An entirely new world is waiting for you, if you will only have new eyes to see it. Tui knows this. I know this. Do you?
As I’ve said before, blog carnivals are powerful connecting devices. And sometimes, you discover someone that you feel you were meant to connect with.
Today’s interview is with such a person; namely, Tui Snider.
In a nutshell, Tui is one of my favorite travel writers on the web, a prime example of a writer that engages genuinely with her audience. I originally discovered her travel site when she submitted to the Byteful Travel blog carnival; and over the last couple years, Tui has left some wonderful feedback on my articles, maintains a stellar blog carnival, and even hosted the BTBC carnival last year.
After living in Belgium, Italy, Washington, an island of seven people, and now Texas, she has realized that travelling is much more than simply going from one place to another, and she uses her site, Mental Mosaic, to express this message. She sees it as a mindset, a way of seeing the world around you with fresh eyes, and I couldn’t agree more.
Simply put, we had a blast doing this interview, discussing how to start your own writing practice, the birth of Mental Mosaic, and the time Tui was nearly blown up by 17 tons of dynamite! And since I find longer, more in-depth interviews are more useful, this interview had to be broken up into 3 parts! Here’s part 1:
Tui Snider Interview
Part 1: A Writer’s Journey & 17 Tons of Dynamite
1. First of all, I want to thank you for agreeing to do an interview today. I’m really excited about this. And this is the first interview in what I hope will be a series of interviews with travel writers on the web that I respect and am influenced by.
Well, thank you! I’m really excited. I’ve been looking forward to this!
2. Have you been interviewed before?
Not for a long time. Not since back when I had my coffee house.
3. As you know, I didn’t give you a list of all of my questions, just a few, because some questions are better in the moment.
That’s good, and I just read over them that one day. I didn’t want to get over-prepared.
4. Yeah, because I have a hundred questions. Literally.
5. I’m just kidding. I have around ten questions, but we’ll expand on those. I like to start out with: how do you usually introduce yourself?
You know, I’ve written ever since I was a kid, but I was basically a closet writer because I never really met anybody else who wrote. Or I’d show them a fiction story I wrote and they’d take it as though it were real. They’d be like, “Your Dad was a clown?” And I’d say, “No! I was a boy in that story, didn’t you notice?” And I just always had this dream of having fiction published, and I really like science fiction. So for the longest time, I would just introduce myself. I wouldn’t introduce myself as a writer. And really, thanks to the internet, I got a short story in an anthology a long time ago in the 1990s.
6. So you considered yourself a writer from an early age. I wish that I had done that. There was resistance. You feel like you need to overcome something or you need to do XYZ before you are allowed to call yourself a writer.
Yeah! I didn’t feel like I’d earned the badge, the merit badge, for the longest time. So it really wasn’t until, I guess 2007, that I started writing for Inflight Magazine about Naples every month. I realized “Oh, hey! I can call myself a writer now because it comes out every month. My name is there, and, you know, it’s writing!” So pretty much from that point on I felt justified, like I’d gotten my merit badge.
7. But yet you didn’t want to declare yourself a writer after you’d been published in that anthology?
Well, I guess I always thought of myself as a writer, it’s just when I introduce myself.
8. Did you feel like you didn’t do it regularly enough to justify that?
Yeah, well I didn’t introduce myself by my job either, really. I don’t know, I guess maybe I’m in the habit of letting people make assumptions about me, and then I like to surprise them. I find that kind of fun. Just meeting people and letting them presume something about you, and then you say, “Oh, well I write,” or you let them know something about yourself. Because there’s so much more to people than just their job. In fact, from having a coffee house, I would get to know people on one level, I’d see them every morning, and I might not know what they did for a year. And then finally I’d find out.
9. That’s an interesting way to approach it. So can you fill in some gaps between getting published that first time and finally writing regularly as a travel writer for Inflight Magazine? How did you get involved in the travel sector, and how was your journey into that?
I’d been keeping a journal and doing morning pages like Natalie Goldberg, who is a big inspiration to me. I read her book “Writing Down the Bones”, and I was like “Yes, I need to start a writing practice!” So I got more serious about it when I was about 20 years old, and at that point I decided to write every morning and every night before bed. And I let the pages accumulate. I didn’t really judge them or go back on them. They ended up being piles of diaries.
