A Conversation with Amanda Castleman

This week, we’re highlighting travel writer Amanda Castleman, known for her adventure writing and  popular new media and travel writing online classes. To honor her work as a mentor and teacher, Kristin Mock asked Amanda a series of questions for writers just getting their careers off the ground. Amanda, whose work has been featured in such publications as Outside, The International Herald Tribune, Wired, and Salon, also won the coveted Lowell Thomas adventure-writing award in 2007 for a Honduras scuba story. Without further adieu, then, here’s Amanda!

Ok. First question comes from me, a writer relatively new to the world of publishing: Do you have any tips? Tricks? With so much out there, especially on the web, where do I start? (Basically, this question should simply be titled “Help!!” but we’ll go with something a little more professional).

Most editors look for three major components, neatly summed up by “why THIS story NOW by YOU”?

  • A noteworthy topic that pushes beyond “cool stuff happened” or “neat locale”. Stories should reveal something deeper about a place, whether that’s a cultural insight or a tip on how to travel better there.
  • A timely angle. This inspires folks to commission now, rather than backburner a concept and forget about it. News pegs also give readers reason to revisit a location – in print or in person.
  • Access or expertise. This is the “pick me, pick me” element, where you convince editors to look outside their regular stable of stringers and take a chance on fresh blood without a referral. You can draw compelling points from your life (residency, hobby, training, etc.) and also from interviews and unusual experiences. The same ideas often surface (just about everyone pitches a Weird Toilet Tale at some point, for example. It’s a rite of passage like teen acne). Make yours stand out thanks to insider intel of some sort.

Interviews serve as rocket fuel in that equation. Other voices bring depth, authority and authenticity – and also show respect for a place and its people, rather than a parachute journalism approach. Plus, many traditional editors demand at least three sources per story (roughly one per 300 words for longer pieces). Bring original reporting to the table and you’re more likely to walk away with assignments.

Now, I’d love to hear more about your eight-year love affair with Europe. I, too, adore Europe and find myself continually drawn there—not so much for the adventure as just how much I love it. What drew you there initially, and what kept you there almost a decade? How did the experience affect your writing, and what did you learn about yourself as a writer there?

I had an impulsive starter-marriage in my 20s, which lasted seven years, just like a clichéd joke. My then-husband was working on a PhD in Ancient Greek music at University College London. We moved to Oxford for my dream job: launch-editing an entertainment and current affairs magazine, modeled on Time Out. Its Publisher Will Gompertz flitted on to other projects (and eventually became the BBC’s first Arts Editor), so I shifted to book publishing, then staffed at the Oxford Times and Oxford Mail, while living aboard a traditional English narrowboat.

John’s studies took us next to the Continent: Cyprus, Turkey, Greece and two years at the American Academy in Rome, which awarded me Visiting Writer status. My shoddy Italian made news reporting tough, but it sufficed for travel writing. And that momentum just snowballed…

A lot of days were full of wine and roses over there. I debuted the magazine at Blenheim Palace, the ancestral home of Winston Churchill, with celebrity guest Roger Bannister – the first man to run a mile under four minutes. I occasionally helped Love Story author Erich Segal with his Greek comedy tome for Harvard University Press and attended his French-knighthood ceremony (Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres). In Rome, I’d wander downstairs – procrastinating on deadline – and run into Leonard Nimoy, Frank McCourt or Novelist Ann Beattie doing the same. All that seemed quite shiny for a girl fresh from the mudflats and pea silage of Skagit Valley, Washington…

I found inspiration in some classic literary travelogues: Eleanor Clark, Norman Douglas, Lawrence Durrell, Henry Miller, Jan Morris and Mary Lee Settle, etc. At the same time, I experienced writing’s “broad church,” working on outlets from tabloids to The International Herald Tribune and festschrifts (essay collections honoring notable academics). It taught me what subgenre I love best – narrative nonfiction – and revealed some of my ethical limits (I’ll play any type of fool to engage with locals. But I will not stalk people down on their luck like the newly bereaved or a drug-addicted doctor stripped of his license).

This next question comes out of my own curiosity: What has been one of your most harrowing/meaningful travel experiences? Did either of these experiences turn into pieces you published, and if so, how did you gain the narrative distance you needed to write about something that affected you so deeply?

