As a highly respected travel writer and photographer for leading publishers such as Lonely Planet and Dorling Kindersley, as well as a leading exponent of female solo travel, Frances Linzee Gordon has become a bit of a heroin of mine! When I saw that she was giving a talk at Destinations Travel Show last month in London I made sure I had a front row seat and when she asked people to come over for a chat at the end, well, of course I stepped forward. You can imagine my delight when Frances happily agreed to an interview.
Kat: Have you wanted to be a travel writer from a young age and how did you first start in the industry?
Frances: When I was 16, I wanted to be a barrister, and funnily enough until uni had travelled very little! I had a very sheltered childhood in the Highlands of Scotland. Uni changed all that. I got the ‘bug’ instantly and startlingly. Later, it dawned on me almost insidiously that travel writing encompassed all the things that I feel passion for: travelling, writing, learning new skills, speaking languages, researching, investigating, interviewing people etc.
With regards to starting, once I decided on the type of travel writing I was most interested in (at the time, guidebook writing), I put in quite a lot of time researching the different guidebook publishers and deciding which one suited my aspirations best. I wrote to the publisher that scored highest, was summoned to an interview, given a sample assignment, had a final interview, and the rest I suppose is (my travel) history.
Kat: I believe you prefer travelling alone. Do you have any tips for women travelling solo?
Frances: Travel is a wonderful thing to share if on holiday, but if working, or seeking to explore a country, I definitely prefer to travel alone. It is difficult to focus otherwise and truly immerse oneself in the country. Alone, you are much more aware of the place you find yourself in, you observe and see more. If you have someone with you, particularly from your own country or culture, you are constantly making comparisons and harping back to your own country, in effect dragging your cultural baggage with you. For example, I remember having the opportunity to visit Machu Pichu as part of a group. As we caught our first glimpse of the ruins after a long walk – arguably one of the most dramatic and exciting arrivals anywhere – the woman I was walking with started to complain about the price of lamb in the UK! It was a pleasant conversation with a pleasant woman but not one I wanted at that moment in that place. I longed to hear more about the history of the ancient site with our wonderful guide, or equally simply wander off to walk among the ruins quietly, along with the llamas…
Kat: You have been to many interesting and reputedly dangerous places around the world. Have you found being a woman a help or a hindrance?
Frances: Unquestionably a help, as I have often written and spoken about. In fact, encouraging women to travel is certainly an important satellite mission! I believe passionately that there is no place on Earth a woman should feel afraid to go just because she is female. In fact, I think solo women travellers often have advantages over men when they travel, in the sense that they attract attention which can often be turned to their advantage. For whatever reason – from pity, compassion, kindness or simply curiousity – solo women often evoke far more invitations and hospitality than solo men. I suppose in some ways, it’s a subconscious desire to try and help and protect those perceived as more vulnerable or in need of help.
Often, those countries perceived as ‘dangerous’ are in reality far safer with much lower crime rates (particularly crimes against women) than in the West, especially some metropolises in America.
Kat: I have read that you have found it useful and even liberating to wear the abeyya (full robe) and burka (face covering) while travelling in some countries. What have you found are the greatest challenges and what are the advantages of wearing a burka?
Frances: The greatest challenge was probably the heat! In the majority of countries where women are required or chose to wear an abeyya, the colour is black, which is not good in the sun. I once made the mistake of removing clothing beneath it day by day, until only down to my underwear one afternoon in Yemen, only to be ‘unrobed’ dramatically by a setting sun in the city of Sana’a. The abeyya (which was a nasty cheap one I had picked up in a market a few days before) turned out to be perfectly transparent.
Regarding, the advantages, these were much more of a surprise to me. Unexpectedly, I enjoyed the anonymity funnily enough as a woman. For the first time, I was not being judged by how attractive or young I might or might not be, and for the first time male-female roles were reversed: I could ogle the magnificent tribesmen – with their jambiyya (curved daggers) slung around their waists and their heads wrapped in impressive turbans – as I had been ogled as a woman. The pressure to appear fashionable, au fait and feminine was removed for the first time: I could roll out of bed without a scrap of make-up, unkempt hair, and don comfy shoes without being judged for it… It was heaven! I say this facetiously of course, but often Westerners assume Muslim women are the enslaved ones, forced to wear the abeyya and burka and ‘hide themselves’ (and interestingly, I have yet to come across a single woman abroad or in the UK who does not herself choose to wear it), yet they would see us Western women as the enslaved ones, in as far as we are conditioned by society to meet male expectations of women, and to behave as sexual objects, where physical attraction is everything, even if it means deforming and maiming our bodies through cosmetic procedures, defying (rather embracing) the ageing process, and valuing women for superficial reasons rather than more important and enduring ones.
