Jason Frye believes there’s no place finer for a freelance writer than North Carolina. Arriving there from Virginia by way of West Virginia in 2002 to pursue a Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of North Carolina Wilmington, Jason found a place as inspiring as the mountains he knew growing up. North Carolina became his muse and his desire to explore the history, food, people and nature of his new home state took over. Jason’s the go to guy for stories about the place and people he loves. He has written numerous guidebooks and has been featured in a variety of national and regional magazines. He joins us this week to tell his story, offer a bit of advice and frighten us with a harrowing ghost story.
Share with us what inspired you to venture down the road as a travel writer and how you began your career?
I’ve always had this fascination with maps. The blank spots. The places where the margins meet “Here be dragons.” Something about the lines on a topographic map or the routes on a road atlas, the names of all the towns and cities and mountains. I guess I just wanted to know what was there. What were the people like? What did the buildings look like? Was there someone like me there, looking at a map, finger pinned to the mountains of West Virginia wondering what it’s like in the folds of those hills?
I explored a little, hiking and hunting my family’s property, then learning to properly read a map in the Boy Scouts. My dad would have me navigate on vacations, so I got good at reading road maps. But I was still curious.
Like most writers I’ve always been a reader, and at Marshall University I majored in English Education, took all the creative writing classes I could. There I was exposed to Kerouac’s On The Road (another travel writer mainstay); the poetry of Gregory Corso and Robert Creeley; and to haiku. The haiku struck me, much in the way Creeley’s poetry did: simple and spare, but deceptively so. After graduation I moved to Virginia to start a brief but bright career as a middle school teacher. I was writing then—poetry mostly—and decided I didn’t want to be that cliché English teacher who’s working on a novel in the summer, so I applied to graduate schools to study Creative Writing.
At the University of North Carolina Wilmington I studied poetry under Sarah Messer, Michael White and Mark Cox, and had the chance to study with poets Mark Doty and Robert Creeley. As much as I learned about verse from them, it was a trio of other instructors there—David Monahan, who taught screenwriting; Robert Siegel, who showed me haibun, a hybrid prose-haiku form that’s a precursor to travel writing; and David Gessner, whose nature writing class was open to writing and reading of all genres—that nudged me toward where I am now.
Somewhere in there, between On the Road and Basho’s haibun, especially his book The Narrow Road to the Interior, and my own travels, I started paying more attention to travel writing. When I earned my MFA in 2005, no one in town was hiring poets, so I worked designing and building cabinets and furniture, but had the itch to write and travel.
A new magazine started up—North Brunswick Magazine—and I pitched the editor a story about the beaches near us. Since the magazine was targeting new residents and retirees in a fast-growing area, I thought a roundup (I didn’t know the term then) of beaches within a short drive of the largest cluster of readers would work. And it did. But that first story was a nightmare. It was 1,200 words long and took me days to write. Days. Worst of all, it’s terrible.
From that first story I sold, it was pitch and write, pitch and write, try for a bigger magazine or a newspaper and write some more. One day you look around and suddenly you have a career.
You offer copywriting services as well as consultant services through Teakettle Junction, can you tell us how that side of your business came into being?
Like any good freelancer I work on writing whatever words need written, so I’ve done my fair share of copywriting: speeches, investor letters, advertorial, ghost writing (I’ve ghost written a trio of books for the beauty industry), websites, ads, you name it. As far as consulting goes, I don’t know if I’ve ever really done any, but I do a fair bit of developmental editing for novelists. Copywriting came about as a necessity, but the editing is passion. I love working with a novelist or screenwriter (or even nonfiction writer) to break a story. Something about finding the possibilities in all these characters and situations gives me a thrill, so I’ve worked extensively with Taylor Brown and a few other authors to develop their stories into something more.
Your work has been published in numerous publications including Southern Living, Dallas Morning News and a number of regional and national publications and you’ve written a slew of guidebooks. What advice would you give to someone wanting to break into travel writing and also someone wanting to up their game to the next level?
I have a lot of guidebooks. As of this writing I have seven: Moon North Carolina (two editions), Moon North Carolina Coast Including the Outer Banks (two editions), Moon Blue Ridge Parkway Road Trip, Moon Blue Ridge and Smoky Mountains, and Moon Spotlight on Asheville. And one on the way—Moon Great Smoky Mountains National Park (out in March 2017). So I’ve been busy.