Hmmmm. I’m hard-pressed to point to just one. Some contenders:

  • Owning and piloting a moped in Rome.
  • Suffering a second-degree burn on my breast, thanks to a busted underwater light leaking battery acid. I was on a liveaboard dive boat 90 minutes from Palau’s capital Koror … with a lesbian and eight guys. The freak-out factor moved me past modesty quite quickly. The tale didn’t suit my Sport Diver feature, but I hope to cover it some day. Who knew that acid could leap right through synthetic swimsuit fabric without a trace?
  • Descending the wrong side of a mountain in a whiteout while backcountry guiding. Just as the client started popping his secret stash of angina pills. I solo-hiked 45 miles to move the car to a more accessible trailhead. As I bivouacked for the night, shaking with exhaustion and the terror of an 18-year-old playing adult – I noticed a pile of bear scat. I’d bunked up in the blackberry-bramble lair of a bear! Later I awoke with something warm and fuzzy perched on my head. It took a good 20 minutes before I recalled that black bears weigh around 880lbs, so my Davy Crockett hat simply couldn’t be King of the Forest or else I’d never have regained consciousness in the first place…

The hardest piece to write, however, dealt with my then-husband walking out abruptly in Athens. My “big fat Greek divorce” epic took four years and untold tides of Chardonnay to process, and eventually appeared in the Seal Press anthology Greece, A Love Story (irony points!). I have my “big brother” – travel writer Edward Readicker-Henderson – to thank for the ending’s strength. As we road-tripped around the Balkans, he asked – about every 20 stupid minutes – “how did Greece get that cockroach from the lede off your neck?” Finally I turned and started ranting – and an apt conclusion, anchored in place, rolled out. “Very good,” he remarked. “Now both hands back on the wheel, please. These people drive worse than Italians.”

As I’m sure you’re used to hearing, it’s no secret that travel writing is finding a new niche market online. What are your thoughts about this, and how has it affected (and will affect) your own writing? How do you find your style or authorial choices changing in tandem with the new media landscape?

I love the fresh upwelling of voices and outlets online: a whole New World Order. I see media – print, blogs, audio, broadcast and visual storytelling – converging digitally over the next five years. Sure, I’ll miss smeary newsprint from time to time, but the green and global elements outweigh that nostalgia for me.

I began working for exclusively online outlets in the mid-90s (Salon, MSN Underwire, The Daily Mail’s ThisIsTravel.co.uk). Some welcomed narrative nonfiction, like Road and Travel giving me enough literary freedom to win a Lowell Thomas award (adventure, bronze, 2007). Others provide much-needed service journalism – the where and how to go tips – like TripSketch.com, a Silicon-Valley start-up that I launch-edited a few years back. Aside from Twitter’s hashtaggery and 140-character cap, I can’t point to style variations bigger than those found among print clients.

The wailing and gnashing of teeth about new media tuckers me out (caveat: I teach the subject, along with travel writing). The industry’s nosedive has already ended. Last year, 193 new North American magazines debuted, from Northeast Flavor to Livestrong Quarterly, according to Mediafinder.com. Those offset 176 closures, including the venerable Gourmet. Sure, it’ll take a while for ad rates (and thus editorial fees) to consistently support living wages, but it’s happening. All along, I’ve had digital-only clients paying above a buck a word. And more and more outlets seem to be getting the “pay peanuts, get monkeys” memo…

While some material does run shorter online, technology’s already starting to counterbalance that with whizzbang innovations Kindle Singles, and print-on-demand books extending the long tail for travel memoirs. What’s challenging is the new entrepreneurship … and the sharks in the water – I’m talking to you, Arianna Huffington! For shame! – who take advantage of writing’s soapboxiness and (alleged) glamour. But overall, it’s thrilling – like living in the Wild West right now: prospectors, cowboys, bandits, etc. I’ll cast myself as the cinematic school marm Cat Ballou, who starts her own band of outlaws. I love collaborating with – and teaching – folks excited about these new storytelling and communication tools. I can’t wait to see what happens next!

As a writing teacher myself, I’d love to hear a little bit about your own teaching career. I’m thinking, specifically, of your online travel writing classes, which you teach alongside a host of other wonderfully accomplished writers. How have your teaching methods evolved out of your own personal experience, and how do they complement (or contradict) each other? And—here’s the pressing question from me—how do you find time to manage both writing and teaching?

