How did you first become interested in writing travel books?
I’ve been a keen traveller all my adult life, and have always written in one form or another, so I suppose it was inevitable that the two things would come together sooner or later. I was also a staff editor at the Rough Guides, so that probably also encouraged me to try my hand. But the discovery that the ancient Amber Route ran through many places where my ancestors lived gave me the idea of combining a travelogue with a family memoir.
How did you manage to get your first travel book published?
I was lucky to meet a young, keen and energetic agent, who was just starting to build a stable of authors. We had plenty of rejections before he finally got a deal. Most were politely regretful; the recurrent theme was “It’s a very good book, but not commercial enough.” One editor at a major publishing house said, “Five years ago I’d have signed this at the drop of a hat, but these days it’s too niche.” Then the book was accepted by Robert Davidson at Sandstone Press, and they have made a brilliant job of producing and promoting 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?
Along the Amber Route was a long time in gestation. After the initial idea and a couple of exploratory trips, I was commissioned to write other books, and had to set the project to one side. The actual writing took about three years. I did a lot of research before setting out, and did most of the travelling in the course of 2015. On the road, I wrote in pocket notebooks, on buses, trains, in restaurants, bars and hotel rooms–sometimes just scribbled notes, sometimes whole paragraphs of descriptive writing. Back home I typed these up–a key stage in the writing process for me–and then started to shape, flesh out and polish the text. I edited the manuscript at least three times before submitting the final draft.
What travel books or authors influence or inform your own work?
I had read and admired writers such as Patrick Leigh Fermor and Ryszard Kapuściński, and the late Michael Jacobs was a great friend and mentor, but I can’t say I was primarily inspired by travel books. Lots of different genres–history, memoir, fiction–went into the mix. I think the most interesting travel writing lies at the interface between genres–think of Chatwin or Sebald, for example. How do you categorize them? Are they travelogue, psychogeography, or fiction? Or Kathleen Jamie’s Sightlines? Is that travelogue, memoir, or nature writing?
What advice would you give to someone interested in writing a travel book?
It’s not enough just to go somewhere and describe it–there has to be a strong underlying motive, a unique perspective. Ask yourself what connects you to a place, and what you alone can bring to writing about it. If the genre is to have a future, it has to move beyond the old model of intrepid (usually posh) chaps venturing into parts of the globe labeled “Here be dragons” and explaining their strange ways to the folks back home. I’m glad to say this is changing, and am encouraged by the publication of books such as Johny Pitts’s Afropean, Jini Reddy’s Wanderland and Taran Khan’s Shadow City, which show that there’s still life–and the capacity to evolve–in this old genre.
What is so appealing about the travel book as a literary form?
The narrative of a journey is one of the oldest and most compelling of literary forms in almost every culture, from the Odyssey and the Ramayana, Marco Polo, Ibn Battuta, and the Chinese epic Journey to the West, to the present. It provides a clear trajectory that can encompass so much along the way: history, culture, reportage, politics, social commentary, satire, memoir, nature writing. It’s a genre with porous boundaries, which gives it great creative potential.
Why write about travel?
To understand the world we live in, and to share that understanding–or at least the search for it–with others. This seems more necessary than ever in a time of growing political nativism and insularity. Michael Palin put it eloquently at the 2017 Stanford Dolman Awards: “Travel writing hopefully opens doors, when doors are being closed rather abruptly at the moment.”
If you enjoyed this interview with CJ Schuler, you might enjoy our author profiles section for more behind-the-scenes interviews with authors of travel books.