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Adventures in Journalism: World Traveler

A writer chronicles the birth and painful demise of an ill-fated travel writing piece.

By William Georgiades - November 10, 2004

"Isn't sexuality just weird?"

I open my mouth automatically because my impeccable manners have taught me that when someone speaks and then stops speaking, I am supposed to respond. I do this too often. Someone makes a statement, I open my mouth, and then the words won't come. I sit there with my mouth open, lips twitching as if they are about to mouth a response, as if I am weighing my words carefully, as if I am flipping through a Rolodex of bon mots. But there is nothing there. Nothing.

"Yes," I say finally after about twenty seconds. "Yes, yes, yes. Sexuality is so weird." I give the last sentence an upward lilt, just like she did, as if I am a Valley girl who has spent a lot of time in Center Moriches.

I am wearing a Kilgour French Stanbury tailored suit, light grey. The suit is worth $3,000 and is one of the last remnants of items I received for free after writing a puff piece about the Savile Row tailor. It feels wonderful, this suit, though it was made for a plumper, more prosperous version of myself. Occasionally, I will receive a call from an editor and they will offer me lunch. I will put on my suit and walk forty blocks uptown and we will both behave as if I am not sitting there with a begging bowl.

So, yes. I'm dressed for success and nodding incoherently at this woman who has the power to give me work. She is a Conde Nast editor for a travel magazine and the lunch is going badly in the sense that a good lunch with one of these people means you leave with the assurance of a contract, a bad lunch becomes conversational like this, and a meandering conversation with a Conde Nast editor is never too good for anyone.

There is a lull in the conversation, while she ferries pieces of raw fish into her mouth with chopsticks. I look at her carefully. She is 36 years old, I know, from the last man who slept with her. Her hair is in pigtails and she is wearing shiny black trousers, a short skirt over those trousers and a tight top that emphasizes her stomach, which is flat and fit.

"Bhutan," I say. It's a non sequitur.

Sexuality is weird. Silence. Bhutan.

The meal is winding down and we've yet to discuss work—the reason I am here.

I've suggested this piece about Bhutan before, as well as a story about the mountains of western Greece and both have been rejected—courteously, reassuringly, understandingly even, because they are, in a word, too hilly. "We've been doing a lot of mountainous, hilly work lately. We're looking more for flatter stories. Do you have any flat ideas?"

I do, in the end, (after much nodding about mutual friends) leave with a promise to publish a piece about a small village in Greece which, while technically a hill town, is also a traditional Greek village and I can concentrate on a hotel that was built there recently. 1,200 words, front of the book, she says.

We part in the light spring rain which will be a downpour by the time I walk forty blocks downtown which will put the suit out of action until I can afford the dry cleaner. She kisses the space that dangles a quarter inch away from my right cheek, and I put my lips on her left cheek—my too full lips—and I leave an imprint of gum disease and tooth decay and raw fish residue on her left cheek, inches away from one of her pigtails. She hands me a manila envelope containing the latest issue of her magazine. "It hasn't even come out yet," she says excitedly, and mentions a feature she wrote about a celebrity I have never heard of.

"Can't wait," I say.

Without asking her, I know that a 1,200 word piece about a hotel in a traditional Greek village means no travel budget, write from memory, and do research. It's better than nothing, but it isn't the reason I spent an hour and a half looking at her and mouthing words.

I start writing the story the minute I get home and after two hours it's finished—a lovely, lilting piece about the Mediterranean and the olive groves, about two Austrians who fell in love with the area and built their dream hotel, about the festivals and the character of the place, about how it's where Greeks go for their vacations while tourists all flock to the islands. It isn't writing per se, but it is publishable. There is always a difference. I read it over twice before remembering that I am wearing a wet suit.

The story can't be sent just yet, because if a story is sent the same day it is assigned, the editor will think the story was already assigned, written, delivered and rejected and is now being recycled. I am not organized enough to be that devious—not anymore—but there's too much riding on this to be careless. I know that whenever I do send it in, it will sit on her desk for eight weeks until the day before it needs to be readied for publication. Then I will be called by a fact checker, a copy editor and by her, all in a desperate flurry—the urgency of the trivial. So I leave the story alone, let it sit for a week, allow for the contracts to arrive.

Three days later, the contract arrives. $800 for 1,200 words, their lowest pay rate. I sign it, send it back immediately and send the story off. Two weeks later, she calls me.

"Great story," she says.

"Thank you," I say. "That means a lot to me."

"Right, right, the only thing is, well, it reads like a hotel PR release rather than a Conde Nast Traveler story."

"You think?"

"I know," she says. "So, I don't know what we can do with this, unless you change it around to a general piece about the village itself. We can use the details of the hotel as a sidebar to let people know where to stay. If you like."

"I could do that." I say, much too enthusiastically.

"Great," she says. "End of the week would be perfect. Oh, and do you have a lead on any art? No one in the office has ever heard of -- what's it called?"

"Mount Pelion."

