David Page, author of Yosemite & the Southern Sierra Nevada: A Complete Guide (Countryman Press/W.W. Norton), has run sled dogs into the Maroon Bells, seined for salmon off the Kenai, hunted for T-Rex eggs in Patagonia, and traveled from the Algerian Sahara to Paris in the back of a Belgian floral delivery van. A contributing editor at-large for MatadorNetwork.com, he has written for the Discovery Channel, the Los Angeles Times Magazine, Eastside, Backcountry, Men’s Journal, and The New York Times. Page offers Write On! readers an honest glimpse into the field of travel writing, as well as his creative process and journey as a writer.
Which came first, your adventurous spirit or your desire to write?
I was definitely skiing through the trees, throwing snowballs at cars, and running from the police before I had a fully-formed notion of what it might mean to try to get it in writing.
What was your big break travel writing?
That hasn’t happened yet, far as I can tell. I did get a little extra time from Rick Wartzman once, back in the brief halcyon days of the new LA Times West Magazine. I think he did it as a favor to über-freelancer David Hochman, who was at the time trying to teach me (and others) how to pitch to magazines—a skill I am still a long way from learning.
I sent Rick a very long essay on (among other things) the proliferation of non-native squirrels in Los Angeles. He read all 6,500 words and then said, “If you can cut it in half I’d probably publish it.” I did as I was told, and was surprised to find the piece greatly improved at half the word count. Then the magazine started to lose pages, Wartzman got a better job, and the next in line, Marty Smith, said, “If you can cut another 1,500 words, we might be able to sneak it in before the mag folds entirely.” I had no choice but to get ruthless. And that was the beginning of me in print—and I suppose the beginning of the end too. Some people read that thing and liked it. It even won a nice award. I do think it improved the odds that a given editor would return my emails—the first email, anyway—but it certainly didn’t make it any easier to try to explain in 300 words what I might write in 1,000.
I think if there’s ever anything like a Big Break, it’ll happen in my own head, when I finally give up on the notion of getting paid up front for my writing and instead just write the absolute best shit I can, about what seems most important and difficult to me, in the faith that one day—maybe after I’m dead—people will see the value in it. Maybe my kids will benefit in some way. One of my deepest fears, I think, is that, if I don’t ever make that break, most of what I do in the meantime will be as disposable as just so many droplets in our great fire hose of content. Or maybe that’s the real break: finally coming to terms with the fact that nothing lasts, not even writing, and that that’s okay.
How did Yosemite & the Southern Sierra Nevada: A Complete Guide come about?
I was cobbling together scripts for a show on the Discovery Channel—a job that afforded plenty of free time for contemplating what I might rather be doing—when I got wind that Countryman Press was looking for a writer for a new guidebook to the greater Palm Springs and Joshua Tree region. I’ve always been skeptical of guidebooks, for a variety of reasons, not the least of which being the way certain featured paths have a tendency to get worn out. But then I’ve always appreciated the challenge of trying to change things from the inside. I wrote a sample chapter, in large part to see if it was a genre I could get my head around. I tried to approach it in a way I thought I’d be able to live with. I wrote up a short history of how a life-saving watering hole in the desert had evolved in less than a century into a sprawling crescent of car dealerships and timeshare condos boasting the largest concentration of golf courses in the world, with a sideline into the latest renaissance of the Hollywood Regency style.
They liked what I wrote, apparently. They hired someone else to do Palm Springs—someone with outrageous credentials, who also ended up bagging a Lowell Thomas Award—but asked me to look at their list of forthcoming titles to see if there were any holes. Yosemite seemed obvious enough, and for the sake of a good challenge—and perhaps by some deep-seated imperial impulse, or because I wanted an excuse, however impractical, to move to the Eastern Sierra—I thought: why not also throw in all that big, empty country to the south and east, down the Kern to the end of the range, and out across Inyo County to Death Valley and the Amargosa—some of the biggest, emptiest country in the lower 48?
They gave me a minuscule advance (which served mostly as a gesture of good faith that they would eventually publish whatever words I came up with), not one penny for expenses, and a year to pull it off. I pretended I didn’t have a wife and child, or a future to think of, and accepted the post.
What was your process for writing it? What was the greatest challenge?
As Lonely Planet author Thomas Kohnstamm made plain not long ago, guidebook writing is not the sort of thing one gets into as a means to put the children through college. At best, it is a fiscally irresponsible endeavor. At worst it is an invitation to create fiction.
The easiest (and least expensive) approach—and alas there is way too much of this in contemporary travel writing, especially on far-flung destinations like Brazil, or oft-traveled regions such as Yosemite—is to simply rehash the extensive material put out by tourism commissions, publicity people, earlier guidebooks, the Internet, the Park Service, etc.: the gauzy brochure-descriptions, the hyperbole, the tired metaphors, the same old lists of historical figures, dates and points of interest now bereft of all context and controversy; to overlook the dams and powerlines and unbelievable roadworks in favor of, yet again, the tallest mountain or the biggest tree. But to me it seemed important to discover the place for myself (again), to go out on the road (again and again) like some hapless latter-day Meriwether Lewis in a rental car, with a AAA map (actually, on the state level the Rand McNally is better), a credit card, a pocket notebook, and a fleet of cheap motel ballpoints, and to write down what I came across.
Thus, I spent a small, non-reimbursable fortune in gas, food, lodging, and books. I drove every mile of every road described in the book—most of it in the space of a single year. I skied or hiked to those few places that couldn’t be reached by road. I tried to talk to as many people as I could along the way, locals and tourists alike. I read every old guidebook and explorer’s narrative I could get my hands on—de Anza, Jedediah Smith, Zenas Leonard, Lansford W. Hastings, James M. Hutchings, Hunter S. Thompson, et al.—and as many relevant secondary resources as I could cram in in the time I had. I sampled the fare in every restaurant and tavern, as anonymously as possible and (with one memorable exception) on my own dime. I spent nights in as many different hotels and motels as I could, which was nearly all of them. In a few cases—where budget or schedule so dictated, where I had to make do with a tour of the property—I sat on beds, listened through walls, tested water pressure, sampled views, and chatted with guests about their experiences. And then finally—when I had no choice—I sat down at my desk, in the basement, and, over the course of too many months, wrote up my notes.
Johann Sutter, founder of Sacramento, once suggested that if the author of The Emigrants’ Guide to Oregon and California (1845), Lansford Hastings, wanted to avoid the sort of critical backlash that in those days came in the form of a lead ball to the gut, he might do well to steer clear of the places he had so fancifully described in his book (many of which he had not yet visited). In the interest of being able to go to the grocery store in broad daylight, and without a sidearm, I aimed for—not objectivity of course; a guidebook is nothing of not subjective—the kind of authority that comes from at the very least having been there with one’s eyes open.
How was the process similar to/different from article writing?
On some level, every chapter intro was like writing a magazine feature, and every little entry/review like writing typical front-of-the-book stuff. But ultimately it was much more enjoyable because I was able to settle into a voice and a kind of over-arching narrative of place, holding myself more to my own sense of what might be important and interesting to a reader/user/traveler, than to the rubric and voice and “market” of a particular publication.
What advice do you have for someone who wants to break into travel/travel adventure writing?
Always strive for authenticity. Don’t bullshit yourself (or others). Be as lazy as you want in your off-time, but when it comes to your work be ruthless; don’t send anything out until you’re as sure as you can be that every damn word counts. And then—and this is perhaps even harder, especially when you’re just getting started—be ready to let it all go, to slash whole paragraphs, to lose your most brilliant sentence ever (to kill your babies, as they say) in the service of the larger piece.
How important is it for a writer to have a niche?
I think it’s much more important to have a voice than a niche. In my case, I’ve dug myself so deep into this particular place that it’s sometimes hard for editors to see how the voice might work in a different niche. That’s part of my project right now: to expand the repertoire of places. Up next: Romania and Chiapas. Where will that writing show up? TBD.
Additional advice for writers?
Unless you’re publishing it yourself, don’t diminish the value of your stuff (and everyone else’s) by giving it away for free!
Tags: Author Q&A Countryman Press David Page Debra Eckerling Discover Channel Eastside Guidebooks Los Angeles Times Magazine MatadorNetwork.com Travel Writing W.W. Norton Write On! www.sierrasurvey.com Yosemite & the Southern Sierra Nevada