Max Wooldridge talks about compulsively checking his inbox, being a voyageur poet and Cate Blanchett playing him in a film.
Max fell into travel writing when he won the Observer Young Travel Writer of the Year in 1989, he said: ‘That was a lovely start and I’ve been doing travel ever since.’
Being the son of famous Daily Mail sports writer Ian Wooldridge was both a help and a hindrance. On the one hand he gave Max tips, such as: ‘Never use the word very, if you do use it – take it out.’ But on the other hand, wherever Max went everyone would just want to talk about his dad which ‘doesn’t do great shakes for the confidence’.
Describe a typical day
First thing in the morning I get up and think ‘Who owes me money?’ which is followed by the email ‘Any chance of payment this week?’. It is pretty much the same as it was 10 years ago, the typical life of a freelancer. I’m sure people think we get up at the crack of noon but you have to chase money, check emails and only then can you start writing. And now with Twitter and stuff there’s even more distractions. My resolution for this year is to either answer emails in the morning or the afternoon otherwise I’ll check them every 10 minutes and get upset when I haven’t got one; it becomes quite addictive.
How does commissioning/pitching work?
Two thirds of the time I get asked to do something and the other third Frank Barrett (travel editor at the Mail on Sunday) or another editor will pick up on an idea I’ll send. I can’t really write about luxury resorts purely because they don’t really give you much copy – everything’s pristine and ironed out. For a lot of them, it could be anywhere. I’ve always said I don’t want to read about someone having a fabulous time in paradise, that’s really boring; I’d much rather read about someone having a really bad time in paradise.
What do you like to write about?
The most recent story I’ve done was in Egypt when I went with the Lord and Lady Carnarvon. Lord Carnarvon’s great grandfather was the 5th Earl of Carnarvon who discovered Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922. I went out for the 90th anniversary about six weeks ago. Going to Egypt at the moment is exciting because politically there’s a lot going on there.
My role and our role as travel writers is to teleport the reader to the destination. The words you put down on the page are virtual travel, giving the reader a sense of the experience and atmosphere of a destination. For me personally, I like it when things go wrong, I don’t mean airport delays and that sort of thing but meeting quirky people who say things out of the ordinary or that sum up where they live. People you meet on your travels who are honest add so much to the article.
All that said it’s not the ideal job because you’re always worried about money and cash flow. The amount of people who say: ‘Oh! I’d love to have your job’. There is a downside as well: it’s almost constant uncertainty.
What else are you working on at the moment?
I’ve written a couple of guidebooks and two books about music, Rock ‘n’ Roll London and Never Mind the Bollards. I am halfway through my first narrative travel book about Mont Ventoux in France called You’re Mad If You Go Back. Mont Ventoux is a really famous Tour De France mountain and the book is about how cycling saved my life and why people cycle up mountains. Cycling is becoming trendy and popular again and the mountain is in this year’s Tour, which is good for the book. I have a huge amount of work but this is why writers do what they do – to carve out a little piece of beauty.
How do you work with PRs?
I have some close friends who are PRs. I’ve always been nice to PRs because of that old phrase: ‘Be nice to people on the way up. You’ll meet them on your way down’. I think there are some travel writers and journalists who think what we do is incredibly different but I think it’s the same really. We’re all just trying to get stories out there, come up with interesting angles and entertaining articles. There’s not a lot of difference between a good PR and a journalist.
Although I live in Norfolk and I’m only back in London once or twice a month, I do prefer the one-to-one meetings. Some PRs are excellent, some aren’t so good. I got an email the other day from a PR describing herself as a brand alchemist, which I thought was the height of pretentiousness. It’s a bit like a travel writer describing themselves as a voyageur poet.
Things go wrong in travel writing – an editor might be replaced and your piece doesn’t get published – a good PR will understand that. I think the most useful thing for a PR is to keep the relationship going over the years because if things don’t work out with one piece, a travel writer will make up for it somewhere down the line. The ultimate travel article is independent and creates an atmosphere of where you’ve been. If there are negative quotes from people you meet that adds to the article; a good PR will understand that too.
I do feel for PRs because they seem to get it in the neck from everyone. They don’t get much praise from the journalist or publication and they certainly don’t get much praise from their clients. They’re in a tough position and I don’t think we, as writers, always take that into consideration.
I get sent a lot of hotel PR, and some of the places, especially with pictures, make you think ‘That looks nice; I’d like to stay there’. The ones that are a bit iffy are things like ‘New Beverage Manager’, which is not really a story for me. Good on the guy for getting a job but I can’t write about that.