Monday, July 03, 2006

My Beginning: Megan Lyles

This month's interview features beginning travel writer, Megan Lyles. Her work has appeared in Travelers' Tales anthology "The Thong Also Rises". Megan is currently on a year long trip from New York to the tip of South America and keeps an excellent travelogue on her website.

Name/Age: Megan Lyles, 30.

Favorite travel writer: I can never pin myself down to a favorite anything, but I like Bill Bryson. I liked Kite Strings of the Southern Cross by Laurie Gough, and Honeymoon in Purdah by Alison Wearing. I liked a story by Thalia Zepatos in Travelers’ Tales India so much that a month later I was on a plane to Calcutta.

Travel writing, part-time or full-time: Part time

Name and publication of first published piece: "Riding the Semi-Deluxe" in the anthology The Thong Also Rises, edited by Jen Leo for Travelers’ Tales.

# of published pieces: Three. And I have some things out for consideration, and lots of ideas to pursue after I come home from traveling.

Why travel writing? The overly simple answer is because I’m a writer who loves to travel. To expand on that, I feel most alive – not always happy or comfortable, but alive – when I’m experiencing something new. When I’m traveling, the chance of the new increases with every meal, every conversation, every bus ride. Writing it all down helps me to understand it (and myself) better. And if I can share the experience with someone else, and give them a taste of that something new, all the better. Plus, I hate routine.

When was the exact moment you wanted to become a travel writer? There was no one exact moment, it was more like a sort of evolution of hopes. I’ve always written. (Somewhere among my things is half of a science fiction novel that I wrote in a Mead spiral notebook when I was in the seventh grade.) And I’ve always been a fan of travel writing, because it allowed me to travel vicariously when I couldn’t in real life. When I took a three-month trip to India a few years ago, mass e-mailed travelogues were coming into style, so I gave that a try. The response from my friends was extremely encouraging and that’s when the idea of travel writing first entered my head.

Still, the nice response only proved that India is interesting and my friends are kind, not that I was necessarily cut out to be a travel writer. So I took a couple of writing classes at Gotham Writers’ Workshops in New York, one of them with travel writer David Farley. I wanted to see whether this was something that I would put long-term energy into, and to see whether my skills could transcend mass e-mails. It was somewhere in Farley’s class that I decided I should go for it.

How long did it take to publish your first piece? I struggled over “Semi-Deluxe” for a long time. I was adapting it from an e-mail and after multiple attempts I still couldn’t figure out why such a funny event – being threatened by a giant pig while using a squat toilet at a bus station – seemed so uninteresting on the page. Finally, I gave up the idea of a cute introduction and completely cut out the first couple of pages talking about everything else that had happened the morning of the bus trip. It made an interesting e-mail, but a boring travel essay. Once I found the heart of the story, it was fairly easy to polish it up. I submitted it about a year after I’d made the decision to pursue travel writing, and it was accepted just a couple of months later.

Your thoughts on non-paying markets: I believe non-paying markets have their place, especially for the beginning writer trying to build up some clips. I submitted a piece to because they have an extensive readership and provide the chance to get feedback from a community of other writers. I was not paid, but I feel I was compensated.

But I avoid the startup publications that offer some version of the popular “We can’t pay our writers now, but you’ll get your name in print and then maybe some time in the future…” If they can’t afford to pay their writers, the people who provide the content that will draw in their audience, maybe they aren’t ready to start a magazine.

What's your dream publication? Anything that someone sitting next to me on the subway might be reading, so I can act nonchalant about it all. Of the glossy magazines, I like National Geographic Traveler. Of course I’d love to publish a book of my own.

What do you feel is the state of travel writing, dead or alive?
That depends on what kind of travel writing you’re talking about. Glossy, advertising-driven destination pieces seem to be thriving, and probably always will. But there aren’t as many markets for more thoughtful travel narrative. Sometimes the most interesting and illuminating pieces don’t make you want to throw your swimsuit in a bag and run to the airport, and those are harder to place.

What is your best/worse rejection? The worst rejection was the one that I thought was an acceptance until the book came out and I found I wasn't in it. It was before I'd been published for real, so when I got the e-mail telling me they loved my submission, asking me how I wanted it credited, and explaining the contract details, I just assumed it was going to be published. It was a big name publisher and my first acceptance (so I thought) so I told a lot of people and reaped a lot of free celebratory drinks.

Needless to say, I was pretty crushed when I went flipping through the book at Barnes & Noble and didn't see my name. Nowadays I know that if a piece is accepted, I'll get a message saying "your piece has been accepted" and not "we really liked your piece" and I’ll hear from the editor again before the book appears in the store, and most importantly, I’ll get an actual contract to sign and not a description of a contract.

Besides that little misunderstanding, I’ve never gotten a rejection letter. What I get instead is just silence, like my submission has just fallen into a void. Some publishers even warn in advance that they’ll only respond to writers they want to publish. At this point in my career, if an editor took the time to personally reject my work, I’d take it as encouragement!

Finish this sentence: Why didn't someone tell me.... that critiques of my work are as likely to focus on my personality and travel choices as my writing skills. Not pleasant.

Advice for other beginning travel writers: Read good travel writing and pay attention to the content and pacing of the story. Know that something isn't automatically interesting just because it happened overseas, so don’t feel you have to describe every single thing you did in your day. If it doesn’t enhance the sense of place you’re creating, or add to the plot, leave it out.

Learn more about Megan at

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Really cool advice on made my day, thanks!!