How to Turn a Thesis into a Travel Memoir

by Travel Writing World
From Thesis to Travel Memoir

Graduates of Ph.D. programs often hope to land a book contract for their theses and dissertations. But their books, written by and for subject-matter specialists on a narrow topic, typically don’t have wide appeal. In this article, Michelle Lawson shares her experiences transforming her academic thesis into a travel memoir more appropriate for the mass market. Matador Books published her book A House at the End of the Track: Travels Among the English in the Ariège Pyrenees in 2019.

Ten years ago, when finalizing a topic for my Ph.D., I was tempted away from educational topics towards an area of personal interest: a particularly British aspiration to escape the crowded and unaffordable UK by moving to France. For a supposed “dream,” it was full of conflict and myths about the English-speaking communities invading rural France and congregating in ghettos. They were stereotyped as monolingual and over-dependent on each other. Online forums brimmed with conflict between established residents and the newer incomers and I saw scope for an academic study of the way in which people strove to be seen as “the right kind” of British migrant in France. Narrowing my focus to English incomers in the Ariège Pyrenees, I traveled around interviewing them, completing a Ph.D. in Applied Linguistics from Lancaster University in 2015. 

Towards the end of my Ph.D. defense, the two examiners closed the thesis and told me that I ought to write a book. Was this a gentle letting down? Had I failed the defense, because the thesis was too much like a book? No, they said. I had passed, but the material was so interesting that it would make a good book as well as a thesis.

After reading Paul Theroux’s Deep South, I realized that I had something similar–a road trip seeking to uncover fictions and myths. In my case, the myths were the clichés about the British in France. I decided to rewrite the study as a travel narrative. My notes about cycling around, driving up hairpin mountain roads and climbing summits could be woven into the conversations I’d had with the English incomers in their houses and gardens. 

Photo Courtesy Michelle Lawson

And yet I needed to do more than recount people’s conversations. The original themes would add structure, but I didn’t want to bore the reader with social theory. Instead, I replaced the themes with chapter headings using the words of the incomers. The chapter Have a photograph taken with the English brought together some of the most positive incomers, such as a couple whose Englishness cast them as village celebrities. We did it all wrong recounted experiences of those for whom the dream had soured.

Even the original academic “literature review” could be replaced with something more interesting. Most British readers would be aware of the “moving to France” genre of Peter Mayle and other writers, so I wrote a brief critique of the genre, which framed the travel book as a quest to find out what it’s really like when you cast aside the romantic lens. That gave it a recognizable purpose.

I also had the opportunity to include more personal aspects that I’d left out of the original study. People were expecting a formal interviewer, but what they sometimes got was a perspiring cyclist. Nervous of driving on the Pyrenean backroads, I often pulled the bike out of the car for the last sections, and that turned out to be a good strategy for breaking the ice during a late summer heatwave. Once they’d got over their surprise, they invariably rushed away to fetch me a cold drink, and the interview usually ended with an invitation to return for a meal.

Photo Courtesy Michelle Lawson

I’d worried that using a voice recorder might put people off, but everyone was happy to open up about their experiences, even when the move hadn’t turned out well. Rather than relying on hastily scribbled notes, I had hours of transcribed conversations, including some disparaging comments about the “other” incomers who stuck to their English ways. More fascinating was the creative ways they used to explain their own contradictory behavior. People talked about a duty to show the French what the English eat, and they blamed the French for not understanding their pronunciation. By largely letting the dialogue speak for itself, the reader could come away with their own interpretations of these contradictions.

There’s a belief that this kind of lifestyle migration is essentially a middle-class phenomenon, for people who are privileged. Certainly, the incomers I spoke with were all white and able to purchase property, but privilege is relative. Some were finding it difficult to manage, complaining to me about having to save up to buy petrol for a day trip to the coast. Another couple found their British pension didn’t go far in France and looked around for cleaning jobs.  The original analysis highlighted many ways in which the incomers could be vulnerable: to the economy, to exchange rates, to illness, to family needs, to poor language skills, and to political uncertainty. I felt this was also relevant to the book, but in a different way; not to frighten people away from moving to France, but to balance out the stereotypes.

Photo Courtesy Michelle Lawson

During my fieldwork, I’d come across a more alternative group of incomers, people from all around the world who’d gathered in barely habitable barns dotted around the Pyrenean foothills. There were faint parallels with the English incomers, as the essence of every move was a search for a more rewarding or meaningful life, although the result was usually very different. As I began to spend more time with the alternatives, or neo-ruraux, in their tumbledown barns, eating food they’d filched from supermarket skips, I began to feel more drawn to them than the English in their comfortable renovated houses. There had been no room to bring them into the academic study, but in the travel memoir, I was free to integrate the material as a contrast to the English incomers, offering a through-the-looking-glass alternative reality to the romantic dream of a new life in France.

By the time the travel memoir was published, many of the people I’d met had already left the Ariège, having moved elsewhere for work, for family, or to be among English speakers. Some had come to the Ariège knowing nothing beyond it being cheap enough to buy a large house at an affordable price. They’d come to inhabit a dream rather than a place, and when the place took over the dream, it was not always what they’d imagined.

By Michelle Lawson

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Last Updated on 20 September 2020 by Travel Writing World

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