Restless writing with Mary Morris, travel memoirist

I have this fantasy of writing not just one travel memoir, but many. Of traveling and writing for a living. Of making this journey into a lifestyle.

So I was thrilled to interview a woman who has done just that. Mary Morris has written four travel memoirs. Four! And she’s done it without becoming a complete nomad; she teaches writing at Sarah Lawrence College and also writes novels. Her most recent book is The River Queen. And her most well-known: Nothing to Declare: Memoirs of a Woman Traveling Alone (1988), which, in my mind, is one of the premiere memoirs written by a woman traveling alone. Mary also has a fabulous blog.

Mary, thanks for being with us today.

Author Mary Morris

On your Web site you write, “Somebody once told me that my travel writing isn’t really travel writing, it’s a story that takes place during a journey.” Can you talk about the difference? Why does the latter work better for you?

That comment was said to me in Japan by a Japanese writer and it has stayed with me. I think that first and foremost I am a storyteller. And by that I mean anything I write involves some kind of a story. Something with an arc. Some kind of beginning, middle and end. I began by writing short stories and I still write them all the time. But many of my stories happen during journeys.

For example, my family and I have done house swaps for years and I have a whole series of stories that involve house exchanges. Travel and narrative for me go hand in hand. I am always thinking about how one thing leads to another. You go on a journey and get a flat tire. You take a wrong turn. You miss a flight. And things unfold that were not anticipated. To me real travel writing is predominately about place. But in my travel writing it seems to be more about people (and often I’d have to admit myself) as some story is unfolding.

I so admire the writers who write eloquently about place. Henry Miller and Pico Iyre come to mind. I am just rereading The Colossus of Marousi and I am dumbstruck by certain passages when Miller speaks of how he sees Greece. My writing is more restless. It’s more about what’s happening than where it is happening. Or as I once told someone, you won’t learn how to get from San Cristobal de las Cases to Panajachel in my travel writing.

When you begin a travel memoir, how do you approach it? Is your theme clear from the start, or does it emerge as you write? How long does it take you to write each book?

Mary Morris' latest book.

All my work begins in journals and, when I travel, I am constantly writing things down, recording, making notes. Often I travel with a main journal, which usually has good paper because I also do watercolors, and lots of small notepads. During the days I might wander around with my notepads. Then at night or in the early morning I write things down in a more elaborate way. Or some days I just sit dreamily in cafes, writing in my journal, drawings, painting. Days can go by like this. I never know what the theme is going to be and it always emerges from the writing itself.

In my earlier work everything was in the journals and I didn’t even know if it would become a travel memoir or not. But with the last memoir, The River Queen, well, I needed a contract for that book  because I couldn’t afford to go down the Mississippi in a houseboat without some financial assistance so I had to at least put the theme down on paper, but the final book  in fact has little to do with the proposal that got me the contract. But that’s another story.

The theme always really emerges in the writing. I almost never know what I’m writing about until I am writing it. So it takes me a long time to write a book. Often three-four years. Or, in the case of Nothing To Declare, I thought about that book for a very long time and then it wrote itself very quickly. This is also true of a novel of mine that I particularly like called Revenge.  I thought about that story for a decade, but wrote it in six months.

How has your writing process changed since Nothing To Declare came out more than twenty years ago? What have you learned since then?

When I lived in Mexico, I didn’t know that it was going to become a book one day. I just kept me diary and when I got home, I had all the notes in journals, and Nothing To Declare emerged from those notes. I had no idea it was going to become a book. And I didn’t actually sit down and write it until a decade after living in Mexico. But that’s another long story. I have to say that perhaps of all my travel memoirs it is the one I like the best because it didn’t know what it was going to be while it was happening to me. I was just living my life south of the border.

I’d love to be able to return to that innocence again. I wish writers didn’t need time or money. I wish we could all just take off and do whatever we want. But, of course, we can’t. Very few people can. But I think if I’ve learned anything it is this: writing isn’t a premeditated act. Rather it should be a crime of passion. Something that bursts out of us; nothing we’ve planned. And we should be surprised by its ferocity. This is the most honest kind of writing I know.

You write both fiction and nonfiction. What skills do you use to approach each genre? Which do you prefer?

As I said above, I see myself primarily as a storyteller. In a sense it doesn’t matter if I am writing fiction or nonfiction. I’m always looking for the story. And the voice. Writing has to have a voice. Whatever I write has to have these elements – as well as good scenes, dialogue, a sense of place. The same skills apply to both, I believe.

In terms of fiction versus nonfiction I suppose I’d have to say that I prefer writing fiction because I can give my imagination full rein. And I don’t have to be accurate. On the other hand, many thoughts and ideas lend themselves to one genre or the other. A couple years ago I broke my leg and I wanted to write an essay about it, entitled Disability, which is about traveling with a wheelchair. I knew that was going to be nonfiction, but I had a lot of fun with it.

Can you share a few pieces of writing advice that you give your students?

The main piece of advice I give my students until I am blue in the face (or they are sick of me) is write in scene. I make my students really learn what a scene is (my definition: a single action that moves the story forward). I know it’s so boring to hear, but showing does work better than telling. And I make them practice writing scenes. You get up in the morning, you take a walk, the path diverges, and so on. There are certainly moments to step back from your narrative and reflect, but first, get me into your story.

Another thing is, and this is for the travel memoirist, always travel with a journal, and by that I mean paper and pencil. There’s no point being in the middle of India with no where to plug in your laptop. Write it down. As soon as you can. Once a Chinese person (in China) commented to me that I must be a real writer because I write everything down. I’m not sure if it makes me a writer or just a compulsive person, but it helps. I came up with this vision the other day that writers are like woodpeckers, banging our heads into a tree until we find that juicy little grub. The thing is you have to keep banging away. The writing only exists in the writing, if that makes any sense.

