouldn’t be?

I ended up breaking into Condé Nast Traveler, working my way all the way up to the features section, as well as the New York Times. Eventually, I wrote a book that Penguin published. I’m currently a contributing writer at AFAR magazine and still write quite regularly for the New York Times, among other pubs.

What are some of the biggest illusions people have about travel writing?
That you can peel off a feature story for a travel magazine just like that [snaps fingers]. It takes so much work for each story to get to the type of experiences we end up writing about — a lot of phone calls and emails to set up interviews and to get your foot in the door some places.

Sometimes, like in personal essays, things magically happen. But when a magazine is paying you to go to a place so you can come back with an interesting story, you have to do a lot of behind-the-scenes work to ensure that you’re going to have a good story. It rarely just happens on its own. Travel stories are essentially a fake or altered reality, filtered through the writer and based on how much reporting she or he did on the spot, as well as her or his past experiences and knowledge about life and the world.

What is your greatest personal accomplishment?
I was deemed to have a “learning disability” when I was in grade school and had to spend some of my day in a special education class — which did wonders for my self-esteem! My best friend in tenth grade told a friend (who told me) that I’d “never amount to anything in life.”

I ended up going to a community college and, much to my surprise (and everyone else’s), I did really well: I graduated with honors and transferred to a good four-year university, where I also graduated with honors. A few years later, I got a master’s degree in history. Based on the expectations of me when I was, say, 12, I was never supposed to go that far, intellectually. So I’d say getting a master’s degree might be my greatest accomplishment if you put it into the context of my history of learning.

Also, having had a book — An Irreverent Curiosity — get published (and by a major publishing house) was a personal accomplishment. That it was made into a documentary by National Geographic was just the cherry on top of the whole experience.

If you could go back in time and tell young David one thing, what would it be?
Don’t eat that that hot dog in Prague! Also, I’d tell myself to take more risks, to let the spirit literally move me around the world more and for a longer period of time. If we let it, society and its norms really set our limit for us and keep us from taking chances, such as eschewing the ordinary office day job or life in the suburbs, etc. It’s really hard to break out of that, to overcome the entropy that is weighing us all down from doing what we really want.

I lived in New York for 13 years, and for the final four or five I yearned to move away, to live abroad again and open myself up to new experiences. But I became afraid, fearful of unattaching myself from the life I’d established there. I had to keep reminding myself of some aspects of Buddhist philosophy — about attachment and impermanence, especially — and that on my deathbed I’m not going to regret moving abroad for a while. I probably would, though, regret not doing it.

If you could go back in time and tell young David one thing about writing, what would it be?
I would have taken more classes to both keep learning — one should never stop learning about writing — and to force myself to write when perhaps I didn’t want to. I think we can all learn from each other, and so putting yourself in that kind of instructive environment is helpful. I took one writing class — a nonfiction writing course at UC Berkeley — and it was super helpful.

What advice do you have for aspiring travel writers trying to break in? It seems there are fewer paying publications these days and it’s harder to find work.
I realize this is a hard one, but living abroad is really helpful. You end up with so much material for personal essays, and you gain a knowledge of the region that allows you to become something of an authority on the area. Then you have a personal connection to the place, and editors love it when you pitch a story and you’ve got that. It gives you a leg up on other people who are pitching stories about that place.

That said, you don’t have to go far to write about travel. You can write about the place where you live. After all, people travel there, right? Right. (I hope so.) You can write everything from magazine and newspaper travel section pieces to personal essays, all about where you’re currently residing.

As a traditional writer, how do you feel about blogs? Are most of them crap, or do you think it’s the future of the industry?
I hate that term “traditional writer.” What does that mean? I write for websites. I’ve written for several blogs. I even had my own travel blog back in 2004. Whatever the case, blogs and print media will coexist for some time until print becomes digital. Then what’s the difference? (That’s a rhetorical question, by the way.) So, no, I don’t think blogs, per se, are the future, but writing on a digital platform, be it straight-up journalism or whatnot, is the future for sure.

And no, not all blogs are crap. Not at all. But the travel blog posts that keep my interest are those that have a definite angle, that tell a story and capture a sense of place (and are more about the place and less about the person writing). I realize there’s a place for top-10 and roundup pieces, but they’re not always so interesting to read.

What are three things a writer can do now to improve his or her writing?
Read. A lot. And don’t just read, but read like a writer. Deconstruct the piece in your mind as you’re reading. Pay attention to how the writer has structured her or his piece, how they opened it and concluded it and so on. Also, read books on good writing. This really helped me a lot when I was first starting out.

