A Magazine by the Society of Professional Journalists

Q&A: Tom Clynes, freelance writer

By Quill

Q: Where did you get your journalism training?

A: I came into this career completely sideways, driven mostly by curiosity and skepticism. I was terribly bored by high school and not successful academically, but I enrolled in a community college, where a composition instructor told me that I had a knack for wordsmithing. I transferred to the University of Michigan and got a weekly gig as a music critic for a local newspaper. Then, to support my traveling, I took temporary writing jobs in advertising, public relations and market research. I would work for a few months, then hit the road. But I found it impossible, during the first few years, to make a living from journalistic writing.

In 1994, I wrote a proposal for the book that would become Wild Planet, a guide to festivals, celebrations and tribal gatherings all around the world. The book got a lot of attention, but after a second book, I turned toward magazines. In 1998 one of my stories caught the attention of an editor at National Geographic’s new magazine, Adventure. The story, about riding through the Australian outback with “the world’s toughest trucker,” ran in the debut issue. The magazine turned out a good fit for the kind of stories I wanted to do, and we’ve worked together ever since.

Q: In addition to the trucker in Australia, you have done stories on poaching in Africa and doctors fighting Ebola in Uganda. Where do you get your story ideas?

A: I usually come across my next story in the course of chasing the last one. Sometimes, I’ll follow up on something that I learn through a conversation with someone, or I’ll see an unmined angle in something I read. Also, editors often come to me with ideas.

Q: What is the most remote place you have been? How long were you there and what were the living conditions like?

A: The eastern part of the Central African Republic is pretty remote. I was reporting on a band of American conservationists who persuaded the country’s president to let them raise a militia and take over the eastern third of the country. Their mission was to drive out the marauding gangs of Sudanese poachers who are rapidly wiping out the region’s wildlife. I was traveling with a gang of bungling mercenaries, and the conditions weren’t too wretched, although in some spots there were a lot of rats. It’s hard to sleep when they are running over your legs.

Q: What is the most dangerous assignment you have been on?

A: I don’t cover all-out wars, but I sometimes travel to low-level conflict zones and very off-balance places. I traveled to the Ebola epidemic in northern Uganda to do an in-depth story on the doctors and virus hunters working there. I had convinced myself and my family that since the doctors know how to protect themselves, I’d be safe if I followed their lead. This theory was quashed when one of the doctors contracted Ebola and died.

Q: What advice would you give to young people interested in adventure journalism?

A: I can’t think of a more rewarding endeavor. Every story is like starting a new career from scratch, and there’s tremendous freedom. But this is a long-term undertaking, and the initial frustrations are fairly extravagant. Those who are humble and willing to learn from their mistakes — and willing to make friends with uncertainty — will probably be successful if they keep trying. But somewhere along the way most people choose (perhaps wisely) to shift their attention to other aspects of life (relationships, other job opportunities, health), and they drop out of the writing life.

Q: At what point in your life did you know you wanted to get into adventure/extreme journalism? Do you consider yourself extreme?

A: I don’t know if I’m “extreme” or just easily bored. I grew up in a suburb of a factory town in Michigan, and I was convinced that any other place on Earth had to be more interesting — which wasn’t far from the truth. I always knew that to keep things interesting I’d have to take some risks. As a teenager, I secretly hitchhiked to the East Coast to see a girl; it turned into a great adventure, and I was hooked on the uncertainty and vulnerability of unstructured travel. After I graduated from college, I sold my car for $500 and bought a one-way ticket to London. I learned how to brew beer and saw a lot of post-punk bands, then I just kept going, traveling on the cheap through Europe, Asia and Latin America.

Q: What has been your proudest journalistic moment?

A: I don’t know if I could pinpoint one. I love to hear that a publication is getting lots of mail in reaction to my stories, because it means that people were affected enough to take some action.

Q: How do you fund your trips?

A: Typically, I’ll hit the road with a contract, and the publication will pay the travel expenses and story fee. Nearly all of my assignments are pinned down in advance, but I still try to do occasional speculative stories. It’s important to sometimes venture out with nothing but your own vision, unchanneled by an editor’s needs.

Q: What are some of the publications you have written for?

A: The Times of London, The Observer (London), Backpacker, Outside Magazine, The Washington Post, Popular Science and many others.

Q: Do you have plans to marry and settle down with a family or would that crimp your career?

A: I am, in fact, married, and we have a toddler son, who is the most adventurous guy I know. He’s fascinated by life and by every new thing. As for making my career fit into this rather new domestic situation, we’re still working that out.

Q: With a wife and young child, when do you think you will slow down and get a more traditional job?

A: Never. Before I went to freelance, I worked as an advertising copywriter and a speechwriter. I didn’t make a very good employee then, and I’d be much worse now, because I can’t imagine anyone telling me when to show up or how to dress. When I went out on my own, I vowed that I would never again work under fluorescent lights.

Q: Any words to live by?

A: For me, the freelance life is still mostly about freedom and satisfying curiosity. No matter how much you read, you can’t be truly well-informed if you’re seeing the world mainly through other people’s filters. I believe that it’s intrinsically worthwhile to go and find out, for yourself, what’s happening out there.