Travellers Calabria Contest: Q and A with Travel Writer Lara Dunston Part 3 of 5

Travellers Calabria by Lara Dunston and Terry CarterWelcome to Day 3 of our Q and A with Travel Writer Lara Dunston! Previous installments:

Remember that I’m giving away FIVE copies of Lara and Terry Carter’s new guidebook, Travellers Calabria. See details here, but essentially you can comment every day this week for a chance to win Lara and Terry’s book.

And don’t forget to go back and comment on Sunday’s post for a chance to win a Calabrian CD by the group Marasà.

Now, my interview with Lara continues (all photos provided by Lara and Terry). Are you paying attention aspiring travel writers?

5. Turning to your writing career, how did you get into travel writing?

I actually started out studying film production and cinema studies in Sydney, Australia, in the mid- to late-80s, and worked in media relations/PR to put myself through university. I made films, wrote film reviews for many years, and taught film – a combination of industry courses and film appreciation type courses for adult learners.

AntipastoMy greatest passions had always been film and travel, and after years of making short films, and then two years making my first feature film (which almost killed me), I started to re-think what I wanted to do.

I left my job, focused on freelancing, writing about film and teaching film mainly, but I also did a travel writing and photography course, and then a couple of tiny travel pieces for a publishing company Terry worked for, which at the time was Australia’s largest publisher of maps, street directories, caravan and camping books. They offered us our first guidebook, the Sydneyside guide, which was Terry’s idea, and it became part of their compact street directories and still exists actually.

Yet despite that fantastic opportunity, I didn’t really get into travel writing then… I wrote a teen fiction novel, continued to write film reviews, and I stuck with film for a long time after.

I did a full-time Masters degree which took me to South America for the second year of the program to research Latin American cinema (my itinerary was dictated by the film festival calendar) and then returned to Australia to write my thesis, saw a job teaching media studies, film and writing at a women’s university in Abu Dhabi, applied, got it, and we moved to the UAE in 1998.

Le Castella, the floating 16th century Aragonese castleIt was while we were there that we accidentally fell into travel writing again – we’d used a couple of dreadful Lonely Planet books; they were current editions but they were terribly out of date, and they really impacted the trip we did and the choices we made. I was complaining about them to my friend’s sister who was in the UAE on holidays who worked for Lonely Planet.

She suggested we let LP know and forward in some notes and get some free books. So I did and they asked us if we’d be interested in writing for them. We wrote a sample, got approved, was offered the Dubai guide to update, then Syria and Lebanon, and that’s how it all started…

The first book we did was during our summer vacation (I used to get two months off every summer, and a couple of weeks for winter, plus lots of Islamic holidays!) and I was considering leaving my job at the time, so we took on more writing work. But then out of the blue came a promotion to run the media department at the women’s campus for the same institution in Dubai. I’d been teaching at a tertiary level for 5 years then, so it was a great opportunity, so I took it.

So Terry, who’d been working as a multimedia designer suddenly found himself virtually working as a full-time travel writer, and he did the bulk of quite a number of books with me just writing chapters on shopping and entertainment, some of the sights, and other fun bits and pieces, as well as editing for him.

Two and a half years later I was ready to leave my job and – as we had a lot of writing offers, a whole year’s worth of books in fact – we decided that I would quit my job, we would put all our worldly possessions in storage in Dubai, and we would travel for a year as an experiment to see if we could live out of our suitcases, make a success of travel writing, and survive as a couple, and then we’d settle down and write a book about the experience. The problem was we kept getting all these enticing offers to travel to interesting places, so three and a half year’s later, we’re still on the road…

6. What are your favorite and least favorite parts of the job?

The research is definitely my favorite bit. It’s exhausting, because you work seven days a week and generally work 14 hour days on a good day, often longer, especially if you’re doing a city guide and you have to stay up late to check out bars and clubs then get up early to check out markets, then museums and shops, then restaurants… it doesn’t stop.

But I love being on the road and travelling around and exploring a country or region, and if it’s one you know but you don’t know intimately, then that chance to fully discover it and become familiar with it and make friends with locals is just so rewarding.