If you want to get better at writing, there are two things you have to do: write and write some more. And read, that helps too. The only way to get better at something is to practice, and for writers, practicing means writing and then reading—and analyzing the writing of—others. I have spoken with a few classes at UNC Wilmington and I tell those MFA candidates the same thing: to get better at writing, write. Write often, write a lot, write when you don’t want to, but write.
As for how to get into travel writing, it comes back to this: write and write some more. Read the travel section in newspapers, read blogs, read magazines. Study what’s getting published or passed around; take note of what’s catching editors’ eyes. Then go practice your craft. Pitch a story or start a blog, but whatever you do, put yourself—and your words and your point of view—out there for someone to see.
Photo by Kerrick James
What do you love most about your career?
The ability to grow. I travel because it’s my job, it’s the thing I write about, but I also travel because exposure to other people, languages, cultures, habits, architecture, artworks, and nature helps me become more. I find my own personal growth and the evolution of my worldview are the most rewarding things about my job and they’re what I value more than all the seven-course wine dinners and whitewater rafting trips and Instagram-worthy vistas.
What’s your craziest, scariest or most bizarre travel experience?
I was haunted at a bed and breakfast in Louisiana.
If you had asked before I was haunted, “Are ghosts real?” I think I would have given a dubious “Yes” as my answer. Now though, I’m all in.
I was in Louisiana and staying for a three nights at Loyd Hall Plantation, the former plantation of the youngest son of the Lloyds of London family. Evidently, he was a bit of a bad boy because the family bought out his inheritance in exchange for him changing his name and leaving England. He did and made it to Cheneyville, Louisiana where he started a plantation. Leading up to and during the Civil War, several deaths happened in the house: a cook slave was poisoned; his daughter, Irene, was left at the altar and then leapt to her death from the attic; Union troops occupied his home and Mr. Loyd was caught feeding intelligence to them and to Confederates in the area; and, finally, a Union deserter hid in the attic eaves, was found out and pulled a gun on some family members, they struggled, he was shot and left to die in the attic and then buried in the crawl space. All four haunt the house.
I stayed in Mr. Loyd’s suite, two rooms that were supposedly haunted and I wanted to see for myself. The first night the andirons (fireplace tools) were flung to the ground around 10:30pm, in the front room first, then 30 seconds later in the bedroom. I played it off, set them back up and went back to sleep. It happened again around 3:30am.
On night two, i heard walking and talking in the hall and thought it was a fellow journalist staying in the main house with me. Then I realized it was a male voice and the pacing was coming from my front room. Terrified, I turned on the light and it stopped instantly.
The morning of the third day I was recounting my story at breakfast when a knob broke off a piece of furniture in an adjacent room and was flung into the opposite corner.
On the final night, it was 2:58am when I could move and see the clock, but I was visited again. Footsteps woke me up, then the bed shifted as if someone hopped in beside me. I rolled toward “them” and could feel a body pressed against mine. I was freezing cold and I tried to move but couldn’t. Then it felt like someone ran a feather along the length of my body, the bed shifted, I rolled back to where I was originally and then I heard footsteps running away. I got up, turned on every light, got fully dressed and sat on my bed watching movies on my laptop until breakfast.
You’ve been given $10,000 to go anywhere your heart desires…and you’re not on assignment. Where would you go and what would you do?
I love road trips and national parks, so I see a road trip in my future. I’d tell my wife, Lauren, to grab her boots and pack a bag because we’re driving until we’re out of money. And since she’s the best road trip partner I’ve ever taken a road trip with, I’d let her pick the first destination, but I know we’d end up in the Smoky Mountains, in the national parks in Colorado, out to Utah, to Death Valley (the place where I found the name of my business while on a graduate school research trip), maybe up to Canada and drive back, visiting their stunning national parks.
Jason Frye is a travel and food writer from North Carolina. He’s authored five guidebooks to the Tar Heel State including Moon North Carolina and Moon Blue Ridge Parkway Road Trip. His stories and photos have appeared in Our State, Thrillist, Moon.com, and Southern Living. You can connect with Jason at teakettlejunction.com, but keep an eye out for his forthcoming blog tarheeltourist.com. You’ll also find him on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.