by Jenny Chi
Award-winning travel writer and photographer Eric Hiss regularly travels the world in search of unexpected and enlightening stories. In a career spanning nearly two decades, he has contributed to dozens of publications and websites, including Condé Nast Traveler, Robb Report, Los Angeles Times, Delta Sky, and others. Additionally, Eric is the author of the Los Angeles edition of Chronicle Book’s popular “City Walks” guidebook series. Eric has worked extensively in visual media; he has written, shot and produced videos for corporate and film clients such as Sony, Hewlett-Packard, and Carbo Films and premiered a short film he shot in India at multiple film festivals. An early adopter and long-time advocate of digital media, he is also a co-founder and editor of the global travel blog wandermelon.com. We’re very privileged to having Eric teaching “From Cheng Du to Timbuktu: A Travel Writing Workshop” at the Pad starting November 9th!
Eric took time out to talk to us about his roots, his work, his secrets behind being a travel writer, and his most memorable trips abroad.
1. How did you get your start in travel writing?
My travel writing career has taken more twists and turns than Maui’s road to Hana. I started out with a degree in Journalism and an unfulfilled desire to travel the world, took some side trips through advertising copywriting and agency PR, and along the way found myself working on some large travel accounts, like Mexico Tourism. That’s when I decided to ditch the corporate world and get back to my writing full time. I leveraged some editorial and travel contacts, and have been filling up the passport ever since.
2. When people visualize travel writers, they imagine a tan, beach-side, notepad-wielding freelance writer. What does it look like to be a travel writer in 2014?
Well, that’s on the best days, and they do happen. I’ve been that tanned guy, I’ve also been the guy shivering in the back of Land Rover on a pre-dawn safari drive in Namibia, the guy sipping wine in a vineyard in Mendoza, Argentina, and the guy pounding out a blog post at 4am in Shanghai making a deadline. So it’s a mix.
3. What would people be most surprised to learn about the field of travel writing?
How very competitive it is. I’ve been doing this for almost two decades now and it’s gotten even trickier with digital platforms, social media etc. Take any opportunity you can to learn more about the business to stay ahead of the game.
4. What kinds of travel experiences make for great article pieces? What are some must-have components for an engaging travel piece?
Stories that surprise, delight and inform. It doesn’t have to be Namibia or Bora Bora either (though it’s pretty nice reporting those stories) it can be your hometown. As long as there is a great narrative that takes the reader somewhere. The trick is finding that thread. The big trends now are strong first-person storytelling, experiences that place more emphasis on local culture over hotel amenities and service info, and round-ups, expanded photo galleries and integrated video for digital platforms.
5. Your career has also involved a passion in photography and video projects. Is a talent in visual media required or recommended for aspiring travel writers?
I think on some level, yes. It doesn’t mean you have to be Ansel Adams, but with the prevalence of social media and a video-hungry travel audience, it means at the very least you are handy with your smartphone camera. For extra credit, tools like GoPro cameras, smartphone camera accessories and lightweight DSLR cameras make you more valuable to editors. It’s all part of what is now called backpack journalism.
6. You have co-founded a journalistic travel website called Wandermelon. How did this website come about? Additionally, how has this project influenced your career direction as a travel writer?
I started it with my partners about five years ago out of a desire to dive-in and learn more about digital media from the ground-up, as well as develop an outlet that was our own vision. There are stories we want to tell that may not fit with a mainstream magazine, and now we have the freedom to share those, as well as showcase the work of some great writers who contribute to our site. It’s all made me become a bigger advocate of digital storytelling and believer in the power of mixed media (photography, video) to create more compelling travel content.
7. You’ve done an extensive line of work in copywriting and marketing communications. How has that influenced your career as a travel writer?
It’s actually really benefitted my career, especially now with the advent of vehicles like branded blogs. I do some work with tourism authorities and hotels writing blog content for them, and it really helps to have this sort of background to develop this specialized type of online presence for them.
8. You researched and wrote the Los Angeles edition of Chronicle Book’s “City Walks” guidebook series. How do you approach these walking tours creatively?
Guidebooks are a huge amount of work, but they give you bragging rights as an expert on whatever city, country etc. you write the book about. Besides teaching me that I could be more organized than I thought possible, I learned to use many resources that were lifesavers (thank you Google satellite view) and create unconventional ways of approaching neighborhoods talking not just to the usual suspects like hotel general managers, but waiters and security guards (they’ve seen it all).
9. You’ve traveled the world extensively. What was your most memorable trip?
Wow, so many have impressed me on different levels. I really can’t say there has been one, but three top moments for me have been seeing the Taj Mahal for the first time, walking Havana’s seawall with a cigar and mojito in hand and going on my first African game drive and watching lions snack on a water buffalo. Those are impressions I will carry forever.
10. What special travel-writing techniques will you be teaching in your class?
It can be overwhelming when you step off a plane and try to figure out where to begin. I will share a system I have developed over the years that allows you to break down your travels into marketable bits, so you immediately start categorizing your experiences into different opportunities you can sell to editors. I will also share what’s hot right now and what editors are looking for, and how to write a killer pitch letter that makes magazines want to send you a contract.
Thank you so much for that informative interview, Eric! Catch his class, “From Cheng Du to Timbuktu: A Travel Writing Workshop” at the Pad on November 9!