Last Spring, I took my first online class. It was a travel writing course through Gotham Writers’ Workshop. Initially, I was reluctant to go this route. I did it anyway and found it to be just as effective, if not more so than the traditional classroom setting. Andrew Collins was my travel writing teacher. He is a bit of a hero in my book. You are about to find out why.
1. Andrew, when and how did you figure out that you could travel, then write about your travels, and (gasp) actually get paid for it?
I sort of lucked into the perfect job right out of college, as an editorial assistant for the guidebook publisher Fodor’s. I worked my way up to Associate Editor in about two years, but realized early on that I’d rather be out traveling and writing than in and office editing. So at age 23, too young and foolish to know any better, I quit to embark on a freelance career. I’ve been working for myself ever since.
2. Who do you currently write for? How does it work? Do you go where they send you, or do you go where you want, write about it, and submit the article? Or does it vary?
It varies greatly. I still work on several Fodor’s guides each year, both as a writer and editor – the New Mexico, Arizona, Pacific Northwest, France, and Ireland guides are the ones I most recently worked on. For some clients, like the website About.com for whom I run the “gay travel” channel – I’m basically free to produce as much content as I’d like, and pretty much on any part of the world. I’ve worked for other guidebook companies, too, and right now I’m working on my first app, a guide to Portland on food and restaurants. I’m hoping to finish that this spring.
Then there are the occasional one-off jobs – writing stories for certain magazines or, more commonly these days, websites. And finally there are the custom-publishing clients – everything from tourism offices to travel services companies, like Orbitz and TripAdvisor, for whom I’m often hired to write editorial copy. Much of the latter is without a byline and not especially glamorous, but it tends to pay relatively well. I find it all pretty enjoyable, though. As long as I’m able to support myself traveling, and I’m able to do so with relative autonomy, I consider myself very fortunate.
3. You just introduced your own blog, The County Hunter. What do you hope to accomplish with said blog? And what camera do you use?!? I want one.
I did – well, I kicked things off anyway, with four posts this fall. Then, as I feared might happen, I became caught up with too many other work projects and had to set it aside. I hope to start it back up again very soon. My aim is simply to write more in my own voice, and according to my own interests, about what I see in my travels – I’m on the road about half the time, and I spend a good bit of that driving across country.
As the name of my blog The County Hunter suggests, my goal is to visit every county in the United States (I’m up to about 1,960 out of 3,168), but that’s really just a fun (to me) excuse for trying to take plenty of back roads and visit a variety of both major and more out-of-the-way communities. I’ve always most enjoyed writing in my own voice, as an end in itself, but to pay the bills, I obviously have to take on quite a few consumer-oriented jobs – the guidebooks and custom publishing, for instance. As I mentioned before, it’s all enjoyable to me, but I’m happiest when I get to write simply as me.
I use a couple of point-and-shoot cameras – both Canon. One is a smaller one that I tend to use more in restaurants, bars, and tighter spots where a compact size is important. And the other is larger and has more bells and whistles – a good mix of manual settings. Increasingly, I shoot pretty decent images with my Droid. Honestly, I don’t think much about cameras and equipment (I couldn’t even tell you the models off the top of my head) – I take hundreds of pictures, everywhere I go, and some I spend more time setting up than others. But mostly I just snap away, and in the end, I usually end up with a few pretty impressive images from every batch. If you can knock out two or three stunners per every hundred, you’re doing fine if your goal is simple to document your adventures compellingly on the Web.
Of course, I also use my camera to take notes, visually – I take pictures of signs and exhibit markers, I shoot in poor light knowing full well sometimes that I’m going to end up with some blurry or poor shots. But in these cases, I’m just shooting to capture details I’ll need when I get down to writing.
4. Tell us about a couple of your favorite places to visit. What do you love about them? Do you always work when you travel, or are some trips dubbed “vacation only”?
There’s always an element of work to every trip, even if the main drive is, say, getting away with friends. Every summer I rent a beach house on the Oregon coast, in this cool little town called Manzanita, for a week with a few friends. I guess that’s as close to a vacation as I do, but even on that trip, I’m always working a fair amount – a couple of hours most mornings on the computer, at least. But there’s always the opportunity for work, wherever I go, and that’s a happy thing to me – it’s ideal. I can be in some of my favorite places – the mountains around Taos and Santa Fe, the Oregon coast, the Sonoma Wine Country, northern New England, New Orleans, Buenos Aires, just about anywhere in Spain – and I’ll always be able to create content for the About.com site, and potentially for other outlets, wherever I am.
I have a very hard time narrowing down any sort of definitive list of favorite places – those I just named are some of the top ones for me. I can live anywhere, and the last two places I’ve lived – Portland, OR for the past three-and-a-half years and northern New Mexico for seven years before that – I chose simply on the basis of my having loved visiting them.
For seven years before I moved to New Mexico, I didn’t live anywhere. Just floated around, drove across country for months at a time, took house- and pet-sitting jobs, crashed on sofas, stayed with relatives and friends, and so on. I loved every minute of it, but in the past decade I’ve come around to the idea of having a home base again. Now I make it a goal to spend at least 15 days of every month at home – as you know from my constantly posting pictures of them on Facebook, I have three cats back there in Portland, not to mention many good friends there. So I balance travel and home now, and in my travels, I just go wherever I feel like going.
