Life on the Road: Interview with Martin Zatko

Think you have the chops to become a travel writer? We sat down with Rough Guides author Martin Zatko to find what life is really like writing on the road for a living.

Travel writer with tablet

What made you want to be a travel writer?

I think that almost anybody who’s ever picked up a guidebook will have toyed with the thought of writing one of their own. Whether it’s “these guys get paid to do this? Maybe I could too…” or “wow, I paid money for this rubbish? I’m sure even I could do better”. Most leave it at that, but for me, it seemed like one of the only ways in which I could make a living out of my number one hobby.

Tell us about one of your most interesting experiences in China.

Well, I used to live in the Gobi Desert. Is that interesting enough? That was almost exactly ten years ago now, but I still think of my time there very regularly indeed.

Most evenings, I’d climb over the barbed wire fence of my compound (it saved a half-hour walk to the gate) and stride out into the desert to count shooting stars and satellites – with the occasional camel for company.

On weekends, I’d ride my bicycle 50km north to the Heavenly Mountains, and spend a day or two hiking through terrain that had never seen a European face before.

It was all way too much fun.

What are your biggest challenges when reviewing and updating a Rough Guide?

The challenges vary a lot by destination. China can be particularly tricky because tourist information is very thin on the ground, English is not widely spoken, journey times can be very long, and some cities are absolutely huge.

Then there’s the fact that things can change so quickly – I once turned up to review a small town, only to find that its entire centre had been bulldozed the previous week! I scratched my head for at least an hour, wondering how on earth one reviews rubble.

However, all guidebooks present their own challenges, and those who write them are often forced to become experts in architecture, art, food, fashion, language, logistics, mapping and more, all in a single day.

Even when you’ve done that, it’s hard to cater for all tastes – in Cambodia I met a traveller who was going blue in the face because the tiny town we were in was not covered extensively enough in his guidebook, while his equally angry friend was in the same state because the book had covered this “unspoiled gem” at all.

Sometimes we just can’t win.

What do you love most about travel writing? How does it compare to other sectors in the writing industry?

I have a lot of journalist friends, and they’re fond of telling me that all I do is go on holiday.

While there’s certainly an element of truth to that, I do often find myself envying their relative stability – things like regular paydays, or a place to call home for more than a couple of months at a time!

As a travel writer you’re your own boss, which means that you have to make your own structure and ensure that it works.

How do you like to spend your first day in a new city?

I hunt down the nearest Irish pub, and spend my day watching football and drinking cheap gin.

Okay, that’s a lie.

If I’m on assignment in a big city that’s new to me, I’ll try to spend the first day simply getting a feel for the place – it’s amazing how much you can glean from a single day’s walking around.

However, far more often, I find myself in a smaller place with only a day or two to cover it, meaning that it’s straight to work as soon as I step off the plane, train, bus, boat, donkey or whatever.

What have you learned about yourself from life on the road?

Probably that I feel most at home when I’m on the move and seeing new things.

East Asia, where I spend most of my time now, genuinely feels more like home to me than England does.

For all of the budding travel writers out there, I recommend…

Lots of people think that they’d be able to write about their travels, and though many of them would be right, few do anything about it.

Even if you’re running a half-decent blog, it’s unlikely that a major publisher is just going to come knocking on your door – you’ve got to get your own foot in their door somehow, and one way of doing so is by entering a contest like World Nomads & Rough Guides Travel Writing Scholarship to China.

What is your favourite destination to write about? What makes a good story?

All of the places I’ve written extensively about – China, Korea, Japan, Turkey, Vietnam, the Balkans – have ended up being very dear to me in one way or another.

While this makes me feel very fortunate, a fear of reprisals makes it impossible to choose a favourite.

And as for what makes a good story – absolutely anything that people will enjoy reading.

2 Comments

  • luisvelasco said

    That was really inspiring. Thank you very much!! :)

  • Cheryl Berry said

    Hi, <br>your lifestyle sounds thrilling. I recently returned from backpacking alone round China for 6 months and wrote a journal everyday for friends, family to read who said at times they lol and at other times cried and feared for my safety. I have been obsessed by China for 20 years and would love to spend more time there. Can you tell me if you have any more competitions coming up that would present an opportunity to write about China (loved southwest China, especially rural areas) Many thanks Cheryl

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