Writer David Farley has been featured in notable publications such as The Washington Post, Perceptive Travel, and Playboy. He was the co-editor of Travelers’ Tales Prague and teaches travel writing at Gotham Writers’ Workshop and New York University. His book on his search for the foreskin of Jesus will be published by Gotham Books in the Spring of 2009. He was kind enough to grant Written Road an interview.
Written Road: How did you become involved in travel writing?
David Farley: I went to grad school (to study European history) because I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I had no writerly ambitions—though I liked the way my 30-page research papers on sifting out news bias in reporting the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia turned out. When I finished school, I fell into an editor gig at a new Bay Area arts and entertainment magazine. I still can’t believe they hired me. I wrote a lot of stories about dining, nightlife, and the local art scene, which was really helpful in developing my writing. A year and a half later, I moved to Europe for a while and plunged into the up-and-down world of freelance travel writing.
WR: What was your first break? What has been the biggest help to your career?
DF: My first break came when the Chicago Tribune travel section ran my account of my bizarre wedding in Rome. One thing about first breaks in travel writing: unless you already have a working relationship with a newspaper travel editor, s/he doesn’t really want your story pitches and proposals. Instead, they’d prefer to see the finished piece, totally polished and ready to go. This is good news for newbies—since you don’t really need to have any clips to break in this way and, if you’re tenacious, you’ll end up with a great first clip.
The biggest help to my career has been 1) living abroad and 2) living in New York, where most of the magazines are headquartered. This has given me the opportunity to meet editors and other writers and make a ton of connections I never could have made in San Francisco or Los Angeles or other places I’ve lived.
WR: Who have been your biggest influences?
DF: Whenever I’m stuck, I read a small handful of writers—Joan Didion, Susan Orlean, Bill Bryson, Jan Morris—who magically get my brain (and fingers) working again.
WR: As a writing teacher what are some of the biggest mistakes beginning writers make?
DF: An angle is really the center of a story’s universe and a lot of budding travel writers don’t realize how important it is (or that it even exists—I didn’t at one time, which is why I have a bunch of unpublishable destination pieces rotting on my computer). After that, it’s important to make sure that a majority of what you say somehow relates to the angle. It’s also important to know the market, that newspaper travel sections and travel magazines are only interested in stories that are service oriented (i.e. something a traveler can do too). There still might be home for your riveting account of helping to slaughter a pig in the Czech hinterlands or your experience with a Kenny Rogers look-a-like in Montenegro, but you just have to know the right place to send it.
WR: So it’s safe to say you helped slaughter a pig in the Czech Republic or had a run in with a Kenny Rogers look-a-like in Montenegro?
DF: Yes, that would be a safe assumption. When I went to the pig killing, I wasn’t even a writer but I remember thinking: if I were a writer, this would make a great story. Then, once I fell into writing, I eventually started working on it. The piece, called “Natural Born Pig Killers” was published (but the only publication that would touch it was an obscure magazine) and actual won me a Lowell Thomas Award, which are like the Oscars of travel writing.
As for Kenny, I was walking around a seaside town in Montenegro hoping to have some interesting encounters that might be worth writing about when I saw a Kenny Rogers look-a-like on a boat. The song “The Gambler” immediately went off in my head and I took a gamble and started talking to him. He said he didn’t know who Kenny Rogers is, but he did offer me a sausage. Which I declined.
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WR: What is your biggest challenge in the writing?
DF: Just writing is the biggest challenge. I have a pretty short attention span, so I find lots of creative ways to procrastinate, including obsessively checking my email and looking at bizarre websites like www.menwholooklikekennyrogers.com or re-watching videos on YouTube of Wilford Brimley saying the word “diabetes.”
WR: Do you ever have to take on other jobs to pay the rent? If so, like what?
DF: When I first started out freelancing, I thought there’d definitely be a time when I’d need to get a “real” job, but five years later, I’m still at it. I teach travel writing, but I consider that part of a writing career.
WR: You have a collection of some fairly bizarre bylines (“My Special Education: The Semi-Retard’s Guide to Learning Italian,” “The Pasta Nazi,” etc). How do you come up with an idea for a story?
DF: As travelers, we always bring back a few anecdotes from a trip about strange or funny or absurd things that happened. If I think the experience would make a good story, I’ll start writing it, polishing the anecdote so it’s filled with enough tension or humor to be engaging. Of course, what I’m left with is just a nicely written anecdote. The goal after that is to find some meaning in the story, to wax about the significance of the experience, perhaps linking it to a broader theme or personal backstory. That’s how both of those stories were born.
WR: Do you find yourself more often writing a story or pitching the idea first?
DF: When I was first starting out, I wrote most of the pieces first. But now that I have some clips from a few well-known publications, I usually pitch first. That said, if I’m working on an essay or memoir-type piece, I write it first and then submit it. You can’t really pitch an essay or a memoir.
WR: You’ve lived in Rome, Paris, Prague, San Francisco and now you split you’re time between New York City and Calcata, a medieval hilltown north of Rome. Has moving around so much helped you become a better travel writer? How/Why?
DF: I can’t overstate how important it is spend as much time as possible abroad—not just for travel writers, but for anyone (especially Americans). In terms of travel writing, it’s almost essential for a few reasons: it gives you a ton of fodder to write about, you become an “insider” which is very appealing to an editor, and you then are creating a connection with that place, which makes it easier for selling stories on the place in the future.
But that said, a travel writer needn’t go far from home, either. In addition to writing for a local publication about art, culture, food, nightlife, whatever, you can write a travel piece about your hometown (or wherever you’re living) for an out-of-town newspaper or magazine.
WR: Your yet-to-be-titled book about your search for the foreskin of Jesus will be published in Spring 2009. Tell me about how this book came about?
DF: It’s hard to hear the words “holy” and “foreskin” in succession to each other without having your interest piqued. At least for me. So when I was living in Rome a few years back and I heard about Calcata, an incredible hilltown filled with artists and creative people that was, until relatively recently, home to the Holy Foreskin, I just had to know more. So I moved there last year to investigate the mysterious circumstances in which the relic disappeared.
The book, which I’m working on right now, came about because I wrote an article about the topic for Slate.com and an editor from Gotham Books (an imprint of Penguin) emailed me. When I was back in New York, he took me out to lunch and, after finishing my proposal for the book and some negotiations between the publishing house and my agent, I had a book deal.
WR: Where do you see the travel publishing world going in the future?
DF: It’s going to go online, like most publishing. Right now, there aren’t many paying markets for online publications. But there are some travel websites that are publishing quality stuff: WorldHum.com, PerceptiveTravel.com, and FarFlungmagazine.com are a few off the top of my head.
WR: Do you have any advice for young, blossoming travel writers out there? What is the best way to begin a career in travel writing?
DF: See my above answer to the question about my first big break. But another essential element is drive. I’ve taught travel writing for four years and the students that have achieved some success weren’t necessarily the most talented writers in the class; they were the most driven.
If you have a good piece that you couldn’t sell to a print or paying publication, don’t let it go to waste. There are oodles of online travel publications that can publish your story. Find the site with the highest traffic rating, and send it to them. You might not have made any money from it, but at least you’ll have a clip. I’d say that’s worth celebrating over.
WR: Favorite place?
DF: Do I have to pick just one? I love sitting on the square in Calcata on Sunday when everyone comes out and sits around and chats, the late-afternoon sun reflecting off the cobblestones to create a kind of warm glow; I also love my apartment in the West Village of New York. I really love lingering on Charles Bridge in Prague at 6am when I have it all to myself.
WR: What is the one item you cannot travel without?
DF: A sense of humor.