I think I was 13 or 14 when I first read Douglas Adams’ ‘Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy’. In it Arthur Dent asks about the experience of travelling through hyperspace. Ford Prefect tells him: ‘It’s unpleasantly like being drunk.’ “What’s so wrong about being drunk?” “Ask a glass of water.” I didn’t know the difference between an adjective and a passive verb at the time (I don’t think I’d even been drunk), but I remember being awe-struck, and it was my first inkling of what you can make language do.
When did you start writing?
In my twenties I got into the movies of Hal Hartley and wrote lots of short screenplays featuring that terse (annoyingly self-aware) language. Then I studied philosophy and my sentences suddenly became half a page long. Fortunately my first work in journalism (and Harold Evans’ ‘Essential English’) cured me of that, though I still think a well-constructed half-page of relative clauses, even if it owes more to architecture than writing, is a thing of beauty.
What do you enjoy more, the writing or the research?
As a travel writer the keyword is obviously ‘travel’, so I guess I have more fun during my research than Proust did. The added benefit of travel writing is that, if you keep your eyes open, the book writes itself (Paul Theroux says that his books are pretty much finished by the time he gets home). I enjoy the writing part in the same way I imagine any writer does when they know they’ve nailed a sentence, but I’ll take the mayhem of an Indian train station over the suffocating silence of a library any day.
What’s the secret to good research?
As in journalism; say ‘yes’ to everything. Some invitations will be a waste of time or will involve sitting through boring dinners or will just be a good night out. Some will result in great copy, useful interviews, or contacts with potential interviewees, but even when you find something worth using, all the other stuff is still important background. Research is as much a form of osmosis as actively looking for ‘that’ quote.
What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever been given?
‘Write like you talk.’ I’ll probably sound like an idiot for saying this but when I started writing I thought the writer’s ‘voice’ was a synonym for ‘style’. I spent years trying to ‘develop’ a voice, until a writer friend of mine overheard me explaining the synopsis of something I was working on and said, “Write like you talk.” ‘Voice’ actually just meant ‘voice’? A forehead slapping moment! Since then I read everything out loud (my girlfriend is a saint) and if it sounds forced or unnatural I bin it. When a friend who reads a passage says they can ‘hear me saying it’, that’s when I know it’s me writing.
Where do you write?
Hemmingway lamented the way writers in 1920’s Paris would take to the cafes with pen and paper and try to ‘look’ like writers. “When did writing become performance art?” he asked (somewhat dishonestly). But I like cafes. There’s something about the background hubbub that keeps me focused. When travelling, a café is often the only option, and my inability to learn languages is the perfect foil for distraction. Hemmingway’s criticism doesn’t apply today anyway since everyone else in the café also has a laptop. I wish I was the kind of person who could lock themselves away in a garret for three months and come out with a manuscript (I’d save a fortune on coffee), but I need energy around me to focus.
What do you read?
I’m a terrible workaholic and feel guilty if I’m reading for pleasure (there, I said it), though reading non-fiction for research is learning, which is a pleasure in itself (like I said, my girlfriend is a saint). As a travel writer you need that factual background or work just becomes a ‘What I did on my summer holidays’ blog. I seek out subjects rather than writers, though if the subject has been well written, I’ll read more by that writer (Thomas Pakenham should be chained to a typewriter until his fingers are bloodied stumps). I inhale good journalists’ memoirs; ‘The Media Relations Department of Hizbollah Wishes You a Happy Birthday’ by Neil MacFarquhar is a fascinating look at today’s Middle East. Jeremy Bowen’s ‘War Stories’ and Jon Swain’s ‘River of Time’ are guilty pleasures (because my childhood dream job was war correspondent). I also love an intelligent polemic, so the death of Christopher Hitchens (and Howard Zinn for similar reasons) was very sad. I don’t read a great many ‘travel’ books.
You’re a travel writer. How can you not read travel books?
Travel writing is an odd genre because it doesn’t really know what it is. With the exception of books that chart a left foot, right foot expedition to climb a mountain or cross a desert, most travel books use the journey to explain something else (William Dalrymple’s ‘To the Holy Mountain’), or use something else to explain the journey (Alain de Botton’s ‘The Art of Travel). But good travel writing looks at history, food, art, contemporary politics, sport and any other non-fiction genre you can think of. People often read travel books because they want to learn something about the destination through a more narrative medium than a guidebook (and a travel writer can inform without becoming a guidebook. There’s a big difference between ‘Take a scarf’ and ‘If only I’d brought a scarf’, but the reader will probably still pack a scarf), so a travel writer must be a jack of all genres alongside the events, characters, and pen portraits of their journey - hence my non-fiction bookshelf.
‘More than Footprints’ deals with some pretty serious issues, why are reviewers calling it “hilarious” and “laugh out loud”?
The tourism industry is in such a laughable mess that the only way to approach it was through comic writing. Some of the issues are so serious - the shocking nature of voluntourism in Cambodia, for example - that if I wasn’t laughing, I’d be crying. And I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t using comedy to gift-wrap the issues. One reader said that the book was ‘like leaving a thumb tack on a bouncy castle’. I loved that comment.
Sum up the book in one sentence.
Charlie Brooker, Salvador Dali, Bill Bryson and Christopher Hitchens get drunk on an Indian second-class sleeper train and write a book on the Third Reich. How’s that?
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