Quick plug for @travelmemoir

If you’re writing a travel memoir or enjoy reading them, hope you’ll follow @travelmemoir on Twitter. We’ll offer tips, helpful links and book recommendations, as well as notes about what’s going on in the Travel Memoir Writers Ning group.

[tweetmeme source=”alexisgrant”]

Should be a good resource.

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Jumping on The Lunatic Express with Carl Hoffman

When I tell people I traveled by myself through Africa, they often ask: Were you ever really scared?

They’re expecting a story about being attacked by men with machetes or feeling alone in my hostel at night. But the truth is, I was most scared when packed into overcrowded bush taxis on dangerous roads. Every time I got into one, I thought about how I’d get out if we were in a wreck.

Author and journalist Carl Hoffman

So when I heard about Carl Hoffman‘s new book, The Lunatic Express, it shot to the top of my to-read list. Lunatic is a modern-day adventure, Carl’s story of traveling the world via its most dangerous buses, trains, planes and boats. But he says the tale is not about defying death. It’s about seeing the world the way most people do, about experiencing transportation that the poor use every day. His book trailer offers some interesting photos and videos of that transportation.

Carl has a lot of traveling and writing under his belt. He’s a contributing editor at National Geographic Traveler, Wired and Popular Mechanics magazines, and also writes for Outside, National Geographic Adventure and Men’s Journal. He’s of the increasingly rare breed who has never worked a full-time job and makes his living freelancing. His first book, Hunting Warbirds: The Obsessive Quest for the Lost Aircraft of World War II, was published in 2001.

While I was in D.C., I sat down with Carl to pick his brain about traveling, writing and the book (on sale at Amazon). Now I’m sharing the best of our conversation with you.

Alexis: How’d you come up with the Lunatic idea?

Carl: I’d been traveling a lot for the last 15 to 20 years. I go to weird places a lot. And everywhere I go I just see buses, boats full of people, so crammed. I’m a curious person. I wanted to know, who are these people? Where are they going?

Hoffman's new book

I’ve always loved bus plunge stories [in newspapers], 100-word stories like, Ferry Sinks, 600 People Drown. Who are these people? It says so little about them. In that little 100 words is a big tale. It’s a tragedy, peoples’ lives. But you never know anything about it.

There’s a lot of talk about how everybody wants to go to the end of the earth… I had this thought that I could escape, but not to the end of the earth —  into the heart of the earth, to the very heart of the people, and to put my finger on something and see the world. The danger made it more salable, and I thought it would be an adventure for sure, an unpredictable adventure, but it was always less about me trying to defy death, [and more] about seeing the world and understanding the world.

Traveling for months in packed vehicles — that’s a nightmare for a lot of Americans.

The unknown is scary, always. Things over which you have no control. When you get to that train in Mali, in Bamako [Lexi’s note: Carl’s referring to a train in West Africa we’ve both taken], you’re just sort of throwing yourself into the mercy of another world and a bunch of people you don’t know, and that’s scary for people. In the end, I find that doing that can be quite liberating and fulfilling, and people are wonderful and gracious and take care of you.

Where would you like to go that you haven’t been?

I think I’ve been to 60 or 65 countries… I’d like to go to some more remote places. I like the weirder corners of the world. I’ve never been to Argentina or Buenos Aires. Africa, I’m fascinated with. I’ve been to about 10 or 12 countries in Africa, but there’s a lot more I’d like to go to.

How did you decide how to thread this story together?

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Marianne Elliott turns peacekeeping into memoir

I’m always on the look-out for other writers of travel memoir. So I was psyched to connect with Marianne Elliott, who’s working on a book about peacekeeping in Afghanistan.

Marianne’s from New Zealand, and she’s living there now while editing her book and building her yoga practice. We became Web-friends while she was looking for a literary agent, so I was able to share in her excitement when she signed with one in February.

Marianne’s joining us today to talk about her book, advice for querying agents and the intersection of writing and yoga. You might also check out her blog or follow her on Twitter.

Welcome! Can you tell us about the book you’re working on?

Marianne Elliot

I’ve written a memoir about my time working in Afghanistan as a human rights officer with the United Nations, called Zen Under Fire: Learning to Sit Still in Afghanistan.

Very soon after I took up my post I was left in charge of a regional office of the UN mission. Almost as soon as my boss walked out the door, all hell broke loose. Within hours tribal fighting in the region had killed dozens of people including children. I was in well over my head, and I was drowning.

Zen Under Fire tells the story of my descent into hopelessness in the wake of our failure to protect those children, and my slow return to a belief in the possibility of peace, even in the midst of war. It’s a very personal story but told in a context that I hope readers will find gives them a new perspective on Afghanistan and the conflict that’s playing out there.

What’s your writing background?

As a human rights lawyer I’ve spent my entire career writing. I learned early that a good story, well told, had much more impact on powerful decision-makers, so I learned to tell a good story.

I have never written a book before, but I have written book-length reports on human rights in places as diverse as New Zealand, Afghanistan, the Gaza Strip and East Timor.

