How did you first become interested in writing travel books?
I’ve been a fan of engaging travel writing for as long as I can remember. My favorite book as a child was The Animals’ Boat Ride, a story of mildly adventurous travel in which, unsurprisingly, all the travellers are animals. Years later, I wrote nonfiction books and travelled a fair bit, becoming a lover of travel lit in the process. So I started travel writing to keep a fun record for myself as much as anything and published a travel memoir to share with friends, who claimed they enjoyed it. Then some decent reviews came in, and I figured I might be on to something.
How did you manage to get your first travel book published?
I self-published my first travel book with an indie label I created for other books I’d written. That first foray into travel writing was a modest project I only intended to share with a small audience, and I was relishing an artistic freedom to say whatever I wanted, however I chose to say it. It was a creative metamorphosis as I went from writing conservatively to seriously loosening the reins.
What is your writing process like, both on the road and at home? And how long does it take you to write a book inclusive of the research, travel, writing, and editing phases?
My first travel book (a musical memoir) was a ten-year project, inclusive of travel, research, and writing. The next book took eight years, so I like to joke at this rate I should be able to bang out the next one in a mere six! My process tends to blend reading with real time journaling and research, whether I’m on the road. When I leave, I usually have a mental framework as to where I intend to go and what I hope to see. But invariably travel (or at least good travel) deviates from plans, although that intent helps to organize thoughts, stimulate creativity and ensure I maintain an openness to serendipity and discovery along the way. Oftentimes I’m hammering notes into my phone but I still love writing with a pencil or pen in a small journal; those paper touchstones become as treasured as favourite photos and collected memories.
What travel books or travel authors influence or inform your own work?
Not only do I enjoy their work but feel I’ve grown immeasurably as a writer by reading Anna Badkhen, Robert Macfarlane, Monisha Rajesh, Tim Winton and Michael Palin, along with Jan Morris, Patrick Leigh Fermor, Mark Twain, Paul Theroux, and Bill Bryson, some of whom I’ve been privileged to visit with and thank for their inspiration and positive influence. Too many to name, but some of my favorite writers are Colin Thubron, Erling Kagge, Sophy Roberts, Teju Cole (not strictly travel, but I feel he writes as a walker), Bruce Chatwin, Rebecca Solnit. Probably my favorite travel book, if you can call it that, is The Rings of Saturn, by W.G. Sebald.
What advice would you give to someone interested in writing a travel book?
I’d reiterate the timeless, invaluable advice: read, read, read. And never stop honing your craft. Read as much as you can, and, although I didn’t have this for my book, have a very clear idea of what you want to write (i.e. a proposal) before you do your trip.
What is so appealing about the travel book as a literary form?
I believe the appeal lies in our ability to accompany articulate writers who’re observant, insightful, cognisant travellers on their various journeys; in other words, vicariously travelling with individuals whose “company” we enjoy from the liberating comfort of anywhere! I think it’s interesting what is possible with a travel book: it allows connections between so many ideas: place, history, personal journey and so on. I find it exciting thinking about the ways I can bring those ideas together, with the thread of the journey giving them structure, to tell new stories in surprising ways.
Why write about travel?
Travel (I feel) represents opportunity and potential. It has nothing to do with distances covered, passport stamps or pins in a map. Travel can take place in a solitary, stationary room. A window’s ideal, and perhaps a hot beverage, but neither of those indulgences are essential. The world remains our figurative oyster: a place to imagine, discover and contemplate, expand our perspective and perpetually grow. Writing about it is a means of consideration, extrapolation, artistry and sharing. I strongly believe that through travel writing we have the ability to shrink the world in the most positive way, eliminating perceived differences or barriers. It has the potential to be one of the most beneficial, influential means that we as a writing community have to make this place a little bit better.
If you enjoyed this interview with Bill Arnott, you might enjoy our author profiles section for more behind-the-scenes interviews with authors of travel books.