An Interview with Jodi Ettenberg

Jodi Ettenberg is the face behind the Legal Nomads blog, a site about culture, food, and travel. She’s also the author of The Food Traveler’s Handbook, a book that will help travelers find cheap, safe, and delicious food all around the world. In our interview, Jodi talks with me about the history of her blog, where she hopes to go in the next few years, and what the process of writing the handbook was like. Enjoy!

Jodi, tell us a little bit about yourself and your blog, Legal Nomads. What initially gave you the idea to start the blog?

I started Legal Nomads to keep friends and family apprised of my whereabouts on what I thought would be a one-year trip around the world. The name was plural because I originally set off with a friend, Jessica, who was my opposing counsel on one of the last business deals I worked on before I quit. She had also wanted to travel for a year, so we decided we’d set off together. I ended up getting quite sick fairly early on, and had to go back to North America until I healed. She kept going for her year abroad, but didn’t enjoy writing – so she asked me to take full control of the blog.

We’ve kept in touch and she’s doing really well, having returned to the practice of law after her year was up. As you know since you’re interviewing me here – I ended up setting out again after I got better, and almost 5 years later I am still traveling and writing, albeit in a very different vein than when I set out in 2008.

How did you get into writing? Did you always have aspirations of being a writer, even when you decided to attend law school, or did this desire come later?

I never actually quit my job to ‘be’ a writer. The story is an easy one. (“Lawyer burns out. Lawyer quits job to travel and be a travel writer.”) In reality, however, I thought I would return to the practice of law and that this site would be a one-year project of my travels. The organic transition from fun diary to travelogue to a great community of readers and friends was completely unexpected, but I’m very grateful for it.

As a kid, I always wrote.  I got in trouble for writing under the covers at night after bedtime with a flashlight, because the words needed to go somewhere. Even if no one read my site now, I’d still be writing. I used to send out email travelogues to friends when I travelled earlier, when I was still in law school. It made sense that since the technology evolved for me to post it online instead of sending email blasts, I’d embrace that. But again, never thought it would be a new career. If tomorrow the site folded and I did something completely different, I would still be writing for myself. I don’t think I could stop – it is cathartic and it is a part of who I am.

I do not necessarily think of myself as solely a writer now, either. It’s a part of what I do, but other big parts are important too – the social media (which I love), the photography, working with companies I really respect (like Longreads.com). The writing is certainly what created a platform for all the other hats I wear, but is one of many important parts of my day to day life.

What are you hoping to do with your writing in the next few years and how do you see your income stream changing?

I think technology has enabled many of us to take the things we want to be good at, get better at them and then leverage them to do other things we want to do. In my case, this means that my site led to some wonderful opportunities with food writing and photography, and social media consulting too.

For the first few years, I started the site and lived off my savings. As I said above, my aim wasn’t to be a travel writer so I had saved up and planned to live off those savings for a year then return to the law. One year bled into two, and then of course I needed to start thinking of how to sustain this, if I didn’t want to return to the law anymore. I started receiving offers for freelance work and I figured I would just go with it, and see where opportunities arose.

In terms of it changing going forward, I still do not plan to monetize Legal Nomads (right now it is only via Amazon Affiliate links that I make anything off the site). I also have really enjoyed moving into the food sphere in practice (as opposed to just how I life, which has been food-obsessed for quite awhile!). Publishing the Food Traveler’s Handbook was a big step in that direction for me.  I’ve long wanted to write a book about the history of table condiments and how they are affected by colonisation but not any time soon.

So essentially, I see my income stream continuing as it is – coming from several different sources for the different skills I employ in my day-to-day life.

food travel EttenbergIf someone asked you for advice on making money doing travel blogging, what would you tell them?

This is a highly subjective answer because it is just my opinion, but I would tell them not to look to make money from travel blogging. If they want to keep a site because they love to write or want to inform or provide a service that is lacking, yes yes do it! Do it and you will love it and sharing will make you work harder to build a better resource. But if the reason is solely to make money I don’t think it is a good place to do so. I recommend working elsewhere – a different site, some other skills, a part-time job – and not monetizing the travel site.

