Welcome to The Pen Company’s first ever interview. Join us…
This month we had a lovely chat to Abigail Blasi – a very talented freelance travel writer, who has co-written and written Lonely Planet guidebooks for Italy, Portugal, Tunisia, India, and more. Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be a travel writer? Do you fancy a career change that combines your love of writing and travel? Well, we got the low down on what some see as the ultimate career from Abigail herself, as well as a brilliant story about her travels through the West African desert!
Hi Abigail! Do you enjoy your job?
Hi. Yes, I (predictably) do. I love seeing new places, exploring and writing about them, and meeting new people in different places.
Is there anything you would change, if you could?
Get paid more! Sometimes it seems I have to work long hours for not much financial return, but this job is not about the money (luckily). Sometimes being freelance is tricky, as you’re constantly having to prove yourself – I love it, but sometimes it’d be nice not to worry about what’s up next.
How did you break into travel writing, and when?
I’m originally from London, but moved to Hong Kong for three years. I travelled a lot around Asia during that time, and when I came back to London I started working for a travel guide company as an editor. I did a sample piece of writing for them and got my first guidebook commission in 2002, and have been writing full time as a freelancer ever since.
What has been the highlight of your career?
One of them was when I travelled overland from Mali to Mauritania in West Africa. It was a journey into the complete unknown for me and it was not a usual tourist route – I had decided to test it out to see if it was a good way to cross the border. I travelled through the night in the back of a crowded pick-up truck that kept breaking down. The police would occasionally stop the truck, shine a torch in the back and spot me and say, surprised, ‘what are you doing here?’ and I’d say, ‘I’m on holiday!’ and they’d look at me like I was mad, understandably. I ended up in a town that had no hotels so a local family said I could stay in their backyard and kindly gave me some breakfast the next day. There are not many roads in Mauritania (it’s ¾ desert) so I then employed a driver and hired a car to get me across the country. We drove for about 14 hours along the hard sand of the beach, which was completely empty apart from the occasional mirage or tea tent. It was where the desert met the sea. The whole trip felt like an incredible adventure.
I’m also proud of an interview I did with a former street child in India, who’s still a friend now. He ran away from home aged seven and ended up living at New Delhi Railway station for seven years, but has now gained an education and is applying for university. I felt that telling his powerful story was important, both to him and to the readers.
What are the biggest misconceptions about travel writing?
That it’s like being on holiday. You do have to work hard. No, really you do.
What skills, other than writing, do you need to be a travel writer?
Good research skills and the ability to get information out of people without being annoying. The stamina to work relentlessly hard and meet deadlines. Dogged persistence. Being able to take criticism and not be precious about your writing.
What mediums have you written in, and how do they differ from each other?
I’ve written for websites, guidebooks and magazine/newspaper features. Online writing has to be shorter and punchier. In guidebook writing you have to fit in a ridiculous amount of information while not being boring. I like writing for newspapers and magazines, as then I have more of a chance to go in depth and explore a place.
What do you feel makes a good travel writer?
Seeing an interesting angle. Taking the reader there with words and being amusing. Not taking it all too seriously. In features, focussing in on the people or details that will bring it alive.
What do you feel makes a good travel story?
I think it’s a bit like what makes a good travel writer. Looking at something from an unexpected point of view, and a story that transports you there. I like when language is used in unusual ways that make a piece enjoyable and surprising to read.
How do you spend your free time when you are visiting a new place?
I don’t find I have much free time when I visit a new place when I’m working. But I nowadays try to rush around less, to slow down and experience it more.
What tips do you have for someone who aspires to work in the travel writing industry?
If you’re wanting to write for a magazine, newspaper or website, look carefully at their style and content and pitch accordingly. Also there are so many ways that you can build up your profile and portfolio before you’ve even got a commission, eg, through a blog or building your Twitter/instagram/etc followers.
Where has been your favourite place to visit so far in your career?
It’s hard to pick a favourite, but every now and again I get a strong yearning to go back to India, almost like missing a person. I also always return to Rome, which is really my second home (my husband is Italian).
Finally, do you make notes in a notebook, or do you type everything? We have to ask!
I still often use a notebook, but I also use my phone to take notes. However, I can get very confused later when I look at my phone and wonder what/where that little yellow note was all about.