Interview: David Miller


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Anyone that’s familiar with the online travel writing world will know the name Matador Travel. That’s right, it’s the networking site for us travel lovers that have a desire to write about all of our adventures. I had the opportunity to catch up with Matador’s Editor David Miller about working, why he is a fan of WR and of course the one book that’s influenced his own travel writing.

WR: Tell us a bit on how you got started travel writing.
DM: The inspiration, or the idea anyway, that “travel writing” could be worth pursuing came from here, believe it or not: Written Road, in 2005. At the time I was struggling to get published (and we’re talking everything here–fiction, poetry, nonfiction, journalism).

The problem was that I didn’t really have a direction. I was blasting off stories anywhere and everywhere, from traditional heavyweight literary magazines to regional publications, to local newspapers and alternative weeklies. I ended up with a healthy stack of rejections but also a few encouraging publications. Along the way I also became a regular contributor to couple different local newspapers and alternative weeklies.

Overall though, I became really frustrated with the markets that were out there. Only a fraction of what was being published resonated with me, and that went (and still does) even for the heavyweight literary magazines. And the snail’s pace of receiving tiny checks from local newspapers just plain sucked.

One day I had a kind of breakthrough, which of course seems so obvious in retrospect: why not begin searching for new markets online? I’d always been a traveler and a writer–why not put two and two together? Written Road was one of the first sites I found, and realized. . .hell, if these people can do it, I can do it.

Still, I didn’t actively pursue “travel writing” per se beyond checking Craigslist for the occasional writing gig while I was traveling. This was how I found Ross Borden, co-founder of MatadorTravel.com. He was soliciting a first wave of travel writers and out of our initial correspondences grew a friendship / working relationship that continues to evolve.

WR: What’s the best part about your job?
DM: As an editor I love working with different writers, encouraging them, vibing off their energy and enthusiasm, their varied styles and stories.

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As a writer, I love continuing to push my own limits and abilities with storytelling. Basically, I love being a writer and editor because it doesn’t feel like work. It’s who I am.

WR: And the worst?
DM: Too much ass to chair time. Straight up. And sometimes it’s hard for me to get out of “writer” mode, which takes its toll on my family. It’s a sacrifice.

WR: Do you get writer’s or editor’s block? What’s your quick fix?
DM: I wouldn’t say I get true writer’s or editor’s block–if there is such a thing–however I definitely have lesser and more productive times. Generally, the more tasks I have on my to-do list, the less I get done. I’m a shitty multi-tasker. I work best just getting in one flow and staying in it.

In general though, as far as a quick fix or at least a shot of inspiration, all I have to do is get on the road, fire up a trip of some kind, even just an overnight camp-out with the family. Invariably I’ll get up super early the next morning, put on coffee, and it never fails that all these words I’ve been needing to get out will just start flowing.

WR: How has the internet and social networking sites (like Matador) changed the field of travel writing?
DM: Because I started writing only briefly in print media and then quickly switched to mostly online media, I don’t have a great perspective on this. I know though that at the recent Travel Writers’ conference in San Francisco, Eva Holland reported that all the talk was “the Death of Print,” and how basically all these long-standing editorial giants of newspaper travel sections were throwing in the towel.

From my perspective, it’s just evolve or die. Most major newspapers have gotten flushed down the Rupert Murdoch corporate mega-toilet anyway, so what kind of fire are they really going to be brining when it comes to news, much less travel writing? I guess that sounds like a bad attitude, but damn, that’s how we’re getting played, it seems. I feel bad though for those folks who’ve given their lives to journalism; hopefully their careers can evolve in new directions. As Eva joked, “maybe now they’ll write the books they always wanted to write.”

On the flip side, new media and social networking sites like Matador have the ability to blow up citizen journalism like never before. The beauty is that now the playing field is totally leveled, or perhaps better said, removed. There is no field; now anyone can step up and be a player. And so the only question is how deep is the writer willing to dig? How real is he or she willing to get when it comes to reporting on travel, community, place? Some of the best work now doesn’t have to be super polished or edited. A single blog can soar right out from some cyber cafe in Rio, the writer stumbling in from Carnaval and firing it off in some kind of caipirinha-fueled blaze–and if it’s good enough, the rest of the blogosphere, or at least the immediate community, will hear the drumbeats.

WR: Often travel writers complain that a difficult part of their job is always being on the move, how do you deal with that?
DM: It’s true. Having to rush through an itinerary for a paid assignment can kill your travels. Guidebook writing is the worst of all in this regard. My recommendation is to always plan extra time in the front and back ends of your assignment. Room to flow, as it were. Also, keep things in perspective: don’t feel too bad just because you had to rush through Patagonia and could only spend one day in Península Valdés. You could be hanging Sheetrock or roofing houses for a living. Count yourself lucky.

WR: What’s your advice for staying up to date on the travel writing industry?
DM: I feel like I get a healthy dose of new articles and “what’s hot” each day through bookmarking at Stumbleupon.com, Reddit, and Digg.com. Just through general promotion of others’ work, connecting with them via shouts and messages, and perusing what’s out there I get all I need as far as reading online.

WR: If you were to be starting your travel writing career today, what would your master plan of action be?
DM: If I were starting over I would have just traveled hard first, and then gone to school–for journalism–when I was in my early to mid 20s and had a better idea of what I was doing as well as better appreciation for the opportunity to be in school. While I was in school I’d do whatever it took to either intern at a magazine or work at a local paper or alternative weekly. Internships (especially like the one Outside Magazine’s Eric Hansen had — check out my interview with him) can pave the way for your career because you get in with all different editors and publishers who — as long as you can learn to write — will hook you with choice stories and assignments down the road.

WR: If you had to pick one book that has influenced how you are as a traveler and writer, what would it be?
DM: That one’s easy. Ten summers ago I picked up Full Woman, Fleshly Apple, Hot Moon by Pablo Neruda. A bilingual edition translated by Stephen Mitchell. I can’t lie, I’d never head of Neruda; it was the cover that pulled me in–a Gaugin painting–one of his full-lipped island maidens holding a juicy mango like it was a heart. And that title. How can you read that title and not want to find out what the book is about?

At the time I knew nothing about Neruda or about the power of poetry and language to become, literally, part of a place. I was a camp counselor then, a canoe and ropes course instructor, and for a few weeks I just kept dropping lines on anyone who’d listen–campers, other counselors. It became kind of a joke, actually, but one that, in some strange way, I thought Neruda himself would laugh at. I’d leave the book out so anyone could read it, and damn if it didn’t help to define that particular summer, the summer of 98. . .the summer Neruda visited Camp High Meadows.

As I kept reading lines, my eyes would drift across the page to the Spanish original and the strangely accented, Latinate words. I became fascinated, and before too long, obsessed. I had to learn these words, this language, this landscape. And so all of this evolved into my first foray into Latin America–head-tripped, drunk on words, utterly foolish. My first real travels abroad. Surfing, writing, a straight diet of beans, rice, coffee, mango, waves, rain, and sun. I’ve never recovered.