When I decided to leave the corporate world, to start a new career as a writer, I needed to go somewhere far away, both to shake myself free of the corporate mindset and to test the limits of what I could do. Australia seemed the ideal choice. My book, Waltzing Australia, follows me on my six-month, 20,000-mile journey around and across the wonderful, surprising land Down Under. Waltzing Australia is a journal that recounts the joy and adventure of that trip (from cruising among the crocodiles and crossing the mountains on horseback to prowling great museums and visiting penguin colonies), as well as the outcome. It is a story of personal discovery, but more than that, it is about Australia: the history, legends and art, both European and Aboriginal; the beauty, the challenge, the people, the land.
I’m pleased to say that Waltzing Australia was recently honored with the Mom’s Choice Award for travel writing.
Tell us something about yourself.
I was born in Pittsburgh, but we moved to the suburbs near Chicago when I was six, and I grew up in the Midwest. The influences on my life are not hard to trace, as my parents and my upbringing were packed with all the things I still love, especially food, travel, history, literature, and culture. Both my parents were great readers, and books were our most common gifts. Because I loved stories, they taught me to read when I was three, and I’ve never been without a book since then. My mom was a great cook, and her mother (who was born in Toronto) had university degrees in food science and home economics and had written cookbooks for a large Canadian food company. My dad was from Gulf Coast Florida, where he was exposed to Cuban and African American cuisine, then went to North Africa during World War II, where he was exposed to a wide range of cultures and foods. The love of exploration and trying new cuisines is something he passed along to us early on, as he loved seeking out every new ethnic restaurant as it opened in Chicago, and once he started working for the airlines, studying the cuisine of any country we’d be visiting was as important to him as learning about the history, art, and language. (It is interesting perhaps to note that one of the reasons Australia seemed to be the best place to go when I left the corporate world is that I’d already been to Europe six times, and while I loved it, I knew what I needed was not there.)
For college, I picked a small school in Santa Barbara, CA, because they had an outstanding biology program. I was, at that time, infatuated with marine biology. However, I changed my mind and my major a few times, ending up with my degree in Language Arts (English Literature and French), with minors in science, history, and theology. Though I loved college and Santa Barbara, by the time I graduated, I was ready to try my hand at the corporate world. As with college, so in my corporate life, I changed direction a number of times, taking on medical product management, systems implementation analysis, computer training, corporate trouble shooting, and public relations. Fortunately, ten years and two major corporations into my career, I figured out what I was supposed to be doing, and I bailed out to become a writer. I’ve never regretted it. Twenty years later, I’m still writing, and still loving it.
Since starting life over as a writer, I have written hundreds of articles for magazines, newspapers, and newsletters, including an award-winning food history column, and I’ve written history, geography, and language arts books for every major educational publisher in the U.S., including the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. I’ve contributed major articles to The Encyclopedia of Food and Culture and contributed to award-winning cookbook, The South American Table. Of course, a real highlight was publishing Waltzing Australia. I’ve also been able to indulge the love of adventure awakened on that trip to Australia and have explored countries on six continents, from Mongolia to Morocco, India to Iceland, Egypt to Ecuador.
How did you know you wanted to be a writer? How did you get started?
I’ve always known I was a writer. I’ve been writing poems and stories since I was a child (I still have a poem I wrote in the third grade). For me, the “big discovery” was figuring out that I wanted to be a professional writer. Growing up, most of the advice you get is “go ahead and write in your free time, but you need to get a real job.” So after college, I headed for the corporate world. I did really well, as I’m great at solving problems, and most corporations have plenty of those. It was fun at first, because I always like learning new stuff and figuring out solutions, but in a few years, it became clear that this wasn’t enough for me. I wasn’t really a corporate type. I wanted to go to plays and read great literature and write. So I thought I’d try academe (part time, while still keeping my corporate job). At the end of my first year of graduate school, a professor wrote on my paper that it was brilliant, but unfortunately, the qualities that make a great writer do not make a great scholar. He meant it as a devastating criticism, but for me, it was like my fairy godmother had just hit me with her magic wand. I was supposed to be a writer. That same week I came up with a plan: I would leave the corporate world, travel around Australia, and become a writer. I’d actually transferred into a position in the corporate world that involved a lot of business writing, and the more writing I did, the more I knew I had to pursue a writing career.
Did you have any memorable experiences on the road to getting published?
When I was still pitching the manuscript for Waltzing Australia, I received a phone call from one of the publishers considering the project. The editor who called was effusive in her praise: she loved it, her staff loved it, everyone who read it loved it. My heart was soaring. Then she said, “Unfortunately…” My heart hesitated. “Unfortunately, we have just published three rather costly books, and we simply don’t have enough money left in the budget.” My heart sank. The editor then asked, “But we were wondering if we could hold on to the manuscript for a few more weeks, because there are still four people in the office who want to read it.” I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. It was my introduction to the reality that just writing a book people love isn’t enough to get it published. Then there was the agent who said the descriptions of nature were like “Annie Dillard at her best.” However, he doubted that anyone cared enough about Australia to buy a book about it.
