Welcome to Conversations, a series of interviews with multi-genre writers about travel, place, home, habitat, and exile in their writing and in their lives. The series began in October with the masterful Tim Cahill. (You can read that interview here.) Next up is an author of such prolific and joyful activity that it was hard to catch up with her: Patricia Schultz, the author and creator of the 1000 Places to See Before You Die series. More than a book, this tome has inspired thousands of people to go out and see the world.
I recall seeing a 1000 Places calendar on the wall of tiny lean-to hut in a remote village in India a few years ago. I asked my host if he wanted to go to those places in the pictures, and he replied, "Every night I choose a different picture and I go there in my dreams. I am a traveler. I may not leave my bed, but I've been all over the world."
Patricia's book is the stuff of dreams. She's a dream-maker. Read on.
AGA: Your name has become ubiquitous with your book, 1000 Places to See Before You Die. I'd like to talk to you about the book and the life that you now have because of it's success, but first let's talk about life before the book. In particular, I'm interested in your writing life. Did you want to be a writer growing up, or did you study the craft in college?
PS: No. I am the poster child for Late Bloomers. I worked many random jobs after finishing college while attempting to make sense of my adult life, and where it might lead me. Different interests pulled me in all directions – but the one constant impulse was travel. I had lived in Florence after graduation and when I returned to NY, my knowledge of the Italian language landed me a job with a newly arrived designer whose name was Giorgio Armani. That was an interesting time that taught me a lot about Milan, the design world, European aesthetics, and contact with lots of high-profile types – but it was an environment with way too much pretense and attitude.
AGA: What was the first thing that you recall writing that you viewed as significant to identifying yourself as a writer?
PS: The experience with Armani lead me to freelance gigs as a stylist--I wasn’t very good – including one for Italian Vogue Men in Key West. The editor needed to rush back to Milan without time to do a scheduled interview with Mel Fisher, a local personality – and handed it over to me. I had never written a thing in my life, but I had learned to never say no to anything. I did the interview---probably not very well--and it got published, although once translated into Italian it never really seemed like my own. But it came with an epiphany: I thought, I can make a job out of this! It was beginner’s luck of course, but the first tiny step - one that fell into my lap by sheer chance – toward creating a life of travel writing.
AGA: But back to your youth: I’ve heard that you went through different phases growing up. You wanted to be a teacher and a nun, among other things.
PS: Wanting to be a nun lasted for about 5 minutes. And considering a life as a teacher was a no-brainer – growing up in the 50s-60s that’s all that was really presented to us, as well as nurse and secretary.
AGA: But it's clear that the thing you were attracted to most was travel. What initially attracted you to the idea of travel as a job or as a significant part of your life?
PS: What had me sit up and take note was a trip I made to Santo Domingo in the DR when I was 15. It was my first passport and first stamp. I stayed with the family of a Dominican friend for 2 weeks – it was total immersion in a different universe and I thought I had died and gone to heaven. That trip pried open the door just enough for me to catch a glimpse of the world outside, and I knew there was no looking back.
AGA: This point of view was significantly different than many in your generation and the expectations of women, in particular...
PS: Travel represented my independence yes, and escape. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I knew what I didn’t want to do: to sleepwalk through life like those I would leave behind at college graduation who had their futures neatly lined up in corporate worlds – the very idea gave me the heebie jeebies.
AGA: Did you travel often with your family and where did you go?
PS: My family traveled very little – except to visit relatives in the immediate area of New York’s Hudson Valley where we lived. And for our annual pilgrimage in August to the Jersey Shore.
AGA: Can you share any early travel memories from your childhood?
PS: My earliest memory ever was me sitting in the back seat of our dilapidated station wagon - I think I must have been packed a week ahead of time. I remember the cracked upholstery pinching my legs, the soggy tuna sandwiches and the wind in my hair. The shore to me was all sun and sand and the excitement of the Board Walk.