I started teaching online at a time when “travel the world for free” semi-scams dominated our genre (more shame! You hucksters are as bad as Arianna!). Now I instruct alongside brilliant folks like David Farley, Charyn Pfeuffer, Edward Readicker-Henderson and Thomas Swick, who all collaborated on the first 12-week, travel writing master class for Writers.com.

New writers tend to struggle most with original reporting, specifically angles, interviews and fact checking (no, really, don’t just declare tourism’s booming. Get numbers and percentages – and from an authoritative source). I devote a lot of class time to those aspects, as well as research (do lots) and revision (do even more). Professional publishing requires craft, as well as art. It’s not just about blurting out a story. Structure matters, punctuation matters, word choice matters, right down to avoiding undeliberate repetition and powering the story with active, evocative verbs, instead of terms of being (is, are, was being, etc). And you need to dial it all in, because you could be pitching into a feature well alongside veterans like Tim Cahill, Pico Iyer, Susan Orlean, etc. They’re light-years past comma splices and “land of contrast” clichés… so it takes a strong game to beat ‘em.

People often think that because they can write, they can shift over and be a writer effortlessly. Only a few manage that hat trick. The rest of us evolve over lifetimes. Even once we’ve mastered semicolons and the rule of three,  our “voices” keep growing … and then there’s the networking, the self-promotion and all the other moving parts. So I encourage folks to be gentle with themselves – to make time and space for the learning curve – and not go loco when National Geographic doesn’t publish their first query ever. (Though I did have a student land her second pitch in NG Traveler once.)

I’m the worst time-manager I know, so I can’t help with the whole writing-teaching balance thing – sorry. I just skimp on sleep, especially when traveling. And I’m lucky to live with a wonderful man who makes me coffee every morning, even though he doesn’t drink it … Having a supportive, deadline-foible-tolerant partner helps loads. I also co-work once a week with a bunch of writers, photogs and programmers. We share gigs, gossip, pep talks, tech consultations, interview sources and so on. It salves some of the freelancer cabin fever. Also, it’s good motivation to shower and shuck the pajamas…

My last question, of course, is: What is Amanda working on right now? And—I’m sure you knew this was coming—what’s next up on your plate? Any new projects or undertakings you’d like the world to know about?

Most immediately, I’m wrapping up a story about Guyana’s rainforest and rushing off to an assignment in French Polynesia.  I’m home to Seattle just in time for TBEX ‘11, the travel blogging conference, in nearby Vancouver, B.C.

Bigger goals for the year include pulling together a book on travel writing, which would build upon other great offerings out there like Tim’s Travel Writing 2.0. I’m also pecking away at a memoir (some day. Really. I promise!).  Finally, my new-media co-instructor Mike Keran and I are building an online-teaching platform, as no good affordable options exist. We’ll be incorporating social media that could open up classrooms, creating bigger, more dynamic conversations. We’ve named it OTTER (Online Teaching Tool and Educational Resource): an acronym honoring my demented enthusiasm for the six-foot-long Giant River Otters of Guyana. Six feet! That’s a lot of water weasel!

___

Former wilderness guide Amanda Castleman won a 2007 Lowell Thomas adventure-writing award for a Honduras scuba story. Her work has appeared in Outside, The International Herald Tribune, MSNBC.com, Wired and Salon, plus the UK’s BBC, Guardian and Mail on Sunday. A stringer for travelgirl and Sport Diver, she’s also worked on 30-odd books, including titles for National Geographic, Frommer’s, Michelin, Time Out and Rough Guides. An English narrowboat anchored much of Amanda’s eight years abroad. After two years as a Visiting Writer at the American Academy in Rome, she ranged farther afield to Greece, Cyprus and Turkey and is now in Seattle. Amanda has also worked as an editor, staff writer, graphic and web designer. She teaches new media and travel writing, primarily through Writers.com, but also some workshops in Seattle and Rome. Her website is www.amandacastleman.com and she ego-casts further on the blog Road Remedies.

Interview conducted in May, 2011 by Travel Writing 2.0 author Tim Leffel and edited by Kristin Mock.

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