Career Focus - The World of Writing

Travel Journalism - Sara Wheeler

Sara Wheeler is a well-known and well-respected Travel Journalist and Author. Sara spent seven months in Antarctica in 1995 as writer in residence with the U.S. Polar Program. She is the author of 'Terra Incognita: Travels in Antarctica', an international bestseller chosen by Beryl Bainbridge as one of the best books of the year, 'Travels in a Thin Country', a finalist for the Thomas Cook Award, 'Cherry' and her latest book is 'Too Close to the Sun' exploring the life of Denys Finch Hatton. The Author is also a regular contributor to publications such as Conde Nast Traveller and The Times.


The Interview

Name - Sara Wheeler

Location - London

Family - two boys, eight and three


How did you first get into writing?

I always wanted to be a writer. I started off writing travel articles on spec, getting them rejected, and trying again. The one day I opened The Times to read a piece I had written on Prague...They had run it without even writing back to me (yes I did get paid). It went on from there. But I didn't make a living out of it for some years – I had to do other jobs.

What inspired you to specialise in travel writing?

It's just the vehicle that suits me best – in the same way that people play one sport rather than another. I like to work within the framework of a foreign land. And I like the counterpoint between the big wide world and the smallness of the study.

Do you write at home? If so where?

Yes, I have a small office on the first floor of my house.

How many hours do you spend writing a day? Do you have to be quite disciplined?

I work about fifty hours a week, I'd say. Everyone says it must be hard to stay disciplined, but to me that's like saying, 'It must be hard to go into the office' to a banker or something. Do you think the people at the electricity company would accept lack of discipline as an excuse for non-payment?

How does writing fit round spending time with your sons?

I tend to stop at about four and spend time with the boys in the afternoon, then return to my office after bedtime. The hardest thing about having kids was stopping working in the weekends – for many years Saturdays and Sundays were no different from the week. Somehow I had to recoup that time. But of course it's wonderful having the flexibility to work around them – it's rarely difficult to get to the nursery play or school tea. But I wouldn't have got much done without help - I've had an au-pair or nanny since the first one was seven months.

Have your been able to take your sons on many of your travel adventures?

Yes, both my boys went round the world as babies – the eldest several times, as I did a series for the Sunday Times about travelling with a baby. I took them both to Africa while I was researching my latest book, Too Close to the Sun, which is a biography of Denys Finch Hatton. And I sometimes take them separately – the eldest came to Chile for three weeks at Christmas, leaving the little one with dad.

When you are researching a story, if your family can't come with you who looks after your sons?

I have a nanny, and their dad works for himself so is flexible. All three (though not the nanny) sleep in the same bed if I am not there! When I am away the grandparents also come into their own as the boys go to stay for weekends.

Is travel writing as glamorous as it sounds?!

I get to stay in some pretty great places now – in middle age (I am 45) I am like an old nag put out to grass and thrown treats while the younger ones slog round the place. But for years there was little glamour. It was about sleeping on the top of moving trains, getting diseases like scabies (and worse), plus frostbite or sunstroke or Delhi belly. It was tough being alone for long stretches, and being stared at in places where lone white women were rare. It wears you down in in the end. And you end up missing important family events at home. That's before I get on to the difficulties of maintaining a relationship.

When you first got published did you have an agent? Do you think they are essential?

I do have an agent and I think they are essential once you get into American editions, translations and so on – though having said that, even those can be handled by ones primary publisher. I did not have an agent for my first book, which was fine. But as my sales rose I needed one, yes.

Is it hard getting published?

It's hard to get pieces published in papers, but it really is possible, if you try hard enough.

What is the best bit of business advice you have been given?

It's not really about business, in my view – it's about hard work. You just have to work really, really hard, read all the time, never give up and follow your dream. What could be more simple?

Books by Sara Wheeler


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