A favorite family story that still gets told was about the time I wandered off the family beach blanket and was delivered back to an apoplectic mother by a bunch of life guards. I was four. Apparently I was not interested in being tethered even at an early age! I remember very vividly how the feeling of adventure grew the farther I wandered away from that towel. It was very intoxicating!
AGA: Let's talk about the start of your travel writing career. For some reason, I have an image of you in my head as being this fabulously well dressed young woman, hopping on places and traveling glamorously to upscale destinations around the world. But I know that this isn’t true.
PS: If I was a 20-something traveler today, I wonder if I would get on an airplane looking like I was going to mow someone’s lawn-- I think that is a quote from David Sedaris when describing American travelers abroad. I may not have been the picture of glamour as you imagined--but thank you anyway!--although I was in my head. Travel was such a privilege and act of independence that it made me feel very adult and worldly, and I always showed up trying to look the part – though it never did help with an upgrade.
AGA: Have you had any close calls or gritty experiences during your travels?
PS: I remember flying to my friend’s wedding in Abu Dhabi years ago. I was oblivious to that fact that when flying alone as an unaccompanied female--which I very often did-- problems could arise, and I was held at the airport for what felt like forever. By chance another wedding attendee was arriving from Cairo a few hours later and he came to fetch me – as if some piece of unattended luggage.
Traveling sola in those days called for a certain resolve: while walking back to my pension in Florence one evening, a car full of young and cocky fiorentini drove by yelling unintelligible things and threw tomatoes at me. It all felt like a bad 70s Italian movie.
But real danger? I only faced real danger once in my life when held-up at knife point: it was on Park Ave in NYC just a few blocks from my home. Nothing happened, but he did get my bag which I really liked. Sticking close to home, I realized, brought no guarantee of safety and it wasn’t where I wanted to linger.
AGA: You've put in your time in this profession. You were a travel writer for 25 years before 1000 Places came out in 2003. What were those years like, particularly the early ones?
PS: Following that stroke of beginner’s luck with the interview for Italian Men’s Vogue, the road ahead of me was an uneven but interesting one – lots of hard work that resulted in a mix of various articles for negligible fees – often on spec and frequently for free. You know, building a portfolio. I had never studied writing or journalism, knew next-to-nothing about how one created a network or got published, and spent many an hour sitting on the floor of my neighborhood Barnes & Noble’s Self-Help section pouring over How to Get Published books.
AGA: At some point, you began to write guidebooks. How did you get into the world of guidebook-writing, and what was it like?
PS: My portfolio was still a slim one when a friend of a friend tracked me down during one of my stints in Florence. A guidebook series called Birnbaum’s was doing a new book on Italy, and they had a chapter on Tuscany that was unusable: they could pay pretty much nothing and needed it yesterday – was I up for it? That was 1985 and the beginning of a long stretch of guidebook writing for Birnbaum, then Access and Berlitz and American Express. I began writing for Frommer’s in the late 1990s - they were the most reliable and stable. The money wasn’t good – no one gets rich writing guidebooks – but I learned a tremendous amount and was able to parlay it into other projects and assignments and created a (very) modest reputation for myself as the go-to person for All Things Italian.
AGA: Do you think writing guidebooks led you to write 1000 Places?
PS: In retrospect I can now connect all the dots – one of the larger ones being a book called Made In Italy that I coauthored in 1988 while writing guidebooks on the side. The publisher was Workman, and it was Peter Workman who would bring me back into the fold 7 years later when he gave me the contract for 1000 Places. Until then every assignment I accepted and every word I wrote was all part of the learning process that led me to 1995 and the 1000 Places project that turned my life – and my career, which are the same thing - around.
AGA: Let's talk about how you write and how you see yourself as a writer. Are you a travel writer? A writer? A journalist? Or all or some of those things?
