When is a travel book a memoir?

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Kirsten I

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Hi Jerry, Thanks for your blog about the travel memoir. I just read one, Men of Salt: Crossing the Sahara on the Caravan of White Gold, Michael Benanev's account of his camel-and-foot trek from Timbuktu to Taoudenni salt mines in Mali, West Africa, and I found it a suspenseful adventure story as well as a personal memoir. He does sometimes interrupt the story with the kind of digressions you speak of, but I found most of them quite interesting--for instance, he goes on for a few pages about the Sahara dwellers called the Taureg (who were there before the Arabs and have their own language), but I found their history fascinating. I'm glad to see your blog recognizing books like this as memoirs.

My problem is that I've written a combination travel/dysfunctional childhood memoir and I fear it may not hang together . . . but I'm joining a critique group and opening myself up for criticism, so there's hope.
 

Billingsgate

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I have a related question about how to define a subgenre of memoir. I've just written a book about one aspect of my life as an American living in rural Hong Kong (yes, there is such a thing). Think of books like A Year In Provence and Under The Tuscan Sun. Those are not travel memoirs, but because they're about living abroad, they tend to sometimes get labeled as such.

What do you call this sub-genre? My problem is that I'm just starting to pitch my manuscript. If I call it "memoir", then first thing comes to mind (at least to me) is a book about surviving a traumatic childhood or terminal illness. If I call it "travel memoir", then it's more like Paul Theroux. There are so many books about living abroad, but I don't know what to call it. "Living abroad memoir"? "Foreign memoir"?

Any suggestions? It's all about making the right first impression.
 

jerrywaxler

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a) sounds interesting b) sub-genre not really needed?

Hi Billingsgate,

I have been reading memoirs like mad for a while, and don't know if I've really read one of these ex-pat books. The only one I have on my pile is by Tony Cohan. He wrote a "real memoir" about returning to California to take care of his dad - Native State. He is an ex-pat, been living in Mexico for years and wrote about that experience in a different memoir.

The problem with "sub-genres" of memoirs is that there are so very many different types of lives. Having said that I love the idea of sub-genre because I love memoirs and want to see as many of them as possible make it into the world.

But when you pitch, I don't know if you need to call it a sub-genre. What I've learned about pitching and positioning is that you need to submit a list of books that yours is like. So just pick 5 of your favorite ones or most successful ones and show how yours will sell to their readers.

I think you'll see that any book about a slice of life is going to use the word memoir. For example, I wrote a review about Doreen Orion's "Queen of the Road" in which she takes off from work for a year with her husband and travelled the U.S. It was written almost contemporaneous with the events - but they called it memoir, and it apparently is doing quite nicely. (She was a regular here at Absolute Write for a while.)

Jerry
 

Nandi

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I have a related question about how to define a subgenre of memoir. I've just written a book about one aspect of my life as an American living in rural Hong Kong (yes, there is such a thing). Think of books like A Year In Provence and Under The Tuscan Sun. Those are not travel memoirs, but because they're about living abroad, they tend to sometimes get labeled as such.

What do you call this sub-genre? My problem is that I'm just starting to pitch my manuscript. If I call it "memoir", then first thing comes to mind (at least to me) is a book about surviving a traumatic childhood or terminal illness. If I call it "travel memoir", then it's more like Paul Theroux. There are so many books about living abroad, but I don't know what to call it. "Living abroad memoir"? "Foreign memoir"?

Any suggestions? It's all about making the right first impression.

Billingsgate, I had the same problem when I was querying agents for my book which is about the six years I lived in Africa. The first thing I did was to go to the large bricks-and-mortar stores to see where a book such as mine would be shelved. They do tend to be in the Travel section, all clumped together as "Travel Literature." The books there include works by Theroux, to be sure, but also memoirs by expats.

Anyway, I called it a travel memoir when I queried, and the content of my query letter made it clear what this was about. Good luck with those queries!
 

jerrywaxler

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p.s. cultural mixing as another big theme

I just finished reading two memoirs by authors who are half white and half black. One by Rebecca Walker "Black White and Jewish" and the other a huge bestseller "Color of Water" by James McBride. And then there are American immigration books like Funny in Farsi by Firoozeh Dumas.

So my point is that the mixing of cultures and races is a broader theme than ex-pat, and in my opinion very commercial. The thing that makes these stories so psychologically compelling is that there is an enormous amount of self-discovery and other-discovery that takes place when adjusting to life across cultures.