5. What is your preferred method of travel? What makes it better than the others, in your opinion?
I’m a huge fan of road trips. Few activities make me happier than driving someplace scenic, and I also feel a certain sense of happiness just from learning a city or region well, to the point of not needing maps or GPS. That’s gratifying to me. So the cross-country trip I’m currently in the middle of, that’s been a blast. And this past summer, I spent two weeks in Spain with a friend, and we rented a car. I drove, and we logged the equivalent of driving from Vancouver to San Diego over those 14 days – loved it. I like the freedom that a car affords you.
I fly often, too, and I like trains but don’t use them especially often, mostly because although I enjoy gazing out the window, I don’t find they’re as liberating as a car – in terms of just setting off when you feel like it, and turning down whatever little dirt road or remote highway looks interesting.
On a more localized level, I jog a lot in my travels – it’s a good way to balance all that I’m eating (which is a lot), and an excellent way to “tour” a neighborhood or explore a beach or trail.
6. Like Paul and I, you house and pet sat for some time. How did you go about finding the gigs? What were some of the pros and cons for you?
I did sit for quite a few years, mostly for a good friend in Greenwich Village with two cool cats and a beautiful apartment. Her work took her on the road for a couple of weeks every few months, so this was a perfect fit for me. And then sporadic opportunities came up – all just word of mouth, and nothing longer than two weeks. I’m too much on the move to commit to anything longer than that, and these days, because I do like to be home half the time, I take on house- and pet-sitting jobs far less often. I sat for friends with a place in Santa Fe for a week last June, which was great – that’s one city I get back to as often as possible. But mostly, these days, I visit a town or city for not much more than two to four days before moving on.
7. We are considering an apartment or something simple and inexpensive to call home in between sits. Would you recommend this?
That’s hard to answer – for me, I like having a home base now, as I mentioned above. But back when I had no home base, I was fine without one. I had no pets, and the lifestyle just suited me well. Even now, I have a one-bedroom, and that’s as big as I could want. I rent and have no desire to own, and I have an informal policy of not adding anything new to the house (furniture, books, etc.) without getting rid of something comparable to offset the acquisition. I come from a family of pack rats, and I’ve sort of broken away from that tendency, which was actually very strong in me years ago.
Again, though, it just comes back to what you’re comfortable with. I would recommend your current approach sometime before you decide.
8. Do you think you will ever want to settle down in one spot permanently? If so, do you have an idea of where this spot would be?
I’m very much at home in Portland – I could see that remaining my base indefinitely. But I’m not overly attached to the idea of staying in one place for long – there are plenty of places I could live happily for a year or two, or even several years. I couldn’t even begin to guess whether I’ll still be in Portland in five years, but I’d say that of all the cities I’ve visited, and certainly all those I’ve lived in, it’s my favorite in terms of being a happy home headquarters.
9. What advice do you have for those of us looking to break in to this line of work? Has the internet made it more or less difficult to be a travel writer?
The answers to these questions are both potentially a bit complicated – well, let’s just say I could probably write a long book to answer the first one, and at least a long article to answer the other. In a nutshell, as far as breaking in, you just have to be persistent and dedicated to the objective of writing for an audience – of getting your words before as many sets of eyes as possible. It’s not easy to break in, and it’s exceptionally difficult to make a living solely from writing about travel. I had the advantage of getting a job first in travel publishing, and that’s definitely one very good way to get your foot in. Had I simply tried striking out on my own, with no connections or workplace experience, I’m not sure I’d have succeeded.
On the balance, the Internet continues to make it easier and easier for writers and readers to find each other – through blogging, commercial sites, and so on. Has the Internet made it easier for writers to earn a decent living? My guess is it’s no harder or easier now than it was a decade ago to earn enough as a writer to support yourself. But the Web has provided countless more opportunities to write semi-professionally – that is, to get published, and to earn at least a modest return on that writing.
10. What are your plans for the next year or two? Any dream projects you are about to embark on? Let me know if you will be needing an assistant…
Haha…I always get asked, albeit mostly jokingly, about the assistant thing. Honestly, I’ve tried hiring assistants here and there, on a very limited basis. I’m terrible at delegating. And I’m happiest doing things on my own, even though I do travel about half the time with friends, some of whom are also travel writers.
I can’t really say I have a dream project per se – I’d like to work more on my CountyHunter blog, and perhaps develop that into a book of some kind (maybe purely an online book, or just keep it as a blog, or develop an app…you see? the Web really has opened plenty of doors for distributing information – for reaching readers). I’ve never sat down and worked out specific goals and objectives, though. I want to travel about half the time, and I want to share what I discover in my travels with any who might be amused or interested. And at the end of each year, I’d like to have earned a nickel more than I spent. That’s all. If I won the lottery tomorrow, I’d still probably approach it all about the same way.
Thank you for taking the time to answer these questions, Andrew. I really appreciate it! Can’t wait to see your Portland food and restaurants app, especially as it looks like we will be sitting in your neck of the woods this summer : )