Christopher Somerville stops by Travel Writing World to answer a few questions about his career as a writer. He is the walking correspondent of The Times and the author of The View from the Hill: Four Seasons in a Walker’s Britain (Haus Publishing 2021).
How did you first become interested in writing travel books?
I’d been writing books of country walks for nearly ten years when I realised there were longer, deeper stories to be told. I could talk at length to people I met – farmers, fishermen, shepherds, countryside wardens – and incorporate their verbatim opinions and accounts of their day-to-day lives to enrich the mixture. And the luxury of having 80,000 or 100,000 words to play with meant I could go a lot further and see a lot more. Also – I was desperate to get out of teaching!
How did you manage to get your first travel book published?
I was having lunch with my editor at Grafton Books – yes, it was so far back that editors gave you lunch! – and he suddenly asked, ‘What’s next?’ I hadn’t even thought about it. I just grabbed at the first subject that came to mind. “Er … islands? A … um, a journey round the offshore islands of Britain?” He said, “Sounds good.” And then I had the sobering shock of finding out just how many islands there were round our shores – several thousand. That kicked off a couple of years of travel by land, sea and air, and I fell in love with the freedom and hard work of it.
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?
On the road I take masses of notes every day as I walk and talk, scribbling in a notebook. My wife travels and works with me, and I’d say that at least half of all the observations and queries in the notebook are down to her. Usually at the end of the day she’ll drive to our night stop while I sit in the passenger seat juggling map, notebook, pen and writing pad, transcribing my notes longhand into better English.
At home I have to motivate myself, usually fairly late in the deadline, to sit down and complete the book, again with notebooks and maps to hand. I’ll have sent scans of my writing to our typist, who’ll send it back looking neater and better. Then I have to polish it up to a fit stage to be sent to the publisher.
I knock off for the day earlier than I used to. When I started writing for a living, I’d drive north through the night for a few hours, walk and take notes till lunchtime, write it up, walk and take notes till nightfall, then write that up after dinner. Maybe 3,000 words by the end of the day. A crazy schedule, motivated by the need to get enough advance money to pay the bills, which necessitated taking on two or three books at a time. But also through the adrenalized excitement of actually being out of the classroom and exploring in the open air, doing something I loved that someone in London wanted to publish!
It takes me a couple of years from getting an idea accepted to seeing the book in my hand.
What books or authors influence or inform your own work?
When I’m writing a book, I avoid reading anything by anyone that even remotely treads the same territory. That’s because I don’t want their wonderful prose and insights slopping around in my psyche while I’m trying to cut my own path through the word jungle. I fear I’ll measure every phrase and notion of mine against theirs, and come up short. Or worse, realise after publication that I’ve recycled their work, like George Harrison with “My Sweet Lord.”
There are so many fabulous travel writers I’ve loved. Just to pick a couple at random – John Hillaby for learning worn lightly in Journey Through Britain, Edward Thomas for poetic writing in The South Country, John Lewis-Stempel for describing with economical grace his practical experiments that benefit ponds, woods and fields, and Caroline Crampton for catching the essence of the lower Thames, without psychogeographical flimflam, in The Way to the Sea.
What advice would you give to someone interested in writing a travel book?
Don’t pretend. Write because you have picked a subject you are really interested in, rather than one that’s on trend. You don’t have to preach environmental disaster or any other orthodoxy; unless you really have something new to say, it’s better just to lead your reader off to have some fun. Give yourself lots of time, including several blank days, to go off-piste and off-schedule, because that’s when the magic often happens. Do lots of reading beforehand, and don’t think it’s wasted if you can’t see how to shoehorn all your research in – it will have added depth to your thinking and spice to your writing anyway. And catch it all hot – write up those notes, however tired or tipsy you are. The essence of what you’ve just heard/smelt/felt will have slipped away by morning.
I can’t say I always abide by these fine strictures!
What is so appealing about the travel book as a literary form?
You are going somewhere, literally. If the writing is good enough, it doesn’t matter where. There is a superabundance of material to work with – people, cities, landscapes, history, present situations, weather, literature, music, dancing, drinking, eating. A kaleidoscope of sensations, all being shaken into shape by the writer. The writer’s own introspections, musings, insights, humour, colouring in a picture of the author that may or may not be true to life. The battle between authorial ego and the truth of the place that’s being evoked.
Why write about travel?
Because no-one wants to publish my masterpiece of a novel, or hear my political insights, or read my biography of Isaac Bashevis Singer. Which is by way of saying – I love it, and it satisfies me, and there’s no limit to the subjects I can choose. And for the best reason of all, which is getting a letter from a stranger saying they read my book, and went off to see for themselves, and found not just what I had written about but other things that delighted them as well.
Christopher Somerville stops by Travel Writing World to answer a few questions about his career as a writer. He is the walking correspondent of The Time and the author of The View from the Hill: Four Seasons in a Walker’s Britain (Haus Publishing 2021).
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