As many of you know, a new book is hitting the shelves today, Rick Steves Sicily. And yeah, I am one of the authors along with Rick and Alfio Di Mauro. It’s kind of a big deal.
I realize I’ve been quiet for too long and have neglected this blog, I’m sorry for that because I know many of you enjoy our correspondence. The reasons why are complicated but the book is a big part of my absence. I want to explain, but I don’t know where to start to talk about it. So, we will start at the beginning, years before this was even an idea.
It’s important to me to be clear that this was not just my doing–there are a lot of people to thank, a guidebook takes an enormous amount of work. It was a dream but has been a very real challenge. Here’s a little background from my perspective about how this book came to be.
Rick Steves guidebooks are the biggest guidebooks around, and our titles dominate almost every slot of the travel best seller lists. With the introduction of Iceland last year and Sicily this year, we may hold all of the top slots next year. Sicily isn’t even out and it’s already a “Best Seller.” This is all very strange to me.
I’ve been writing and researching these books for 19 years, and it’s weird but neat to see our small, scrappy band of quirky traveler writers turn into the powerhouse of travel know-how. I remember the days of it being just a handful of us, when the books were thinner and our hotels were grubbier. Actually, the guidebooks are the reason for the direction my life has gone.
Years ago, on my first Europe trip without parents, a friend’s mom gave us “Europe through the Backdoor” to read before we left. It was useful and one of the only books that had some practical advice for young vagabonds. We went up to a grungy office in Edmonds, WA to get our rail passes because it was the only place we could get them the same day. I remember that office, just a few desks and about 4 people. I remember a forlorn potted plant and a dusty map of Europe on the wall. I’d have never guessed that would become my home.
The books developed into a country-by-country format and I started using them to give me ideas on my own travels. Later, I sent a resume on a whim (bad day at the architecture firm) asking for a job of some kind, maybe as a guidebook writer? And somehow, I eventually got that job. I had no writing qualifications other than speaking passable Italian, a sense of reckless adventure, and the invincibility of youth. Actually, I’m pretty sure they gave me the job because nobody else could drive a stick shift.
All of this has given me the most stupidly wonderful career. I got a chance to travel all over and update guidebooks, later writing the first editions of the Tuscany book and the England book. Some of the most memorable experiences of my life have been doing guidebook research, and I’ve made friends along the way all over Europe.
I’ve had the privilege of learning to write directly from Rick Steves, Gene Openshaw, and Risa Laib, pretty much the best writers in the travel industry. It’s the writing in our books that makes them sparkle and have created an almost cult-like following. I’m proud to be one of the voices in that choir of writers (proud author of some of the worst jokes in the books.)
As for the Sicily book, it was a dream. But it wasn’t my dream. About 8 years ago, I was at a party for the tour guide staff and was chatting with my colleague Alfio Di Mauro. We became good friends somewhat because I’m shy–I usually hang out in shadows at parties, and he’d come and visit me in the corner. He’s from Sicily, a place I’d only been on a vacation.
Alfio is one of the most brilliant people I’ve met. He knows so much, is so passionate about his home, and has a knack for creating empathy and connection to it. Sicily is often presented in a singular context, as a home to the mafia. He wanted to change that idea and show the world how beautiful, historic, and diverse his home is. Looking at the island through his eyes, I saw a magic there that I’d hadn’t seen anywhere else.
Over many drinks, we came up with an idea: he wanted to write a Sicily book but didn’t have experience writing in English, and I wanted to write but didn’t know Sicily well. Why not do it together? We pitched the idea to Rick and he said to write some sample chapters. So we did.
We spent two months working on sample chapters, exploring the island and doing historical research. It was a wonderful time, and I saw the potential of a beautiful island that had no idea what tourism was. The chapters were good, but the proposal was ultimately turned down. It was disappointing, but in retrospect, Sicily was probably not ready. It has been changing so fast in recent years, keeping an accurate guidebook would have been impossible.
And then, 5 years later, the project came back around. In the meantime, I’d been going to Sicily as often as I could and started leading tours there. The book was always simmering. We kept the dream in the back of our minds, not giving up on it. Patience and perseverance payed off.
