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The Travel Writing Guide

Jen Leo’s Rising Thong

A prominent travel editor and writer discusses how travel changes us and how to get our travel stories into print

Jen Leo
Author Jen Leo

“She’s real, and her colorful, slice-of-life stories are just plain fun.”—Erik Olsen, Gadling.com

The Thong Also Rises is Jen Leo’s third book in a series of women’s humor travel stories, to achieve great success (the other titles are Sand in My Bra and Whose Panties Are These?). In May, Jen released her fourth book, What Color Is Your Jockstrap?, which for the first time let men into the fun. Contributors to this installment include Tim Cahill, Susan Orlean, Doug Lanksy, Elliot Hester, and Rolf Potts, all with their own unique travel adventures. The stories of misadventure combine a unique look at the world of travel with side-splitting laughs. Take, for example, Ellen Sussman’s Naked Nightmare in Thong. In a wonderfully written story, Ellen describes her first visit to a nude beach with her husband. After shedding her inhibitions (and clothes) she walks down the beach with her newfound freedom to order a few drinks. So proud of her discovered courage, she walks off the nude beach and into a bar in the “clothed world” realizing a nightmare that most of us only have in our sleep.

We’ve all had travel misadventures of our own: from translation follies to transportation woes, these stories bring home what can make travel life changing and memorable. Some stories may remind you of similar mishaps on the road; others may just crack you up, glad it happened to someone else!

I caught up with the intrepid travel writer Jen Leo recently to ask her a few questions about her newest book, travel, and writing:

Jessica P. Hayden: The Thong Also Rises is now the third book you’ve edited for the Travelers’ Tales women’s humor series. What makes this genre so appealing to women and to what do you credit the success of the series?

Jen Leo: I think there are two things that contribute to the success of this series...me and the color pink. Just kidding. I think these books sell because they are for and about every woman. It’s not just for backpackers, or luxury travelers, women who travel solo, or women who travel with their mates. These stories comprise all women from all walks of life. Even though they are travel humor books, more people can read them because they’re not specific to one region, or a specific audience. Also, they’re fun. It is a real hoot to laugh at other women while we are sitting in the comforts of our own homes. And even though we’re laughing at the women in the book, we know that it can happen to us, or already happened to us. And because of the collection we can laugh harder. At them and at ourselves. The discomfort is comforting.

JH: Tell us a little about the authors of The Thong Also Rises? Are most of the contributors professional writers or just avid travelers with a good story to tell?

JL: The contributors to Thong are both published writers and first-time contributors. We don’t have minimum requirements to get in the book…it just has to be a bizarre misadventure.

JH: And in addition to your recently released third book, you’ve now come out with a fourth, which opened the door to men, What Color Is Your Jockstrap? What prompted this move and did you find the stories to be much different coming from a man’s perspective?

JL: Every time I went on a book tour for any of the first three books, men would come up to me and say, “When can I write for you Jen?” Saying sorry got old, and we thought it’d be a great twist. It’s hard to say if they were different. Both men and women come up with some outrageous misadventures. The biggest difference is that we got double the number of really well written stories and had to turn away quality submissions that would’ve normally been keepers.

JH: Any plans for a fifth book in this series?

JL: Right now I’m taking a break and working on other projects, and possibly a book of my own.

JH: Many of our readers are interested in travel writing. You have worked both as a travel writer and an editor. Please tell our readers who may be interested in pitching travel stories what you look for in a good story?

JL: Good question. Humor is so subjective. What cracks me up to no end doesn’t necessarily hit the bulls-eye with another Travelers’ Tales editor. The beauty of making an anthology is that if a story makes one of us laugh out loud, then we figure it’ll entertain some section of our readership. I, personally, love slapstick stories. We are also suckers for gross stories—especially toilet humor. That said, we get a lot of bathroom stories and that just makes it harder on the writer to rise above the pile.

I think the best advice I can offer is what not to turn in. My biggest turnoff is whining. It’s hard to write about a trip that went awry without complaining about it. I think this is the most difficult challenge for the writer. Next, I strongly suggest that contributors don’t write their stories in a chronological order of events. You don’t have to tell us everything that happened from the minute you got there to the minute you left. Pull the reader in with action, dialogue, or a compelling thought. Feel free to weave in the back story a little later in the piece. I don’t have to know that you went to Prague with your husband on your 10th anniversary in the very first sentence.

JH: What drew you to travel writing and editing? How do you think it differs from other genres of writing?

JL: Tim Cahill’s writing drew me to travel writing. I loved the stories he was writing for Outside, as well as in Jaguars Ripped My Flesh and Pecked to Death By Ducks. As for editing, I don’t think I ever had dreams of being an editor, but I started as Travelers' Tales's first intern and learned a lot about the different roles of publishing from inside the company. After trying everything else, I found a good fit in editing their women’s humor series.

JH: What was your first trip abroad and how did it shape your view of travel?

JL: My first trip overseas as an adult was to witness the Hong Kong handover in 1997. Britain was giving Hong Kong back to China and I was drawn to being there as history was taking place. What you should know about me is that I am half Chinese and half Caucasian. So, I had a sense of kinship with the island that was stuck between two cultures. Rather than shape my view of the world, I would say that my trip to Hong Kong strengthened my belief that travel can influence the adventurer’s sense of self. Travel changes people. If the journeyman or woman is open, they’ll see or feel the difference after their return. Sometimes, others see it before you do.

While I was in Hong Kong, I became attracted to Asian men for the first time in my life. And I wrote about it in “Chinese Like Me,” which was published in A Woman’s Passion for Travel.

JH: Your blogs, writtenroad.com and jenleo.com, attract quite a few readers who are interested in both traveling and writing. How do you think blogs have changed the world of travel writing and travel itself for that matter?

JL: My work with Written Road is just as connected with my worldview as all the trips I’ve had put together. I believe that life is for living and that we have the power to make our dreams come true. I started Written Road to share my journey to becoming a travel writer and to encourage others who had the same dream, to make it happen. Half the blog is about my experiences; the other half contains resources and leads for writers to try their hand at it. What I’m saying is that travel writing isn’t rocket science, it’s completely doable, and Written Road helps you get there.

There are a lot of different kinds of blogs. Some are sources of news and information; others shed insight on the author. For travel writers, blogs are great resources for information and story leads. For travelers, having a blog is a fantastic and easy way to keep in touch with those back home. I follow travel writing news on World Hum, catch up on one of my favorite writers, Rolf Potts, on Vagablogging.net, and check hotel news on HotelChatter.com.

JH: What’s your next trip—either actually planned or the one you’re dreaming about?

JL: I’m dreaming of love travel. Until recently, I’d never traveled abroad with a lover. And despite all laws of travel gravity, I haven’t even had a proper love affair while traveling alone. I mean, come on, that’s ridiculous. Finding random lovers and traveling go hand in hand. So, right now I’m enjoying planning and saving for an international trip with my new boyfriend. Bora Bora and Cuba are both at the top of our lists.

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