Award winning olive oil from AltomonteWhen you’ve done that so many times in so many countries – we’ve travelled to 60 countries now – you really become so attached to places that they all feel like your second homes, and you do feel like a citizen of the world. I love that feeling.

A downside, however, is that unlike an expat of one country, who might keep up with the news in their new home as well as their country of birth, I find myself – no matter where we are – constantly checking up on what’s going on in Italy, Syria, Lebanon, Argentina, Thailand, the UAE, and of course, my place of birth Australia. Sometimes I feel like I’m suffering from global information overload!

I also love the writing, although that stage is completely different to the research, because when you’re researching you’re constantly mobile, whereas when you’re writing you’re sedentary, chained to a desk for months and you’re working the same kind of hours seven days a week.

But when you’re writing – whether it’s a magazine story or a guidebook, you’re re-living the experience, and you’re trying to write in such a way that inspires readers to go there, while honestly evoking the place for them.

It can be a challenge because nobody wants to write negatively about anything (our job is to sell destinations and therefore help sell guidebooks or magazines after all) but at the same time nowhere is perfect and you don’t want people to build expectations and then be disappointed, so we’re always honest in our writing.

My least favorite part of the job is the editing process. That’s the only part of the job that isn’t always enjoyable. It’s totally dependent on who you’re working with. There are some editors I absolutely love working with and some publishing companies seem to have better editors than others, perhaps because they pay them more.

Terry on the roadThe good editors are intelligent editors who ask smart questions – they tend to be widely travelled and yet they understand the brand of the book and the needs of a reader and what they want from the text, but they also understand the needs of the writer and appreciate when they might be on the road and can’t access the internet, that they might be rocking up to a hotel at 9pm, eating at 10pm, then crashing, only to have to get up at 6am and hit the road again, so they know you might not be able to turn text or enquiries around fast.

They also know that you’ve slaved away doing research on the road for this book for months – and if you actually divided the fee by the number of hours actually worked, it doesn’t seem so generous after all, that we’ve actually worked for a pittance – and some editors respect this and are more sensitive about the questions they ask.

Fortunately we’ve worked with a lot of great editors, especially at DK, also AA Publishing, and some Lonely Planet editors were great.

But we’ve also worked with some bad editors. The worst kind of editor is the one that is ignorant about the place, hasn’t travelled much, and asks pointless questions. Some seem to be justifying their jobs by making changes for the sake of change – it can be especially frustrating when they insert errors or change the text so that it’s wrong.

I’m not so concerned about my own writing, I got over being precious about my writing a long time ago – but I ask myself what makes the most sense to the reader, what’s going to help the reader out most, and if I think it still makes sense to the reader, I let the change slide, if it doesn’t, then I’ll argue it.

But once you do that, things always become unpleasant, the writer is perceived as being a pain-in-the-butt, and you probably won’t work with that editor, or get a job from the commissioning editor again.

Thanks so much for this inside look into life as a travel writer, Lara. Readers, stay tuned for more Q and A tomorrow!

Be sure to leave your comment and tweet or post to Facebook to maximize your chances of winning a copy of Travellers Calabria! See contest details here.

21 Beans of Wisdom to “Travellers Calabria Contest: Q and A with Travel Writer Lara Dunston Part 3 of 5”
  1. Gil

    I like the looks of that salad!!!

    I could live on antipasto, especially in the summer!

  2. Lesley

    What a great insight – thanks, Lara!

    Agreed, Lesley 🙂

  3. 07.08.2009

    Enjoyed these past three days very much – more great insight into freelance writing. Thanks to you for the questions and Lara for the answers.

    Thank you, Willym; I knew many readers would appreciate the opportunity to get into the mind of a travel writer like this, and Lara’s answers are truly fabulous.

    .-= Willym´s last blog ..Mercoledi Musicale =-.

  4. 07.08.2009

    Interesting to read about Lara’s background and her experience with editors!
    Great post, thanks to both of you, Michelle and Lara!

    Glad you enjoyed, Suzie!

    .-= Suzie´s last blog ..Red Coral Candle Holder =-.

  5. What an interesting background! Does Lara think her film background help her with travel writing?

    I find the best travel writing makes you feel like you’re seeing the movie in your head.