Which travel authors do you read for inspiration?

Well, I definitely read Henry Miller. His honesty, his passion, his vision – they are all inspirational. I read Neruda, Rilke, Lorca, though they aren’t travel writers, but poets, but still they write about place in a sense. I love Pico Iyre as I’ve said above. David Farley’s new book on going to a town in Italy in search of Jesus’ foreskin is incredible. Right now I’m planning a trip to Turkey so I am reading everyone I can who has ever been to or written about Turkey. James Baldwin, Mary Lee Settle, Orhan Pamuk.

What are you working on now?

I always seem to be working on lots of things. I’m finishing a novel, thinking about a new travel memoir, working on short stories, and writing my blog, The Writer and the Wanderer. Maybe that’s even too many things… But it’s how I work best.

When you wrote your first travel memoir, did you intend to write another? Did you envision this as your specialty or did it just happen that way?

I didn’t really intend to write another. I thought Nothing To Declare would be it, but then other material presented itself to me as travel memoir so I just went with it. I don’t think of it as my specialty, but as one of the things I do. I don’t think I have a specialty. I’m a generalist. But the travel writing helps keep the wolves from the door. It lets me go places and I love going places. And I enjoy it as long as I have a story to tell. I’m not a very good “destination’ writer. As I said above,  I can’t tell you the best way to get from Amsterdam to Greece, but I can tell you that the squid ink paella in Cadaques, Spain is like eating darkness.

In one of your talks, you discussed the lack of travel books by women, and how “women moved through the world differently than men.” What might we get out of your books and other books by women that we don’t get from male travel authors?

Well, I said that a long time ago and the world has certainly changed. When I started working on Nothing To Declare, there weren’t many women writing about their journeys – that is, not many contemporary women. There was, of course, a long tradition of lady travelers from Lady Montague to people such as Mary Kingsley and Isabella Bird, but somehow the 1950s put the cabash on all of that. There were a handful of women travel writers when I began – Dervla Murphy, Jan Morris. But now of course there are more.

I do think women move through the world differently than men. I met a guy last year named Jim Malusa whose work I admire a lot. He wrote a book about bicycling on every continent except Antarctica to the lowest place. So he went to Death Valley on a bike and to some crater in Siberia and to the Dead Sea. And I told him that he was crazy and that I didn’t feel that, as a woman, I could sleep on a sand dune, but really I think it’s more me and that I am rather chicken. I am sure that there are many women out there who was much braver than me.

Mary, thanks so much! I loved Nothing to Declare and The River Queen just arrived in my mailbox. Can’t wait to read it!

Readers: If Mary has inspired you as much as she has me, feel free to leave a comment for her below.

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18 Responses

  1. Mary’s thoughts are so useful to a travel writer just beginning. Thanks for asking such thoughtful Q’s, Alexis! I love the idea of the story within a journey. I feel that way about all of my writing. It’s just about finding the beginning, middle, and ending.

    Also, very excited to hear that Mary writes both fiction and non-fiction (as I do, too), and definitely going to check out her books! Especially The River Queen and Nothing To Declare.

  2. Great interview – and certainly and inspiration to me! My dream is to be published in both travel memoir and fiction, and it’s so inspiring to hear about someone who has done this successfully. I love that Mary writes more about story than place. I do much the same. Thank you for this post!

  3. Thanks for this interview Lexi. And Mary!

  4. I loved Nothing to Declare, and am so glad to read this interview with Mary. Great, thoughtful questions and answers!

  5. I love that Mary mentions reading poets of place, that just warms my heart. I LOVE travel memoir and while I always blog from vacation sites I wish I had also written down more, just looked around more while traveling instead of moving from one destination to the next. I don’t know if I’ll ever have a travel memoir in me but I’d love to try 🙂

    • Thanks for mentioning the poets, as did the writer below. I appreciate it that that matters to others. Try to keep a journal when you’re traveling. It’s different from the blogging which is public. Do something private for yourself. I didn’t know I had a travel memoir in me either until I looked at my journals and found my material there.

  6. […] puts up some great interviews with other travel/memoir writers. The interview she presented with Mary Morris recently even mentions reading poets for inspiration on how to write about […]

    • Thanks so much for your comment. I’m really glad that you liked what I said about reading the poems when I travel and for inspiration. It’s something I’ve always done, but nice to know that other people are drawn to this as well. best, Mary Morris

  7. Alexis, thanks for all of this. It’s a lot of fun!
    best,
    Mary

  8. Alexis-

    Thanks for pointing me to this interview- I enjoyed reading about Mary and her work.

  9. I stumbled upon your blog and interview with Author, Mary Morris — as I recently read her book, Nothing to Declare, and I loved it. Reading it I got lost in the feminist view of a woman’s travel versus a man’s in that period and time and to date. Unfortunately, I read this wonderful memoir for a World Geography course and cannot seem to get passed this viewpoint…to see how Mary Morris’s journey helps me learn anything about geography as Morris gives you glimpses of each place she visits trough many of the topical lenses of geography but those glimpses are there and gone in the blink of an eye.

    After reading the interview, I feel a little better that I am not able to categorize her writing so readily in a geographical manner. I really enjoyed the interview and have decided to follow you blog as well as Morris’. I am a writer at heart and one day hope to have the courage to travel the world and let the stories comes as they may. One of my favorite sayings in “Nothing to Declare” is: “I imagine what adventures might await me even though I know that the journey is never what we plan for; it’s what happens between the lines.

    Thank you to both you and Morris for your insight into your passion.

  10. love this – her writing, your fantastic questions, and the interplay between them. i’d love to read the disability piece – as a disabled traveler, i’ve been challenged in more ways than i ever could have imagined. GREAT interview – thank you!

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