A Conversation with Victor Ozols

Victor Ozols is the senior editor of BlackBook, magazine famed for its spirited enthusiasm for urban life, popular culture, travel, entertainment, and the arts. There, in addition to his regular editorial responsibilities, he writes features (he even writes a monthly spirits column!), works with the online content, and specializes in the BlackBook Guides, a series of downloadable nightlife, restaurant, hotel, and shopping guides to more than 65 around-the-globe destinations. Check out his portfolio site here!

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

I grew up in an airline family (my dad was a pilot for Eastern Airlines) and I loved traveling from an early age. As a kid, I enjoyed taking snapshots and writing in a journal about my experiences in different places. After I graduated from college in Virginia, I moved to Riga, Latvia (both my parents were born in Latvia), where I taught English and took a job as a writer and editor for an English-language newspaper called The Baltic Observer. There, I discovered that I preferred writing funny tourist guides to covering austere matters of government and finance.

From Riga, I moved to New York in late 1994, early 1995, and held various jobs as a financial journalist, but I always wanted to get back into travel writing. That opportunity came when I noticed that Gawker had launched a travel blog called Gridskipper. I got in touch with Gridskipper‘s editor, Chris Mohney, and began contributing stories about New York or wherever I happened to travel. It was a good platform for me, because my writing style has always been kind of dry and snarky.

After Gridskipper relaunched under a different (non-snarky) format, I moved over to Jaunted, a similar pop culture travel blog. I worked for a year or so as the weekend editor of Jaunted, which was an enjoyable part-time gig where I had the freedom to write about any travel-related topic, as long as it was interesting. For a while, I was also a contributor to two other travel websites, momondo.com and thelobby.com. But I don’t do any of that anymore.

During most of this, I was working as associate research editor at Esquire magazine. In spring 2010, I left Esquire to become senior editor at BlackBook. BlackBook is the perfect place for me, because it combines two different careers into one, print media and web/mobile technology. I am the senior editor of BlackBook magazine, where I edit several sections (including a section of notable restaurant, club, and hotel openings around the world) and write a spirits column (lucky me). The spirits column sometimes involves travel, in the form of junkets I’ve taken to such places as Miami Beach, Las Vegas, and Barbados (love that Mount Gay rum). So yeah, that’s pretty great.

Perhaps more importantly, I am the editor of the BlackBook Guides, a curated series of nightlife, restaurant, hotel, and shopping guides to more than 65 destinations around the world. For me, that involves writing venue reviews, and managing a group of city editors around the world, who maintain and update listings for their cities. The guides are available online on our website, and for iPhone, iPad, and Android devices. We also build iPhone, iPad, and Android apps for other companies, which license our technology and content for customized city guides and related projects. For example, we built the Jersey Shore app. You’re welcome.

It makes me happy that I can say “I am print magazine editor,” and hand people a copy of the magazine, which is excellent, and then in the next breath, say “I am a mobile content editor,” and show people BlackBook’s apps, which are also pretty cool. It’s old school and new school, mixed into one job. In a sea of struggling journalists, I feel very fortunate.

The keys to my success were reaching out to editors, making clear that I wanted to write for them, and following up. Having my own personal blog helped in developing web publishing/photo/video/HTML skills. When fortunate enough to get an assignment, I’ve always turned in my work on time. It means a lot to some editor with a section to fill.

Beyond that, I’ve tried to approach subjects from unique angles, ask questions that haven’t been asked yet, and speak in my own voice rather than relying on “sun-dappled” cliches. And yeah, you’ve got to work your ass off. Forget TV at night, you write.

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?

Prior to getting my job at BlackBook, I was concerned that I would have to leave journalism altogether to make enough money to support a family in New York City. Fortunately, Chris Mohney hired me into the rarest and coolest of job hybrids: Print Media Editor plus Online/Mobile Content Editor. (Also, I write a liquor column, which is as fun as it sounds.)  There is no fabulous wealth, but it’s given me a fighting chance to keep the family in New York. It’s fun to come to the office, and even more fun to attend BlackBook’s parties and events at nightclubs throughout the city. The Access Network Company (the parent company) is growing fast, thanks mostly to its technology side, which includes the BlackBook City Guides. Hopefully I’ll stick with it and help them really achieve something great.