    Completely agree. I love great travel writing–much cheaper than flights and hotels 😉

    .-= nyc/caribbean ragazza´s last blog ..My photos from President Obama’s arrival in Italy. =-.

  6. 07.08.2009

    Hi all

    Thanks for your wonderful comments and reading my ramblings!

    nyc/caribbean ragazza – yes, I do think my film background has influenced my writing and the way I think about travel and travel writing. I have a Masters in scriptwriting (as well as undergrad degrees in film production & screen theory) and that has led me to think about travel writing as a dramatic form of writing that should take people on an emotional journey. Of course there’s limited scope for that in the guidebooks, but more so in the feature stories. My Moroccan road trip piece for Lifestyle+Travel is a good example (you can read that on the L+T site).

    I actually think the film and travel are inextricably connected and have been since the start of cinema (the very first films were travel films) and I actually started a PhD on this subject some years back that I haven’t finished (I must make time for that!).

    I think both are inspiring, they motivate us to dream and develop aspirations (I’m talking about good films obviously, not a lot of the Hollywod trash); there is a process that we go through sub-consciously or consciously where we develop expectations when we both travel and watch films, and the joy of both is in having those expectations met.

    When we watch films we’re going on a journey of sorts and watching narratives unfold and when we travel we’re creating our own journeys and narratives that become part of the story of our life… travel writers should keep those things in mind when they’re thinking about the story they’re telling and how they want readers to feel and what they want them to do afterwards… which is to be inspired enough to go off and plan a trip obviously.

    Hope that answers your question.
    .-= lara dunston´s last blog ..In print and online =-.

  7. Francesca

    Great insight! I always thought, in another world, I would want to be a travel writer – seems so thrilling, but the nitty gritty is there too!

    By the way – that picture looks delicious!

    Yes, there are certainly good and not so good parts, and it wouldn’t be a great career choice for everyone…but oh the food! 😉

  8. Victor Cina

    This whole series is killing me. I want to go there so badly!!!!

    Hee hee…the good news is, Calabria will be here whenever you’re ready 🙂

  9. 07.08.2009

    This is so fun – I am actually starting to feel that I am in Italy and am completely wrapped up in its warmth. I love it!

    What a wonderful sentiment, Jacquie 🙂

  10. 07.08.2009

    This is completely fascinating. The story about editors seems to be universal, no matter what part of the writing world you find yourself in.

    I’m glad that you both get so much joy out of what you do!

    I’m really enjoying this series as well, Jen; it’s always interesting to get a look into another area of writing, isn’t it?

    .-= jen of a2eatwrite´s last blog ..What’s Cooking Wednesday: Another Radical Radish Adventure =-.

  11. I’m sure enjoying this series. Thanks so much! My favorite quote of today’s post: “I got over being precious about my writing a long time ago” . . . such good advice for any of us.

    Couldn’t agree more, Shelly; that’s why I bolded it 🙂

    .-= Shelly @ Life on the Wild Side´s last blog ..I hate having to take my own advice =-.

  12. 07.09.2009

    Well a paesana – but from the north (of Australia) 🙂
    I do love the pictures but I need to know where they were taken. That way I can imagine that I can get there next Spring or maybe when I retire …

    I am always amazed at how lucky we (I suppose I mean middle class Australians) have been in the past to be able to make our passion our careers. These days you would have been counselled to do course X followed by course Y etc. and then by the time you graduated you would feel like all the joy had been sucked out of the passion.

    Then again maybe we shouldn’t forget that “the lucky country” was meant to be ironic. So was it hard work rather than luck that got you both a job doing Calabria? Or were you both open to the possibilities?

    Well Jo, it seems to me they’ve created luck for themselves through a lot of hard work–and remember they work all over the world!

    Also, if you hover the cursor over the photos, you can see the descriptions.

  13. 07.09.2009

    What a unique and interesting life.

    Completely agreed!

    .-= Ice Tea For Me´s last blog ..italia – i made it =-.

  14. 07.09.2009

    You are making me hungry.

    Hee hee, luckily we also have lots of recipes here you can try 😉

    .-= Esme´s last blog ..Giveaway for Off Season =-.

