Joshua Berman on travel writing: Interview with Rolf Potts

Joshua Berman, Travel Writer, in Belize

Joshua Berman has spent a good part of the last eight years living, working, and traveling throughout Central America, most recently as a group leader for service-oriented spring break trips. After co-authoring Moon Handbooks: Nicaragua with fellow Peace Corps Volunteer Randy Wood, Joshua wrote the latest edition of Moon Handbooks Belize, which won a 2005 Lowell Thomas Award for best guidebook. In addition to “guidebook writer,” Joshua’s varied resume includes wildland firefighter, Outward Bound instructor, freelance writer, and tourism consultant. Joshua is currently on a year-long, round-the-world service/learning honeymoon with his wife and is documenting it all on his blog, “The Tranquilo Traveler.”

Rolf Potts: How did you get started traveling?
Joshua Berman: My first big forays included a cross-country roadtrip at the age of 18 and a solo Eurail tour the following summer. I was hooked. Since then, the more I travel, the more I want to travel, especially as I continue to find people willing to pay me for it.

How did you get started writing?
In the fifth grade, an essay I wrote about John Quincy Adams won first place in a Pennsylvania state contest. My career gathered steam as the editor of various school publications. It wasn’t until I was 23, however, when I stumbled onto the 3-person staff of a very cool startup magazine called Gravity, that I realized this was what I wanted to do for a living . I am forever indebted to my mentors at that job: Neil Feineman and Nancy Coulter-Parker. I’ve been writing for various publications ever since, especially as my various day jobs continue to fuel my muse.

What do you consider your first “break” as a writer?
When the Peace Corps assigned me to a beautiful tropical country with an emerging tourism scene — and nary a guidebook in sight! My compa and fellow volunteer, Randy Wood, and I jumped at the gap in the market and pitched our Nicaragua guidebook to Avalon Travel Publishing. From there, it was a slippery slope to a more guidebooks and into the travel writing fray.

As a traveler and fact/story gatherer, what is your biggest challenge on the road?
Being surrounded by people whooping it up on vacation while I’m working, That’s why I enjoy covering less-than-obvious destinations where other foreigners are few and far between.

What is your biggest challenge in the research and writing process?
Staying organized. I fill up pocket notebooks during the day, then transfer the sweat-stained chicken scratches into my laptop by night. I’m always having to develop new systems of information management to handle the hundreds of word documents, image files, outlines, and e-mails; this can be exhausting, but in the end, the details add up to a quality book or article.

What is your biggest challenge from a business standpoint? 
The only way I’ve been able to live off my writing is by taking my relatively meager book advances and running straight for the border, preferably to a country like Nicaragua where my expenses are minimal to nil. When living in the U.S., however, I have yet to secure a steady, living-wage stream of freelancing jobs. Writing time is precious too, especially when I have to use more and more of it to market myself and my books. Along the way, I’ve had to teach myself how to create and maintain a website, understand the market, shoot professional photographs, negotiate a contract, keep track of queries, etc.

Have you ever done other work to make ends meet?
I’ve always mixed my writing with seasonal gigs, both to make ends meet and to keep myself outdoors and inspired. I’ve worked as an Outward Bound instructor, wildland firefighter, and international trip leader, all of which have served to keep me traveling and meeting extraordinary people.

What travel authors or books might you recommend and/or have influenced you?
I have a particular fondness for swaggering 19th Century explorer prose — Josef Conrad, John Muir, and John Lloyd Stephens come to mind, the latter of whom begins his famous Incidents of Travel with the line, “Being instructed by the President with a Special Confidential Mission to Central America, on Wednesday, the third of October, 1839, I embarked on board the British brig Mary Ann, Hampton, master, for the Bay of Honduras.” Quite!

To counter that, there’s the sardonic narrator of Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad, with his observations on tourism that remain totally relevant 150 years later—to wit: “We were troubled a little at dinner today by the conduct of an American, who talked very loudly and coarsely and laughed boisterously where all others were so quiet and well behaved.”

I also love armchair traveling with fellow Peace Corps writers, especially Paul Theroux and Peter Hessler.

What advice and/or warnings would you give to someone who is considering going into travel writing?
For getting published, I prescribe patience, persistence, perseverance, and more patience. For the rest of it, just keep doing what you love: traveling, reading, and writing.

What is the biggest reward of life as a travel writer?
Like John L. Stephens, I too, enjoy traveling with a mission. There’s something exciting about rolling into a new place and having a job to do — it’s a different way to travel and serves my restless soul well. I also love having an excuse to meet people with whom I would not ordinarily interact. Some of these hotel owners, local guides, and expats have become lifelong friends and this is priceless — much more satisfying than all the riches and glory.

***

This interview originally appeared on Rolf Potts’ Vagabonding site, many years ago (2006).

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