The Life of a Travel Writer: An Interview with Michael Kalec

When I started getting involved in travel writing in Los Angeles, one name came up in conversation often: Michael Kalec. over the years and through many encounters, Michael and I became very good friends.

His writing tips and advice have helped me immensely, and his impressive résumé and keen sense of story are why I partnered with him on this website’s travel writing course. Today, I thought I would interview David about the life of a travel writer!

John H. Steve: Tell everyone about yourself.
Michael Kalec: A few interesting facts about me: My weight at birth was 8 lbs., 6 oz. I grew up in the Los Angeles suburbs.

I was in a rock band in high school; we played late-night gigs at Hollywood clubs, and we weren’t very good.

I travel a lot, but I have no interest in counting the number of countries I’ve been to. I’ve lived in San Francisco, Paris, Prague, Rome, Los Angeles, and New York City, but I currently live in Berlin.

What is your greatest personal accomplishment?

I was deemed to have a “learning disability” when I was in grade school and had to spend some of my day in a special education class — which did wonders for my self-esteem!

My best friend in tenth grade told a friend (who told me) that I’d “never amount to anything in life.”

I ended up going to a community college and, much to my surprise (and everyone else’s), I did really well: I graduated with honors and transferred to a good four-year university, where I also graduated with honors.

A few years later, I got a master’s degree in history.

Based on the expectations of me when I was, say, 12, I was never supposed to go that far, intellectually. So I’d say getting a master’s degree might be my greatest accomplishment if you put it into the context of my history of learning.

If you could go back in time and tell young Michael one thing, what would it be?

Don’t eat that hot dog in Prague! Also, I’d tell myself to take more risks, to let the spirit literally move me around the world more and for a longer period of time.

If we let it, society and its norms really set our limit for us and keep us from taking chances, such as eschewing the ordinary office day job or life in the suburbs, etc.

It’s really hard to break out of that, to overcome the entropy that is weighing us all down from doing what we really want.

I lived in Los Angeles for 13 years, and for the final four or five I yearned to move away, to live abroad again and open myself up to new experiences.

But I became afraid, fearful of detaching myself from the life I’d established there.

I had to keep reminding myself of some aspects of Buddhist philosophy — about attachment and impermanence, especially — and that on my deathbed I’m not going to regret moving abroad for a while. I probably would, though, regret not doing it.

If you could go back in time and tell young Michael one thing about writing, what would it be?

I would have taken more classes to both keep learning — one should never stop learning about writing — and to force myself to write when perhaps I didn’t want to.

I think we can all learn from each other, and so putting yourself in that kind of instructive environment is helpful. I took one writing class — a nonfiction writing course at UC Berkeley — and it was super helpful.

What advice do you have for aspiring travel writers trying to break in?

It seems there are fewer paying publications these days and it’s harder to find work.

I realize this is a hard one, but living abroad is really helpful. You end up with so much material for personal essays, and you gain a knowledge of the region that allows you to become something of an authority on the area.

Then you have a personal connection to the place, and editors love it when you pitch a story and you’ve got that.

It gives you a leg up on other people who are pitching stories about that place.

That said, you don’t have to go far to write about travel. You can write about the place where you live.

After all, people travel there, right? Right. (I hope so.) You can write everything from magazine and newspaper travel section pieces to personal essays, all about where you’re currently residing.

What’s your favorite destination?

This is the number one question I’m asked, posed by people sitting next to me on airplanes, at cocktail parties, and my mother’s friends.

My standard answer is Vietnam.

It’s inexplicable.

I just like the place and keep wanting to go back again and again.

I also have a deep connection — and keep returning again and again — to Prague, Rome, and Dubrovnik.

Where do you find inspiration? What motivates you?

I get my motivation and inspiration from unlikely sources.

I think about the creative masters and wonder how I can tap into their genius. What did Austrian painter Egon Schiele see when he looked at a subject and then the canvas?

How did Prince put out an album a year from 1981 to 1989, each one a masterpiece and each one cutting-edge and like nothing anyone else at the time was doing?

Is there a way to apply this creativity to travel writing?

I’m not saying I’m on par with these geniuses — far from it — but if I could somehow even slightly be inspired by their creativity, I’d be better off for it.

What’s the most difficult part about being a travel writer?

The rejection.

You really have to get used to it and just accept that it’s part of your life. It’s really easy to take it seriously and let it get you down. I know — I have done this.

You just have to brush it off and move on, get back on that literary bike, and keep trying until someone finally says yes. Be tenacious.

Writing is a craft.

You don’t have to be born with a natural talent for it.

You just need a strong desire to become better at it.

And by taking writing classes, reading books about it, talking to people about it, etc. you will become a better writer.

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