It is because of things like this that I tell writers to nurture a thick skin and a sense of the ridiculous—and then keep moving forward. It takes work and time, and no one is really looking for the next, new writer.
What do you believe is the hardest part of writing?
For me, marketing the book is the hardest part of being a writer. I love doing presentations and talking to people about Australia, writing, travel, but the constant need to seek out speaking engagements, seek out reporters interested in the story, seek out places to send press releases, and updating all the authors sites and social media sites. And that’s just marketing the book. Marketing myself takes more time: sending out queries for articles, sending out proposals for the next book ideas. It takes so much time, and I’d much rather be writing. I know it’s part of the job, but it’s my least favorite part of the job.
How do you do research for your books?
My research always involves a huge amount of reading (which is one of the things I love about writing—I’m an information junkie). For some projects, it also involves a great deal of field work. For the book I’m working on now, a book of culinary history, I’ve visited dozens of countries and even taken cooking classes in several of them. Of course, for Waltzing Australia, while a huge amount of reading went into both preparing for the trip and checking all the facts as I wrote the book, the “field work” was the story. So one might say that, while reading was vital, just being there and living it was the key research for my Australia book.
Did you learn anything from writing your book? What?
I learned an immense amount. First and foremost, I learned that I love doing book-length projects. One can really get immersed in a topic and really share the full breadth of one’s knowledge of the topic. I do slide shows and presentations about Australia, and I’m often frustrated by how little can be shared in an hour, even with 100 images. I want to tell people, “This is just the preview. You don’t know what you’re missing if you don’t buy the book.”
Second, I learned the truth of William Zinsser’s comment that, “Writing improves in direct ratio to the number of things we can keep out of it that shouldn’t be there.” This lesson became the second point in what I call my Five Rules of Writing—Edit Ruthlessly. To be a good writer, you can’t fall in love with what you’ve written to the point where you leave in things that don’t belong there.
Third, something that became another point in the writing rules I use when I teach writing, was Check Everything. I took massive amounts of notes while I was traveling in Australia, but I found that sometimes things I’d seen in print or heard people say were not necessarily accurate. This went for the evening news just as much as the man-on-the-street. I learned that you need to look up everything before you commit it to print — all your facts and any words you don’t normally use. Actually, even words you normally use are worth looking up. I find that a lot of people use the wrong spelling for the vast majority of homophones, such as pore/pour and peaked/piqued. So check everything.
What are you reading now?
Because I’m currently working on a book of culinary history, I’m reading a lot in that field at present. I just finished Near a Thousand Tables, which I highly recommend, and I’m just about to start Food: The History of Taste.
What types of books do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors? Why?
I read a great deal of nonfiction, especially history, geography, and biographies, though also some science. That said, some of my favorite books have been fiction, including C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books and his Space Trilogy, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Arthur Upfield’s Detective Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte books (all set in Australia, so no surprise perhaps that I enjoy them), and a lot of the classics (Moby Dick is one of my all-time favorites).
Are you working on your next book? What can you tell us about it?
I’m actually working on several books at once, though I’ll throw myself more completely into whichever one gets a response from a publisher first. I’ve got a proposal out for a book on the histories of the most important foods in the world. (The story of how food literally changed or directed history, over and over again, is quite remarkable.) I’m working on a sequel to Waltzing Australia, which will cover my three subsequent trips back. (These trips involved visiting friends, but also took me to regions even more remote than some of those visited on my first trip.) I’m working on a book that would be a companion to the Travel Savvy presentations I give: tips on how to stay healthier, be safer, and have a better time when traveling. While this will be spiced with tales from some of my more exotic journeys (Mongolia, Morocco, Ecuador, Iceland, India, Vietnam, and more), it will also include valuable information for those who stay close to home.
What is the best advice you could give other writers about writing or publishing?
You have to care about the craft of writing, and you have to care about the audience. If you care deeply, it will drive you to do all the other things you should do —checking facts, editing for clarity, sweating the details, thinking about word choice, carefully crafting the writing. If you don’t care deeply about your craft and your audience, don’t write. The great thing about caring deeply about the craft is that, even if you don’t care about the topic (which, if you have to pay the rent, is bound to happen on occasion), you can still have a very good time writing, focusing on the beauty and/or clarity of really well-written work.
What are you doing to promote your latest book?
I have a blog that supports the book, and I keep it active and have linked it to as many social media sites as I could. I do book signings, readings, and travelogue/slide shows about Australia. I do as many radio interviews as possible. I participate in discussion on “regular” social media sites (Facebook, LinkedIn), on travel sites, and on author’s sites (Good Reads, Author’s Den, Library Thing, Shelfari, and several others). I’m involved in a few writers organizations, because networking helps. And I notified everyone with a newsletter that has a “members news” section — my college, social organizations, professional organizations.
Where can readers learn more about you and your book?