Interview with Deborah Milstein

This week’s Best Women’s Travel Writing 2010 contributor lives within walking distance of six Deborah Milsteinsynagogues in Brookline, Massachusetts: Deborah Milstein. She holds an MFA in creative writing from Lesley University and is currently writing a memoir about Jewish identity.

When did you first hit the road? How did it go?

My family drove through my entire childhood. We lived in Denver and were constantly driving around the Southwest to check out landmarks: Mesa Verde, the Alamo, the Grand Canyon. I’m the youngest of three and was really whiny most of the time because I had to sit in the back middle seat. Our dog sat in the front seat, turned around, and drooled on my knees. When we moved to Boston when I was seven, we drove all the way from Denver, by way of Toronto. Oy.

My first solo travel? Um, not so good. I dropped out of college one semester and decided to take an eight month journey from Mexico all the way down to Costa Rica, by myself, with about two weeks’ (non)planning. When I was on a five-hour bus trip watching a French movie with Spanish subtitles I had to fully admit that (1) I’m a terrible Spanish speaker–and I don’t know French except the names of some of the veggies, and (2) I had zero idea what I was doing there and wasn’t at all suited at that point to traveling alone. I lasted 13 days in Mexico before changing my return flight and heading home, but I loved Mexico City, especially the subway. (I still use that travel backpack, though–a good investment!)

What is “home” for you? Is it a particular place or person or thing?

I’m a Bostonian through and through, without the Boston accent. Even though I wasn’t born here, I grew up on public transportation, which counts for a lot. You’re a real Bostonian when you know the bus lines. When I travel, my notebook is home. I carry one everywhere–I won’t buy a purse unless my notebook fits.

How did you break into the travel writing scene?

“Holy in the Land” in Best Women’s Travel Writing 2010 is my first published piece of travel writing. I took this trip ten l-o-n-g years ago and it’s still vivid and tender and hard to nail down.

Let’s say you could take a free trip with anyone of your choosing (a historical figure, an ancestor, a super hero, etc). Who would it be, where would you go, and why?

Can I go on tour with Beyonce? This has nothing to do with travel and everything to do with Beyonce.

Name one place that should top everyone’s travel dream list, be it a nation or a landmark or a village.

Visiting family homesteads is incredibly poignant and telling. If you’re lucky enough to get back to where your family hails from, your imagination will be much enriched. So much of my writing comes from “home.”

Personally, I’d like to get to Venice before it sinks.

What specific travel resources (websites, guidebooks, blogs, etc) do you always consult when planning a journey?

Lonely Planet has never led me astray. I really like to have an actual book to tote along, although online research is great too. I also love–which is how I ended up singing karaoke for the first time in a gay bar in Honolulu. Fantastic!

Which travel writers or books have been especially inspirational to you?

I love books that make me feel like I’m there alongside the narrator. I devoured Gorky Park on that trip to Mexico–an odd mix of cultures, Moscow in Mexico City. Susan Jane Gilman’s memoir Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven was riveting–she and a friend fresh out of college traveled to China in the eighties and encountered all kinds of madness. She got some crap on travel writing websites for being an “ugly American” but I thought she was just honest and adventurous and so very young. I happened to read it last year during the twenty year anniversary of Tian’anmen Square, which was fascinating and made me realize, jeepers, I’ve seen so little about this wide world. Geoff Dyer’s Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered To Do It is hilarious–full of funny, sexy stories. He’d be a fun travel companion.

What is the hardest lesson you’ve learned on the road?

Wherever you go, there you are. I used to travel with some great hope of transformation. Change comes, but slowly, and not when you demand it. Evolution may not sink in until you go home (and write about it, probably).