Meet the team: Zara Joan Miller
An insight into what makes our globetrotting polymath of a Features Editor tick
Zara was one of the first people I met during my time interning at Boat Magazine. It was during that period, under the mentorship of the marvellous Erin and Davey Spens that I also met Chris and Craig of She Was Only. Zara was, and remains, a contributing editor at Boat and I could see from the start why Erin and Davey took so much pleasure in having her involved in the magazine. She’s tremendously smart, warm, insightful and a brilliant writer. During our time in Athens in September 2012 for the fourth issue of Boat, it was compelling to see the stories she uncovered and how she worked them. A beautifully pitched piece about a day spent immersed in a traditional Greek wedding remains one of my favourite Boat features of all time.
As we were getting stuck in to Issue Two, I met with Za outside Euston train station. Sat for twenty minutes or so on the benches separating the station from the perpetually over-subscribed Nando’s, I asked her if she would be willing to lend her editorial skills to intern. Suitably thrilled with her response we set about making what I feel is, for the most part, a really strong issue. One of the toughest parts of making the magazine is trying to ensure that a broad range of perspectives are clearly and effectively communicated. Zara is brilliant at taking a pitch or a draft and distilling it into perfect pitch and tone for the magazine, so it’s a joy to have her part of the team.
Her desire for exploration means that there’s always a new adventure round the corner, a new culture to learn about and a new plan for world domination (which I’m convinced she will achieve). It was a joy to quiz her on her work and plans earlier this week and a lovely opportunity to give you guys an insight into one of the people whose expertise (and patience) make the magazine what it is.
Although you’re Features Editor here at intern, you’re a bit of a polymath: a freelance editor, writer and illustrator. Did you know from an early age that it was the creative and publishing sphere that you wanted to work in?
I think I’ve always known I wanted to do something creative, but trying to figure out my place in that big old sphere took time. I remember feeling really crestfallen when I was 16 and someone told me you couldn’t earn a living being a poet! It totally threw me, this idea that creativity had to be financially viable. Figuring out how to make money from your passion is a challenge a lot of people have to face. What I knew for sure was that I loved to tell stories and that instinct hasn’t wained. Writing and film were worlds I wanted to be involved in, so I entered the publishing world through these, kind of by default.
After university, you interned at cult indie movie mag Little White Lies, what did you take from that experience?
I feel very grateful for that internship. The guys at LWLies are so great, they really threw me into the deep end. On my third day I was sent to interview film director Rachel Athena Tsangari at this fancy hotel (mint in the water, hand towels in the bathroom). I was terrified, lugging around this big old PC in my back pack, trying to be professional. They put so much trust in me not screwing it up it was incredible. By the end of the week I’d met Bruce Springsteen! I’ve had so many great opportunities since I started writing for them. But seeing my words published for the first time really meant the world to me.
We met as you worked with (and still do) the wonderful Erin and Davey Spens at Boat Magazine. What drew you to Boat initially and what have been the highlights of working on it these past few years?
I met Erin and Davey soon after Erin had her little girl, Etta, and was looking for an editorial assistant to help on the third issue of Boat. Finding a job that offered me the chance to write and travel was a total dream come true. The first issue we worked on was the London Issue…so the travel part came later. Over the six issues/cities that followed, Kyoto is definitely a highlight for me. Meditating in a temple with a Buddhist priest, bathing in a traditional bath house with a bunch of naked old ladies, sitting on the floor eating emperor’s sushi. Plus Erin and Davey have become very good friends and I’m infinitely grateful to them for instilling the travel bug in me. Erin’s always quoting – “don’t be encumbered by history, go off and do something wonderful” – and that has become a sort of mantra to me.
Speaking of your love of travel, how much does that tend to influence your creative output? Does the process tend to see you pick a destination or adventure first and document it after or do you follow the story?
With Boat, there has to be an element of planning – we generally have an idea of the stories we want to cover before we leave home, but they often change shape on the ground. With my personal travel writing, the process is often more instinctual. I’ll feel drawn to a place and figure out the details as I go. Last year I travelled to America on a cargo ship because I wanted to get to Joshua Tree without flying. I’ve met some really inspirational characters not doing things the easiest way, the kind of people I couldn’t write unless I had put myself in these situations.
Travel journalism is a highly desirable gig due to the obvious perks, what have been your experiences so far in terms of the challenges and the thrills?
When you start it’s hard to stop. That’s probably the biggest thrill and challenge combined, that kind of narcotic effect travelling can have. I’m constantly thinking about my next trip. There’s really not much money in travel journalism, so I often have to pick up odd jobs to make it work financially. But it’s always worth it. It can be challenging leaving home sometimes, but I don’t really feel tied to a place at the moment, so that works for me for now too. My expectations have changed in the last few years. I used to want a house and a cat, now I want a car and a dog.
You’re illustrating a children’s book at the moment too, how did you get into that and what can you tell us about the project?
It’s a great project. I drew a little whale a while back to go with a story I’d written about The Arctic for Boat, and author Catherine Carlile got in touch and asked me to illustrate her children’s book. I fell in love with her story – about a little boy called Rufus who looses his favourite shoes in the sea. It’s been really enjoyable and I’ve learnt a lot about how to boil a story down to the purely visual. That’s been really interesting for me.
With moving around a lot and working across a number of different disciplines, do you have any specific goals for the future or is the variety in your working day a goal in itself?
I love the variety, it keeps me from getting bored. I think our generation has been brought up being told that we can be Jacks of all trades so I’m embracing that. There is always the risk of mastering none, however, so for now I’m trying to focus on the writing. I’m writing a book about my trip to Joshua Tree last year, slowly but surely, so that’s my big goal.
What projects do you have on the horizon that you can tell us about?
Next week I’m going to Australia to road trip into the outback with a friend I met in New Orleans. I’ll be writing about that for a couple of magazines.
For more on Zara’s projects and adventures, head to: