We invited long-time travel writer Colin Thubron to answer a few questions about his career as a travel writer. He is the author of many novels and travel books, including To a Mountain in Tibet and Shadow of the Silk Road. In 2008, The Times ranked him among the 50 greatest postwar British writers. He has won many awards and his books have been translated into more than twenty languages.
How did you first become interested in writing travel books?
Colin Thubron: As a child I fell in love with words (and wrote bad poetry). My father worked in the USA and Canada, and I spent school holidays in these great lake and forest landscapes, which gave me an enduring fascination with abroad.
How did you manage to get your first travel book published?
I took a chance. On a youthful journey I had became fascinated with the inland cities of Syria, so I settled in Damascus for several months, living cheaply with an Arab family. I knew that no travel book had been written on Damascus for more than a century. I was lucky to find an enthusiastic publisher in Heinemann.
What is your writing process like, both on the road and at home? And how long does it take you to write a book?
I do at least a year’s research beforehand, which helps to shape the journey, and I make lavish notes on the road (since my memory is average). I don’t like this note-taking – it turns the journey self-conscious – but I can’t escape it: descriptions take their life from the detail, and I would forget too much if I didn’t record it. The writing of the book itself is done on my return, in quiet. The whole process takes about three years.
What travel books or travel authors influence or inform your own work?
My early influences were Robert Byron, Freya Stark and Patrick Leigh Fermor. I suspect I responded to other authors because my style was already a naïve version of theirs, and they fed it. Now, of course, they have become absorbed into my own way of writing, and I am no longer conscious of them.
What advice would you give to someone interested in writing a travel book?
I’m tempted to say: don’t! It consumes a lot of energy for (probably) little money. All the same, it’s marvelous. Travel books take so many forms that its hard to generalize, but I would say: follow your enthusiasms rather than any formula; be brave; learn at least a little of the language of where you’re going; take notes on the road.
What is so appealing about the travel book as a literary form?
It is unlike any other genre. It may allow the reader open access to its writer’s mind and heart. It admits to its own subjectivity. It is the only genre that can portray a country or a culture through the senses as well as the intellect.
Why write about travel?
It has the value of first-hand experience. This gives its own intimate understanding. In an increasingly fragmented world, the value of this may be very great.