10. Did you ever read them later?
Well, I’d started to. But no, not too often. Although sometimes maybe to settle a bet. “No, this happened back in May!” Haha, or sometimes I would be curious about something. But I wouldn’t necessarily write about what I did that day. I wouldn’t judge them. Although, at the beginning sometimes if something really interesting had happened, to practice writing I would rewrite it in a separate notebook just to get better at writing dialog. I might write up a conversation I had, just to practice dialog. I would rewrite it and read it over if I thought it was interesting. Like I got held up at knifepoint once. So I write that over. Or if I thought something was an amusing anecdote. I did that for years. I’m a big fan of diaries. I like Anais Nin’s diaries. They’re very beautiful. Anais Nin could write about the most mundane thing, and it would somehow become this philosophical journey.
11. And it sounded like writing was really important to you for the majority of your life like it was with me. Did you study writing in college?
My parents wanted me to be a chemical engineer. That was okay. I actually did like organic chemistry. But I wanted to be a writer and musician, and it just wasn’t going over so well with what my parents wanted me to do.
12. You crushed your parent’s dreams, didn’t you? 😉
13. They’re probably SO disappointed in you. “She could be curing cancer now!”
I know! I’m sorry, I’ll get around to curing cancer! But I ended up running off to the San Juan Islands with an artist and his daughter and ended up living there as caretaker. It was totally off the grid. There’s no phone, no car.
14. Is this the island of 7 people that you mention on your website?
Yeah, that’s the one. Right now, I’m working on a memoir based on my dairies from then. Luckily, I numbered my dairies. I started transcribing them, and before I knew it, I had like 80,000 words. And I was only 18 months in. I realized, “Wow, there’s a story here!” You know, at that time we were almost blown up by 17 tons of dynamite. Our boat sank…
15. Wait a minute, wait a minute. You guys almost got blown up?
Yeah! Oh, yeah!
16. The entire island or just you guys?
No no, my ex-husband and I eloped, and for our honeymoon we decided to take our little boat somewhere. We looked on the map and we thought, “Well hey, we can probably get to Victoria from here. We just have to cross Haro Strait. Doesn’t look that much bigger than Georgia Strait or the other strait.”
17. Victoria by Washington State, right?
18. Are you sure you guys weren’t by Johnny Quest’s compound? That would explain the impending dynamite, right?
Yeah, really! Haha! But somehow we managed to survive our own ignorance and stupidity there.
19. So, you’re trying to cross this strait…
Yeah, and it was kind of neat. We were going right by John Wayne’s island. He used to go around in a submarine chaser. He called it Safari Island. He imported antelope and other African animals. He wanted to have a tiger, but the people on the local island refused because tigers can swim.
20. So can I just venture to guess what happened? Did you try to land on John Wayne’s island and almost get blown up by his guards?
No, that sounds great though!
21. Okay, okay. Gonna have to take some notes here. (Mental note: Write short story about John Wayne’s Island. Possibly include Johnny Quest and Hodji.) Okay. Please, continue.
And right about the time we were passing John Wayne’s Island we got into the scariest water I’ve ever been in. We were in a 19 foot, 1960s boat. There was a lot of chop in the water that day, but suddenly swells started to happen. And they just got deeper and deeper. And then the water turned this incredibly gorgeous deep, deep blue, which now scares me every time I think of that color. Because we would go to the bottom of the trough, and it was like a little hill. You couldn’t see out of it. You were in this trough. And our boat would stall, and we started to get water over the back end. And that’s when we realized, we’re going to be swamped if we didn’t turn the boat around!
22. And I’m sure this was the worst swell you’d ever seen in your life.
But the thing about swells is that they’re smooth, so they don’t seem as scary, but the next thing you know they’ve gotten so big that they could swamp you. Your little boat could just fill with water. It was like there was a hill of water all around us. And we knew we needed to turn around, but the boat turned really slowly in one direction. It was kind of a new boat to us, and we couldn’t remember which direction was the slower one. So we were like, “Do you recall? Which was the slow and which was the fast?” We were trying to be calm. “Ah, I think it’s the left.” So it was kind of a 50/50 proposition.
