Thursday, November 26, 2009

What better way to celebrate Thanksgiving

Making a Difference with Andrew Mersmann.

His new book Frommer’s 500 Places Where You Can Make a Difference is out in stores now. Here is an interview from Audience with an Author at

Andrew Mersmann has volunteered on service projects ranging from working and living with the homeless on Los Angeles’ Skid Row to saving stranded pilot whales in Key West to a humanitarian excursion by horseback in Rajasthan, India. He is a travel writer and Editor in Chief of Passport Magazine and has been a restaurant reviewer, entertainment writer, and celebrity profiler. After a long run with non-profit arts organizations in both Los Angeles and New York, he stepped into travel writing via an extraordinary journey to Machu Picchu. He has been a featured speaker, interview guest, or moderator on several travel talks, from the New York Times Travel Show and the 92nd Street Y-TriBeCa to Oprah and Friends on satellite radio. Andrew blogs about volunteering at home and abroad at Not only is he an amazing person but he is a fantastic writer, we are very thankful he took time out of his busy schedule to speak to His latest offering, Frommer’s 500 Places Where You Can Make a Difference is out in book stores now!

How did the book come about?

Frommer’s had the plan, as part of their new-ish “500” series, to do a book on volunteer vacations. I had heard about it through market email alerts at my other job (as Editor in Chief of Passport Magazine), and tossed my hat in the ring. I had already begun specializing in volunteer travel and doing some radio and panel discussion appearances, as well as trying to wedge the topic into other articles as often as possible. It is a category of travel that lights me up, and I always thought could do the same for other folks as they learned the scope of what they can do around the world.

The process with Frommer’s (actually with parent company John Wiley & Sons) then was a bit of an audition, with first submissions of CV, cover letter, and published clips, then a phone interview followed by a writing exercise on the topic as they whittled down the field of applicants.

What drew you to the subject?

I’ve been lucky enough to have traveled to some of the world’s most amazing places, and have, sometimes by accident and sometimes by design, been able to find opportunities to “give back” to the communities I visit. It has made each trip so much more powerful in my memories, and the sense of attachment and newfound advocacy and passion that gets inspired, I would wish on everyone. I contend there is something out there in volunteer travel to light you up, no matter who you are and what your priorities are in life.

What difficulties did you face when putting the information together?

My most daunting obstacle was timing. This was a huge undertaking with an inhumane schedule put onto it. I continued working my regular job through the process, so I was writing very early mornings and very late at night, and it was the winter and spring of no weekends and never feeling like I could come up for air.

The other difficulty was in limiting the field to only 500—there are so many outstanding projects around the world — 500 is only the tip…and OK, a bit more than just the tip, of the iceberg.

Was there a particular format you had to use when working for a series?

My editor, with whom I was blessed to form an almost instant rapport, had a list of 16 proposed chapter categories before they ever hired me as the writer (it later became 15). He and I hashed through and finessed them, changing the focus sometimes, each of us occasionally feeling like we needed to go to bat for something about which we felt strongly. We turned those chapters into subdivided sections, and went from there. There was lots of back and forth—some of it needed to fit into the format of the existing series of other books, and in some instances, we reinvented the wheel as we saw fit. I felt truly lucky that our collaboration felt like a genuine partnership.

What do you wish you knew (before you started the book) that you know now?

How better to budget my time. It’s not that I procrastinated outrageously, but I didn’t hit the ground running as fast as I could when I began researching and writing this big ol’ thing…and running as fast as I could became my only option as I tried to finish a 480-page book in six months.

What advice would you give to budding travel writers and potential authors?

Write about what you know, and be generous with us as readers with the specifics of your point of view. Never be a generalist. Don’t decide that just because you are going to travel to Phoenix for vacation that an editor will want your perspective, unless you have been many, many times and know something quite particular about it that hasn’t been done to death.

The other big thing is to not fall into the trap of thinking that travel writing is only about place—people are what make the articles most interesting. Interview locals and get a true on-the-ground perspective. That will give readers much more insight than any listing of ten hotels and fifteen gourmet restaurants.

Lastly, never assume that rejection from an editor (or silence, even harder to take but much more common) is about your skill as a writer or even the quality of a piece you’ve written. Editing is as much about what fits on the page or into an issue with other elements, the balance of stories and range of destinations covered, ad buys (a brilliant story will get bumped out of any magazine in a heartbeat if a resort buys a two-page ad spread), and so much more that has nothing to do with literary merit. Work on your skill and making your voice specific and unique…and then make it even more specific so you do your one thing better than anyone else. Anyone can be versatile, but only you can write the way you do.

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