Welcome to the second installment of my brand new Travel Writing Corner! Every other week, I’ll be presenting interviews with accomplished travel writers and sharing travel writing tips here. This week, I’m thrilled to present one of my favorite travel writers, Anja Mutić. A native of Croatia and an adopted New Yorker, the accomplished writer has penned a dozen guidebooks, hosted several Lonely Planet travel videos and written for The Washington Post, Lonely Planet, Time Out, New York Magazine.
1. How did you break into the world of travel writing?
I came to travel writing from the world of publishing. As I always joke, I did my time in the “editorial cell”. I was steadily climbing up the ladder for five years, following the editorial assistant-editorial coordinator-editor-senior editor-editorial director path, and then realized I needed to break free. Travel started to lure me and I had to get to the other side and hit the road myself, like the writers I was commissioning in my editorial role. By that time I already had a decent network of contacts in the travel guidebook/website business, which gave me the guts to go freelance. So I did, in 2004. Ever since then I’ve been a full-time freelance travel writer and never really looked back. I know my soul would have withered holding down an office job so I’ve been willing to put up with the challenges of freelancing.
2. What were you doing before you became a travel writer?
I started off, strangely enough, in textbook publishing, then worked on Complete Idiot’s Guides for a while. All that happened in the five years I managed to stick to various office jobs in publishing. Ever since I remember though, I loved traveling and writing – they were my two main passions. When I realized I wanted to and could combine them into one, I felt like I found the key to happiness. In many ways, it really was that key for me, and still is. I think a lot of people never quite figure out what it is that would make them happy professionally and get stuck in jobs they don’t care for. It can be a vicious circle. So I feel truly lucky that I found my calling. It’s not all roses, of courses, but what is? I feel happy about the fact I am true to myself and my passions and haven’t had to compromise my dreams in the process. In fact, I’ve created a profession out of a dream. Recently, I’ve also been thinking that the loss of my former country – Yugoslavia – led to this intense wanderlust which in turn led to travel writing as my chosen profession. It’s almost as if I’ve been wandering the world ever since my country fell apart twenty years ago to find the home that I lost.
3. What do you find most fulfilling, and challenging, about travel writing?
I absolutely love the sense of discovery, those ‘wow’ moments of finding a secret little spot somewhere or having a meaningful encounter with a person you don’t even share the same language with… I also love the sense of movement. I realize some of my happiest and most fulfilled moments have happened on various means of transportation – trains, buses, boats, cars (planes not so much, as there’s no moving landscape to look at). There’s something about the world moving fast in front of my eyes and me being an observer of that movement that strikes a chord, and inspires a breathless type of happiness. It happens quite often that I don’t feel like getting off on my stop, because it’s so great to be moving. I do realize that it all comes from a sense of serious wanderlust, a restlessness of sorts. And that’s one of the challenges of travel writing, for me: how to calm down, stand still, be in the moment, engrossed in the here and now.
My friends tell me: “Why would you want to stand still? Your life is traveling!” In many ways that’s true but I do sometimes dream of having a “normal” life, of being able to stay in one place for more than a couple of months at a time (which seems to be my maximum these days). Regardless of all that, and my restless nature, I still love what I do and wouldn’t swap it for a more regular life. So far, I’ve been happy to pay the price for freedom and excitement that travel writing brings me.
4. Many guidebook and print writers are venturing into new media, are you dipping your toes into this field and if yes, why?
I actually came to travel writing from new media. My first job ever in travel publishing was as online editor for RoughGuides.com. That was back in 2000. So I’ve been following the industry’s trajectory pretty closely for over a decade. It’s been fascinating. On one hand, some of the same debates are still going strong, such as: if guidebooks release their full content online, will print go defunct? Other things are new – like the advent of social media. I think it’s a great dynamic time and it’s really important to be in tune with the zeitgeist.
As for myself, I have written for websites for over a decade now and I definitely dabble in all sorts of new media – I have a blog, I tweet, I network on LinkedIn, I play with a little video… I will admit though that I’m always on the edge of these things. Like you say, I’m dipping my toes but something prevents me from jumping in entirely, especially in the social media arena. It’s mostly lack of time – travel writing is 100% of my income and since it’s generally an underpaid profession I need to work really hard to make ends meet. So other things suffer, such as my social media presence (I always joke that I should get the award for the world’s worst blogger), especially since I also like to have a life away from my BlackBerry and computer.
5. Do you think new media is reshaping the role of guidebooks and travel magazines in today’s world?
New media is absolutely reshaping the role of guidebooks and travel magazines, very much so. Everyone today can be an expert and everyone’s opinion can be heard. While that’s great on many levels, I also think it’s creating a lot of noise and a serious need for good curation. I know there are all sorts of new websites popping up for curated travel but I’m quite skeptical. I personally have few sources of travel info that I trust and would turn to for advice. As for the rest… It’s a lot of racket and clamor, not to belittle anyone’s efforts. It’s definitely a brave new world we’ve entered and I think it’s important to know how to vet travel advice in the new media sphere.
6. What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Write a great deal and travel a great deal. I feel that the art of writing is slowly being overshadowed by the art of SEO and marketing. I’m a writer and traveler at heart, and always will be. So I place huge importance on the writing itself. That’s what I tell my students (I teach travel writing for Mediabistro) – writing is what really matters, together with the power of observation. So make sure you perfect the craft and continue doing so.
Another thing: make sure you’re not romanticizing travel writing as a profession. It may seem peachy from the outside but it requires a high level of resilience, especially if you write guidebooks. So ask yourself very honestly if it’s the right thing for you. It’s always a good idea to take a hard-core trip somewhere – limited budget, packed schedule, cultural disorientation etc – and see how you deal with it. Observe yourself in that moment, as objectively as you can (although I know that’s tricky). If you find that you’re a little too precious to deal with all that travel throws at you or you realize a more sheltered kind of life suits you better, don’t choose travel writing as your career. You really need to know how to be flexible, on many different levels, and how to lower your expectations.
7. As a travel writer, you travel for a living. What are some of your favorite places in the world (I know pointing out one favorite is too tough!)?
You’re right, pointing out favorites is tough. I have many places I love. I love Bolivia for its under-the-radar vibe (it holds a special place in my heart because it was my first travel writing gig), I love Lisbon for its beautiful light (I call the city my impossible love), I love New York, my adopted home (the city’s energy is unlike anywhere else in the world), I love Croatian islands, especially Vis (it’s my special summer hideaway), I love Kenya (I visited just recently and it swept me off my feet). But these are just a few places that come to mind. There are many more, and new ones all the time….
A native of Croatia and an adopted New Yorker, Anja Mutić has lived, worked and traveled on all the continents, except Antarctica. Based in Brooklyn since 1999, Anja is a professional nomad and travel writer who has written for The Washington Post, Lonely Planet, Time Out, and New York Magazine, among other publications. Anja penned a dozen guidebooks, hosted several Lonely Planet travel videos and blogs about her journeys far and wide at EverTheNomad. You can also find her on Twitter as everthenomad.