Jen Leo: Travel Writer with a Heart
Bra, Panties and Talent
An Interview with Jen Leo, editor of Whose Panties are These, and Sand in My Bra and The Thong Also Rises
By Kent E. St. John
GoNOMAD Senior Travel Editor
One of the hardest working book editors found out and about today is, without a doubt, travel writer Jennifer L. Leo. Jen has just come out with two books that have taken the travel world by storm. The first, Sand in My Bra, has won major awards including the top prize from the North American Travel Journalist Association and hit multiple bestseller lists.
More than 35,000 copies have been sold and are on bookstore shelves. The follow-up, Whose Panties are These, released in September, is well on the way to topping lists of favorites everywhere.
Both are published by independent travel publisher Travelers’ Tales and are filled with adventures, or Ms.-adventures of women circling the globe. If that weren’t enough, Jen also blogs daily with updates for writers and travelers on her site WrittenRoad.com, a place I check daily to gather info and giggle. GoNOMAD recently caught up with the globetrotting Jen to ask her what is going on in her life, what became of the infamous Bramobile, and, better yet, what lies in her future.
You have collected humorous tales from women around the world. What made you decide to cover stories from a feminine point of view? Why has it translated so well among males? Our owner Max Hartshorne has yet to return my copies!
Really? The number of men reading Sand in My Bra, and Whose Panties Are These? shocks me, too. During the tour for Panties, there were significantly more men in the audiences than at the events for Sand last year. Maybe it’s because the current title has gone below the belt. I like the image of men sitting at their computers late at night searching for something dirty to look at, then finding our Panties book and getting completely sidetracked. First, they laugh at the title, then they start to read about the stories, and before they know it, they’re ordering my books for their wives, girlfriends, and daughters. You think we make these books to sell to women? No way, this is my effort to train men the world over to give better presents to the women in their lives.
First, they laugh at the title, then they start to read about the stories, and before they know it, they’re ordering my books for their wives, girlfriends, and daughters. You think we make these books to sell to women? No way, this is my effort to train men the world over to give better presents to the women in their lives.
You have co-edited several books for Travelers’ Tales before, such as A Woman’s Path: Woman’s Best Spiritual Travel Writing. With the last two books, Bra and Panties you were the sole editor. You hit the road with a vengeance. Was that a turning point in your compiling and editing?
Co-editing A Woman’s Path with Lucy McCauley and Amy Carlson, guided by Lisa Bach, gave me a taste of editing the books. We had notions of me doing a humor book well before we came out with Sand in My Bra, but I needed to grow into the position first, partly through traveling on my own and experiencing my own misadventures and seeing how travel is, and can be, funny.
I have enjoyed checking in at WrittenRoad.com and following your promotional tours. What words of wisdom can you tell us about the Promo Highway? What have been the biggest ups and downs?
The first thing is to pick and choose what best fits your talents, your book, your schedule, and your budget. And in the long run, your audiences will much appreciate your mood if you don’t expect your publisher, big or small, to be doing it all for you. Yes, some publishers have large marketing budgets to throw at your campaign. Some might even have the money to buy bookstore real estate—that’s when a book is displayed as a feature title at the end of a shelf or at some front tables.
But most don’t and morning drive-time radio blitzes, author tours, ads in the book review section, and guest appearances on Oprah, are not par for the course. Ha! Those are golden gifts and if your publicist/publisher does any of that for you, by all means, send her/him a few bottles of bubbly. If you are an author, it’s best to discuss the marketing and publicity options early on so, if you’re keen on this end of the game, you can discuss with them which gaps would be appropriate for you to fill in yourself.
If you are an author, it’s best to discuss the marketing and publicity options early on so, if you’re keen on this end of the game, you can discuss with them which gaps would be appropriate for you to fill in yourself.
With that caveat out of the way, the best advice I can give is to have fun with it. If you’re having fun with your book, others will catch on. The marketing side of publishing is my favorite part. I love touring, having face time with readers, and especially meeting booksellers. Most of my events from both the Sand and Panties tours have been meaningful.
But one of my best days was when I went to the National Bookfest in Washington, D.C. — stealth. I had tried to get a booth through the appropriate channels, but it just wasn’t happening, mostly because they didn’t have a category that Sand in My Bra could fit into. Still, I just couldn’t resist the thought of all those book lovers on the Washington Mall. So I hauled in a case of Sand, a big mounted poster of our cover, a chair, postcards, press releases, and who knows what else.
As I was looking for an inconspicuous, yet well-trafficked, place to set up shop, I saw a huddle of people bustling en masse not far from me. There was a camera crew and it was obvious something big was going on. I dropped all my things except for one copy of Sand and ran over. Pushing through the crowd I saw First Lady Laura Bush.
She was surrounded by Secret Service, shaking hands and taking a few photos. I wiggled my way around the bodyguards and shoved a copy of Sand in her hands as asked if she’d take a picture with my book. And sure enough, got what I asked for!
