Updated: 8/24/20 | August 24th, 2020
When I started in the travel industry, one writer came up often in conversation: David Farley. He was a rock-star writer who taught at NYU and Columbia, wrote for AFAR, National Geographic, the New York Times, and many other publications. I always wondered who this guy was. He was almost mythical. He was never at any events.
But, one day, he turned up and, over the years, we became good friends. His writing tips and advice have helped me immensely, and his impressive résumé and keen sense of story are why I partnered with him on this website’s travel writing course.
Unlike me, David is a more traditional magazine/freelance/newspaper writer. He’s not a blogger. And. today I thought interview David about his life as a travel writer.
Nomadic Matt: Tell everyone about yourself!
David Farley: A few interesting facts about me: My weight at birth was 8 lbs., 6 oz. I grew up in the Los Angeles suburbs. I was in a rock band in high school; we played late-night gigs at Hollywood clubs, and we weren’t very good. I travel a lot, but I have no interest in counting the number of countries I’ve been to.
I’ve lived in San Francisco, Paris, Prague, Berlin, and Rome, but I currently live in New York City.
How did you get into travel writing?
The usual way: by accident. I was in graduate school and my girlfriend at the time, a writer, proofread one of my 40-page research papers — I think it was on the exciting topic of the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s — and afterward she said, “You know, don’t take this the wrong way, but your writing was better than I expected.”
She encouraged me to write stuff other than boring history papers. I heeded her call.
One of the first stories that got published was about a pig killing I attended in a village on the Czech-Austrian border. After that, enough of the stories got published, mostly in travel publications, that by default I became a “travel writer.”
I ended up breaking into Condé Nast Traveler, working my way all the way up to the features section, as well as the New York Times. Eventually, I wrote a book that Penguin published. Then I expanded my field of interest to food and now I often combine food and travel.
Having done this for about two decades, one thing I’ve learned is that the “expectations of success” is really just a myth in our minds. I always thought, for example, that once I write for the New York Times I’ll have “made it.” Then it happened and didn’t really feel like I had done so.
Maybe when I write a feature for a big travel magazine? Nope.
Maybe a book published by one of the biggest publishing houses in the world? Not really.
The point is: just keep striving in the direction of success and forget about various plateaus you want to get to. I think it’s a much healthier way to go.
Do you have any favorite experiences/destinations that you’ve been able to write about?
I’d long been wanting to go to Hanoi to investigate, report on, and write about the origins of pho. I finally convinced the New York Times to let me do it in February. It was amazing and delicious.
But then, as we all know, the pandemic decided to swirl its way around the world, and, as a result, most travel stories—including this one—are rotting away on editors’ hard drives for the time being.
I’ve been really lucky to convince editors to let me delve deep into some things that I’m fascinated with and/or love such as spending two weeks hanging out with the guys who cremate bodies on the banks of the Ganges River in Varanasi to see what I could learn about life and death.
I went cycling across southern Bosnia with four great friends following a bike trail that was carved out of an erstwhile train track.
I got drunk on vodka with old Ukrainian ladies in their homes in the Exclusion Zone in Chernobyl.
And I hiked across a swath of Kenya with my uncle, sister, and brother and law for a good cause: we raised thousands of dollars for an AIDS orphanage there and also got to spend a few days with the children.
I could go on and on — which is precisely what makes this a rewarding profession.
What are some of the biggest illusions people have about travel writing?
That you can peel off a feature story for a travel magazine just like that [snaps fingers]. It takes so much work for each story to get to the type of experiences we end up writing about — a lot of phone calls and emails to set up interviews and to get your foot in the door some places.
When a magazine is paying you to go to a place so you can come back with an interesting story, you have to do a lot of behind-the-scenes work to ensure that you’re going to have a good story. It rarely just happens on its own.
Travel stories are essentially a fake or altered reality, filtered through the writer and based on how much reporting she or he did on the spot, as well as her or his past experiences and knowledge about life and the world.
How has the industry changed in recent years? Is it still possible for new writers to break into the industry?
Very much. In the last few years, we’ve seen an industry-wide push to be more inclusive of female and BIPOC writers, which is a great thing. The publishing industry – magazines, newspapers, books – is always ready to accept great, new writers.
The key is that you, as a writer, need to learn how the industry works first.
So, how do people even go about breaking into the industry?
In the decade or so I taught travel writing at NYU and Columbia University, the students of mine that went on to write for the New York Times, National Geographic, and other publications were not necessarily the most talented in the class; they were the most driven. They really wanted it.
And that made all the difference.
What that means is they put enough energy into this endeavor to learn how the game is played: how to write a pitch, how to find an editor’s email address, how to improve your writing, learning the nuts and bolts of writing, and expertly knowing the market that’s out there for travel articles (i.e. learning the types of stories that various publications publish).