That’s just one opinion of many, and there is no right or wrong way. However, I don’t think I could have built up a loyal readership had I monetized immediately. (My book was the first thing I ever asked for support on, and it was almost 4.5 years out of keeping the site.) So, if they do want to monetize, at a minimum I would say to hold off doing so until they establish a community.

A good read in general on this is Adam Baker’s “How not to suck at blogging.” Not specific to travel bloggers, but applicable regardless.

As someone who travels solo (and who is also a woman), tell me some of the best advice you would give to a girlfriend of yours who wanted to travel and write. In your opinion, what’s it really like to travel as a woman and why is it important to write about it?

I actually never do brand myself as a solo female traveler. I’m a traveler who loves food but who happens to be a female who travels alone. I think it’s important to distinguish between the two because there are so many tips and articles focused on solo female travel when many (almost all) of those tips are also applicable to men.

Yes, there are issues – most notably that of sexual assault – which makes solo female travel more scary in many ways. And those issues are not ones we should ignore. As I’ve said publicly, there are certainly places I would not travel to alone. But the tips people provide – e.g. watch your drink, don’t walk late at night in unlit places, dress respectably – these apply to men and to women.

I recently wrote a piece about solo female travel in light of the murder of Sarai Sierra in Turkey, which details my thoughts on the discussion and how we should stop talking about solo female travel as an issue, and instead talk about violence against women generally, which happens at home and abroad.  There are a bunch of tips at the end of the piece too.

How do you relate to your readers when you write? What keeps them coming back?

I should ask them! I can’t say for sure – I write about the things I care about and I’m thrilled that my readers seem to care about them too.  I definitely do take their suggestions into consideration – what they’d like to see more of, what they react to or enjoy.

Regardless of why they keep coming back, I am happy to have them. I’ve hosted some really fun reader meetups (here in Vietnam too) and I’ve really enjoyed learning from them and about their lives and stories. There are a lot of lawyers who write with advice questions who would otherwise never publicly comment – it seems a diverse, really fun readership and I’ve enjoyed watching it grow slowly and organically over the years. There have been spikes – the NYT profile last year and some of the Q&As I’ve done about food since the book came out – but otherwise mostly slow build and word of mouth.

I’d love to hear more about the process of writing The Food Traveler’s Handbook and what you hope readers will take away from your experiences and advice.

The process was hectic since I was writing at the same time as traveling and attending conferences. I did spent a month at my family’s place in Montreal, holing up and writing. It was overwhelming but I basically started with an outline and made it more and more detailed until it fleshed out into a book. I was fortunate to have mentors and friends who read through the initial outline and the drafts of the book before it was submitted to my editor, giving me great feedback. As with any big project, it’s hard to see the forest through the trees when you are writing.

In terms of goals and takeaways, the book isn’t meant to be a destination-specific guide, but rather an encouragement to see the world differently, through the lens of food. I talk about food as a bridge between cultures and people worldwide, a universality that we can use to our advantage as travelers. There are many practical chapters too, to help conquer the fear of eating on the street – how to source food safely and what to eat, or how to travel with allergies or restrictions (the full table of contents is here).

The overarching message, however, is one of using food to see the world in technicolor and learn about places by eating your way through them. As I’ve traveled, people have been so enthused to see me take an interest in what they are eating or preparing, and that enthusiasm has led to all sorts of great moments – weddings, cooking classes and more. In looking at the world through the history and practice of what it eats, you are not only getting some great meals, but also a whole new layer of interesting travel memories.

Jodi Ettenberg was born in Montreal and has been eating her way around the world since April 2008. She is the author of the recently published Food Traveler’s Handbook. She is also the founder of Legal Nomads, which chronicles worldwide travel and food adventures, and is a contributing editor for Longreads. Prior to founding Legal Nomads, Jodi worked for five years as a corporate lawyer in New York City. She frequently speaks about social media strategy, food and travel, and curation. She gets the shakes when she goes too long without eating sticky rice.

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Interview conducted in March, 2013 by Kristin Mock.

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