Three Questions: Travel Writer Kim Brown Seely
November 18, 2016
Perhaps this Thanksgiving weekend you’ll be joining the tens of millions of Americans on the road, or—in light of the recent election—hiding at home from certain relatives, eyes blurry as you scroll through your Facebook feed. Either way, this is a great time for a virtual escape. Luckily, we have Kim Brown Seely, a local writer who happens to be a nationally acclaimed leaver-of-town, to whisk us away.
Kim, SAL Advisory Board member and general literary arts champion, has just been awarded a 2016 Travel Journalist of the Year Award by the American Society of Travel Writers for “bringing a reporter’s eyes and a writer’s ear to her craft.” If you’re not familiar with this award, think of it as the National Book Award for travel writers—it’s a pretty big deal. You can find Kim’s writing in the pages of Virtuoso Life, National Geographic Adventure, Travel & Leisure, and other drool-inducing travelogues.
To celebrate her accomplishment, we (envyingly) asked Kim a few questions about which travel writers have been her touchstones, her most memorable assignment, and where she’s headed next…
Who are your favorite travel writers, and what makes them great?
I’m so glad you asked this. A key part of travel writing for me involves reading other writers, everything from narrative nonfiction to poetry to literary fiction set in each destination. The most artful travel writers work hard at being “open” as travelers – absorbing sights, sounds, smells, tastes, textures, conversation, what’s in the air. Great travel writers then take these observations and weave them into narratives that make you feel like you’re right there on the ground beside them, linking their encounters to abstract ideas. I love reading travel writers for inspiration. A few of my all-time favorites:
Bruce Chatwin – Chatwin was the kind of writer whose work still inspires you to get out and explore the planet’s wild, empty-seeming places. His books have such elegant literary craftsmanship, and they transport you to these other worlds completely. The thing you learn reading Chatwin is that a travel narrative can voyage deeply in time as well as space – and that the interior it explores can be the heart of a place, as well as the mind of the traveler.
Annie Dillard – Most people don’t consider Annie Dillard a travel writer, but she’s one of the best! The reason I love reading Dillard is that she, more than any other writer, inspires you to observe intently. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is a brilliant take on a year spent traveling not much farther than her own backyard. Read it and you realize you haven’t even begun to see.
Pico Iyer – Pico Iyer’s books are such a delight. I read him for tone: he’s a great travel writer not only because he’s a gifted writer, but also because he’s such a contemplative companion. You want to spend time in his thoughtful company no matter where he’s going because you know his scholarship and wonderful mind will make it fascinating.
What’s been your most memorable assignment?
I was sent to Antarctica, a place I never imagined myself going to alone, and it was astounding. It’s like traveling to a distant planet – it’s so far, so otherworldly, and has the most beautiful light. Not to mention the penguins! You have to earn Antarctica by crossing the Drake Passage, and it can be pretty rough, but it’s heaven if you want hours to read some of the world’s best exploration lit. You can read all about Shackleton from the comfort of your cabin and devour classics like Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s The Worst Journey in the World, about Robert Scott’s disastrous expedition to the South Pole.
What trip are you taking next? Do you know what books you’ll take along with you?
I’m excited about an upcoming assignment in Japan. I’m hoping to reread Ruth Ozeki’s fantastic A Tale for the Time Being, my friend Alan Brown’s novel Audrey Hepburn’s Neck, and of course Pico Iyer’s The Lady and the Monk. It’s almost harder deciding what books to bring than what to pack!
Thank you, Kim! Have fun in Japan!
Photo credit: Ramu Kaka.