David Farley is not your typical travel writer. For one, his newest book, An Irreverent Curiosity: In Search of the Church’s Strangest Relic in Italy’s Oddest Town, is a travel memoir about the search for Jesus’ foreskin. His dog is named Abraham Lincoln, and he’s a self-proclaimed “awesome dancer.” Farley has written extensively on the Czech Republic and edited a collection for Travelers’ Tales, and been published in such highly-touted magazines as Conde Nast Traveler, Afar, and The New York Times. When he’s not writing, he’s teaching it at New York University. See his complete bio and website here.
You taught English in the Czech Republic and ended up editing a Travelers’ Tales anthology of stories about travel in that region. How did that all come about and what else did living abroad do for your writing career?
I actually wanted to write my own book of essays about living in Prague, but I really only had about half a book’s worth of material. I was lamenting this to my friend and fellow writer Stephanie Elizondo Griest and she suggested something that I would have never come to on my own: why not pitch the idea of an anthology—various writers on a similar topic—about Prague to the publishing house Travelers’ Tales. I did and they gave me the assignment.
As for living abroad, it gave me a tremendous amount of fodder for writing. In fact, the only reason I’m a “travel writer” is because when I decided I wanted to try my hand at writing, most of the material I wanted to write first was from my travel experiences. Besides Prague, I’ve also lived in Paris, Rome, and a village near Rome and this has given me a wealth of stories to write about.
How did you “break in to travel writing”? What have been the keys to your success?
I decided I wanted to be a travel writer and I dedicated all of my being to doing just that. Determination is the most important factor. For the last six years I’ve taught travel writing (at New York University and Gotham Writers’ Workshop) and the students who have been the most successful weren’t the most talented in the class; they were the most determined and driven. You can always become a better writer through practice and study, but that determination has to come from somewhere else. In the United States, newspaper travel editors don’t want to receive queries for stories; they want to get the already written story for them to consider. This is good news for newbies: it means you don’t have to have a list of already published clips to show off with your query. Instead, you can just send in the finished piece and the editor will consider it by the piece’s own merits and not necessarily what you’ve published (or haven’t published) in the past. This is how I first broke into travel writing. I submitted a story on Rome to the Chicago Tribune travel section and they published it. After I established a working relationship with the editor, I could then start pitching.
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?
I see it about the same as it is now: writing for a mix of print pubs and websites that pay me enough to pay my rent and eat. I think video is going to be more important three years from now.
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?
The landscape has changed since I first started out about 10 years ago. Blogs didn’t exist and writing for the web was still in its infancy. If I were starting out today I’d have a blog or write for blogs and websites more.
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”?)
Here’s a list off the top of my head: It’s important to have broad intellectual interests (be an intellectual dilettante). Develop thick skin — there’s a ton of rejection in this business; know that even the successful writers get rejected frequently. Talk to writers more successful than you are and ask lots of questions. Read fiction and other genres in addition to travel writing. Approach travel writing for the art of the genre — not just to fetishize free travel; you can smell a hack travel writer from a thousand feet away and it’s not a pretty scent. Determination is key. Be nice to everyone, even when you don’t want to.
You teach writing classes and arrange informal get-togethers for travel writers in New York. What do the merely mediocre writers do wrong that the great writers don’t?
This goes back to my answer to the first question. I think a lot of success and failure can be boiled down to drive and motivation.
David Farley is the author of An Irreverent Curiosity: In Search of the Church’s Strangest Relic in Italy’s Oddest Town (see an excerpt here) and co-editor of Travelers’ Tales Prague and the Czech Republic: True Stories (Travelers’ Tales, 2006). His writing appears in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Travel + Leisure, Afar, bon appétit, Slate.com, and WorldHum.com, among other publications. He teaches writing at New York University. See his personal websitehere for more information.
Interview conducted in September, 2010 by Travel Writing 2.0 author Tim Leffel and edited by Kristin Mock.