It seems there are fewer paying publications these days and it’s harder to find work. How does that affect new writers? What can new writers do to stand out?
I realize this is a hard one, but living abroad is really helpful. You end up with so much material for personal essays and you gain a knowledge of the region that allows you to become something of an authority on the area. It gives you a leg up on other people who are pitching stories about that place.
That said, you don’t have to go far to write about travel. You can write about the place where you live.
After all, people travel there, right? You can write everything from magazine and newspaper travel section pieces to personal essays, all about where you’re currently residing.
How do you think COVID-19 will affect the industry?
There’s no doubt that the pandemic has put a hold on travel writing a bit. People are still writing about travel but it’s mostly been pandemic-related stories. That said, no one knows what the future holds. Which in a perverse way–not just about the travel writing industry but in the bigger picture as well–makes life and reality kind of interesting too.
And while many people are losing their jobs and magazines are folding, I have a feeling the industry will bounce back. It just might not be over night. Which is why it’s a perfect time to build up those writing chops. You can also shift your focus for the time being to writing about local places and about other niches (food, tech, lifestyle) based on your expertise and interest.
What can new writers do now to improve their writing?
Read. A lot. And don’t just read, but read like a writer.
Deconstruct the piece in your mind as you’re reading.
Pay attention to how the writer has structured her or his piece, how they opened it and concluded it and so on. Also, read books on good writing.
This really helped me a lot when I was first starting out.
For most of us, talking to strangers is not easy. Plus, our moms told us not to do so. But the best travel stories are those that are most reported. So the more we talk to people, the more likely other opportunities arise and the more material you have to work with. It makes the writing of the story so much easier.
Sometimes you’ll be right in the middle of a situation and think: this would make a great opening to my story. My good friend Spud Hilton, former travel editor at the San Francisco Chronicle, says that the dirty secret to good travel writing is that bad experiences make the best stories. This is true, but please don’t put yourself in a bad situation just for your writing. You can write a great piece without having to get your wallet stolen or losing your passport.
What books do you suggest new travel writers read?
There are a few books out there on how to be a travel writer, but they’re all embarrassingly abysmal. For me, I write William Zinsser’s “On Writing Well” and James B. Stewart’s “Follow the Story” when I was first starting out and they were very helpful.
For a memoir or personal essay, Anne Lamott’s “Bird by Bird” is excellent.
For great travel books, it depends on what your interests are. For history-laden travel, anything by Tony Perrottet and David Grann are incredible; for humor, David Sedaris, A.A. Gill, Bill Bryson, and J. Maarten Troost; for just straight-up great writing, Joan Didion, Susan Orlean, and Jan Morris.
I highly recommend reading your way through the series of annual Best American Travel Writing anthologies.
Where do you find inspiration for your articles? What motivates you?
I get my motivation and inspiration from unlikely sources. I think about the creative masters and wonder how I can tap into their genius.
What did Austrian painter Egon Schiele see when he looked at a subject and then the canvas?
How did Prince put out an album a year from 1981 to 1989, each one a masterpiece and each one cutting-edge and like nothing anyone else at the time was doing?
Is there a way to apply this creativity to travel writing?
I’m not saying I’m on par with these geniuses — far from it — but if I could somehow even slightly be inspired by their creativity, I’d be better off for it.
More specifically for the articles that I end up writing, a lot of it just falls into my lap. The key, though, is recognizing it’s a story. A friend will casually mention some weird facts about a place in the world and it’s our job to take that fact and ask yourself: is there a story there?
What’s the most difficult part about being a travel writer?
The rejection. You really have to get used to it and just accept that it’s part of your life. It’s really easy to take it seriously and let it get you down. I know — I have done this.
You just have to brush it off and move on, get back on that literary bike, and keep trying until someone finally says yes. Be tenacious.
Writing is a craft. You don’t have to be born with a natural talent for it. You just need a strong desire to become better at it. And, by taking writing classes, reading books about it, talking to people about it, etc. you will become a better writer.
If you could go back in time and tell young David one thing about writing, what would it be?
I would have taken more classes to both keep learning — one should never stop learning about writing — and to force myself to write when perhaps I didn’t want to.
I think we can all learn from each other, and so putting yourself in that kind of instructive environment is helpful. I took one writing class — a nonfiction writing course at UC Berkeley — and it was super helpful.
If you’re looking to improve your writing or just start as a travel writer, David and I teach a very detailed and robust travel writing course. Through video lectures, personalized feedback, and examples of edited and deconstructed stories, you’ll get the course David taught at NYU and Columbia – without the college price.
Book Your Trip: Logistical Tips and Tricks
Book Your Flight
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Don’t Forget Travel Insurance
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