  15. Yes Lara …that did answer my question and was very insightful. Grazie
    .-= nyc/caribbean ragazza´s last blog ..A "sweet" surprise…"The Sweet Life in Paris" by David Lebovitz =-.

  16. 07.09.2009

    I’ve been a fan of Lara’s website for a while and am fascinated to learn about this longtime film background and the detailed story of how she and Terry became travel writers/photographers. Great idea to have her do a series Michelle!
    .-= Kim B.´s last blog ..Et Voila — Curtains! =-.

  17. 07.10.2009

    Hi all

    Thank you so much for the kind comments. I’m so glad you’re enjoying the series. A molto grazie to Michelle for the idea, questions and opportunity.

    Hey Jen

    We do get joy out of what we do, but I can’t emphasize enough how hard it is, because so many people say to us that we have the dream job. Sure we get to travel the world, see great places, meet amazing people etc etc, but for the last 3.5 years we’ve only had 3 days off per year. Not a day goes by when we’re not working, and we are literally living our jobs.

    When people talk about work-life separation, and segmenting their lives, we have no idea what they’re talking about because ours are completely entwined, our work is our life, our life is our work. And at the moment we’re both completely shattered – we’ve had 5 weeks on the road in Mallorca, which isn’t much fun in the heat, and we’ve each done a couple of all-nighters to finish our work in time… so, I don’t mean to put a downer on things for people, but I think it’s important to understand that if you want to make it lucrative you have to work hard.

    Hi Shelly

    I’m glad Michelle put that quote in bold too! But please understand that I *was* precious about my writing once upon a time. When I first started I would labour over pieces, whether it was a 100 word box or a 2000 word story. And I would get so sensitive when an editor changed things. With time, I simply got over it. The more you write, the easier it becomes.

    If I have my notes in front of me I can write a really good 80-100 word restaurant or hotel review for a guidebook now in about 5-10 minutes. If I want it to be perfect and push myself a bit creatively I might take 15-20 minutes but I’ll only do that if I’m being paid well for the task. If the editors change it so be it. As long as they don’t change the meaning or impression, I’m fine with it.

    It’s the only way you can be – there are too many more important things to worry about in the world. They’re just words. There are plenty around and we all have plenty more opportunities to use them.

    Hi Jo

    I’ve never been lucky actually. I never bet on anything or enter contests or anything, because I have never had any luck winning anything. My whole life I’ve made my own luck.

    My dad’s side of the family were dairy farmers whose ancestors arrived in Australia from England on the first fleet (when Australia was first colonised by the British in 1788 for the non-Aussies); my mother’s side of the family were more intellectual but they were post-World War 2 Russian immigrants so they worked in factories when they arrived in Australia. So while my parents became small business people and my mother a professional (an accountant), and I have a university education (with several degrees), I’m sure the pastoral/working class ancestry (and protestant work ethic!) had more to do with shaping who I am than middle class privilege and luck.

    I’ve always believed that we create our own opportunities. I’ve worked in education so I strongly believe that you need to dream and aspire to something and then learn whatever you need to and accumulate whatever skills and knowledge are required to get you where you dream of being.

    I think the Calabria book was around book number 36 or something for us (I’d have to do a count) – we’ve worked on over 40 books now – so getting that commission was based on our track record, our ability to research and write and photograph books, rather than luck.

    Thanks again for reading, everyone! 🙂
    .-= lara dunston´s last blog ..In print and online =-.

  18. 07.10.2009

    What a great job you have.
    .-= Clayvessel´s last blog ..Get a Handle on It =-.

  19. carrieitly

    Oh, I think I missed this one… have to remedy that!

Michelle FabioMichelle Fabio is an American attorney-turned-freelance writer living in her family's ancestral village in Calabria, Italy and savoring simplicity one sip at a time. 

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Homemade apple butter
Green beans, potatoes, and pancetta
Glazed Apple Oatmeal Cinnamon Muffins
Pasta with snails alla calabrese
Onion, Oregano, and Thyme Focaccia
Oatmeal Banana Craisin Muffins
Prosciutto wrapped watermelon with bel paese cheese
Fried eggs with red onion and cheese
Calabrian sausage and fava beans
Ricotta Pound Cake