Write around the world

Friday, October 20, 2017
Kate J Armstrong interviewed by Michelle McLaren

A portrait of Kate J Armstrong
Kate J Armstrong

Our Travel Writing workshop with Kate J Armstrong will have you making a beeline for your nearest travel agent the moment the session’s over! As a taste of what’s to come, Writers Victoria volunteer, Michelle McLaren asked Kate about her travels and how she's captured them in writing.

How did you start your career as a travel writer?

When I graduated from university, totally unsure about what to do with myself, I met up with two old high school teachers at a bar. They convinced me that the thing to do was go backpacking by myself through Europe until my money ran out. They were right, of course. I'd always been a writer, but it was on that trip that I first fell in love with travel writing: the art of capturing a place and its stories in a way that will make someone else feel like they've been there, too. I met so many interesting people on that trip, made so many memories, and learned so much about the wider world - I knew that I wanted to write about travel. After getting my grad degree in journalism, writing lots of stories about my travels (and spending a large chunk of my student loan money on a thesis trip to New Zealand), I was fortunate to get a job as an editor at a small travel publisher. Editing travel guides taught me that travel writing can be informative and tell a really engaging story - you just have to know how to frame it. When I moved back to the States and started writing and editing for National Geographic's book division, I found something else out about travel writing: it can be anything that transports a reader to a time or place. Whether you're writing about the far reaches of space or where rubber comes from, it's all about making someone feel like they're on a journey.

Do you write while you’re travelling, or wait until you get home to begin?

I'm always writing. Never stop writing! I like to carry a small notebook and pen with me wherever I go. You think you'll remember what those strangers said to you on the public bus or what that wild boar tasted like that one night in Budapest, but often you won't remember it truly unless you jot the details down. I try to write down all of the little things that make a place feel unique to me, even if it's just in the form of a bulleted list. Even if I never turn those details into a written story, the act of writing them down helps fix them forever in my mind.

What tools do you recommend to document your thoughts and impressions so you can remember them when it’s time to write?

A small, easy-to-carry-around notebook is always my go-to. Something lightweight for when you're out exploring, and that you don't mind getting grass/wine/coffee-stained! Also the notes function on my phone, if I'm in a hurry or it's easiest to reach. If I'm using a map or road atlas as I travel, I'll often trace my route and write my impressions in the margins. I know people who sketch rough portraits of the places they travel through. Really, whatever tool you find easiest and most pleasant to use - whichever one you find yourself reaching for - pair that with a sharp eye and a keen ear, and you're good to go.

Do you find that writing about your travels takes a little of the fun out of travelling?

For me, it only makes the experience richer. Writing about my travels wakes up my senses - it makes me truly pay attention in an acute kind of way I wouldn't otherwise. Knowing I'll write about it has me noticing the finer details of a place: the exact colour of the grass, the conversation between the two old men playing chess in the corner. It pushes me to talk more to locals, to try and get some of their stories. Because I'm thinking about how I would invite someone else into my experience, I think I immerse myself in it more fully. And then when I actually sit down to write about it, I get to relive it all through my pen.

Not every aspect of travel is thrilling. In your work, how do you decide what experiences to leave out?

Details are the backbone of any good travel story, but they can betray you. They're like those holiday photo slideshows we've all been subjected to by a friend or family member - the ones that have you cursing that historic church you've just seen fifteen shots of. Sure, that story about how you got lost in New Delhi is entertaining, but force your audience to sit through a blow-by-blow description of every museum you visited and every meal you ate and you'll lose them! You have to think about your audience if you want them to feel invested in a story that is, at its core, about experiences they have not had. When I begin, I try to take myself out of the equation and think, "if this were somebody else's story, which parts of it would I be most interested to hear about?". Because ultimately, you're trying to turn your travels into a story that invites someone else in and makes it feel, at least in part, like their story.

Every story, fictional or non, has an arc and a framework. So I often try to sketch it out before I start writing in earnest so I can figure out that arc. Is this story about the devastating effects of climate change on that national park I spent two weeks in? Or is it about the extreme hiker I met and had lunch with by that glacial lake? Is it, perhaps, about both of these things? Knowing which part of my story I'm bringing into the foreground helps me figure out which details matter and which don't. 

About Kate J Armstrong

Kate J Armstrong writes and edits books about travel, nature, and adventures of all kinds. She’s helped adventurers tell their stories in books like National Geographic’s ‘Everest: Mountain Without Mercy’, edited travel beauties like National Geographic’s ‘The World’s Most Beautiful Places’ and written about exploring nature in titles like ‘Greatest Parks of the World’.

About Michelle McLaren

Michelle McLaren is a Writers Victoria volunteer, a Melbourne Writers Festival intern and an emerging literary critic. She blogs about books at Book to the Future and procrastinates on Twitter.