Today we talk to Leif Pettersen, travel writer and guidebook author, about traveling, writing, and life as a nomad:
Nomadic Matt: For starters, what gave you the travel bug?
Leif Pettersen: I eased into it. It started with a few trips to visit friends in Mexico in my teens and being shipped off to Norway at 18 for a six week language/culture program. A quarter studying theater and literature in London at 22 is when the bomb really went off. A chance encounter won me a job as a cameraman for a new on-location cooking show. We went to Morocco for six weeks to tape the pilot. I was left on my own while they edited and pitched (and eventually failed to sell) the show during which time I staggered through Spain, France, The Netherlands and Norway yet again. After nine months back in the US working temp jobs and hoarding cash, I did a proper backpacking trip in Europe and I’ve been incurable ever since.
NM: How did you move from intrepid traveler to travel writer?
I’d been fascinated with travel writing ever since a girlfriend in college made me read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson, which still ranks as one of my favorite pieces of travel writing of all time. In my late-20s, I messed around with writing on my own – to this day, I’ve never taken a writing class of any kind – but I’d never been paid to write, unless you count critically acclaimed application user guides for the Federal Reserve Bank System. So, at 33 I sold everything I owned, bought a plane ticket and blundered into the fray. I strongly suspected that I’d return home unpublished and completely broke in a few years, but good fortune and deranged perseverance prevailed and five years later I’m still at it.
NM: You travel to Romania a lot and country seems to be getting a lot of attention lately. Do you think that will ruin it? Are people going to be talking about the “Romania back then” like they do about Thailand?
After decades (centuries in some cases) of some unseen hand leaning on Romania’s ‘pause’ button, change is happening rapidly. EU membership has brought the usual frantic action: infrastructure, roads, utilities, and freakish inflation. Romania has always been pretty effective at ruining itself without any outside help, but the half-assed attempts at EU appeasement (e.g. enforcing laws that cripple the average farmer or outlawing horse-drawn carts on major roads), while clearly back-pedaling on things like high level corruption has been painful to watch. And quite frankly, until very recently, visiting Romania was a resolve-testing pain in the ass, reserved for only the most patient and dedicated backpackers. But Romania is a huge place by European standards and there’s a ridiculous amount of incredible things to see and do, so I don’t believe it’s in immediate danger of being ruined by tourism, a few select sights notwithstanding. For that to happen, they’d have to actually acknowledge tourism as a legitimate industry and give it the proper infrastructure. Bafflingly, Bucharest still lacks any sort of tourism office.
NM: I’m reading the Thomas Kohnstamm book now. He gives the impression that travel writing, at least for guidebooks, is a real hassle- low pay, rushed experiences, superficial reviews. Do you think that’s true?
Not at all. I’ve only felt a sense of urgency on one guidebook job (so far) and that was only because the first author fell ill and I was rushed in to pick up the thread. By the time I got to work, the project was running almost six weeks behind schedule. But some badass heroics on my behalf, careful work delegation with a second author and a deadline extension gave me plenty of research and write-up time in the end.
As for pay, it doesn’t take much time to run the numbers and piece together a fairly accurate estimation of your daily expenses and then tack on what you feel is a fair weekly fee. It’s a simple matter of legwork and reasonable negotiation. In the end, if you can’t come to an agreement over the fee, there’s always the option of saying ‘no.’ Bottom line, act like a professional and you’ll (usually) be treated like a professional.
NM: Most travelers, including myself, use the internet as their main source of information. Do you think the Internet will make paper guidebooks go the way of the dodo?
My very narrow take is that printed guidebooks are king and will probably continue to rule for at least another decade. With the exception of a few rare destination-specific sites, online resources simply can’t compete with the reliability, accuracy, completeness and unbiased reviews (versus broad, user-generated content sites which extravagantly fail at all four). But technology, delivery and consumer preferences are going to drastically affect everything in the very near future. While some travel writers fear the death of printed media (because it’s the best paying gig at the moment), I actually think the digital guidebook evolution will create more opportunities for travel writers that eventually pay just as well. The catch is that this content won’t be nearly as rich in quality until they start to pay a wage that will attract professional writers. But they can’t do that until online revenue streams ramp up and that won’t happen until print revenue makes a major transition to online… it’s a vicious circle. Something has to break eventually.
NM: I’ve had some crazy things happen to me on the road. As someone who travels so often, you must see it all. What’s one story that sticks out above the rest?
You know, perhaps I’m doing it wrong, but I have very few stories that could even be remotely construed as ‘crazy’. But on the subject of crazy, what never ceases to amaze me is how people that can’t even buy a cup of coffee on their own street without mishap manage to get themselves to international destinations (and presumably home) without accidentally killing themselves several times a day. You know who I’m talking about, those people that should have been stopped at the border when they tried to leave their countries and escorted back to whatever half-way house they escaped from. Where do those people come from? It keeps me up at night.
NM: Any chance you will publish your own book?
That’s like asking a crackhead if he intends to score with the $20 he just found. I know I’ve got the chops to write a book (make that several books) that will be so wonderful and witty that you’ll want to smoke a cigarette and change your underwear after every chapter. And with print media’s emphysema getting worse with each passing year, I’m feeling a profound urgency to get started. Unfortunately, I haven’t found any takers just yet. Sadly, the Bill Bryson Days of going somewhere and bemusedly recounting the high jinks you got into are long gone. These days publishers won’t even open your book proposal unless you’ve been a columnist for the New York Times for 15 years or have a killer hook like how you got pistol whipped after taking a dump in the back seat of a cop car while trying to smuggle a panda out of China to protest the occupation of Tibet and global warming. So the onus is on me to dream up the hook, but quite frankly the allure and practical need to take on paying work has kept me far too busy to give it much thought. Perhaps some nice millionaire reading this would like to support me for as long as it takes for the genius concept to ignite?
NM: Everyone dreams of being a travel writer. What advice would you give to new writers who want to start in profession?
The unfortunate fact is that for every travel writer out there that has the true skill to ask for a living wage, there are 25 cliché-addled, alliteration junkies that will work for practically nothing. And for that price, many editors will swallow, and even encourage, that kind of hack work. So, breaking in and making an honest living means nothing short of maniacal dedication. I’m not gonna advise anyone to quit their day job, but it’s almost a necessity. Nights and weekends just aren’t enough, unless your only goal is to see your name in print a couple times a year, which is, admittedly, a nice buzz no matter how jaded you become. Writing every day is vital and traveling a lot only fractionally less so. Find an uncrowded niche, especially in the beginning. In my case, one summer in Romania turned into a Lonely Planet contract, whereas visiting 18 European countries in six months turned into nothing.
If you do decide to quit your day job and jump in the deep end, unless you start off with good contacts, exceptional talent and/or a clue, it’s likely you’ll lose money for at least a year while you build your name, so prepare yourself. Finally, pitch carefully. You’re more likely to get published by spending a full day on a single, well-researched, laser-guided pitch than machine gunning 50 blind, generic pitches in the same amount of time.
Leif Pettersen is currently in Romania working on a guidebook for Lonely Planet. You can find his rantings and ravings as well as his sharp wit on his website, Killing Batteries.