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

Work on your writing, first and foremost. It doesn’t have to be travel-related, just sell a few freelance pieces here and there and take a look at the kinds of changes the editor made. Then, study the market. Read the travel websites, magazines, and books you like. Think about who your favorite writers are get in touch with them. Seriously, just look them up and send them a note. Tell them what you liked about a certain story. Ask a few questions. If they’re not really interested in helping you, fine. Move on. Somebody’s bound to have a few helpful words. Keep writing and don’t get discouraged. Accept that eight hours of sleep is a luxury you don’t really need. Once you get your foot in the door, you really can differentiate yourself as someone who “delivers the goods,” both on time and in the form the editor wants. Always make sure you answer the question that the assignment requires of your story. Also, stay on top of technology. Take it from me, mobile devices are big. Consider how you can adapt to that kind of format.

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”?)

Find out who the editors are to the various travel blogs out there and get in touch. Pitch your ideas and follow up just to the point where you’re annoying them. Eventually they’ll have you write up a story. Send them something tight and well written and include a good photo or video. Make your deadlines. Be one of those people who always meets their deadlines. When so many people don’t, it’s a good way to differentiate yourself.

As for the writing itself, sink into your own voice as much as possible, but don’t look like you’re trying too hard to be original. Try to tell the truth about a place. What’s it really like? How did you feel? Metaphors are always good, but come up with original ones. Become allergic to cliches.

You’re certainly no stranger to working hard and juggling lots of projects at once, on top of being a husband and father. How do you manage your time and keep it all straight?

I am married and have two boys, Zachary, who is now 4, and Sebastian, who, at the time of this writing (July 4, 2011), is 8 months old (and napping!). How to keep it straight? Well, you have to be kind of a freak about writing, and there’s simply no avoiding working late into the night after the family has gone to sleep.

It helps to exercise and relax as much as you can. I used to take the attitude that I’ll get things done “after the dust has settled,” but I’m now realizing that the dust will never settle. Once you can accept that you’ll never have ideal conditions, that you have to function amid chaos, there’s a certain calm that comes over you and the work you do.

But, as far as family is concerned, they’re not just a drag on my energy, they also give energy back to me, in the form of happiness and motivation and new perspectives on things. Energy-wise, they’re a net positive, though you have to go through the ringer to get there.

It used to be an obvious choice to be in New York City as a non-fiction writer because the print media center of gravity was there, but with the rise of new media, writers are more dispersed. The downsides of living in that city are obvious, but what have been the advantages of living there for you?

Good question. Obviously both my wife and I agree that living in New York City is worth the hassles. In some ways, it’s actually a bargain, but only if you take advantage of the amazing opportunities. Access to editors, and face-time with all manner of people, is key. There’s nothing like actually sitting down for a coffee (or beer) with somebody, compared with emailing back and forth. And it keeps you up on trends in a real way, not just by reading about trends. You actually see the people wearing this and hear the people listening to that, and all these crazy art happenings (and weird marketing events) are happening right before your eyes. It’s always best to judge/interpret things you have experienced personally, rather than second-hand.

I’ve always been sort of addicted to the energy of urban areas. In some ways I’m kind of lazy, and moving to New York 15 years ago was a way to ensure I’d always have interesting experiences, even if I did nothing more than go from home to work to the store, that kind of thing. In the suburbs, that kind of travel triangle can be soul-crushing. In the city, who knows what you’ll experience between your front door and the street corner. I also love the open-mindedness of New Yorkers. I’ve always felt comfortable here. If we were to move, it would have to be a pretty fantastic place, because both my wife and I are kind of experience-junkies. (Don’t worry, there’s a philosophical side too.) Plus, whenever you need to experience another scene, you can choose from three nearby airports and fly anywhere.

Editor’s Note: If you’re interested in a free copy of Victor’s BlackBook Guides, you can download the FREE BlackBook Guides app for your iPhone or Android phone!

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Victor Ozols is a New York-based writer and editor. His travel writing career began in Riga, Latvia when he worked for an English-language newspaper called The Baltic Observer. After moving to New York, he became a contributor to Gridskipper.com, an urban travel blog. From there, he became weekend editor of Jaunted.com, a pop culture travel blog, and contributed to numerous other travel websites. He has held held editorial positions at several New York publications, including a few years as associate research editor for Esquire. In 2010, he became Senior Editor of BlackBook. In addition to his editorial responsibilities for the magazine, which include writing a monthly spirits column, he is the editor of the BlackBook City Guides, a series of curated guides covering 65+ destinations around the world, available on the web and iPhone and Android app.

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

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