Where to for travel writing

Interview three: The curator

By Iain Manley Oct 2, 2012

Jodi EttenbergThe three interviews connected to our Kickstarter project started with Graham Boynton, a magazine and newspaper editor. My second subject was Rolf Potts, whose career has spanned both print and the upheaval of the internet, while most closely tracking – and shaping – the growing desire for long-term, experiential travel. My final interview, with Jodi Ettenberg, is focused on the future. Jodi curates long-form travel writing for Travelreads, tells the story of her own travels at Legal Nomads and has recently had a book published, called The Food Traveler’s Handbook. In a previous life, Jodi was a corporate lawyer in New York City.

IM: You’ve chosen to focus on the intersections between travel, culture and food. Why did you make that choice? And how do you think specialisation has contributed to your success?

JE: I don’t think I made the choice at all, actually. The choice made itself, by virtue of the things that fascinated me as I travelled. I always thought I’d enjoy the history behind the places I visited, but I never expected to find myself so intensely interested in the anthropology of food. As I continued my travels past the expected one year mark to two, and then three and then four years, my interests shifted and my site’s focus shifted too.

I started out with general posts about transportation misadventures (like my Bolivian bus ride from hell) but did not delve into food. As the years went on, food became the way I planned my travels (where to eat what, how it came to be, who made it and why) – though the misadventures getting from A to B never dissipated. As a result, I didn’t want to limit my site to just being about food, or travel or culture. It seemed appropriate that a Venn diagram of all three overlapping made the most sense.

IM: The phrase “location independent” is being used more and more often to describe people like you and I, who can work wherever they find an internet connection. That allows for new kinds of travel, but has its drawbacks. To what extent do you consider yourself “location independent”? And what are the drawbacks of a lifestyle that many people consider ideal?

JE: I am location independent because the work I do does not require a home base, but that does not mean that it is simple to move around and work. I try to find places with good WiFi, a reasonably quiet workspace and an apartment that feels safe but not too comfortable. As the site has progressed from a travelogue of my backpacking to a business of its own, and has led to other work opportunities, I’ve found myself staying longer and longer in one place before moving on. Staying put and renting an apartment allows me to explore the destination more, but also means that I can form a routine of work and eating, one that maximizes productivity.

The obvious downside is the lack of consistency, and of course, missing my friends and family at home. (Though I do get longer visits with friends and family than I would have been afforded as a lawyer with four week’s vacation a year.) Also, I made the decision to see where this business of writing and photographing took me, and so being as Type A as I am (once a lawyer, always a lawyer?) I’m giving it my all. That means far less time to see and explore and far more time in front of my computer. As with any project, building a business out takes hard work. Whether you are location independent or not, the hard work part doesn’t change. I just pick places with good views and good food.

While balance is important, I’m the first to admit it’s been lacking in the last year or so, where I changed my course from round-the-world traveller to writer and curator and other hats, including writing my first book. On one hand, it seems foolish to be location independent when I don’t take as much time as I’d like to explore the location I’m in. But on the other, it’s exciting and satisfying to be working on projects I truly care about, and to do so in places I love.

IM: You’ve invested years in not just Legal Nomads but your whole online presence. When you look at the future of your own site and the media in general, how optimistic are you? And how clear about what comes next? It must be a stark contrast to the clearly defined career paths of law.

Yes, that’s very true. I read an interview with Anthony Bourdain recently where someone asked if he thought he would end up with the career he has now. And he said he never anticipated any of this, and never really had a plan. It was instead a matter of looking at the opportunities that presented themselves, making good decisions and then working through the bad decisions. And that’s what I’ve done too. Whatever I put online, I believe in 100% – else I wouldn’t do it. I don’t post anything I don’t care about, and I love sharing links to learn from. The social media presence isn’t an obligation, it’s actually enjoyable!

As to the future, I’m not sure where it will lead. It’s an adventure for all of us in this new digital age. I will keep doing what I am doing – exploring the things in life that I am passionate about, food figuring prominently I’m sure. Taking it day by day – or, as Bourdain said, opportunity by opportunity – has worked thus far, and it’s likely what I will keep doing, while also trying to learn as much as I can.

IM: Roughly six months ago, you started curating Travelreads for Longreads. It’s a job that involves reading a wide-range of travel-related writing, from Hemingway’s Spanish dispatches to interviews like these, with the provision that everything be over 1,500 words long. How much of the long-form travel writing that is published now comes out of people working for magazines and newspapers, compared to people publishing independently? And have you noticed any emerging trends? How are people bending the rules of travel writing by publishing online, for example, if they are at all?

Many of the articles are smaller magazines and publications – the Barnstormer, the excellent Roads and Kingdoms, Maisonneuve Mag in Canada, and the recently launched LA Review of Books, among many others. Not many come from travel blogs themselves, which speaks in part to the attention span of our respective audiences. My readers are used to longer form pieces as I’ve always produced them, but for most of my travel blogging columns, 500 words is the norm. If your readers are accustomed to reading 500 word pieces or less, a 2,000 post is out of place. That said, it’s a shame because I think it’s always great to delve into the history of a place and long-form allows more context for doing so. I do wish more travel bloggers combined their pieces into a longer missive rather than splitting them up into parts.

I don’t know if “bending the rules” is the right question. It’s more of “which sites are making great use of the technology they have available to them.” Yes, that might differ from print, but it’s not a rule-breaker, just a creative shift. For example, in technology, The Verge has some beautiful longer form pieces about technology mixing multimedia and prose, with stark font changes to delineate sections and very thorough research in the piece itself. I wish that more travel sites were willing to do this (or had the budget to – of course that factors in), and build out creative and beautiful photography and text, all woven into one piece of art.

That some pubs or people (bloggers or writers or columnists) are writing long-form pieces on the web isn’t surprising. The magazines (Nat Geo or Conde Nast Traveler) have those pieces in their print editions too. I’ve very much enjoyed discovering new, smaller magazines and publications, however, and of course I’ve loved the suggestions from our reading community who tag their tweets with #travelreads when they find a travel piece that makes them smile.

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One Response to “Where to for travel writing”

  1. Arun says:

    Thank you Iain and Jodi. The interview was not just useful for its content, but all the useful links that led from one place to other interesting. I now have plenty of things to read!

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