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Ever (Wander)Lusted for the Wayfaring Life of a Travel Writer? Editor Tommie Ethington Answers 20 Career Questions

Curb your curiosity, adventurers: meet Tommie Ethington, Editor for Southwest: The Magazine

By Eleanora Morrison

It was the last week of August in 2010 when I first sat near Tommie Ethington in Magazine Writing class at Trinity University. As the weeks of the semester became more and more intense (our no-nonsense, tough-loving professor Dr. Sammye Johnson ran a very rigorous ship), Tommie continually proved a stand-out amongst us, both with her talent and also with her even-steven demeanor that no writing assignment or tight deadline could ever rattle. Two years my junior, I respected and admired her as a journalist just as much in the early days as I do now, in her role as Editor for Southwest Airlines? in-flight magazine.

Each time I sit down on a Southwest flight, I reach into the seatback pocket in front of me and grab the magazine to scour the Table of Contents, thumbing through its pages to mark each piece with Tommie’s byline. Then, I buckle my seatbelt, sit back and dive into the faraway worlds she takes her readers, with words that transport me smack-dab in the middle of the latest and greatest exotic locales she’s visited. As the wheels lift off for our own launch issue inspired by the life and legacy of legendary Harper’s Bazaar Editor in Chief Carmel Snow, I invite you to peek into the world of my adventurous friend expert storyteller of places, people and cuisine around the world Tommie Ethington.

EM: What is your morning routine?
TE: I’ve never been a morning person, so I try to be kind to myself and do more in the evening. Before leaving work, I always tidy up my desk and prioritize tasks on my to-do list for the next day. Once I get to work, I’ll read through the morning briefing from the New York Times, check emails, and get started on my to-do list.

EM: Do you keep a personal journal?
TE:
At the beginning of the year, I started using a bullet journal (Fun aside: I got to interview the creator, Ryder Caroll, in our June issue) because I was looking for a planner that could be multi-purpose. I loved that the bullet journal allowed for more creativity and flexibility, and it’s taught me a lot about how I organize my life. As for traditional journaling, I confess that I’m not the best at it. I try to journal when I’m on trips, but inevitably wind up foregoing journaling because I’d rather be out doing something or talking to someone. One of the best things about having a career where I get to write about the places that I visit, is that it forces me to take more notes and notice little details that may not have made it into a personal journal. My travel articles end up being my keepsakes.

EM: Do you read the newspaper?
TE: I don’t read a physical newspaper, but I subscribe to the digital edition of the New York Times. I’m thinking about subscribing to the Sunday edition because there’s something wonderful about unplugging and taking in the news at a leisurely pace rather than being bombarded with updates.

EM: Favorite apps on your phone for daily content intake?
TE: Of all my apps, I probably spend the most time on Instagram. I love that it keeps me informed about my friends’ lives and events going on in my community, but can also serve as my sort of curated happy place–beautiful photos of food, well-designed spaces, and faraway places. Some of my favorite accounts are @kpunkka (unreal wildlife photos by a Finnish photographer), @the_shopkeepers (boutiques around the world that make you want to plan a whole trip around shopping), and @savefamilyphotos (I love the sweet memories shared by strangers).

EM: Favorite tech gadget currently in your office or home?
TE: I’m a late adopter for most tech, but my boyfriend and I recently got an Amazon Echo Dot that has been a game-changer in the kitchen (no more having to Google cooking questions while my hands are covered in sauce, dough, etc.)

EM: Book(s) you are currently reading?
TE: Whenever I travel abroad, I try to read something set in that locale beforehand. I’m headed to Ireland in a few weeks and am in the middle of Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt. It won the 1997 Pulitzer Prize and is a raw look at what it was like to grow up in Ireland in the 1930s and 40s.

EM: Favorite historical time period?
TE: I would have loved to be a fly on the wall in the 1920s and 30s to experience the jazz age and speakeasies and to celebrate the 19th amendment being ratified.

EM: Favorite city you have traveled to cover a story?
TE: Can I pick two? My first would be Lima, Peru. Lima is often overlooked, but it has an amazing culinary scene, beautiful museums, and wonderful people. San Antonio Magazine published my first major travel article, A Taste of Two Cities, which explored the culinary differences between Cusco and Lima. I’ll always treasure that piece. My second city is Sausalito, California. I went there on a press trip earlier this year, stayed at an incredible hotel called The Inn Above Tide, and was amazed by the charming, little bayside town just a 30-minute ferry ride from San Francisco. The hike I did through the Marin Headlands to the Golden Gate Bridge is one I?ll remember forever.

