How did you become a writer?
I majored in English in college because I thought I wanted to be a writer. But I had nothing to write about – having spent most of my life in school – so one year after graduation I moved to France, where I studied French for eight months and worked on a farm for the summer. When I came home, I got a job as a feature writer at the Trenton Times in New Jersey (my home state), which was another wonderful experience for a budding travel writer because it taught me how to talk to a wide range of people and to see the world through the eyes of others.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).
It seems presumptuous, definitely wishful thinking, to claim them as influences, but the two writers I return to again and again are Evelyn Waugh and Vladimir Nabokov, for their elegance of style and sense of humor (though each is elegant, and amusing, in his own way). My favorite travel books are Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water – about his walk as a young man from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople – and it would be nice to think that they have given me even a dash of his prodigious openness, enthusiasm and curiosity. (I know I fall far short of his erudition.) The list of other travel writers I admire is very long, but at the top of it stand Gerald Brenan, Elliot Paul, A.J. Liebling, S.J. Perelman, V.S. Pritchett, Lawrence Durrell, Kate Simon, Nicolas Bouvier, Norman Lewis, V.S. Naipaul, Jan Morris, Colin Thubron and Jonathan Raban.
When and where do you write?
I write in the morning in the bedless guest bedroom of our Florida condo. It overlooks a canal and a neighborhood of palms. Despite years of working in newsrooms – I was the travel editor of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel for nearly two decades – I’m incapable of writing in public. Plus, all my books are here. Afternoons are often devoted to rewriting what I wrote in the morning.
What are you working on now?
A memoir, like everyone. But mine is about me. And because of that it will touch on two momentous developments of the last half century: the demise of the Soviet bloc (I left the Trenton Times to move to Poland for two and a half years) and the decline of the American newspaper.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
No. Most writers who spend years in newsrooms develop an immunity.
What’s your advice to new writers?
Nothing original, I’m afraid: Read. Write. Read. And be an eclectic, wide-ranging reader, not necessarily with regard to genres but to perspectives, attitudes, sensibilities that are different from those you and your friends share. This will help you to develop an interesting and distinctive voice. And after you write, read what you’ve written, over and over, until you get it right. (The more good writing you read, the easier it will be to tell when you’ve got it right.) A huge part of writing is self-editing. Paddy Chayefsky spoke for most famous writers when he said: “I’m not a great writer. I’m a great rewriter.” For people who want to be travel writers, I suggest they do what I did: Move to another country for a year or two and learn the language, the customs, the jokes, the rhythms of everyday life. If you’re lucky, as I was, it will be a country that’s in the news, but even if it’s not, you’ll gain a deep understanding of another part of the world. And the skills you acquire through living in one foreign country will help you when you travel to others.
Thomas Swick is the author of a travel memoir, Unquiet Days: At Home in Poland, and a collection of travel stories, A Way to See the World: From Texas to Transylvania with a Maverick Traveler. His work has appeared in the Oxford American, the North American Review, the Missouri Review, the Wilson Quarterly, The American Scholar, Ploughshares, Boulevard, Smithsonian, National Geographic Traveler, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and The Best American Travel Writing 2001, 2002, 2004, 2008, 2012 and 2014. He teaches an online travel writing course as part of the MFA program at Lesley University in Cambridge, MA.