"No one in the office has ever heard of Mount Pelion." She lingers here for a moment, and I imagine her mind clicking over, wondering if she has been duped, if perhaps there is no Mount Pelion, given that the well-traveled editors of Conde Nast Traveler have never heard of Mount Pelion. Then she says, "So we need some art for this story, do you happen to have any art?"

"Art?"

"Pictures, snapshots, photographs?" She stretches the last word out as if she were speaking to a retarded person.

"No," I say. "I don't have any art." Unfortunately, there aren't enough syllables in the word "art" to stretch it out and make it sound like you are speaking to a retarded person, but I try. "But I do know a good photographer from the area and I can try to track him down for you if you like."

"I like." Click.

And that's the conversation. I can imagine her with her rows of callbacks, the different colored inks she uses to denote importance of callbacks, the time allotted for our conversation—thirty seconds. A minute has passed.

I write the second version of the story with renewed hope, cutting all references to the hotel, which is pretty much the whole story. I see now that the heart-warming story of the two Austrians building their dream hotel and hosting cultural events year round in the mountains was too limiting, so I close my eyes and remember what I can of the region then open them and start writing. I write about swimming far out into the Mediterranean, about turning on my back and staring at the beach and the olive groves during siesta hour, about the mythology surrounding the place, about the pool where Achilles was dipped, the cave where Aphrodite would lie down with Poseidon, about the cafes and the miles of empty beaches. It's a beautiful piece of writing, if I do say so myself, and I'm done in two hours. I hold onto it till the end of the week and send it off.

Two weeks later she calls again.

"Hi, yes, hi," she says. "Great photographs—we really like them. But there's a problem."

I know I'm supposed to respond to this but I can't imagine what problem there could be. Ten seconds of silence pass.

"Listen," she says. "The story you wrote is very general, you know."

"So sorry, I thought you wanted a general piece about the Greek village."

"We did, we did," she says. But some of my colleagues wonder if there is something we can peg the story to."

This is a death knell. I've used this ruse myself many times, when I was in her position over the phone. An editor's job is always to say no in the best or most excruciating way possible. Ideally, one can say, oh, we ran that exact story just 19 months ago, so sorry, but great idea; which is invariably the case, as magazines tend to tell the same story on a rotating basis of nineteen months. Or you can say you are not interested and you might be alienating a future Important Person. The last line of defense, however, is to say your colleagues have problems with the story and that a colleague says there is no peg and magazines are nothing without stories that have pegs. Can you imagine a world without pegs?

"But there is a peg," I say. "A perfect peg, in fact." Before she can interject, I say, "Have you ever seen a Greek Easter?"

"No..." she says.

"Oh, God, a Greek Easter, especially in this town, is amazing. It's unchanged for over 600 years. The village priest lights a candle in the church and comes out and lights all the villagers' candles—thousands of them—and then there are processions and feasts and everyone fires guns and eats meat and drinks and..."

"Sounds fascinating," she says in a convincingly bored voice. "Really, really wonderful, but unfortunately our April issue is all booked up already, with a special piece on Caribbean hideaways."

"Your April issue ten and a half months from now is all booked up?" I can't help myself.

"It's a theme issue," she says. "So, so sorry—"

"Actually," and I draw this word out, cutting her off, "let me ask you, your May issue, a year from now—is that booked up already?"

"Er, no."

"Perfect, because Greek Easter falls two weeks after our Easter and next year that falls in May, so the peg would fit perfectly in your May issue."

"Oh, oh," she says in the distracted manner of one who is already well over her thirty seconds of allotted phone time. We both realize that unless she is simply rude now (in her position, I would have been), the quickest way for her to get off the phone is to say, "fine."

"Good," she says. "Excellent, in fact. I'm so glad we finally have something to work on together. End of this week."

"It's not running for a year." But the phone has already gone dead.

I sit down again for two hours and write 1,200 words about the magnificence of a Greek Easter, about the processions and the earnestness of the priests, about how a village of meat-eating heavy drinkers are vegetarian teetotalers for a whole week, about how they go wild at midnight on Good Friday, about how this tradition has gone unchanged for centuries, about how a Greek Easter could teach a New York New Year's how to celebrate. I add a bit about the hotel at which people should stay, and about how this is the part of Greece Greeks come to for their vacations. I wait until the end of the following week and send it off.

Then I receive a tip. A new editor at the same travel magazine enjoyed some book reviews I did in London. Would I happen to have any ideas for her new section on celebrities and travel? I send a polite note to the new editor immediately, with three story ideas, two of them fluff for the main idea about Francis Coppola's career as a hotelier in Belize, and specifically his new property by the sea. I receive a call almost immediately, which is more or less unheard of.

Love, love, love your ideas! Where have you been hiding? are the first words I hear. More to the point, there is a promise of a contract and a definitive need for a feature on the Coppola story immediately. Could I possibly go to Belize within the next, oh, three weeks or so, and have a story in a month? I'll have to check, I say, but probably sooner than that.

"Perfect," she says. "Just perfect."

