A Conversation with Laurie Gough

Laurie Gough is the kind of writer who is redefining women’s travel—she isn’t afraid to jump into adventure or try something totally out of her comfort zone. She’s drunk hallucinogenic kava, befriended strangers waiting for the full moon to rise, lived in hollowed-out trees, ridden motorcycles with Hell’s Angels wannabes, and been devoured by bedbugs. Fearless, creative, and infectious, Laurie’s traveler’s tales are inspiring, colorful, and fun. A three-time book author who has been included in over twenty anthologies, Laurie has been called “one of the new generation of intrepid female travel writers” by Time magazine. Check out Kiss the Sunset Pig for a sense of her adventurous spirit, and see her website here!

You’ve put out several books that have won awards and gotten a lot of critical acclaim. Did that make it easier for you to get freelance article assignments later, to be taken more seriously?

Yes, absolutely. I came in though the backdoor to freelancing since I started by writing books. I think that made it easier to get articles published. It actually never even occurred to me to be a freelance travel writer until after my second book came out. Everything is different today of course with blogs. I think for anyone who writes well, blogs offer so much freedom, freedom to write what you like, and freedom from the constraints of the diminished travel pages in the mainstream media. I keep meaning to start a blog on my website. It’s definitely coming!

How did you “break in to travel writing”? What have been the keys to your success?

I broke into travel writing by traveling. I traveled through much of my 20s and early 30s, always keeping a journal, and when I got back to Canada after one particularly long trip, I found myself jobless and wondering what to do next. Waking up one night in a panic that my travels were beginning to evaporate, I got up in the dark and began to write. I wrote like mad and didn’t stop until morning. The next day, I dug out my travel journals and discovered a wealth of material in them, all kinds of reflections and details about the people I’d met in the South Pacific, in Morocco, in Asia, details I’d completely forgotten. The more I wrote, the more the memories would resurface. I soon realized I was writing a book. My first published stories were with Travelers’ Tales, and my first book—set mostly in Fiji—came out in 2000.

My second travel book came out six years later. Since then, I’ve been making my living as a freelance writer—mainly travel writing but also other kinds of writing—and as an editor. I also teach writing classes and workshops. I think the “key to my success” is this: When I began writing about my travels, I considered myself a traveler first and a writer second. But gradually, writing itself began to take over as my passion. This is because I was so interested in my topic. The more you work at something, the better you become at it, and the more interested you become in it. I’m very interested in what it is that makes good writing. A well-crafted travel story is what inspires me and what I strive myself to write—a story that breaks your heart, makes you smile in recognition, and tries to understand life in all its aching and beautiful complexities.

Where do you see your career as a travel writer being three years from now? How will your income mix change and what are you doing to adapt to the changing media landscape?

Where I’ll be as a travel writer three years from now is a scary thought at the moment. Travel writing seems to pay in travel but not in actual money to take to the bank. I guess I’ll keep teaching other people how to writer travel stories (so they can be as poor as I am, hee hee). I also want to start a blog, not that a blog will bring in money either but I love the idea of writing whatever I want. I do write other things beside travel, so hopefully this will be enough to keep me out of the poor house (or just hovering outside it.)

Knowing what you do now, if you were starting from scratch today to become established as a travel writer, what steps would you take to ensure success?

That’s a tough one since by “success” I assume this means financial success and making a living as a travel writer today is virtually impossible. However, to be rich in experience is far more worthy—when you’re 85 and looking back at your life, what parts of your life will make you smile? So if it’s not money you’re after, I would say keep your dream of being a travel writer alive. To break into travel writing today, I think the best way is to write articles which don’t involve getting on a plane—those sorts of articles which discuss how one can travel better. All sorts of publications are interested in these pieces. I didn’t start this way and I still don’t write these kinds of articles but I have it on good authority it’s the best way to break in today.

What advice would you give to someone near and dear to you who wanted to become a travel writer—assuming they had zero credits to their name. (Besides “Don’t do it”?)

I would give the same advice as above (writing how-to articles) but I’d also encourage them to travel and to WRITE. A lot of people dream of being a travel writer but they don’t actually sit down to write. You have to write and read a LOT and have a passion for both. Writing is a craft. It’s not something you’re born with. You have to work at it. Everyone starts out as a lousy writer, even the most intelligent among us.

Tell us about the writing workshop you do in San Miguel de Allende in Mexico. What do students get out of that?

I’ve given intensive two-day workshops there and also given 90-minute sessions. Either way, the classes always lead to great discussions about the changing world of travel writing. I use the Travel Writing 2.0 book quite a lot by the way!

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Lauded by Time magazine as “one of the new generation of intrepid female travel writers,” Laurie Gough is author of Kiss the Sunset Pig (Penguin), and Kite Strings of the Southern Cross: A Woman’s Travel Odyssey, shortlisted for the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award, and silver medal winner of ForeWord Magazine’s Travel Book of the Year in the US. Twenty of her stories have been anthologized in literary travel books, and besides being a regular contributor to The Globe and Mail, she has written for The L.A. Times, salon.com, The National Post, The Vancouver Sun, Canadian Geographic, Outpost, The Daily Express, and Caribbean Travel + Life, among others. (See: www.lauriegough.com for her portfolio and her Perceptive Travel story on Guyana here.)

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

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