Interview with Stephanie Elizondo Griest: ‘The Best Women’s Travel Writing 2010’
Travel Interviews: Eva Holland talks with the editor of a new anthology
03.31.10 | 7:23 AM ET
The latest Travelers’ Tales anthology of women’s travel writing, The Best Women’s Travel Writing 2010, brings together 27 stories from around the world—including three that originally appeared on World Hum, by Valerie Conners, Alison Stein Wellner and Elisabeth Eaves. I found it to be a funny, touching and impressive read.
Anthology editor Stephanie Elizondo Griest is the author of 100 Places Every Woman Should Go and was also a participant in World Hum’s Women’s Travel Email Roundtable, so she’s no stranger to woman-centric travel talk. I emailed her to ask about the new book and the future of women’s travel writing.
World Hum: Your work has appeared in a number of Travelers’ Tales anthologies, but this is the first time you’ve edited one of its collections. What was it like winnowing down the submissions? Were there any surprises for you in the selection process?
Stephanie Elizondo Griest: It was quite the endeavor, actually! Travelers’ Tales receives thousands of submissions each year for its various anthologies, and they sent me the top 100 by women in a great big box. I, meanwhile, solicited nominations from numerous publishing venues (including World Hum); placed calls for submissions on scores of listserves and websites; and recruited from several MFA programs. I must have read 200 stories in all, which was truly a joy. One minute, I would be romping around a rainforest in Borneo; the next, I’d be tango dancing in Buenos Aires. I retired each night exhausted from all my vicarious adventuring.
As for surprises, I wasn’t aware of how much diplomacy is required when compiling an anthology. How do you tell a friend that her story won’t make the cut? Editing is equally delicate. I adore dominatrix-style editing, where your prose gets whipped into shape, but apparently this isn’t universally appreciated. One writer actually snapped: “Who is in charge over there? Let me talk to someone else!” when I tried to nurse an ailing sentence. I had to laugh, as I was editing the anthology from my couch in Iowa City. I could only offer her a potted plant.
Do you see “women’s travel writing” as meaning something more specific than “travel writing by a woman”? In other words, do you think there are some travel stories that have greater resonance for female readers?
When my guidebook “100 Places Every Woman Should Go” came out in 2007, I spent a year criss-crossing the nation, holding “Traveling Sola” workshops for women. I did so because women tend to have different concerns about safety and security than men, and such fears are best allayed by other women.
While talking with these women, however, I realized that we also tend to have different motives for traveling. Some of us are called to the road because of a break-up or a death; others to mark a special birthday or other rite of passage. Many women see traveling as a metaphor for life: If we haven’t yet done it, we haven’t yet lived. Stakes are high when you travel with this sort of mindset, as you are simultaneously journeying to your own interior. Such “journeys of the self” are how I define the concept of “women’s travel writing.” They are expressions of womanhood, and all the pain and the beauty therein.
Did that distinction play into your choices for the anthology at all?
While it’s true that many of these stories could also have been published in our “gender-neutral” collection, “Best Travel Writing,” I would argue there is something profound about anthologizing them in a single volume. It is like a galactic shot of estrogen, which every woman needs now and then, to keep her power flowing.
Travel writing has traditionally been a male-dominated genre. Why do you think that is, and do you see that changing anytime soon?
For starters, travel writing is a crazy thing to do to yourself. There is almost no money in it, you spend an inordinate amount of time in bus and train stations, and in airports. It is murder on your personal life. Women are too smart to pursue such a foolhardy career!
No, but seriously ... Women have been penning (and publishing) their journeys for centuries. Last summer, I had the glorious experience of visiting Larry McMurtry’s mansion in Archer City, Texas, which houses his personal library of 30,000 volumes—about 2,000 of which are travelogues by women, many published in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. On his shelves, I found leather-bound books like “On Sledge and Dogsled to Outcast Siberian Lepers” by Kate Marseden, and “Sunshine and Storm in the East: Or, Cruises to Cyprus and Constantinople” by Lady Anna Brassey. I couldn’t believe there were so many, and that I hadn’t heard of a single one. Apparently, women’s travelogues have been as marginalized as most of women’s literature.
I do think this is changing, however, thanks to modern-day pioneers like Dervla Murphy, Jan Morris, Marry Morris and Robyn Davidson, whose books have been commercially successful. Publishing houses are also stepping up to the plate and supporting more women travelers, such as Seal Press, Random House Vintage and of course Travelers’ Tales.
In your introduction, you write that the “Best Women’s Travel Writing” series exists “so we can prove to each other that yes, we can do this.” The reference was to female travelers, but do you think books like this one can serve the same purpose for aspiring female writers?
Absolutely! And Travelers’ Tales is a great place to start. Several of the contributors in “Best Women’s Travel Writing 2010” are making their publishing debut in this volume. Travelers’ Tales bases its decisions entirely on the merit of the story. Bios are irrelevant. Consequently, they have launched a number of travel writing careers, including my own (with “Travelers’ Tales: Cuba” in 2001). If you have a story to tell, send it there!
Finally, what’s next for you? Are you interested in editing more story collections, or do you have another memoir in the works?
I published three books between 2004 and 2008, and my brain is still recovering. So I am finding it immensely pleasurable to write in short-form again: book reviews, profiles, essays and the like. I’m currently working on a series about the Texas-Mexico border, where I grew up, as well as a project about silence. I’ve also started a blog about travel, writing, books and combos thereof.
As for editing another anthology, I’d love to. It is rather like being a midwife, easing a story’s passage into the big, wide world and smacking out its first breath.