For most of us, talking to strangers is not easy. Plus, our moms told us not to do so. But the best travel stories are those that are most reported. So the more we talk to people, the more likely other opportunities arise and the more material you have to work with. It makes the writing of the story so much easier.

Sometimes you’ll be right in the middle of a situation and think: this would make a great opening to my story. My good friend Spud Hilton, travel editor at the San Francisco Chronicle, says that the dirty secret to good travel writing is that bad experiences make the best stories. This is true, but please don’t put yourself in a bad situation just for your writing. You can write a great piece without having to get your wallet stolen or losing your passport.

Bonus tip: take a writing class. It’s important to have someone who has been there and done that to advise you, someone who can answer questions, either via email or in person. The media landscape is sometimes impenetrable and nebulous, and I think it is really important to have someone guide you through it. A travel writing Virgil to your Dante, if you will.

What’s your favorite travel book and why?
I’m not really a fan of those traveling-just-for-the-sake-of-traveling sort of books, the kind where someone like Paul Theroux gets on a train and we get to read about the odd characters he seems to meet every time he sits down in a train compartment. I like it when there’s an added twist, an actual story, if you will, to the narrative. A narrative arc. So, for example, David Grann’s The Lost City of Z, Bruce Benderson’s The Romanian, and Andrew McCarthy’s The Longest Way Home. Joan Didion’s Slouching Toward Bethlehem is a great short story collection. I also really like David Sedaris (particularly Me Talk Pretty One Day) and J. Maartin Troost (especially The Sex Lives of Cannibals) and anything written by Tom Bissell or Susan Orlean.

What’s your favorite destination?
This is the number one question I’m asked, posed by people sitting next to me on airplanes, at cocktail parties, and my mother’s friends. My standard answer is Vietnam. It’s inexplicable. I just like the place and keep wanting to go back again and again. I also have a deep connection — and keep returning again and again — to Prague, Rome, and Dubrovnik.

Where do you find inspiration? What motivates you?
I get my motivation and inspiration from unlikely sources. I think about the creative masters and wonder how I can tap into their genius. What did Austrian painter Egon Schiele see when he looked at a subject and then the canvas? How did Prince put out an album a year from 1981 to 1989, each one a masterpiece and each one cutting-edge and like nothing anyone else at the time was doing? Is there a way to apply this creativity to travel writing? I’m not saying I’m on par with these geniuses — far from it — but if I could somehow even slightly be inspired by their creativity, I’d be better off for it.

What’s the most difficult part about being a travel writer?
The rejection. You really have to get used to it and just accept that it’s part of your life. It’s really easy to take it seriously and let it get you down. I know — I have done this. You just have to brush it off and move on, get back on that literary bike, and keep trying until someone finally says yes. Be tenacious.

I’ve taught for over a decade at New York University, and many of my students have gone on to write for National Geographic Traveler, the New York Times, and the Washington Post, as well as to write books. And those who were most successful were not necessarily the most talented writers in the class at the time. They were the most driven. They really wanted it.

Writing is a craft. You don’t have to be born with a natural talent for it. You just need a strong desire to become better at it. And by taking writing classes, reading books about it, talking to people about it, etc. you will become a better writer.

Lightning-round questions! First one: window or aisle?
Aisle.

Favorite airline?
I don’t have one.

Favorite city?
Usually it’s whatever city I’m in at the time. I’m in Skopje right now. So….Skopje?

Least favorite destination?
I don’t think I’ve ever been somewhere that I absolutely loathed. There are places I’ve been that I liked but realized I probably don’t need to go back to again. La Paz, Bolivia, mostly because I couldn’t handle the altitude sickness, is one of those places.

If you could time-travel to anywhere, where would you go?
Witnessing some world-changing events would top my list: Jerusalem in 33 AD, Hastings in 1066, and Paris in 1789 all come to mind.

Favorite guidebook?
I’m not much of a guidebook user these days, but when I was, I usually reached for Time Out, mostly because I thought the writing was better than in other guidebooks.

***If you’re looking to improve your writing or just start as a travel writer, David and I have a very detailed and robust travel writing course. Through video lectures and examples of edited and deconstructed stories, you’ll get the course David teaches at NYU and Columbia – without the college price. You’ll only learn the nuts and bolts of travel writing — from how to find a good story to pre-trip research to writing up a pitch for a story — all of the things David (and I) learned the through years of writing. If you’re interested, click here to get started right now.

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