Inside Travel Writing: An interview with Mike Gerrard

Travel writer Mike Gerrard takes time out from his busy writing schedule to answer questions posed by Stuart Forster.

What kind of travel related niche do you specialise in and what drew you to it?

​I began by specialising in Greece, simply because I’d been there loads of times on holiday before I started travel writing.

The first travel piece I sold was one about Rhodes that I sent in on spec to The Daily Telegraph. It’s still one of my favourite destinations and now I publish a website about it, Greece Travel Secrets.

In the last few years, though, I’ve started to write more and more about the USA.

My wife’s American and we spend at least half the year ​at our home in Arizona. It started off as a winter home but then the winters got longer and longer. And I got a Green Card so I wasn’t restricted to only visiting for 90 days at a time.

From our place near Tucson we travel a lot within the USA. We love road trips and can easily drive to California to the west and be on the coast in a few hours. Head east and we’re soon in New Mexico. Heading north from there into Colorado is a favourite journey for us.

What recent examples of your would you point people towards?

​I think I’ve written some good pieces for Perceptive Travel.

I recently stopped doing th​at regular blog, though, as it was taking up too much time for very little money, much as I loved the freedom it gave me. That’s the thing about having your own blog or website, the ability to choose your own topics and not have to find an editor who’ll commission the piece.

Another recent one I liked, because I like writing about food and drink and love meeting people who are passionate about both, was this one from a trip to Crete, for our own website, on how to make petimezi.

The Palace of the Grand Master of the Knights of Rhodes.

The Palace of the Grand Master of the Knights of Rhodes…no, not Crete, Rhodes.

Which piece of writing are you most proud of and why?

​One piece? Wow. That’s a hard question. I wrote a piece for Time Out about visiting Yangshuo​ in China, and the piece ended with the experience of eating a snake.

I think I managed to say a lot about China through little details, and the piece won a Travelex Award, the first writing award I’d ever won. I don’t think the piece is available online but I made it the title piece in my collection of travel writing: Snakes Alive, available for the Kindle or as a paperback from Amazon…don’t all rush at once.

What do you enjoy most about travel writing?

​I enjoy both the travel and the writing equally. I know there are some people who love the travel and hate the writing afterwards, but for me they’re both wrapped up together.

It’s having these wonderful experiences but then having the challenge of putting them into words to convey that experience to the reader. It’s always satisfying when you know you’ve written a good piece, frustrating when you don’t think you did the experience or the place full justice.​

Do you have a favourite destination?

​My favourite place is home.

I’m really a home body, I like sitting at my desk writing, but then I’ve also got the wanderlust so the minute someone emails or phones and offers me a trip somewhere interesting I jump up and say ‘Yes, please!’

​What would be a typical working day for you, if there is such a thing?

​Days are very different, depending what I’m working on, but typically I’ll be up fairly early, put the coffee on, and go straight to the desk. I’ll deal with the overnight emails, of which there are always a lot due to this jet-setting transatlantic lifestyle we lead.​

In the UK I wake up to US emails and when we’re in Arizona I wake up to UK emails. I’m one of those people who has to deal with stuff as it comes in. You know there are two types of people. One has to have nothing in their inbox, the other has, like, 50,000 emails in there. I’m the first type. My wife’s the second type.

But once I’ve done that, done a bit of social media, then I like to settle down to writing. I’ll spend the rest of the day writing, and the occasional break to check emails. Or it could be planning a book, or planning a trip, or a mix of everything. I’ll work through till about 6pm or so, when it’s time for a drink and think about supper.

I usually cook supper as my wife likes to work on even longer than me, and also likes to practice her guitar, so I don’t mind cooking as it gives me chance to blast out some music in the kitchen while I’m getting everything ready.

Mike Gerrard at Balfour Castle.

Mike Gerrard at Balfour Castle.

Do you ever suffer from writer’s block?

​It’s not something I’ve ever really had. Sometimes a piece might not be getting off the starting blocks, but I find if I keep gnawing at it, it’ll get there in the end.

I always like to know what I’m going to be working on that day, so I think about that as I start to wake up. If I’m writing a feature I also like to have the opening line in my head. If I’ve got a good opening, the rest usually flows. ​

I write quickly and seldom rewrite (though I will re-read, of course). This annoys the hell out of my wife as she’s slower and more meticulous. But then she’s also got a shelf full of writing awards so that’s obviously the right way for her.

What tip or tips would you offer to anyone entering the industry?

​Marry someone rich. Otherwise, be prepared to struggle as there’s a lot of competition, but then there always has been with travel writing. It’s definitely tougher to make a living than it was, say, 10 years ago. But if you want to do it, bite the bullet and do it. Having a niche helps, a place or style of travel that you enjoy and can really get to know well, so that your name gets associated with it.​

Travel writing means exotic locations? Roker Pier in Sunderland.

Travel writing means exotic locations? Roker Pier in Sunderland.

Which writers inspire you and why?

​I’m an avid reader of fiction and non-fiction, and not just travel. For example – which would interest you, where you’re from – I just read two volumes of Chris Mullin’s political diaries, which were fascinating and very revealing about how our government works, or fails to, and how totally out-of-touch many London politicians are with the lives of ordinary people in, say, Sunderland, where Mullin was the MP.

My all-time favourite writer, ever since I was a teenager, is John Steinbeck. I like his common touch, and the way his writing seems effortless, yet is full of magic and humour and politics. It was a total thrill for me when I eventually got to visit Cannery Row, even though it’s a million miles from what it was like in Steinbeck’s day.

Of travel writers it’s hard to choose between Norman Lewis and Paul Theroux. I think I’ve read pretty much everything either of them has written.

Theroux is wonderfully waspish, Norman Lewis a very elegant writer, but they both have the gift of bringing scenes alive, of fading into the background, and of being endlessly fascinated by their fellow human beings. They’re inspiring because even though you know you never could be as good as they are, it makes you want to at least improve a bit, and try.

What do you aspire to achieve as a writer?

​I’d like to write one good book that might last a little longer than the average guidebook. It might be a travel book or it might be a novel. But something I’d be proud of.​

It’s a tough industry, what do you see as its biggest challenges?

​​The biggest challenge for travel writers is making a living.

The markets just aren’t there, in the way they used to be. Fewer people are buying newspapers and magazines, and more expect to get everything for free online.

We’ve managed to carry on by diversifying, into doing our own websites, and publishing our own ebooks, as well as the work like guidebooks and features that we’ve always done. Each of those outlets throws a bit of money into the pot, and ebooks and websites provide a small but steady monthly income.​

What about its opportunities?

​I think the opportunities are along those lines too. There’s a much greater opportunity today to do different things, to be your own boss and to go it alone.

You can start a website or a blog very cheaply, in a way that, in the past, you could never have said ‘Oh, I’m going to start a travel magazine.’​ It’s then up to you to work hard and find ways to make it pay.

And there are the opportunities that have always been there – to have amazing experiences and to meet fascinating people. When you’re a writer – or photographer or broadcaster – you’re very lucky as you will meet the chefs, the winemakers, the craftspeople, the guides, get the behind-the-scenes look into everywhere you go.

Even if you don’t make a ton of money, you certainly have an enriching life. I can look back and say that I’ve been camel-trekking in the Sinai Desert with a group of Bedouin and a group of deaf people from the UK, I’ve hiked in the Great Rift Valley, I’ve seen endangered species in the wild, I’ve dined in some of the world’s best restaurants and also slept out in the jungle and the desert. I could go on and on, but as a travel writer you do live an incredible life.

And you get to see musicians in far flung places too.

And you get to see musicians in far flung places too.

Are there a destination you are particularly keen to visit and write about?

​I’m hoping next month we’ll get to Cuba, which I’ve always wanted to visit. It’s always seemed so mysterious and sultry, more atmospheric than other Caribbean countries, more exotic. And I’m told the music is fantastic.​

If you weren’t a travel writer what would you like to be?

​A musician, definitely. I love music, I write about it when I can – places like Mississippi, Memphis and Nashville.

I’ve loved music since I was a few years old and heard my dad’s records, and heard him play – he played the guitar, but I was never able to master it. A few years ago I started learning the mandolin, because I thought it was about time I tried to learn to play something. I’m still struggling with it, I’m not a natural musician, but it’s fun trying, and something different from writing.​

How about joining these musicians? Members of the Orchestra di Fiati Filarmonici in Trani, Italy.

How about joining these musicians? Members of the Orchestra di Fiati Filarmonici in Trani, Italy.

Is there anything else you’d like to say to Manned Up readers?

​That travel writing, like most things in life, is not always what it appears to be. It’s amazing the effect those two words have on people. They think you must live on board a cruise ship or in 5-star hotels and never actually do any work. You have to work very hard and most people don’t earn a ton of money – but I don’t think any of us would swap it for anything.

​Do you have a website where people can find out more about you?

​My website, www.mikegerrard.com, needs a bit of a design makeover, but I haven’t had the time to do it lately – thank goodness, as that means I’ve been too busy working.​

One Comment

  1. I’ve read a few of this guy’s features and really like them.

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