How I Accidentally Became a Travel Writer

Lake Srinigar, Kashmir, on my hippie honeymoon. There was nothing in the hookah; we were just naturally nerdy

It’s summer — the perfect time to read Getting Naked for Money: An Accidental Travel Writer Reveals All. This excerpt from my memoir–plus bonus text about my worst job interview, ever–is a teaser.

Is Travel Writing Real Writing?

I had writer’s block before I ever became a writer.

By the time I was 25, I probably had as many interesting adventures as Paul Theroux had at that age, but I never committed them to paper. I told myself that writing meant novels, short stories, and poetry—which I did attempt, sporadically—not dispatches from my life. I know, this sounds a bit dim, given the number of exotic countries I visited, including Afghanistan, Iran, Uzbekistan, and Nepal, but because I didn’t read travel literature—and didn’t really consider it literature—it never occurred to me to write it.

Nor, having grown up before “journal” became a verb, was I in the habit of recording pithy observations about the meaning of life or the wonders of nature. I filled the beautifully bound notebooks that I bought to goad myself to write with inchoate ramblings about my relationships—or lack thereof—with boys and, later, men. Some writers can look back proudly at their literary precociousness. Me, I found several entries in a pink diary dating to the days when the Beatles first arrived in the U.S. that read: “Dear Diary, I love Paul. He’s so cute. I wish he would love me. Goodnight, Edie.” If I’d had the strength of character to love John or even George and the originality to choose a diary that wasn’t pink, I’m certain I would have become a writer far sooner.

Instead, I went to graduate school for American literature at New York University. My brilliant career plan was to become a college professor and, once I got tenure, write what I liked—whatever that turned out to be—on the side. I figured holing up and reading great books while getting an advanced degree couldn’t hurt.

Wrong.

A Rut in the Road to Becoming a Writer

There’s nothing like getting a doctorate to destroy a girl’s confidence. As in most humanities departments, NYU literature professors didn’t get their egos stroked by earning potential or prestige. Their power lay in making their students feel inadequate. 

Washington Square Park. Behind the arches, you can glimpse NYU’s Bobst Library. Photo by Jean-Christophe Benoist, via Wikimedia Commons

It took me nearly a decade to get my Ph.D. By the time I finished, my prose style had been pulverized. After years of churning out timid academic tomes, I had the sentence structure of Henry James and the verbal clarity of Yogi Berra. Worse, I realized that there was nothing I wanted to do less than teach. Standing up day after day in front of a bunch of bored faces, pretending to be an authority… uh, uh. It didn’t help that the subject of my dissertation, Paul Blackburn, was a “dead white guy,” academia-speak for someone representing the increasingly beleaguered establishment.  My untrendy specialty would consign me to the boonies before I could–maybe, possibly, who knows?—snag a job in a decent city.

I was born in Brooklyn. I had finally acquired what every bridge-and-tunnel brat aspired to in the days before the boroughs became hip: a rent-stabilized Manhattan apartment. Call me crazy, but I didn’t want to move someplace I didn’t want to live to do something I didn’t want to do.

Escape from Academia, First Try

My first attempt to escape academia didn’t take me very far from the mother ship. I answered an ad for the job of editor of the Modern Language Association’s International Bibliography, a compendium of scholarly books and articles on literature, folklore, and linguistics. The MLA was the most prestigious professional organization in my field, and its offices were near my Greenwich Village apartment. What better refuge for a recovering academic who loved research?

But as the job details were laid out for me, my eyes began to cross internally; there’s a limit to the satisfaction even a research geek can take in checking the spelling and punctuation of listings like “From Apocalypse to Entropy: An Eschatological Study of the American Novel.” (Full disclosure: At one point, when I was planning to focus on fiction, this was going to be the title of my dissertation.) And my interviewer–-call her Emily Primm–-was Connecticut to the core, while I’m Brooklyn to the bone. All my stabs at humor missed the mark by a mile, as did my attempts at hearty Seven Sisters-style gal chat.

Finally, the painful process drew to a close, and Primm asked if I had any questions. 

“Yes,” I answered. “How much is we pay?”

We both sat there for a moment, stunned. I’d defiled this high temple of language by uttering a sentence that was completely illiterate. It later occurred to me that I should have claimed I had accidentally lapsed into an obscure Yiddish dialect; ethnic studies were all the rage. But I was too shocked to think on my feet. Those words had left my mouth, and I owned them.

Finally, Primm roused herself, cited a figure, shook my hand, and said she’d be in touch.

Yeah, right.

The Siren Call of Prentice Hall

And so I turned to Lynne Palmer, one of several employment agencies in New York dedicated to finding publishing positions for unskilled English majors. One day, the agency asked me to come in to take a blind editing test. The potential employer didn’t want to reveal its identity, my Lynn Palmer liaison said, lest it be besieged by unscreened applicants, but I would definitely like the place. 

The original cheap guide to Europe. My ripped-page trip was a few decades later.

She was right. When the call came that I’d aced the editing test and should report for an interview at Prentice Hall Travel, a division of Simon & Schuster, I was elated. Among other series, PHT published the Frommer’s guides. Europe on $35-a-Day had been my bible on my first college trip overseas. I recalled the immense satisfaction of ripping out a chapter and tossing it whenever I finished touring a country, thus lightening my backpack load. I associated the company with carefree, youthful adventure.     

And if it wasn’t a literary press, PHT was still part of Simon & Schuster. Who knew what publishing connections I could make once I had an in?

My interview with editorial director Marilyn Wood went pretty well, I thought—at least at first.  Trim and petite in her 1980s power outfit—blue blazer, red scarf bowtie, grey slacks, and low heels–with a trace of her London origins in her clipped tones, Marilyn was smart and easy to talk to. At the end, not wanting to fall into the dreaded salary question trap, I inquired about vacation length, assuming that editors would be given time off to visit any unfamiliar destinations their authors were covering.  Suddenly brusque, Wood informed me that the vacation allotment was the standard two weeks.

“Editors don’t do any on-site research,” she elaborated. “That’s the author’s responsibility.”   She dismissed me by saying I would hear within a week, one way or another, whether I’d gotten the job.

The Nail Biter

The end of the first week came–nada. By the time the second drew to a close, my cuticles required reconstructive surgery.

By the middle of the third, I was wondering whether I could score some Quaaludes.

Then the call came. I was in!

 A year or so later, Marilyn confided that she almost didn’t hire me because of my interest in vacations. “You can always ask for more money,” she explained. “People respect you for having self-confidence, and if they don’t want to give you what ask for, they can always say no. But asking about time off during an interview implies you’re not going to be dedicated to the job.”

I was horrified to learn I’d made yet another major end-of-interview gaffe, though far less starry-eyed about travel publishing by then. But I’m jumping ahead. When I got the nod from PHT, I took it as a sign that I’d been rescued, that I could finally put academia behind me without any qualms. Maybe I should have worried more about a job at a travel publisher that didn’t involve travel, but I’d retracted my usually keen New York Jewish antennae for potential problems. I was sure I’d nabbed a dream job, and no one could have convinced me otherwise.

***

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About the Author

Edie Jarolim is a writer and editor living in Tucson, Arizona. Sign up on this blog to get updates about her humorous tell-all/memoir, GETTING NAKED FOR MONEY: An Accidental Travel Writer Reveals All.

5 Enlightened Replies

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  1. Karyn Zoldan says:

    “Yes,” I answered. “How much is we pay?”

    That line is hilarious!

  2. I loved this Edie! Great photo too!

  3. Sid Lissner says:

    I can’t stop laughing and I’ve read the book.

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