PS: I see myself as a traveler who writes versus a writer who travels. First and foremost is my love for travel – an itch that will forever demand my attention – and which every time brings me the same thrill as that first trip outside America to Santo Domingo. And then there’s the writing part where I struggle to capture it and put it all down on paper. The traveling comes easy to me – I can’t get on a plane often enough.
The writing? Not so much. I am not falsely modest – I must have had some dormant semblance of talent.
AGA: "I must have had some dormant sense of talent." Quite humble!
PS: The quality of my writing in those early years was passable at best - I like to think it has improved over time! Writing thousand-page books gives one a lot of practice! And I was blessed with great--and very patient--editors.
AGA: So, how do you keep track of all the places you go? Do you keep a travel journal or tape record your journal? What is your process?
PS: I never write when I am on the road – days are too long and tiring to do anything other than fully absorb the place where I am and experience and enjoy it to the max. I don’t keep a journal per se or record my travels. I make the effort to observe and remember, and take notes and photos along the way and collect brochures, business cards, clippings and mementos. I generally percolate for a while--it’s called procrastination--and continue the research I began before leaving – it all makes much more sense after I’ve returned. Once I finally put my mind to it, and if I’m lucky, I pray that the article will write itself.
AGA: If you're like most travel writers, you read voraciously about the places you go--and the places you haven't been yet. What books have been inspirations for your travels and your writing?
PS: Who I read and when is something of a blur - I tried to always find some book intrinsically linked to a place I'd be visiting. Some of the choices are predictable and maybe uninspired, but they offered a great insight to the place and people - Out of Africa for my first trip to Kenya--and a somewhat surreal visit to Karen Dixon's farm; Lawrence Durrell when visiting Alexandria; Pablo Neruda for Chile--and a visit to his home as well in Valparaiso; Anne of Green Gables for Prince Edward Island; Eudora Welty for Jackson; Hemingway for my first trip to Andalucía - and Havana.
These days my reading material has taken over my apartment - but it consists of guidebooks, as it is not uncommon for me to buy 4 or 5 on one destination, clippings, mountains of magazines, and what not - and then there is the online research that takes over my days.
I regret not having the luxury of time to read the historical novels that once were a favorite way for me to learn about - for ex. - life in the time of the Medici, or the Ming Dynasty, or Tudor England. They created worlds for me that years of university never managed to do.
AGA: Your perfect writing day would be....
PS: If I have an article assignment that is due, the perfect writing day--which doesn’t exist--would be one in my NYC apartment where I have managed to clear a full day free of appointments or distractions.
AGA: 1000 Places is made up of short vignettes about places. How do you write such condensed pieces about each place? How do you self-edit this kind of work? What are some of the tools you use to help you create these portraits of places?
PS: I am very wordy and always need to reign it back – a word-count ceiling helps enormously. When you’re writing about a thousand places, you quickly slip into a style groove in terms of length and content. I wanted 1000 Places to be both inspiring and informative – ideally this means I need to weave the spirit of the place with its historical and cultural importance. The father of a friend, the author of The Secret Life of Plants – the first real author I had ever met or had a conversation with-- gave me these simple pearls that in my early days and lack of experience were a revelation to me: evoke the sight, sound and smell of the place.
I am aware that the book’s reader represents a vast demographic from the young adventurer to travel-challenged retirees – and so in the end, I decided to write the kind of text that I would enjoy reading myself. It was that simple, and it seems to have worked.
AGA: Do you read reviews of your books?
PS: Complaints on Amazon are across the board – too much info, not enough info – but they are far outweighed by the positive ones. And yes, I read all the reviews regularly, though not every 5 minutes as I did in the beginning!
AGA: While preparing to interview you, I read a story that you wrote for Travel Weekly about your trip to Antarctica. That was a beautiful and lyrical yet informative piece. Can you share a favorite paragraph from it that can give me a sense of the place as you saw it?