Within an hour another call comes through. The caller ID tells me it's from the same number at Conde Nast. "Hi there," I say, as if the editor and I are on a honeymoon.

"Hello," says the pigtailed editor on the other line. "You know, this is really, really embarrassing. I've been pushing your work for over a year now. I'm your editor at this magazine, and when you start sneaking around behind my back—"

"No, it's a different section and a mutual friend just thought that..."

"You listen to me," she says. "I've already spoken to her about you and about our arrangement."

"The 1,200 words in a year's time arrangement?"

"And she's agreed not to ruffle any feathers here," she says. "She's not very experienced. I mean, really, the Coppola hotel story has been done to death already."

"It's a brand new hotel," I protest. "It hasn't even opened yet. It's his new hotel, in Placencia, not the one in the rain forest that was in Architectural Digest eight years ago." Why do I know these things?

"It's a nothing story and you aren't going to Belize," she says. "You have no idea how lucky you are to have an assignment from me. Just write about that Greek village."

"I turned it in weeks ago."

"If you ever do something like this again..."

If I've learned one thing about women's hysteria it's to just apologize, no matter what the circumstance, until they calm down. I imagine the two detectives at my door. "Sir, did you actually contact a Conde Nast editor when you had a contract with another Conde Nast editor?" I imagine trying to respond, being told it's time to go downtown, being led into a small cage with a slim-hipped frightened Asian man who speaks no English and has no cigarettes. I imagine the large detective looking at me through the bars and shaking his head.

"I'm sorry," I say. "I was just excited about Belize."

"Okay." She softened. Just like that. Hell hath no recovery swifter than a woman apologized to. "Send those ideas over to me. You're my writer, don't you forget it. I'll be in touch."

* * * * *

Nine months pass and she is not in touch. She nods to me at two parties, as if to say, what are you doing here (a question I am asking myself at both occasions). Seated near her at an outdoor summertime dinner party, she regales our neighbors, telling them about this brilliant piece I'm working on for her. I don't point out that she's had it for months, that it's all of 1,200 words, and that she hasn't responded to the 17 ideas I've sent over the past several months. I don't mention that the enthusiastic editor won't speak to me anymore, and that our mutual friend tells me I almost cost her her job. Sitting there at that summertime dinner party feeling the crush of success all around me, I look at the pigtailed now-37-year-old editor and think of the glory that will hit newsstands. I smile at her suggestively and she blushes like the young woman she is not.

* * * * *

A few months later, the Conde Nast Traveler editor calls. She calls three times, in fact, in the space of two days—once to say she had never received the rewrite, and if she had, she had mislaid it, and would I send it over again immediately; and once to say she never received a signed contract from me, and if she had, she had mislaid it, and would I fax over the original contract immediately.

The third time:

"Great, great piece," she trills. "Just lovely. It's already laid out and I hope you don't mind, but because it's in our personal essay section we took a photo of you from Talk and drew a caricature of your face as an illustration."

"I don't mind at all," I say. "But did you get the photos I had the photographer send you?"

"Yes, yes, sorry," she says. "Those won't really work for us at all."

"Why?"

"Because this is for the personal essay section of the magazine, in the Hot Tickets Department, and we never use art for that section—only caricatures of the author. But let me fax you the story and we can go over it later."

"Great."

I get the fax from the local copy shop and go over it. The mention of the hotel has been excised completely. Paragraphs have been switched around, as they tend to be, the agonized-over lede and the tender, evocative kicker have both been cut to make room for graphics—but there it is, a full page about that little town and their great celebrations in a big travel magazine.

I call her back. "Looks great," I say into her machine. "Thank you. It's been a pleasure working with you. Could you process payment now? Thanks."

* * * * *

A month later, I go to the local newsstand and I'm about to buy six copies of the magazine but then I open it up and check. The May issue, published in April, the front of the book. I look for the page that had been faxed to me, the odd caricature of my face, the two funny lines that they let me keep in the story, the concession that they allowed me to keep a bare mention of the hotel. It isn't there. Nothing.

I go home and try not to call. When I'm about done she calls me. "Hi," she says, quite sweetly.

"Hi," I say.

"Have you seen the new issue yet?" she asks.

"Oh, it's out already?" I say. "I had no idea. How does it look?"

"Well, there's a slight problem. Unfortunately at the last minute our editor cut back our pages and it was either you or A. M. Homes's piece about the view from her apartment window so, it broke my heart, but we had to cut your story at the last minute. I am so sorry. But," She says this "but" very, very quickly, before I can say anything, "but I think it'll hold for a year—you do say the celebrations have been going on for six hundred years so... and of course I'll make sure you get paid right away. But payment will have to be a kill fee, just in case the story never runs, so that's 25 percent, and 25 percent of $600..."

"$800," I pip-squeak.

"Are you sure?" she says. "Odd. Anyway, If you say so, 25 percent of $800 is $200, so you should have that in about two months. So sorry about this."

"No worries," I say. "I quite understand."

Click.

William Georgiades is at WGeorgiades.com

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