Kat: You are here today to talk about the wonderful new Dorling Kindersley book from, Ultimate Food Journeys, which takes its reader around the globe to some well known, as well as some lesser known, places that specialise in a particular traditional dish. For instance, if you wanted to know the place to eat the best tortellini in Italy or the best meze in the world this book will not only tell which town to visit but even which restaurant, with many additional useful tips and suggestions for your visit.
I think this the first book of its kind. Do you know how many writers were involved in its compilation and how long it took to complete?
Frances: I believe over 30 authors were commissioned to write about some 130 countries. Regarding completion, I think it took in the region of around a year to a year and a half to complete, though I think the idea was much longer in the making.
Kat: You contributed quite a few different destinations and dishes to the book. Do you have a favourite?
Frances: People often ask me about my favourite country, and I always feel a little reluctant to name one place. As a guidebook writer, in particular, you feel obliged to discover a country, get to its guts and ultimately love it. If you don’t as the author, what hope does your reader have? I think you also have an obligation to extract the best out of it, for the sake of your publisher, your reader, but also for the country itself. For this reason, you get very ’emotionally’ involved in the country and protective about it. You also are reluctant to show favouritism, rather like favouring one child, if you have children, or a sibling; you love each one for different things. Two countries that proved great surprises were Ethiopia (a very beautiful country rich in history and culture and so very different from its image in the West as a famine-wracked desert), and Yemen, which was stunningly beautiful in parts with very hospitable people with a fabulous, irreverential sense of humour.
Kat: Are there any places included in Ultimate Food Journeys that you haven’t yet visited that you would particularly like to go to in order to sample their cuisine?
Frances: Fortunately, the world is so huge and diverse that there are a host of places I would love to visit and cuisines to try. And many countries I have visited whose cuisine I don’t know nearly well enough. In fact, I think one of the great joys of travelling is a country’s food, and sampling other cuisines. I think food and culinary traditions and etiquette also reveal a lot about a country and its people. Eating is also a wonderful way of making new acquaintances and cementing newly-formed friendships. In Ethiopia, for example, if you share a meal with someone (in that country, all diners eat from the same plate), your friendship is considered ‘sealed’.
Kat: While you are on assignments be it for Lonely Planet, rewriting their Moroccan guide book, or for Dorling Kindersley, discovering the best baklava in Turkey, you are under very strict deadlines and have little time to relax and soak up the local atmosphere so when you do go on holiday how do you like to spend your time?
Frances: Oddly enough, when on holiday I tend to enjoy similar pursuits as when working! In other words, sitting for hours and hours on a beach bores me senseless, and I would much rather be exploring or visiting something or having a go at some activity – or eating! In fact, it can be quite hard switching off from work, and refraining from asking questions or interviewing people!
Kat: When I started writing ‘Travel with Kat’ last September, I was amazed at the amount and variety of travel blogs there are. Have you any advice about how to stand out from the crowd and how to take your reader along with you on your journey?
Frances: I love travel blogs and think they’re a great idea but sadly rarely have time to indulge in one. The problem is that if you are in a country working such as researching a book, particularly a guidebook, almost every minute is taken up with it. However, regarding what to aim for – like all good travel writing – the important thing is to keep the narrative vivid and tangible such that the reader can travel vicariously through you. Include telling, evocative details, but don’t overload it with description. Equally, vary the pace: keep it interesting and engaging but don’t try and turn it into an action-packed adventure.
Kat: Is there any advice you can offer for those hoping to move from travel blogging to writing for travel magazines, national press and publishers such as Dorling Kindersley?
Frances: Each travel publisher has its own requirements, needs and expectations, and the best thing is to decide who you want to write for or what kind of writing, and then approach the relevant publication. Even guidebook publishers have differing requirements and author selection processes. In the first instance, check out the website and study the procedure carefully, then follow the guidelines to the letter. Remember the two cardinal rules of journalism too: meet the deadline and keep to the word count. In general, and to take guidebook publishers as an example, they look for people with (ideally) some kind of writing experience (even for your college mag if you are just starting out), evidence of independent travel (rather than package!), and any relevant skills that will be useful and also make you stand out, such as languages, knowledge of food or a particular sport or whatever.
I’d like to thank Frances for her time. I really appreciate it and I think you’ll agree her answers are fascinating. I hope you will find Frances as inspiring as I do. You can read more about Frances and see some more of her striking photos on her website.
‘Ultimate Food Journeys’ is as good as it sounds and having bought a copy I’d highly recommend it to any one who enjoys discovering a new culture through its food.