Another hook is that a lot of Americans and other English speaking people are trying to wrap their arms around this new waking giant, the most populous country on earth and you can give us an inside scoop.

Jerry
 

MattK

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I'm having a similar problem as well. I just finished a manuscript about a trip I took to Europe (sample here if anyone is interested). It wasn't a terribly long trip--I wrote as I went--but there was a lot of contemplation about certain themes when I returned home and started to really think about what I wanted to say.

Is travel writing more of a stream-of-consciousness type of prose, and memoir more of a reflection on events? Because this manuscript encompasses both. It seems silly to pigeonhole books into categories into which they don't necessarily fit. Humor, philosophy, travel writing, memoir: those are all aspects I tried to incorporate, but I can't say that it belongs to any one of those labels.
 

jerrywaxler

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Is it a travel memoir?

Hi Mattk,

Thanks for sharing a sample of your travel book. Is it a memoir? Sure, it looks like other books on the memoir shelf. For example, "Down the Nile on a Fisherman's Skiff" by Rosemary Mahoney earned her a spread in Time (or Newsweek) after she cranked out a few memoirs.

As for your question "Is a travel memoir stream of consciousness" that has more to do with writing style. The most famous stream of conscious book was Jack Kerouac's On the Road, but those were crazy times. I think stream of conscious is a lot harder to pull off, but what the heck. Be creative. Keep trying. As they used to say "Send it up the flag pole and see if anyone salutes"

By the way, it's nice to see another Pennsylvanian.

Jerry
 

Nandi

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Matt, interesting writing! Thanks for sharing.

For several years I have been a judge in a well known national book competition. I have judged travel literature, and a book such as yours would definitely fit into that classification. The genre is certainly broad enough to encompass all the things you mention: humor, philosophy, travel writing, memoir.
 

MattK

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Thanks guys, that's good to know. I don't have any intentions of trying to sell this book to a publisher, I'm just going to publish it myself and see what I can do locally. I'm hoping to do similar writing in the future, though. It'll be good to know exactly what to categorize this genre as if I do end up trying to pitch later books.
 

jerrywaxler

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Three more expat books for your interest

Anatolian Days and Nights by Joy Stocke and Angie Brenner about their travel through Turkey

San Miguel D'allende by Rick Skwiot about his attempt to find himself by moving to a small town in Mexico

From Freeways to Flipflops by Sonia Marsh about moving her young family to Belize to escape the materialist culture of Los Angeles

Jerry
 

Annielaural

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I have a related question about how to define a subgenre of memoir. I've just written a book about one aspect of my life as an American living in rural Hong Kong (yes, there is such a thing). Think of books like A Year In Provence and Under The Tuscan Sun. Those are not travel memoirs, but because they're about living abroad, they tend to sometimes get labeled as such.

What do you call this sub-genre? My problem is that I'm just starting to pitch my manuscript. If I call it "memoir", then first thing comes to mind (at least to me) is a book about surviving a traumatic childhood or terminal illness. If I call it "travel memoir", then it's more like Paul Theroux. There are so many books about living abroad, but I don't know what to call it. "Living abroad memoir"? "Foreign memoir"?

Any suggestions? It's all about making the right first impression.
Ah..I understand..and am wondering also about such a story..about living in Australia and away from home in the mountains of California. What I have written is a travel memoir and a personal interior journey..guess they fit together really well cause someone else spoke of an abusive childhood and a travel memoir together.

I suspect AA calls that 'doing a geographical'..Anyhow, I am also unsure of how to label my manuscript to agents..and I am looking for a beta reader who may be willing to take on 76,000 words..I am soooo willing to reciprocate
annielaural
 

Annielaural

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Matt, interesting writing! Thanks for sharing.

For several years I have been a judge in a well known national book competition. I have judged travel literature, and a book such as yours would definitely fit into that classification. The genre is certainly broad enough to encompass all the things you mention: humor, philosophy, travel writing, memoir.

Nandi. your book sounds very interesting. I'll head to Amazon and make a purchase..is it on kindle?

I'm looking also for a really good editor, not a line editor..I do that pretty well, but for a developmental editor.. I want to submit my manuscript for a Kirkus Review, but need to have a final professional edit on it, first..
 

Siri Kirpal

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Annie, if you're willing to pay the price, there are some really good independent editors. Some of them form cooperatives, and these are usually the good ones. Try googling "Words into Print" or "Independent Editors." I've worked with editors in both groups and can recommend them.

Blessings,

Siri Kirpal
 

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