Professional journalist and travel writer Peter Delevett talks about his experiences as a traveller and writer.
Last year, I interviewed Timothy Allen, a professional travel photographer who had been travelling around remote corners of Nepal, Bhutan and India - all the while getting paid to do it. We received a lot of positive feedback about that interview. It seems the lure of combining travel with work is something that attracts many passionate travellers.
Recently, I corresponded by email with Peter Delevett, a professional journalist who has branched out into travel writing. After working for 5 years as a reporter, columnist and editor, Peter decided to spend more time writing about his travel experiences. His work has appeared in the San Jose Mercury News, World Hum and will soon also be featured in Sunset magazine and Lonely Planet's website.
But his biggest work to date is a 88,000-word travel memoir, Walking on the Moon, which he wrote about a 14 month trip he made after college in the early 1990s. The book is currently in front of a publisher in San Francisco.
After the success of last year's interview with Timothy Allen, I decided to interview Peter to hear more about his experiences as a traveller and writer. He was happy to indulge, providing insight and tips for travellers dreaming of earning a living through travel writing.
After you graduated from college in the early 1990s, you spent 14 months backpacking through Asia and Europe. What inspired you to take so much time out to travel?
My sister was living in Tokyo on a homestay during my senior year in college, and we had talked about meeting up there after I graduated and traveling around the country. While I was making plans for that, I decided to make it the starting point for a round-the-world trip. I was lucky that my parents had set aside money for me to go to college, and by laying out of classes during the fall semester of my senior year and working in a record store, I was able to save that tuition money to bankroll my trip. My dad helped me find a "bucket shop" in New York City that sold round-the-world tickets, and I asked a lot of friends who'd traveled through Asia where they would go. I just figured if I didn't do it then, I'd get a job and would never have the time to do it.
Had you travelled much before that?
I was actually born in Japan, when my dad was in the service, and although I don't remember living there - we came back to the States when I was about 18 months old - I had always grown up wanting to go back. I'd been to Canada with my parents when I was real small, and then to Mexico a couple of times with a boys' choir; I also spent a couple of weeks in Europe (France, Germany and Belgium) with the same choir when I was around 11.
Looking back now, how do you think that 14-month trip after college changed you as a person?
I think it changed me tremendously. I had to become more self-reliant; I had to open myself up to new experiences, new foods, new places where I couldn't speak the language. I learned to rely on the kindness of strangers. I also had a lot of time to read and think, to look back on mistakes I'd made and think about what kind of person I wanted to become. Among many other things that were going on in that time of my life, I was getting over a very nasty breakup with a longtime girlfriend, who was subsequently killed in a car accident, and I wrestled with guilt over that for a long while; having time to myself on the road to process and reflect on all that was very therapeutic.
And as more time went by, I found myself torn between this desire to keep traveling, to stay free, and this feeling of wanting security and stability. A voice in the back of my head was saying, "You should go home, get a job, grow up," and another voice was saying, "No way, man, don't sell out." So part of the end-process of that trip was trying to synthesize those two sides of myself and resolve that tension.
Fast-forward to today: you're married, you have a good job, a house. Could you ever see yourself packing up and heading off with your wife for another extended journey overseas?
Yeah, we talk a lot about that. We're both very lucky because we love our jobs and our home in California. My wife has a great job with a big airline, so that lets us travel very cheaply, but one of these days, when she's ready to retire, we plan to spend at least a year or so abroad somewhere. In the meantime, we're trying to see as much of the world as we can in bite-sized chunks.
You'd been a professional journalist for five years before you started doing some travel writing on the side. What attracted you to travel writing?
I think I see it as a way to marry two great passions. I love going to new places and discovering what's unique there and sharing it with other people.
Do you have any tips for people who would like to make it as a travel writer?
Keep your day job. Seriously, I talk to a lot of travel writers, and that's advice I consistently get; it's very hard to make it as a full-time travel writer unless you're independently wealthy or have a spouse who can support you. I know people who do it, of course, and they work incredibly hard; everyplace they go, they try to spin off several different stories from each trip. Like maybe they contribute to a guidebook and sell another story about the same place to a magazine. You have to be very entrepreneurial.
Aside from that, look for a way to differentiate yourself. Go places the rest of the crowd isn't going to and tell us why we should go there too. Or if you're going to a really popular destination, like say Italy or Paris, work to find an angle that hasn't been written to death. Maybe try to find a niche market that's being underserved - "people who want to travel with their pets," say - and think of ways you can target that market and publications that might be able to reach that market.
Read good travel writing and work to make your own writing better. Learn to take good digital photographs and online video. Try to bring as much to the table as possible when you're pitching. And don't be too discouraged by rejection, because you'll probably get a lot of it.
Tell me a bit more about your book. Why did you decide to write it?
I knew very early, like within a few weeks of starting out, that I wanted to write about the trip. This is a little unconventional for a travel memoir, but one of the first really weird things that happened on the road was trying LSD for the first time, in Tokyo. And it was such a bizarre experience - Tokyo can be kind of mind-blowing even when you're sober - that I thought, "I have to find some way to express this." There's a certain school of thought, of course, that travel memoirs are a dime a dozen, so in crafting my story, I tried to think about what made mine different. I wanted to talk not just about all these amazing ancient cultures I was being exposed to, but also about the hard-core backpacker counterculture, which was very new to me - and in some ways, tied very much into the sense I had at the time of wanting to escape from the "conventional" path of getting a good job and doing what was expected. Travel, as I say at the end of the book, is often just as much about finding new things within yourself as it is about finding new places in the world.
And in that regard, I think my story also is universal; it has something to say to people whether they're at that same stage of discovery in their lives, or whether they're looking back at that time with the wisdom of experience.
In terms of process, I kept journals as I was traveling, but I didn't actually sit down to start writing the book until more than three years after I'd come home. I got up early on New Year's Day and took my laptop down to the water to start writing. It took another four years to finish it, because I was working full-time and could only steal a bit of time here and there to work on it. When I was done I'd written 120,000 words, and I then spent another couple of years trying to edit and refine it, to focus on the question, "What's the story I really want to tell here?" So I pared it by more than 25 percent, and I'm now shopping it to a major publisher in San Francisco. Keep your fingers crossed.
Why do you think people enjoy reading about other people's travel adventures?
I think in one sense, we enjoy seeing and hearing about new places and encounters that we haven't been able to get to ourselves - to think, "Wow, how crazy that must have been," or "Wow, I never knew that," or "Wow, I wish I'd seen that - it's so different from my own experience." But on the flip side, I think we also see commonalities to our own lives; all of us have been strangers somewhere at some point, all of us have enjoyed the sense of discovering the unfamiliar. Or we've been in an awkward or embarrassing situation because we couldn't speak the language, and looking back you laugh at it, and we can all relate to that because they've happened to us too.
Do you have any future trips planned?
Yeah, my wife and I are headed to Rome and Moscow in April to visit friends. We did Rome a few years ago, during Easter, and I wrote a travel piece about that experience. I've been wanting to get to Russia ever since my big globetrot in the early 90s and just never had time, so I'm really looking forward to that.
Check out these articles written by Peter: