Inside Travel Writing: Simon Parker

Simon Parker is a travel writer with a love of adventure. In 2018 he will appear on television in the five-part series, Earth Cycle. He took a break from his busy schedule to answer MannedUp’s questions about life inside the travel writing industry.

What kind of travel related niche do you specialise in?

“Adventure travel” is a catchall phrase these days for everything from summiting Everest to kayaking next to a five-star hotel, however I do get a real kick out of seeing a place that requires one heck of a journey to reach. However ghastly it may feel at the time, travel that really pushes me, and the people I’m with, to the depths of despair – physically and psychologically – keeps me going back for more. I’m not sure if I’ll ever top racing across the North Pacific in a 70ft yacht.

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

Sailing across the North Pacific at the end of the winter in 2016 for The Daily Telegraph and the BBC was without doubt the worst month of my life. But now, when I listen and read back to how truly awful it was from the comfort of dry land, I’m certainly proud of having crossed the biggest and most ferocious ocean on the planet. More than anything it just feels like such a huge privilege to have got to experience a place that so few people ever will. For me, that’s right at the heart of why I do this job. Journalism can serve as currency – opening doors to experiences that money can’t buy.

I’m also particularly smug whenever I get something on From Our Own Correspondent on BBC Radio 4. Listening to the show as a teenager played a big part in me wanting to become a journalist, while also significantly feeding my wanderlust.

What do you enjoy most about travel writing?

 For me it’s about having the opportunity to meet ‘real’ people and find out about the way they’re living their lives, through first hand verbatim and experiences – not through some other mediated source. It’s so easy for all of us to harbour these lazy ideas of how massive groups of people in certain parts of the world speak, behave, believe – but what I so often find is that the realities are different. It’s such a privilege to get to get to experience a place first hand, and that’s at the crux of my recent TEDx talk.

Simon Parker

On his bike: Simon Parker

Do you have a favourite destination?

 Asking a travel writer to choose their favourite country is a bit like asking a mother to select her favourite child – that’s why it’s such an appealing profession, because we can flit around from place to place without ever having to really commit to one in particular.

That said, I’ve spent the majority of the past five years in South America and Peru is certainly a second home. I feel extremely comfortable in Lima, where I’ve made lots of good friends. I’ve certainly had my fair share of Pacific sunsets, cold beers and barbecues covered in fresh scallops.

What is a typical working day for you?

Without wishing to sound too cheesy, I live and breathe this job – and you have to if you want to turn it into a career. So I can honestly work from the moment I get up – which is usually very early (often about 5am) – and be working on something until I fall asleep – which is usually about 10pm.

I would predict that at least 50% of this job is admin, though. The stereotypical image of a travel writer sat in a beach cabin somewhere, grappling with adjectives, is actually only one part of the job. To get to that point you need to be pretty well organised and send (often) thousands of emails.

Do you ever suffer from writer’s block?

 Not really, but I’m naturally a morning person and I’m generally at my most creative about an hour after I get up – so most of my work gets done at the crack of dawn. If I haven’t got going by about midday then I cut my losses and plough my energy into pitching and organising. I also love my exercise – so if I’m really struggling I’ll go for a run or hit the gym.

What tips would you offer to anyone entering the industry?

 As mentioned above, the actual writing about travel is only one element of this job, so you have to be interested in the whole creative process and journey of your ideas – from an initial brainwave, to the trip, to the writing, and then (sometimes) the edit.

Also, if it’s to become your career and you want to make anything more than just pocket money these days, then you have to be as prolific as possible, with lots of different irons in a variety of fires, and learn how to maximise income from different outlets. I have about a dozen editors around the world that I pitch to – each with slightly different stories, and I never stop trying to create new working relationships. So I’ve got to a point now where if I find something interesting, I know exactly who to pitch it to.

Which writers inspire you and why?

I was introduced to Bill Bryson by my grandmother when I was a teenager and I’ve read all of his books at least once. Down Under, I think I’ve read 4-5 times. Everything he creates is meticulously researched and I love his use of humour, without coming across as too offensive.

What do you aspire to achieve as a writer? 

Selfishly, to use this profession to see every country on the planet by the time I pop my clogs. And on a more altruistic level, to take people to places where they’re likely to never physically visit. I don’t lose sight of the fact that, while being a tough job, this is an incredible privilege, and I’d love to be travel writing to some degree for the rest of my life.

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

Making money. As appetites for “content” grow, the industry becomes increasingly more saturated, driving fees down. Some high profile outlets don’t even pay for articles these days.

What about its opportunities?

The flipside of the above – if you don’t mind earning very little, and you favour a life of filling your brain with memories, as opposed to a bank account with cash, then there are still opportunities for writers. From my teens my raison d’être has been to travel and see the world and this job allows me to see places that very few people ever get to experience.

Simon Parker

Simon Parker being interviewed.

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

I think I’m more interested in journeys rather than particular destinations. For example I’d like to cycle across the US (at least) two to three more times, I’d also like to drive to Cape Town from London, and I’m very keen to recreate some of the hitchhiking adventures I set off on at the end of my teens.

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

I’d give this all up to play test cricket for England, following summer around the planet. Fortunately though I’ve had the nerdy joy of reporting on cricket all around the world for the BBC, so I’ll settle for that.

More about Simon Parker

See Simon’s website, www.simonwparker.co.uk, for more about him and his work. You can read his feature On holiday in Mexico’s murder capital – what it’s really like down in Acapulco on The Telegraph website.

Look out for Simon in the five-part television series, Earth Cycle, which will be broadcast in 2018.

The photographs illustrating this post were supplied courtesy of Simon Parker.

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