Living the Dream: an interview with travel writer Jo Stewart
Jo Stewart is a Melbourne-based freelance writer who writes about travel, pop culture, nature and the community. Her work has been published in the Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, VICE, yen, International Traveller and The Saturday Paper.
Jo has been writing since she could pick up a crayon, but thankfully makes much more sense now. She started as a letter writer, with the scale of her letter writing quite mind-boggling. She wrote letters literally to everyone. . . to her sisters in the room next door, to childhood friends around the corner, and when she or they moved cities to the friends she was separated from. She wrote shoeboxes full of letters never sent to boys she liked, but we’ll let her keep some dignity and not delve into this too much.
The publishing bug struck early too, with her first success a letter published in Rolling Stone magazine (it was a love letter to the band Silverchair)
The idea that she actually make a career out of writing was born in high school. At the age of about 17 she was lucky enough to have that teacher who believed in her. Unusually, the teacher’s almost brutal approach to criticism and grammar built Jo’s technical skills to a professional level, with a strong impulse to avoid clichés <like the plague? ed>
We sat down with Jo to ask her a few questions.
Our readers have had a glimpse of your life and career, and it sounds, quite frankly, like our dream job. Can we have it?
No it’s mine! <laughs> Sorry guys, you can create your own writing career with talent; determination; and being kissed by a falling star.
We touched on it briefly, but what led you to focus on writing and travel writing in particular?
Like all the good plans it just happened. I certainly knew I wanted to write but I wasn’t fixated on what, it was like fishing, putting out lots of ideas and pitches waiting to see what took. You also have to go where the money is. I was doing a lot of travel in my 20s and as it opened my eyes to the world I had the desire to share both my experiences and the stories I encountered. The luck bit was that magazines pay for that kind of thing.
It’s also important to realise that doors aren’t shut and editors aren’t glass castles. Editors need writing and you can get to them. My first piece, for example was submitted cold, I had offered to write with no guarantee of money. Then the editor left, I resubmitted it to the new editor and it was accepted AND paid for at market rates! I used that to get more work and my career keeps building.
Do you have a favourite place that draws you back over and over again, or do you love the surprise and excitement of discovering and exploring new places?
There are some places that I return to over and over; Canada; The USA. . . They are both so large with so many cultural and geographical differences. I have a special place in my heart for Antarctica, but I can’t just pop back anytime, and in some ways that trip had everything I could have imagined, so any further trip would not be the same.
I also return to India again and again, and the south of India beckons so I can see further travel there as well.
You were telling us that you often buy a book and leave it somewhere when you have finished so someone else can enjoy it. That’s a very generous act, so we’d like to know what inspires that, and have you ever found a book lying around of been gifted on in the same spirit?
Years ago I found a copy of Cloud Atlas outside a house in Fitzroy. I assume someone left it out (there was a pile of books) when they moved. I took it, read it and loved it. It’s one of the best things ever so thank you random Fitzroy person. So now I leave books at airport gates, in the back of a taxi, in the whimsical hope it will find the right person and touch them the same way.
And yes Cloud Atlas was sent back into the world so maybe you’ll find it, it could be anywhere in the world by now.
With much of your job spent travelling there must be a lot of time when writing isn’t practical, and we know you love reading. What are some of your favorite books?
The Dog Stars by Peter Heller - By the end of this book I was so invested in the characters and their welfare that I totally forgot they weren't real people. One of the rare books that made me shed tears.
A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit is a book I keep going back to again and again. She is a master storyteller.
The Rings of Saturn by W G Sebald is a strange journey that I enjoyed taking. I don't remember much about it now, it seems like a fever dream. But I do remember being drawn in and forgetting about the 'outside' world while reading it.
A Wolf at the Table by Augusten Burroughs - I will read anything that this man writes but this account of his relationship with his estranged father is both funny and tragic. Such a hard combination to nail but Augusten is so very good at it.
Sebastian Junger's Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging was a short, sharp read that challenged the way I think about our world.
George Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London and Road to Wigan Pier are about as good as it gets for me. Orwell was one of the first 'adult' authors I read as a teenager. I aimed high from the very beginning!
The last book I read was The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood. Compulsive reading - she has created a terrifying world with this book. Someone needs to set up a support group for people to discuss it after they've read it.
Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings left me in awe. It's one of the best autobiographies I've ever read.
You are also working on a book(s)? with Melbourne publisher Smith Street books which is due out soon? Can you tell us a little about that, or is it a super secret project?
I have a book being published in May titled Which Cult Should I Join?
This is not a book that has mass appeal, but it will have massive appeal to people with an interest in cults. If you’ve ever been hassled by Scientologists in the street, and thought “what’s that about?” then maybe it’s is for you..
I also have a second book coming out on creative careers. It highlights 99 different, crazy, kooky, creative careers. I’ve interviewed people to find out how they got them and it involved a huge amount of research, both online and in my travels. Lot’s of fun.
You’ve told us that you hadn’t really done a lot of reading digitally, for a number of reasons. We wondered if you’d be interested in taking an reader for a test run and letting us know your thoughts? I’d love to!
We’ll get back to you with Jo’s eReading experiences in a later blog
Jo can be found socially here:
My website: www.jostewart.com.au