PS:That was not an easy piece to write because Antarctica was so unlike any place I had ever been before. It was not unlike a religious experience. Here’s the opening paragraph:
“This land” wrote Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, the first man to reach the South Pole in 1911, “looks like a fairytale.” More than a hundred years later I shared his dream and visited Antarctica – in admittedly cushier conditions – to find its grandeur and mystery to be astonishingly intact. For those today who think there is nothing left to see or nothing left untrammeled, the White Continent at the bottom of the world awaits – serene, magnificent, empty, surreal, and beautiful beyond words. "
AGA: Of course, I really want to talk about 1000 Places! How did you end up writing this book? Was it an idea you had or that the publisher had? How long did it take for the idea to become a reality?
The writing I did for guidebooks was always country- or region-oriented. After awhile it began to feel very confining and restrictive. My travels and aspirations were much more global and far reaching and I kept a growing list of favorite places in my head culled from my world travels. My publisher and I were both on the same page during the initial discussion of the book, though the working title they gave it was 100 Drop Dead Places. They soon added a zero because they said it looked better--and thankfully tweaked the rest of the title.
AGA: It's an astonishing task to take on, writing of something like this. How long did it take for the idea to become a reality?
PS: They asked if I could do it in one year, then said I could take two. I worked on it every single day for 8 years. With such a paltry advance--and no expense account - as many think--my time was eaten up by countless other projects I took on to pay the rent. I also took time for personal priorities such as caring for my parents and etc. I was blessed with an extremely understanding publisher who saw the manuscript I submitted in dribs and drabs. Not a day went by that their confidence and trust didn't encourage me onward. I was pretty much given carte blanche to write the book of my choice - it was a lonely but extremely fulfilling endeavor.
AGA: The first edition of the book was published in 2003, and immediately people loved it. You’ve added more editions with more places over the years. The book has become a book people use to craft trips of a lifetime...and well as to daydream. What do you think it is about this book that inspires people to travel?
PS: I had never seen my father read anything in his life other than the local newspaper. He was 90 when I ran home with the first copy of the book in 2003 to give to him. He held it for a moment and said, “That’s a big book.” I think the very heft of the book impacts people immediately, reminding them that the world is huge and its wonders are countless. Between the two covers there exists this exciting mix of places well known and not, of every shape and color – from the far flung to those in our backyard, and from the grand to the quirky and humble. In addition to reminding us about the romance of travel and how it transforms us, there is also the brass-tacks info to get you there and make it happen. As a travel writer I had never seen such a comprehensive list and had a mentor who told me “If you don’t see the book you want on the shelf, write it.”
AGA: I love that advice. That's very true. But to envision a book of one thousand places--that's huge vision! It must be hard to see so many places so quickly. Right now, there are a lot conversations about the worth of bucket lists. I am of the view that bucket lists are wonderful things, as long as they are thoughtfully created. How do you manage to experience a place--and write about it--when you are there for only a short time?
PS: I hit the ground running and see more in a day than many might see in a week. I don’t have the luxury of Slow Travel, although I recognize its worth. I talk to others when there, both locals and visitors to see how their impressions compliment or differ from my own. And I research a lot before I go and after – I get lost in the research sometimes and forget to come up for air.
First impressions are important to me, though the evolution of that impression can bring you down another road entirely as you meet people along the way and let the experience unfold.
It is not uncommon that people will tell me their experience in a city place or city included in the book was very different from my own, but that is the beauty of travel. It is an intensely private affair.
AGA: Travel is a personal journey, yes. We all experience place differently. And places themselves also change dramatically. It's interesting to think about tourism and places which have had recent political strife, for example. The original version of the book didn't have many areas of the world that had had recent political strife: but the newer version does. What place have you been that surprised you and that belied your expectations, despite it's recent history of war or violence?
