Tuesday, August 01, 2006

My Beginning: Ernest Robl

This month's interview features veteran travel writer, Ernest Robl. In addition to travel writing, Ernest also specializes in photography and transportation writing --- involving his favorite subject, trains. Learn more about Ernest on his website, www.robl.w1.com

Name: Ernest H. Robl

Favorite travel writer and why: Paul Theroux. Better than most people, he describes how train travel is a communal experience that you share with your fellow passengers. Trains in different parts of the world vary quite a bit, yet train travel still has common elements -- even in vastly different cultures.

Favorite travel book and why: Riding the Iron Rooster, by Theroux.

How did you get started in travel writing? I studied journalism at UNC-Chapel Hill and spent much of my time there working on the campus daily newspaper. Then for about five years, wrapped around two years of military service, I worked for the news service United Press International (UPI) -- then a vastly different organization from what it is now. In many of the stories that I wrote, including features that UPI subscribers could use to fill space on slow news days, I tried to write about what it was like to be at a given place at a given time. That's still my goal today. I write about many topics other than travel, including some technical subjects for trade magazines. But, writing about places and travel is always a favorite choice.

Name and publication of first published piece: The first newspaper feature that could be considered a travel piece was done for the Raleigh News & Observer while I was still in college in the late 1960s. It appeared before the rededication of Bennett Place state historic site, location of a major Civil War surrender. I have a clipping somewhere, but would have to dig through lots of old files. Many of the pieces that I did for UPI in the late 1960s and early1970s included travel elements. My first magazine piece that could be considered a travel piece appeared in Rail Classics in 1974 entitled "Morning Train from Da Nang," describing a train trip I took in Vietnam in 1970 while there in the U.S. Army.

# of published pieces your first year: When I was working for UPI, I often produced a dozen or more news stories in one day, though there were days where I only worked on one or two major stories. That experience (and the bureau managers I worked for at that time) taught me to write fast and compactly -- and to provide vivid descriptions.

How long did it take to publish your first piece? When working for UPI and newspapers, getting published wasn't a problem. The Vietnam train feature mentioned above was accepted by the second magazine I tried.

What is your best/worse rejection? I'm not sure that there are any particularly memorable rejections. I recently sold a piece on Christmas in Austria to the seventh magazine I tried. I believed in the story, and it was just a matter of not giving up. Last year, I spent considerable time doing preliminary work on a possible guidebook to Austria, the country where I was born. The publisher offered much encouragement before we ever got to the contract stage -- but at that point decided to cancel the project. I've found some use for the research I did -- but will never again devote as much time to a project without having a firm contract and an advance.

When was the exact moment you wanted to become a travel writer? I'm not sure. I've been a life-long railroad enthusiast and have always enjoyed writing about that subject. But, more than that, I have always enjoyed sharing my experiences with others through writing and photography -- much more than just doing straight news reporting.

When did you feel you were a travel writer? Again, I'm not sure. There have been a few pieces that I've written where I feel that I succeeded as well as anyone could in describing an experience.

Why travel writing? Travel writing is mostly about sharing experiences -- and that's the type of writing I like to do most and that I feel that I am best at.

Your thoughts on non-paying markets: Yes, in a few cases, I've contributed to low-paying or non-paying markets. But these are few and far between and only when these were the best or only venue for a story I wanted to tell. For beginning writers, I'd say, concentrate on paying markets if you are trying to get into the the business. Having someone pay you a decent amount for your creative work is the ultimate acceptance. And, each paid project will ultimately help you get another. Giving away your work does little to get you paid work in the future.

What do you feel is the state of travel writing, dead or alive? There is certainly good travel writing available -- and I hope that at least at times I manage to contribute something to this category. I am saddened by the amount of xenophobia that exists in some sectors in the U.S. World travel helps greatly in dealing with other cultures. I wish there were a greater market for features on non-U.S. destinations. Too many of the so-called travel magazines are all about being pampered in hotels and spas -- and very little about destinations and meeting people in other countries.

Finish this sentence: Why didn't someone tell me....... how much time and effort marketing takes -- and that freelancing is about 90 per cent business and only 10 per cent actual writing and photography.

Advice for other beginning travel writers: Write as much as you can about anything that you can. A staff position on a newspaper or magazine will help you polish your writing -- and to be able to tell good writing from bad.

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