Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Interview with travel writer Anna Mantzaris, newest MFA faculty member

We are delighted to welcome Anna Mantzaris to our MFA community as a faculty member teaching travel writing. In this intimate interview Anna, a California-based travel writer, talks about the genesis of her writing career, why travel is good for writers, and what she learned staying with a community of monks at a shukobo (temple) in Koyasan in the mountains of Japan. 

Can you tell us a little about your path to becoming a writer and how you got started in travel writing?
Probably, like many writers, I don’t know exactly when it started. I have boxes of writing dating back to elementary school (I haven’t been able to throw them away). I wrote a lot of weird, awful poems, short stories, letters, cartoons, plays, lists—everything as a kid. In college and graduate school, I studied and wrote primarily short stories. After graduating, I worked in book, newspaper, and magazine publishing and wrote and edited nonfiction. I think my first travel writing assignment came from Time Out. I went to Book Expo America in Los Angeles to network and walked away with a couple of assignments. I started contributing to guidebooks and writing articles, and then wrote some travel books and got into a lot of food and travel writing at that point.

How can travel be beneficial to writers of any genre?
I love this question. When I was an MFA student, one of my professors talked about how she had her husband drive her up and down Highway 1 in California when she felt blocked. That was a way she could start writing again. I’ve never been able to write in a car but changing my location and moving around has always inspired me. I often make lists of observations when I am on the road. When I was in Cuba the sounds were so incredible. I stood outside where we were staying for about an hour and wrote down everything I heard (music, dogs barking, cars starting up) and found myself with pages of notes to put to use. I think being out of your normal routine and comfort zone can jump-start new ideas. Taking away set parameters has always helped me feel creative.
For revision and edits, I do like being at home and on a schedule but when I am starting something new or feeling stuck, I like to be in an unfamiliar place. I also like to write in notebooks as opposed to on my computer when I travel.  Then I type everything up at night and do more writing from there. This semester we’ve talked a lot about how travel affects our writing and how taking away the safety net of home and routine can bring us to new places on the page.

Where have you traveled, and is there a place in particular that you found especially inspiring?
I feel very fortunate to have traveled around much of the United States. There isn’t a road trip I won’t take. Some of my favorite journeys have been closest to my home in San Francisco—towns like Petaluma, Bodega Bay, and Bolinas. I lived in Europe and spent time traveling the continent, including my family’s home country of Greece. Some of my favorite cities are Budapest, Los Angeles, Tokyo, and Havana but I will go anywhere—small towns, suburbs, big cities.
One of my favorite trips was a solo journey I took to Koyasan in the mountains of Japan years ago. I took a tram to the top and stayed at a shukobo with Buddhist monks. The area is the home to Shingon school of Buddhism and home to dozens and dozens of temples that open their doors to overnight visitors. I think I stayed for about a week but it felt like a lifetime—in a good way. I roamed the Okunoin Cemetery and was humbled attending services with the monks. Because I was alone, they brought my meals—homemade tofu and beautifully prepared vegetables—to my room. It was truly magical to be in such a sacred place and feel so welcomed. It’s a trip I think about often.

What, in addition to writing and traveling, are your passions?
I am totally obsessed with our dog, a sweet little smooth fox terrier named Stella. Taking her to the park and on walks is a great way to break up my day working from home. She’s like a little clown and I can never get enough time with her. I also do a lot of writing with her on my lap.

Is there anything else you would like to share with us?
I’m really excited to be a part of the Bay Path community. I have family in East Longmeadow and have always been familiar with the university and area. The students are incredible—hard working, kind, and inspiring. It’s great to see the amount of time and effort and they put into critiquing one another’s writing and the support they offer. There’s some really terrific writing happening. I am so thankful for the welcome and support I’ve received from the MFA program and everyone on staff at Bay Path. Since writing is so solitary it feels good to be part of such a thriving and creative community where so many good things are happening.