PS: I just returned from Sri Lanka, where the troubles were resolved some years ago yet the memo never reached these shores. There is little to no American tourism to speak of. Not hard to believe considering the distance. But I found an exceptionally welcoming country – certainly the people are some of the most gracious anywhere – with lush landscapes, UNESCO antiquities, coconut and ginger ice cream to die for, and surprisingly sophisticated boutique hotels and waterfront resorts….all created with this conviction that if they built them, the tourists would come. And I believe they will – it feels like they are on the brink of something great, as word of mouth spreads. In the meantime, it is always a thrill to experience a place well before the secret is out. Bragging rights, I suppose, but also because of the unique opportunity to see it in its purest and most authentic moment, before the hordes descent and cruise ships arrive.
AGA: Obviously, it would take a lifetime for you to go to every place in your books, although you’ve been to most of them. Since we've become friends, you are always on the move, and I think you might actually get to all these places someday! Any favorites?
PS: Well, the list is pages long. You can imagine that the favorite-place question is the one I am asked the most frequently. And my answer is that I have 1000 of them. There is something or someone that captures your heart and soul in each of them – Italy for its mind-blowing diversity of world-class art and architecture, Iceland for its lunar landscape, Spain’s Andalucía for the influence of the Moors that is still ubiquitous after a thousand years, Antarctica for its unique penguin colonies that stretch as far as the eye can see, NYC because there is no other city on the planet quite like it, and so forth.
There are places I may not want to return to, but there is no place I have ever regretted visiting. Each place leaves you with a gift – a lesson, a memory, an insight, a friendship.
AGA: Since we starting talking about doing this interview, you’ve been on the road much of the time, from Andalusian Spain to Kazakhstan to where you are right now, in the Artic. Your writing life includes more than just writing. You have a television series, tours, speaking engagements, and lead small groups to places around the world. You have new 1000 Places materials coming out all the time, and you manage your social media and very public life. I have to ask you: what was this transition into this public life like? What aspects have you enjoyed?
PS: My writer-to-public-speaker transition was orchestrated by my publisher who understandably wanted me to be the mouthpiece for the book and what would become the 1000 Places brand. With me so immersed in the completion of the book, I had never given post- publication much thought. Nor did I realize it was something - this so-called public life - that I had signed up for.
As a travel writer the only thing I wanted in front of me was a sweeping panorama or my computer screen - not a microphone and an audience.
The first time I was asked to speak - it was at a bookstore, I had a knot in my stomach the size of a baseball. The first time on live television--CNN! Couldn't we have started with the local news?--that knot was the size of a watermelon. As with my writing, the more I did it, the more it improved - and these speaking events are now something I enjoy tremendously.
At the signings that follow, I have people share the importance of travel in their lives - I hear some pretty moving stories! Something more recent are the small groups I host to places around the world.
AGA: When this interview comes out, you'll be in Churchill, Manitoba with the polar bears, and hopefully get a glimpse of the Northern Lights! It sounds like a perfect life. But you work constantly, and you've been huge inspiration to me personally in regards to following your calling in life, no matter how hard you must work. I know you have several projects going on now...what's next?
PS: The complete rewrite and revision of 1000 Places is already 3 years behind me, so it is time for a thorough up-date. For something like this, my publisher and I work with a team. The German in me--and not the Italian, which is the less detail-oriented half of me--relishes this kind of project.
And then there are my travels. I have my own bucket list - I would love for Iran to happen in 2015. Some of the first friends I ever met at university were Persian, and I have wanted to visit ever since. Chance encounters can do that.
AGA: This was fantastic, talking with you. I think there are so many encouraging lessons in your story that will inspire and lift many other writers--and travelers. It was a pleasure. I look forward to hearing about your next adventures, Patricia!
Patricia Schultz is the author of the #1 New York Times bestsellers 1,000 Places to See Before You Die and 1,000 Places to See in the United States and Canada Before You Die. A veteran travel journalist with 25 years of experience, she has written for guides such as Frommer’s and Berlitz and periodicals including The Wall Street Journal and Travel Weekly. She also executive-produced a Travel Channel television show based on 1,000 Places to See Before You Die. Her home base is New York City. Follow her on Facebook and on Twitter.