Luckily we guessed the right direction. It was very scary. We made it back, but we decided not to cross over to Victoria. So we made it out. We pulled into the bay, and it was weird. There were like 50 people down at the docks, and they had cameras and were kind of pointing at us and shouting. It sounded like they were saying, “Go away! Get out of here!” Finally, we see the harbormaster and he says, “You guys don’t know what’s going on do you? 17 tons of dynamite is on a timed explosion, and it’s going to go off in less than 2 minutes!”
23. And where was the dynamite?
Right under where we had just been.
24. Right off of the shore?
Yeah, they were blowing out a shoal so a bigger ferry could go in and out. But there were no posters warning about this. We went right over it like one minute before it was set to go off. So right then, I hear this big CRACK. That was the sound of the explosion starting, and then I look over and there’s a big orange cloud coming out of where we’ve been. And then a bunch of happy seagulls came and ate because there was a bunch of dead fish. So, it was a dramatic day.
25. If you had been at the wrong place at the wrong time…
Yeah! I might not be here right now.
26. Well, I am quite glad that you are, because I’m really enjoying this interview. So was it just luck that you weren’t over that spot when it happened?
It was just luck. It was Friday the 13th, too, which was pretty funny.
27. But here’s the thing, do they blow things up every Friday there? How do you know it’s not a local custom?
Yeah! And the rest of the night we didn’t have to buy ourselves any food. Everywhere we walked in that little town, people would say things like, “Hey, I bet you didn’t think Friday Harbor was such a blast!” And I’d be like, “Yeah, you guys blew me away.”
28. Wow. That’s an incredible story.
I was originally going to just transcribe my dairies to give to my stepdaughter as a present, but the more I started transcribing them, the more I realized there are some funny stories and adventures in there. It read very story-like, which surprised me.
29. Well, after that I’m definitely interested! So how did those experiences eventually lead into writing for a travel periodical? Had that been a goal of yours for some time?
Not really. Although, when I look at my bookshelves, I always buy travel anthologies like the Best American Travel Writing Anthology. I love that. Also, Jennifer Leo comes out with these humorous travel stories. She has one called “The Thong Also Rises”; it’s pretty funny. And I love reading things like that. Even writers like Henry Miller. Some of my favorite things that he’s written are actually his travel writing. People don’t think of travel writing when they think of Henry Miller, but he wrote some beautiful things about California and the Big Sur area. He wrote a book called “Paint as You Like and Die Happy”, which is very memoir-like and inspiring. But I never knew how to really break into that.
And then I moved to Italy. I had started a blog before that, and I called it Mental Mosaic because I didn’t want to limit myself to one topic. And I started writing about Naples where I was living, and I just wrote about things I noticed. So I wrote an article about jaywalking and talking in the street and how you really need to learn how to jaywalk in Naples. Even in Italy, other Italians talk about Neapolitans’ driving skills. And after I wrote that, I got an email from the editor of EasyJet and he’s like, “Hey, would you write something for us every month about Naples? I really liked your style.” And I ended up having a lot of fun with that. That’s what made me think of myself as a travel writer.
30. So you started Mental Mosaic about your adventures in Italy?
Yeah, although I started it actually through writing about writing. I wrote about giving yourself a permission slip and the topic of free-writing. And then when I moved to Italy, I knew I had to write about it. I just knew I had to write about it.
31. How did you find the process of creating and building a website? Did you have anyone to help you? Were you mostly self-taught?
Yes. I learned HTML in the 90s sometime. I lived in Belgium for a year and worked there for a multimedia company that was becoming an English-speaking company, and so they needed someone to edit all of their material which had been translated directly from Dutch or French into English. And it was the funnest thing I’ve ever edited because it would come off so strange sometimes! It’s like someone just put it into Babelfish. I found it so much fun, and they also needed background music for different things.
32. It sounds like you got to do two of your great loves there, writing and music!
Yes, yes. It felt really great!
That’s all for now!
Coming up in Part 2: Tried and true techniques on how to become a better writer, powerful free writing tools you should totally check out, and how to leverage your work to meet the right people.