EM: A city you hope to travel to in the near future?
TE: I’ve never been to Canada and have my heart set on a winter escape to Quebec City. Stateside, I’m dying to visit the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas.

EM: Favorite individual you have interviewed?
TE: I genuinely enjoy talking to anyone who is passionate about what they do, but I oversee the magazine’s celebrity One Question page and that’s yielded some fun conversations: favorites include Kevin Costner, Jenny Slate, and Carol Burnett.

EM: Favorite podcasts?
TE: I really enjoy Women Who Travel, which is hosted by two editors at Condé Nast Traveler. They bring in really dynamic women and topics range from group travel to living abroad to visiting Antarctica (that’s on my bucket list!).

EM: Other magazines you read for inspiration?
TE: My dream is to write a ‘Spin the Globe’ feature in AFAR. The editors literally spin a globe and then send a writer, with little notice, to the selected location and ask them to write about their experience. I also subscribe to Texas Monthly, Bon Appétit, and Real Simple.

See Also

EM: Favorite article you’ve written for Southwest: The Magazine?
TE: I’m proudest of Elevate Your Winter Travel Plans, which I wrote and researched entirely on my own. It was our annual winter travel guide feature and centered around the theme of elevation. It was challenging and I got to work closely with our design team to bring it to life.

EM: Biggest grammatical error your coworkers know is your pet peeve?
TE: I don’t think I have a grammatical pet peeve, per se, but I’m a big advocate for showing, not telling the reader. By that I mean setting the scene and making the reader feel like they’re experiencing it themselves. One of my mentors and a former colleague hated when writers would describe a place by the square footage. For example, “A state-of-the-art, 20,000-square-foot facility…” Who knows what 20,000-square-feet looks like? Can you picture it your head? The same goes for how many seats a theater or stadium has. Unless that number really tells you something, it can feel like lazy writing. One of my favorite freelancers did a pinball story for us and one of the lines was, “I ducked through a tiny door and descended a set of stairs into what I can only describe as The Man Cave of My Dreams: 22 pinball machines crammed into a basement about the size of 23 pinball machines.” The way he described the size of that room was so simple, yet genius.

EM: Favorite music playlist to get you in the writing zone?
TE: I usually write in silence, but if I’m struggling, I’ll go for classical. If I need a mood boost, it’s Adele.

EM: Practices you have adopted to help you meet deadlines?
TE: I break projects down into smaller deadlines and log them in my Outlook calendar so I’ll have reminders and also be reminded of my progress.

EM: What do you do when you’re experiencing writer’s block?
TE: The hardest part for me is usually figuring out how to focus all of my research and notes. Sometimes I only get 200 words to tell someone’s story, but I have so much material I want to include. I start by highlighting the interview and color code it based on the type of information (key facts, interesting anecdotes, things I want to explore further). Then, I think about how I would describe the story to a friend: What would I want to tell them about first? What’s the thing I find most interesting or exciting? Chances are the reader will think that’s interesting too, and that’s what I use as my guide.

EM: Trait(s) in a leader that you most respect and admire?
TE: I think a good leader has the ability to cultivate other people’s strengths and looks for opportunities for those people to shine. The best bosses I’ve had are the ones who pushed me to do things outside of my comfort zone because they knew I was capable (even if I didn’t quite believe it yet).

EM: Why did you become a writer?
TE: I’m naturally curious and I love learning. I also tend to get bored easily, and journalism gives you the opportunity to explore so many different topics.

EM: Someone you attribute your career success to that you wouldn’t have made it without?
TE: I wouldn’t be where I am today were it not for my college advisor and professor, Sammye Johnson. She supplied the foundation for my career in magazines, won me more than one job with her letters of recommendation, and taught me that errors of fact are to be avoided at all costs.

Follow Tommie Ethington on Instagram @tommietalksalot, on her personal website at TommieEthington.com, and read her work monthly at SouthwestMag.com, or in print in the seatback pocket on your next Southwest Airlines flight. 

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