Last year, we dove in head first into designing a brand-new book. We drove every road, checked out every hotel, ate so much cannoli that I’m surprised I don’t weigh 300 pounds or have ricotta coming out of my ears. Some things came together easily and other things felt like trudging through molasses. Days were wasted in chasing down farmhouses near Enna that turned out to be creepy or looking for good places to taste olive oil in Castelvetrano (spoiler alert: there aren’t any.)
There were misadventures like when I was alone in the countryside and both scratched my rental car and smashed my iPhone in the same day. As I’ve told you before, I’m not much of a cryer, but there were more tears in the past year than I’d like to admit.
Occasionally, everything went beautifully and we gathered great info but putting those discoveries on paper wasn’t happening, I couldn’t find an approach or I was simply out of adjectives. Writing is a fickle art form that doesn’t always appear on command. Sometimes, things that we loved were not going to work for our readers. Sicily can be complicated if you don’t speak Italian, and it was important to step away and look at things from the perspective of a typical tourist. Sometimes we had to drink a lot of wine to find the best ones for the book, because, you know, it’s really about looking out for the readers.
The guidebook consumed our time. Alfio heroically juggled writing with me while working on the script and filming of new TV shows with Rick, while Rick (and later Cameron) worked with us on the book manuscript. I did tours of Sicily simultaneously and deputized my tour members as assistant guidebook researchers, collecting restaurant reviews and discoveries.
Guidebook writing sounds like a dream job and it is, but it’s hard work. February through June of last year are a blur of Sicily, laptops, tours, writing, rental cars. I came home for three weeks in the middle and sat in bed writing 16 hours a day. I ended up at my mom’s house for most of that time because somebody needed to feed me and make sure I bathed.
The team behind producing the book took me by surprise. It had just been Alfio and I floating around Sicily for so long, that when book production jumped into full gear I found we had a huge team working and relying on our information. I walked through the book department one day and saw almost everyone was working on a piece of it. Our crazy dream had an entire department making it happen. Geez, I felt so responsible, I really hoped it was turning out ok. I’m super grateful for our wonderful editors, Jen Davis and Cathy Lu, who persevered no matter how many times the curveballs got thrown at this project. I’m usually updating books, but starting from scratch is something else. We needed maps and photos and so many other things besides entertaining prose and my bad jokes.
Late in summer, the mark-ups came and things started taking shape. I almost cried the day our fantastic map maker, Dave Hoerline, showed me the first set of maps. They were exactly what I saw in my head and something no other guidebook had! Such a thing of beauty. A really beautiful map Alfio has made for his tours was transformed into a map that will help thousands of travelers have a better experience.
In December, the final proof of the book came back for corrections. Poor Alfio had gone on vacation, and spent most of it on the phone with me, hashing through every word of our manuscript. It was at that point that I realized that it would really never be done. It will always be a work in progress because there is so much we still want to do. (We are putting together a website adventuresinsicily.com for this purpose.)
The book has arrived in bookstores and our pictures are on the back cover. Wow. People are celebrating and commenting on how good it is (I agree, its really good). Honestly, I don’t know how to feel. It really reminds me of giving birth. It was so much work, physically and emotionally draining. Now that it’s here, I’m trying to smile for the camera with my beautiful newborn even if I’m exhausted, sweaty, and unsure about this new thing that I’m responsible for. Lives are going to change because of this, business will boom for the island. But what if someone with the book knocks over a Greek temple? What if someplace we’ve recommended rips people off or worse, serves overcooked pasta? So many questions and only time will tell.
So it’s here. A dream come true. I will say a prayer every night for the people out having an adventure with our book…may the hotel be clean and the directions be accurate, amen.
More than anything I am filled with gratitude. I’m grateful to Rick Steves for giving opportunities that allow me the weirdest and most adventurous life I could have imagined. I’m grateful for the family and friends that put up with my madness, and my co-workers that put in so many hours making this book shine. Most of all, I’m grateful to Alfio for having a beautiful vision, sharing it with me, and working together for 8 years to bring it to life. It’s so much more his than mine, but I’m glad I had a part in making that happen. May the sun shine upon our book, its readers, and may it bring a bright future to the island.
While our book is available at booksellers online, spend an extra buck or two and buy it from your local bookstore. Support independent booksellers (who can order it for you if they don’t have it) as they are an invaluable part of our communities. Grazie!