Interview: Kelsey Timmerman, Author of “Where am I Wearing?”



A lot of the time travel writing isn’t glamorous or glorious; often it’s about getting your hands dirty and working hard to unearth the truth behind accepted norms. That’s certainly the case for Kelsey Timmerman, author of Where Am I Wearing? A Global Tour to the Countries, Factories, and People That Make Our Clothes, who traveled to discover exactly who was making his clothes, giving us a human look into the effects of globalization.

Having read, and truly enjoyed, Timmerman’s book, I wanted to know how he turned the passion for finding an answer to a complex question into a published book in such a short time. Written Road interviewed Timmerman last year about the importance of blogging to travel writer’s, but this time we’re delving deeper, learning about the process and steps of transitioning from regular ‘ole travel blogger and columnist to published book author.

Written Road: I appreciate this book because it combines traveling and discovering new cultures, but doing so in order to open our eyes to the real effects of globalization, putting you somewhere between travel writer and social justice reporter. What inspired you to combine the two?

Kelsey Timmerman: Not so much what inspired me as Who inspired me.

His name was Amilcar and I don’t know much about him other than he made T-shirts, was in his mid-twenties, lived with his parents, and liked to play soccer. I met him when I visited Honduras after looking at the tag of my favorite T-shirt – sort of a random act of travel kind of thing I had spent the previous few weeks jungle trekking and SCUBA diving, and decided to dedicate at least one afternoon to trying to meet someone who made my T-shirt. That someone was Amilcar, and I couldn’t bring myself to ask him the question I really wanted to know: did his job making shirts provide the opportunity to make a better life for him and his family?

After the trip to Honduras, Amilcar haunted me. I pulled out the rest of my clothes, checked the tags, and hit the road.

WR: This is obviously a subject that you are passionate about. Did that help in researching for and writing the book? How long did it take?

KT: The garment workers and their families let me into their lives, fed me, told me their struggles, played ultimate Frisbee with me, and went bowling with me. I kind of feel like it’s my mission to tell their story. I have a digital photo frame on my desk that scrolls through photos of the workers. They drive me to work harder, write longer, and to edit just one more time.

I met Amilcar in 2005 in Honduras. In 2007 I traveled to Bangladesh, Cambodia, and China. In January of 2008 I signed with Wiley & Sons to write the book. They asked me if I could have it done in four months. At the time I had hardly written anything longer than 1,500 words.

“Of course I can write a book in four months,” I told them. “No problem.”

And lucky for me it wasn’t.

WR: I think a lot of travel writers put “writing a book” on their list of long term, that’s-my-career-dream list. Have you always wanted to write a book? At what point did you decide to make it a reality?

KT: I’ve kind of looked at my writing career as a three-pronged approach: column writing, freelancing, and writing books.

I started off writing a travel column. I pitched it to every newspaper in the United States with a readership over 25,000 and all the major syndicates. I’m not kidding. I likely have the record for most rejections before the age of 30; hopefully that’s a trend that doesn’t continue into my 30s. I received every kind of rejection imaginable, including my all-time favorite, “This is a great article about Kosovo, but do you have anything about traveling in Indiana.” Eventually, a few small newspapers picked up the column.

DOWNLOAD OUR TRAVEL GUIDES

FOR FREE

 

I adapted some of the columns into freelance pieces and pitched them to magazines and as stand-alones to newspapers. I got published in a few larger newspapers including the Christian Science Monitor, which gave me some credibility.

Once I had taken the column thing as far as I thought I could take it, and had a few good freelance clips, I started to toy around with the idea of a book, but wasn’t sure what. I conceived the idea of WAIW? and hoped that it might become a book. Realistically, I figured it was much more likely to be a freelance piece or two.

A literary agent contacted me after seeing my blog before I left on the quest and asked, “You ever think about making this a book.” That’s when I knew I had a shot.

WR: Run us through the steps that you had to take to get your book published.

KT: Step 1 (Spring 2007) – Months of travel, oodles of notes and photos.

Step 2 (Summer 2007) – Wrote a sample chapter and a book proposal. Kept lines of communication open with the agent who originally contacted me while monitoring deals in publishersmarketplace.com for agents representing books similar to mine.

Step 3 (Fall 2007) – Met a different agent, Caren Estesen of the Caren Johnson Literary Agency, at the Midwest Writers Workshop in my hometown – Muncie, Indiana. I loved her energy and enthusiasm for my project so I signed with her a few weeks later.

Step 4 (Winter 2007) – Caren shopped the project around and Wiley & Sons expressed interest. There was something like seven meetings at Wiley where the book was up for discussion. At any one of them it could have been rejected. I walked around saying stuff about “not getting my hopes up” when, in fact, my hopes should’ve been affixed with flashing lights so planes didn’t crash into them. Lucky for me the book survived every round and Wiley offered me a book contract.

Step 5 (January 2008) – Wrote, edited, edited, and edited book.

Next time around I hope to get the book deal up front before investing in months of travel. WAIW? was a leap of faith.

WR: What are the main differences between being a published article writer and a published book author? Now that you’ve been published, are you finding it easier to get more writing assignments?

KT: When you write an article, it’s on someone else to sell the magazine or newspaper in which it appears. For a book, so much of the promo and publicity falls on the author. My publisher definitely helped. They got me a mention in TIME magazine and some other biggies, which I could’ve never landed on my own. But they publish so many books and can only dedicate so much time to any one of them. As it turns out, writing the book is the easy part.

I haven’t had a lot of time to pursue other assignments. Besides the birth of my book, I just became a dad to little Harper Willow Timmerman. She keeps me pretty busy, too. A few assignments have dropped in my lap since I became an author. I hope that future assignments will be easier to land as well. One of the great things about promoting a book is all of the great publications, bloggers, and editors that I’ve met. Indiana isn’t exactly the publishing capital of the world, so the book has really expanded my network of contacts.

However, I suspect I’ll still receive my fair share of rejection.

WR: For those of us that do dream of publishing a book, what are your best recommendations?

KT:
* Write hard.

* Everybody knows that practice sucks so try to find yourself something that you can contribute to on a regular basis. Even if it is only your personal blog or local paper, you need something that people are going to read so you hold yourself to higher standards.

* Dave Barry on writing: “Do things not think things.” I still think I have a long way to go as a writer, but I think what success I have had is just as much a result of doing interesting things as writing well about them.

* Go to writers’ conferences and make contacts. I’ve only been to a few, but all of my “breaks” (Christian Science Monitor, landing an agent) have resulted from writer’s conferences.

* Be completely indifferent to rejection. When I submit something I make sure that it’s my best work, but once it is out of my hands, I don’t expect anything to come of it. I call this being cautiously pessimistic. I have stacks of paper rejections and MB worth of email rejections.

* Don’t do it for the money. I do it because I just love writing. I’ve always had other work and still do. If I would have taken a year off to make a go at the writing thing, I probably would have said screw it a long time ago. Patience is required.

WR: Any life changing advice that you think we need to know?

KT: Life changing advice… hmm… don’t stick an electric sweater defuzzer on your tongue.

WR: Thanks!