Interview: Cheryl Probst

Cheryl Probst is an award-winning photojournalist who has worked for newspapers in Oregon, Washington, Alaska and China. As a reporter, she concentrated on covering politics/government and natural resources. She is passionate about traveling, and has been in 43 of the 50 states and six Canadian provinces, as well as to Europe several times. She considers China her second home.

Enjoy this interview.

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Tell us a bit about yourself. Where are you from and how long have you been writing?

I am originally from Oregon, but lived in Alaska for eight years. I have lived mostly in Washington State since 1978, except for two years in Beijing and a few months each in western New York and back in Oregon. I wrote my first short story when I was in junior high school, and was devastated when a girls’ magazine rejected it. When I was in college, I began writing for the school newspaper and taking journalism courses after I finished my major requirements. My intent was to become a librarian, but I ran out of energy (and money) for a fifth year of college, so I applied for a reporting position at a small daily newspaper in southern Oregon. The rest is history. I never made it to librarian’s school. I’m retired from full-time employment now, and write to supplement my Social Security and because I enjoy it.

How did you get interested in travel and specifically, China? You’ve been to almost all the 50 states. Which ones have you yet to travel to and which ones have left the fondest memories in your mind?

I’ve just always traveled. When I was a kid, my family went to California a lot to see my dad’s best World War II buddy. Other family members took me on summer vacations around the Pacific Northwest. It seemed natural to continue to travel after I became an adult. I never really had a lot of interest in China until the spring of 1984. I owned a small weekly newspaper and one morning opened up an invitation to join a group of American journalists on a two-week tour of China, starting in Beijing and ending in Shanghai. The price was right and I was ready for a vacation, so I signed on. Little did I imagine then how life-changing that trip would turn out to be.

Some people collect stamps and others collect coins. I collect states. My goal is to set foot in all 50 United States; this goal will be met when I get to Kansas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Kentucky, Vermont, Rhode Island and Connecticut. Not counting the states I’ve lived in, I have really good memories of Montana, Wyoming and Colorado. The scenery is so beautiful.

I love that you’re also a photojournalist. How do you feel this influences your writing?

I was more or less forced into photography when I worked as a newspaper reporter. Someone had to take pictures to accompany my articles, and that someone turned out to be me. My first editor taught me a lot about what constitutes a good photo, and I still heed that advice from 40 years ago. Over the years, I’ve won many awards for my photos as well as for my writing. I was a late-comer to digital photography, but now I’ll never go back to film photography. It’s much easier to maintain a photo library on the computer. I’ve probably taken 15,000 photos of China over the years, and at least that many from other trips and outings. I carry a digital camera in my purse, so if I see an intriguing photo possibility, I can click away. Many of my photos have provided ideas for articles for writing projects. A lot of them end up on greeting cards and calendars; some day I’d like to sell these commercially, but for now, they’re just gifts.

Share some of your writing goals. What’s next for you?

I want to continue to write mini travel guides, such as my ones on Beijing. I’d like to expand into other areas of travel, including countries. That’s one of the reasons I chose to call my line of guidebooks Cheryl’s Guides because that title covers everything I could possibly want to write about in travel. My husband and I hope to eventually acquire a motor home and spend full-time traveling around the United States. I’m laying groundwork now so that I can write from the road and help pay our expenses.

What’s the most interesting book you’ve ever read?

I have been a voracious reader all my life, so picking out just one book is difficult. But I think I would nominate Alone on the Great Wall by William Lindesay, a British long-distance runner and photojournalist. This is an autobiographical book about Will’s quest to become the first person to run the length of the Great Wall in China. It’s filled with the trials and tribulations he encountered along his journey. I like it because it is so inspirational in teaching us we can reach our goals when times are tough if we just persevere. I worked with Will during my first year at China Daily in Beijing. This was Will’s first book about the Great Wall; he’s since gone on to write more books and is today considered one of the foremost Western experts on the Wall.

Favorite authors?

Too many too list, but they include Robert Ludlum, Patricia Cornwell, Nora Lofts, Jan Wong, Sidney Sheldon, Clive Cussler and James Michener.

Book you’re currently reading?

Three Roads to the Alamo by William C. Davis. It’s about the lives of Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie and William Travis, and how they converged at the Alamo.

Any type of writing ritual that you have?

I like to start writing about 5:30 – 6:30 a.m.. I’ll research and write for two to three hours, have breakfast, usually write some more, and then take off during the middle of the day to do things with my husband. If I feel like it, I’ll write some more in the late afternoon, but rarely in the evenings.

Do you believe in writer’s block? If so, how did you get past it? If not, why not?

When I was a newspaper reporter, I didn’t have time for writer’s block – there were just too many stories that needed to be written. Now, unless I have a deadline for a publication, if I don’t feel like writing some days, I don’t. If the weather is nice, I’ll go for a walk or ride my motor scooter to a park for a photo shoot. If the weather is bad, I’ll read a book or play the piano. A change of pace is always invigorating and makes me want to write when I’m done.

In your opinion, what is the measure of a successful writer?

Many people would say making a mint selling your writing to various publications. Been there, done that (though with only a thin mint). I write because I find it so satisfying. There have been times when I haven’t been able to write when or what I wanted, and I got really frustrated. Writing (and photography) satisfies my creative urges. I’ve learned a lot about travel in China over the years, and I like sharing this knowledge in my articles and mini-guides. I get positive feedback from my readers, so I know my words have been worthwhile.

Advice for other writers?

Write. Write. Write. Writing about what you know best is easiest, but challenge yourself by writing in other subjects or genres. (I spent more than five years working for a personal injury attorney, writing demand packages for injured clients for submission to insurance companies. How many ways can you say “whiplash”? More than I thought!) You can never write too much. Work with a good editor and heed her advice.

Where else can be learn more about you?

My website on travel in China, with emphasis on Beijing, is www.cherylschina.webs.com. My profile on Suite101.com also includes other writing experience. My freelance writing/editing services site is www.wordsetc.webs.com.

Pictured: Cheryl Probst with her husband Jon Teal.

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