In our 10th edition of Behind the Byline, our interview series helping you get to know the journalists who bring you the news, we talk to travel and outdoors writer Crystal Paul about living many lives, her jump from neuroscience to the arts, and what's missing from most travel writing.
The public schools Crystal Paul attended growing up were mostly poor. The only option for Career Day was taking students to hotels to shadow bellhops and maids. Paul will never forget her first teacher who defied that pattern.
It was fifth grade. The teacher brought in a panel of professionals to speak about their careers, including a journalist. Feeling inspired afterward, Paul told her teacher she wanted to be a reporter, and he encouraged her to start a class newspaper.
“It was called the Room 211 News,” Paul said. “It was terrible. It was terrible. Interviews about people’s favorite colors — like, truly awful, truly terrible stuff.” That may be, but she’s learned a lot between covering room 211 and becoming The Seattle Times’ travel writer.
Q: How did you first become interested in journalism?
Somewhere around awareness kicking in, I became cognizant of the idea of choice, and it frustrated me because I realized that if I chose one thing, it meant that I could never experience the choice of the other thing. I felt like the more I lived, the narrower the path would be getting for me and I would just constantly be missing all these things.
[The journalist visiting my fifth-grade Career Day] described her job as, “I basically get to get a preview of different people’s ways of living, and I get to experience this job and that job.” I thought, ‘So this may be the only job where you get to live many lives.’
It kind of answered that question for me, because there was not one thing I wanted to do. In journalism, especially I think in features, you get the chance to really explore a bunch of different lives. (And if that fails, you just read a lot of fiction.)
Q: You wanted to be a journalist from a young age, and you worked at the student newspapers in high school and at Yale University, but your degree is in neuroscience. How did that jump from science to arts and culture — which people often think are opposite sides of a coin — happen for you?
I think the bigger question is how I got into neuroscience, honestly, because that was the one that came out of left field. I had been doing writing and literature my whole life. The thing that attracted me to neuroscience was basically trying to get as intimate as possible with people’s minds and the different ways that people think and live. People are so incredibly different, and again, it was just about accessing different lives.
Neuroscience was one way of understanding that. That certainly informed a lot of the ways that I think about people, but the realization came eventually that as much as you can dig into the details, get down to the neurons of how people think, you don’t really get any access to the real reasons why they do stuff until you talk to them.
That seems like an obvious thing, but I think when you marry those two ideas, you really get to the core of what makes us all the same and what makes us so wildly different.
Q: How did you become interested in travel writing specifically?
Travel has just always been a part of my life. I kind of grew up on the road. My mother has a really hard time staying in one place, and I guess she kind of infected me with the bug, because ever since we were very young, we’ve just been traveling all over the place — usually by car, usually across the entire United States, and usually with the car packed full of all of our belongings and barely enough money to get where we’re going.
It’s a very different kind of travel than what I see in luxury travel magazines or even Instagram photos. Because of that, I didn’t really start writing about any sort of traditional travel. I wrote some personal essays and they were about my life and they happened to also be about travel.
You don’t often see representations of what travel means to literally the majority of the world — which usually comes from a place of desperation, refuge, trying to find a new life. I think that is travel, too, and it deserves representation.
Q: What would you say is missing in most travel writing?
I just think travel is the different ways that we move around in the world, the different ways that we approach new places. It’s literally leaving your comfort and going to a place where you are completely new. I think that embodies both rich people jet-setting — which I have no disdain for, I promise — but also people crossing borders with their families.
There are incredible differences, obviously, but you’re removing yourself from a place that you know well and dropping yourself into a place where you know very little. I think we need to broaden what we think of as travel, because right now, it’s pretty exclusive to one segment of the population to which I don’t belong and many other people don’t belong.
Q: How do you prepare for an assignment, to go somewhere new?
When you’re going to that place, and you look up what you should be doing there, you’re gonna find the stuff that everyone else has been doing there. That can be good in some ways, seeing what people enjoyed, but it’s a lot of the same stuff.
When I’m preparing, I like to look at those just to know what there is to do there. Then I have to leave enough time to literally just walk around and do my own thing, go to bars and talk to people.
The second thing I do is determine if I need to bring my white-appearing husband and take any special safety precautions, because a lot of the places I go to are not always friendly to people who don’t look like them. I’m often traveling alone as a person of color, which I think would be less of a problem for some others, who wouldn’t have to consider something like, “Are these people potentially going to not serve me or, you know, do actual physical harm to me?” The difference between how people treat me on the phone versus when I actually show up is staggering sometimes.
Q: You said that if all else fails, you read a lot, and that it can influence how you travel and where. What are you reading now?
Right now I’m reading Italy stuff because I’m going to Italy and I want to know as much as possible.
I think, honestly, fiction often gives you a better sense of a place. Read a lot of fiction by people from that place and read a lot of history before going.
A little secret: I don’t read travel guides.
NOTABLE STORIES BY CRYSTAL PAUL
Despite some opposition, drag shows have helped draw support for the region’s LGBTQIA community. (August 13, 2018)
Get to know Oakland through its unique history of community, solidarity, and music — and the people who make it what it is. (June 28, 2018)
You know Whistler, B.C., as a resort town. But with support for disabled athletes and a strong LGBTQ presence, it’s also on the cutting edge of inclusive outdoors programming. (July 5, 2018)
In Tanzania, a team of climbers co-led by a Seattelite are casually making history: They’re about to become the first all-black expedition team from the U.S. to take on Africa’s tallest peak, Mount Kilimanjaro. (June 14, 2018)
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