Is the Bra Mobile still on the road?
For those just tuning in, we got someone off Craigslist.org to paint a twenty-year-old Isuzu bright pink for the Sand in My Bra tour last year. We were collecting bras for the backseat, but sadly it never made it past the events in California. To keep the spirit, we slapped some signs on a rental that said “The funniest book this year!” and flapped our way across the country with brassieres in the back window and draped on all seats
I have the utmost respect for James O’Reilly and Larry Habegger as well as the staff of Travelers’ Tales. How did your association with Travelers’ Tales begin and what have you learned about the writing world there? travelerstales.com.
James and Larry are great people and good friends. I met them a year after I graduated college from USC. I spent the winter in Lake Tahoe and wanted to move to San Francisco. Out of money, the only way I was able to do that was to take a job as a nanny in Marin. When I got hired, the dad in the family said, “You just graduated from USC, obviously you don’t want to be a nanny for the rest of your life. What would you really like to be doing?”
I told him I wanted to get into travel writing and he replied, “Wow, my college roommates just started a travel book publishing company.” Small world.I met Larry at Book Passage a few months later during an event for their second book, Travelers’ Tales Mexico. He signed me on as their first intern in January of 1995 after they released their third book, Travelers’ Tales India. Today they’ve got more than 80 titles in their catalog.
As for what I’ve learned…I don’t know where to begin. I can tell you that the best writers immerse themselves in language. Both writing—and almost more importantly—reading. Travel writing and editing is not rocket science, but to improve, you’ve got to do it all the time. And years later, I can tell when someone is going places with their writing. The obvious sign is that they’re obsessed. They don’t stop.
They write about their last trip while corporate co-workers sit on the other side of the cubicle with the assumption their colleague is drafting techno-babble on a new computer program. Others isolate themselves to write without distractions. Last year at the Book Passage Travel Writers and Photographers Conference I was amazed, but not surprised, to hear Jan Morris say that she was going to go back to her hotel room and write after she was done giving the event. She writes every day, and still looks forward to it.
That’s dedication. Rolf Potts once told me that he thought obsession played a key factor in becoming a successful travel writer. I am starting to see how that is true, and obviously not just for writers. The correlation between obsession and success rings true across many different industries. When you are dedicated and persistent with improving your craft, success is completely within reach. And for those who wake up on the lazy side of the bed, try low expectations.
From interviewing Michael Shapiro and reading about your meeting Tim Cahill on Written Road, you have met some great travelers. Tell us about some others that were in Bra and Panties that sparkled? I happened to be at the Travel Media Show in Tucson and met a few that certainly have strong, good feelings about you.
One of the main reasons I started Written Road was to give people a way to turn their travel writing dreams into reality. So, my favorite stories about contributors come from the ones who are making their first start. Deanna Sukkar, for example, was working in Wide World Books and Maps when I came in to do an event for Sand in My Bra.
I did my usual call for Travelers’ Tales submissions and Deanna submitted her first ever travel story to Whose Panties Are These? Within a year later, this professional chef turned Library Studies grad student was on the other side of the audience reading her story “Underwear and Tear.” No longer an employee of Wide World, Deanna entertained the staff and travel enthusiasts in the store with her tales of travel and adventure in India.
Another first timer story that cracks me up is about Elizabeth Asdorian. Elizabeth had never read at an author event before, let alone had her travel writing published. I invited her to read at Get Lost Travel in San Francisco, and she said yes, despite being nervous. She had the best read of the night and the audience was roaring. After she finished it was my turn. “Oh great, I laughed. How am I supposed to follow that!”
The word is out that there may be a third book coming. What will be its focus?When I left to go on tour for Whose Panties Are These? we were not yet talking about the third book. It was safe to assume that if Panties did anywhere near as well as Sand had, we’d do a third. But it was too soon to tell.
Then, a funny thing happened. I couldn’t go anywhere without someone asking me what the third book was going to be called. I started to tell them that if we did a third we would probably depart from the underwear theme. Heck, we’d done top and bottom, hadn’t we covered it? Apparently not. The fans wanted another book and they wouldn’t settle for anything less than more undies. “You haven’t done them all, ” one Seattle woman said. A variety of women heartily agreed.
So, I opened up a call for lingerie titles on Written Road. It didn’t take long till we received a winner. Within a few weeks of returning from the tour, James told me he wanted to get to the third book sooner rather than later. It’ll be called The Thong Also Rises. The focus will be similar, and I love the way you penned it, Ms-Adventures! I’m fast at work on it right now so we can get it out on bookstore shelves by next summer. The deadline for submissions is January 15. I’ll do my best to make sure these stories are just as outrageous, if not more so, than the last two books.
Jen Leo’s work has also been included in the Traveler’s Tales anthologies “Hyenas Laughed at Me and Now I Know why”, “A Woman’s Passion for Travel,” Lonely Planet’s Best of Las Vegas, and World Food Guide to Hong Kong, and Time Magazine.