2021 April Featured Journalist of the Month: Mark Orwoll

Mark Orwoll has been a journalist since before you were born, probably. For 30 years he was on the editorial staff of Travel + Leisure magazine, where he was the longest-tenured staffer in the magazine’s history, held more editorial titles than anyone (six), wrote more than 2,000 articles and blog posts, was the magazine’s first International Editor, and was the managing editor for 10 years, longer than any other managing editor at the magazine. He has traveled to 75 countries (and counting) and filed stories from many of them.

Since retiring from T+L in 2016, Orwoll has been a freelance travel writer and nonfiction book author (“John Wayne Speaks,” St. Martin’s Press, 2021). His magazine and online articles have appeared in Condé Nast Traveler, the Travel Channel, Town & Country, Departures, Robb Report, Travel + Leisure, the Saturday Evening Post, Travel Weekly, Matador Network, AARP, the Sydney (Australia) Morning Herald, Hemispheres, and many other print and digital outlets. Among his creative accolades are a 2021 NATJA Gold Award for adventure writing and a Silver Award for volunteer travel, a 2020 NATJA Silver Award for cruise writing, an Aegis Award of Excellence, and a Telly Award for co-producing “The Next Destination” (a travel documentary for NBC News), and others.

He has appeared as a travel expert more than 500 times on television, including NBC’s Today Show (more than 70 appearances), the CBS Morning Show, ABC’s Good Morning America, and the PBS NewsHour, as well as programs on CNN, CNBC, MSNBC, and local broadcast stations around the United States.

He’s also a pretty good mandolin player.
Well, average.

1. What got you into travel writing?
I started travel writing in California as a junior in college. I had just received my student loan and, instead of enrolling for my senior year, used the tuition money to underwrite six months of café-sitting and hitchhiking around Europe and North Africa. (I feel like that probably broke some law, but, well, ssh…!) My passion for travel writing was cemented 10 years later when I landed an editor’s role at Travel + Leisure magazine in New York. After that, I never looked back or second-guessed myself.

2. What’s the most challenging part of being a travel journalist for you?
As a freelance travel writer, I’m baffled by the frequent lack of responses to my queries from print and online editors. No reply. Nada, zip. Radio silence. In the olden days (“Hey, you kids, get off my lawn!”), as an assigning editor for a quarter of a century, I never let a query go by without at least a form rejection, but mostly I sent a personal, if brief, rejection letter, if not an assignment. It was a lot of work!! (Boss: “Mark, you should go home! It’s after 8 o’clock.” Mark: “Can’t do it, chief. I still have 15 rejections to send out.”) These days, you’re left wondering if your query was received by anyone, at all. The actual journalism work I do, once I get the assignment, is always challenging–but in a good way: How many people can I interview? How deep in the wilderness can I go without missing my flight home? How can I truly understand what I’m experiencing despite being a total outsider? How can I process my travels and write about them in a meaningful way that celebrates the strange things I’ve seen without trivializing or marginalizing the local people who opened their doors to me?

3. What is one thing [equipment or personal item] you can’t go without on the road?
I don’t want to sound like I’m giving a plug, but I swear by Columbia super-lightweight nylon-poly travel shirts and pants. You can wash them in the sink and they’ll dry overnight. And even if they’re a little wrinkled the next day, they still look pretty darn good. They take up very little suitcase space. I travel super-light–only one pair of shoes (the ones I’m wearing), one overhead-approved mini-suitcase, and clothes that can easily be mixed and matched so wearing them multiple times isn’t that noticeable. Here’s where I HAVE to say: It’s much, much easier for guys to pack light. It’s not fair! But, well, it is what it is. My record is 15 days in Southeast Asia with one roll-aboard carryon (my 25-year-old Travelpro, as good as new).

4. What’s your most unusual and/or memorable travel experience?
My most unusual or memorable travel experience? Wow! Hunting for landmines in Cambodia? Being chased by an angry mob in Colombo, Sri Lanka? Eating a dried scorpion at the Beijing Night Market? Riding on the back of a recalcitrant elephant up to Jaipur Fort while battling a bad case of Delhi belly? The list goes on. My point is that the most memorable travel experiences often occur when things turn south, when all hope is gone, and when you’re pretty sure that you will be either too embarrassed or too dead to write the story. That’s when you know you’ve got a great hook.

5. How did you learn about NATJA and why did you join?
As a junior editor at Travel + Leisure in the 1990s, I began to notice a lot of successful up-and-coming travel writers were noting their membership in NATJA instead of the older, more established travel-writers groups. It felt like there was a new wave of travel writers coming along, represented by NATJA more than any other organization. When I retired from T+L in 2016, I had laid out my plans for an ongoing freelance career, and one of the first things on my list was to join NATJA–for the benefits, for the contests, and for the camaraderie among the members.

6. What is the best piece of advice you could give to a rookie travel journalist?
Find a regular-paying part-time gig–writing corporate reports, blogging for an established site, part-time copy editing, anything–because travel writing doesn’t pay that much. In other words, find a way to underwrite your travel writing. Never forget that you don’t have to fly halfway around the world to write a travel story; the subject can be something within an easy drive of your home, over a weekend. From an editorial point of view, stay true to your vision. Focus on the sorts of stories that are important to you, the ones that excite you, the ones you’ll want to show to your friends, to your old college professors, to your next editor. Let’s be honest: Travel writing won’t always pay the bills, but it is an incredible avenue to exercising your journalistic skills, as well as being able to write something that is fun, interesting, important, and–if you’re lucky–lasting.

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