Mark Weston stops by Travel Writing World to answer a few questions about his career as a writer. He is the author of The Saviour Fish: Life and Death on Africa’s Greatest Lake (Earth Books 2022), a Daily Telegraph Travel Book of 2022. You can find out more about his work on his website.
How did you first become interested in writing travel books?
I caught the travel bug quite young from my parents and in my teens I used to devour travel books by authors like Bruce Chatwin, VS Naipaul, Jonathan Raban and Hemingway. I did a correspondence course in travel writing in my early 20s and enjoyed that, but it wasn’t until my late 30s that I finally got around to writing a book. That was the West Africa travel memoir The Ringtone and the Drum, and having written lots of academic papers and reports for think tanks and organisations like the UN in my day job as an international development consultant, travel writing felt like a refreshing change.
How did you manage to get your first travel book published?
It was a real grind. I spent months trying to find a literary agent, and when I finally found one she couldn’t quite get the book over the line with any publishers. Then I came across the slightly radical, left-wing publisher Zero Books and, because The Ringtone and the Drum was about the poorest countries in Africa and gave a voice to some of the people living in them, I thought they might be interested. They were, and they ended up publishing it. They were pretty much the last chance saloon.
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?
I do a lot of background research before I leave for a trip, mostly by reading books but also academic papers and reports by development organisations. I take copious notes while on the road, writing up conversations I’ve had each day and descriptions of the places I’ve seen in little notebooks every evening.
Back home, when I’ve finished all the research, I type up all my notes and copy and paste the ones I still find interesting into possible book chapters. The structure is usually chronological but with plenty of detours to discuss related topics and how people’s personal stories that I’m describing have broader relevance to Africa and its development. Then I write the first draft.
Because I have other work commitments I can’t write full-time, but the whole process of drafting and editing (I do four or five drafts, including a really gruelling one where I read the whole thing aloud to myself to make sure each sentence sounds OK) takes about eighteen months.
What books or authors influence or inform your own work?
The great Polish writer Ryszard Kapuscinski has been a major influence. He brings Africa and its politics to life in a way nobody else does, and The Ringtone and the Drum is definitely inspired by him.
The Saviour Fish is probably a little mellower, possibly because the research involved living for two years in a village by a lake. It was much slower travel – taking time to learn Swahili, to get to know my neighbours and to find out how life on Lake Victoria worked. As part of my background research I therefore read a few other accounts of living for long periods in unfamiliar places. Gerald Brenan’s South from Granada was one influence – about life in rural Andalucía in the 1920s. Katherine Boo’s incredibly well researched Behind the Beautiful Forevers, which describes life in a slum in Mumbai, was another (The Saviour Fish is about life in an informal settlement on a Lake Victoria island).
What advice would you give to someone interested in writing a travel book?
I’m not that well placed to give such advice, having written only two books, but I would encourage patience – taking time to really get to know places and people instead of rushing through them, and taking time with the editing process, which can be tedious but is essential to bashing a draft into shape.
What is so appealing about the travel book as a literary form?
As well as the obvious things that you get from travel books, like escapism and the acquisition of knowledge, I like their flexibility. In The Saviour Fish I used the travel book form as a means both of describing life on Lake Victoria and of discussing the biodiversity crisis that has devastated the lake in recent years and how that crisis has affected the people I got to know. And in The Ringtone and the Drum the journey became a basis for discussing the roots of poverty in West Africa and how people living in the region devise mechanisms for coping with the difficulties they face. The genre isn’t limited – it can be combined with history, environmental science, anthropology, politics, economics and other disciplines to create a much richer picture of a place.
Why write about travel?
Although these days you can find out plenty about a place just by using Google, I think travel writing still has value in terms of narrowing the gap between people. In both my travel books I have tried to get to know and give a voice to people who most of my likely readers will never come into contact with. I hope they help increase readers’ understanding of Africa and their empathy with the people I write about. Spending long periods of time with people and recounting these experiences in a relatively long format like a book is a counterweight to the bucket-list, Instagram-driven tourism that is so destructive of communities and the planet.
Purchase The Saviour Fish by Mark Weston
Purchase Mark Weston’s The Saviour Fish: Life and Death on Africa’s Greatest Lake (Earth Books 2022), a Daily Telegraph Travel Book of 2022. You can find out more about his work on his website.
If you enjoyed this interview with Mark Weston, you might enjoy our other author profiles for more behind-the-scenes interviews with authors of travel books.
Last Updated on 1 March 2023 by Travel Writing World