When did you start thinking your experience would make a good book? How long did it take to write?

I wrote a blog about my experiences in Afghanistan and many of my readers encouraged me to consider writing a book based on those experiences. I had always wanted to write a book and I thought that I finally had a story worth telling so I decided to give it my best shot.

I wrote bits and pieces of the book while I was still working in the humanitarian sector, but eventually I realized that the job was so all-consuming that I would never get the book done that way. So in September last year I quit my job and wrote almost full-time for five months. I was obviously working a little through that time to pay my bills, but I wrote for at least three to four hours every day. Five months of writing every day got me a complete manuscript that was good enough to land an agent.

One of the things that some aspiring memoirists struggle with is finding their story arc and/or theme. What’s yours? Was it obvious to you from the beginning, or did it evolve with your writing process?

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What’s travel writing to you?

In her interview here last week, author Mary Morris offered some great insight that I think is worth fleshing out. She wrote:

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 had made this distinction even before talking with Mary. Why? Because I’m not good at, nor do I enjoy, writing about place. It’s a challenge I butted up against as soon as I started writing while traveling.

How can that be, you ask, when I’m writing a travel memoir?

I love telling stories about people, narratives that occur in places I visit, situations that sometimes happen as a result of place — but not writing about places themselves. I can create a great one-line description of a city or street corner or cemetery to include as part of an article. But it’s difficult for me (and scary) to write an entire piece about a place if there’s not, as Mary says, a story that takes place during that journey.

To give you some examples of what I’m talking about, here’s a piece I wrote for the Houston Chronicle about trekking in Dogon Country, Mali. It came out all right, but it’s not my strongest. Now, check out these stories I reported also while in Africa: one about how polygamy is becoming less common in Cameroon, another about a pediatric AIDS clinic in Burkina Faso. (Bits of both, by the way, made it into my manuscript.) Because I was telling a story — and even better, a story with a news peg: my forte! — these two articles read far better than my travel piece.

But plenty of people love writing about place and are good at it. Much of the New York Times travel section focuses on places, as well as the trip ideas section of Matador Network. As Mary pointed out, this kind of writing takes talent. It takes a certain type of writer to describe a place eloquently enough that we all want to go there, even without a narrative or story to weave that description around.

What’s travel writing to you? Do you prefer writing about places or stories that happen in those places? Which one comes easier?

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.

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Word count, with a little help from Amazon

Did you know Amazon.com has a new function that gives a word count for each book?

(I did not discover this myself. Props to Suzanne for pointing it out.)

This is awesome enough for me to get excited over. Why? Because it allows me to check out length for published books in my genre. To be picked up by a traditional publisher, my manuscript needs to fall in a similar word-count window.

How to find a book’s word count: Go to that book’s page and scroll down to “Inside This Book.” Under that heading, click “Text Stats.” (It’ll be a blue link.) A new window will pop up. Under “Number of,” you’ll see “words.” That’s your number!

I did a little reconnaissance for a few books in the Competitive Books section of my proposal. Here’s what I found:

  • Eat, Pray, Love: 130,000 words (Could this be right? If it is, it just goes to show that books with more than 100,000 words — which most agents say is too many — can do fabulously well. If it’s not accurate, well, then this Amazon function isn’t as cool as I think it is.) 352 pages.
  • Somebody’s Heart is Burning: 85,000 words. 336 pages. (This author actually told me her book came in at 85,000 words, which makes me think the feature is accurate.)

* For full titles, authors and descriptions of these books, see What’s on my travel memoir bookshelf?

What did I learn from this? That my word-count goal of 85,000 – 90,000 is right on target.

What other Amazon tricks do you use?

What’s on my travel memoir bookshelf?

Every writer knows it’s important to read within your genre.

For me, this is not a reason to read travel memoirs as much as an excuse. I love travel memoirs. I read every one I can get my hands on. And now that I’m writing one, I read them in the name of research.

One of my favorite travel authors is Paul Theroux — I read his most recent book, Ghost Train to the Eastern Star (sequel to The Great Railway Bazaar, pubbed in 1975) while traipsing through Madagascar last year. But what I’m really focusing on now — partly out of interest, partly for research purposes — is travel memoirs written by women, particularly women traveling alone.

This comes in handy for my book proposal, which has a section called “Competitive Books,” where I list already-published titles that will be competition for my book. (Proposal writers take note: It’s also important to explain briefly why your book will be different and better than those titles.)

So what’s on my travel memoir bookshelf?

To help you decide whether to read these yourself, I’ve rated them on a three-star three-asterisk system. Three is best.

Have I missed any memoirs written by women traveling alone?

A quick note on how my book will be different and better, as required by my book proposal. As you can see, very few memoirs written by women traveling alone take place in Africa. And most of these authors were older than thirty, while my perspective is that of a woman in her late twenties.

But most importantly (aside from my literary voice, of course), unlike most women’s travel books, my story is not about looking for love nor running away from a failed relationship. It’s about taking a leap in life, following a dream, and how that in itself — even without a man, if you can believe it — is thrilling and satisfying.