Nicholas Jubber stops by again, this time to answer a few questions about his career as a travel writer. He is the author of four travel books: Epic Continent, The Timbuktu School for Nomads, and Drinking Arak off an Ayatollah’s Beard. He won the Dolman Travel Book Award for his first book, The Prester Quest. You can connect with Nick on Twitter and his homepage.
How did you first become interested in writing travel books?
Reading travel books in the early part of the century, I loved the idea of doing a few journeys of my own. But what kind of journey could you do in the 21st century? It was in Jerusalem that I realised there was still plenty of travelling to do, because the world was always recalibrating. I’d moved there to teach English in a Palestinian school in the Old City, but after a few weeks I found myself caught up in street skirmishes and occasionally explosions of dumdum bullets; students would turn up to class with tales of their encounters with the Israeli army. The intifada had broken out, and there was so much going on in the region, I was starting to figure out a journey around the region (plus, I’d recently learned about a curious letter written during the Crusades and I was itching to find out more…).
How did you manage to get your first travel book published?
I wrote to a bunch of literary agents after completing the journey (for what would be my first book, The Prester Quest). A lot of rejection letters came in, but I was taken on by a wonderful agent who had represented several authors I really admired. Unfortunately, after she’d represented me for my first book, she died suddenly, so I went through the same process again. If nothing else, it’s taught me a lot about digesting failure!
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 take notes constantly on the road, but I try to adapt to the situation. My books involve lots of interviews—at times, my journeys feel like I’m racing from one interview to the next—and not everybody likes you madly scribbling while they’re answering your questions. I use a Dictaphone, notes, follow-up chats, whatever can help me better understand the person’s story. As I’m often interviewing people in different languages, I sometimes hire translators to help me. Back at home, I write out the book over a few months, then there’s the long process of re-drafting. This varies—for one book, I went through ten drafts; they’ve all taken several. So the overall process is several years, in which the first several months are spent in research.
What travel books or travel authors influence or inform your own work?
I came to travel writing because I had enjoyed reading so many travel books–writers like Paul Theroux, Robert Byron, Colin Thubron, Dervla Murphy, Isabella Bird, and Jonathan Raban. Over time, I’ve found interesting travel-writing (or at least writing about travel) all over the place—from the Polish writers Ryszard Kapuscinski and (more recently) Olga Tokarczuk to books by Ziauddin Sardar, Azar Nafisi, and Svetlana Alexievich. One thing I love about travel-writing is its magpie eclecticism, its ability to absorb so many different kinds of writing, and this has led me down many different reading paths. Although there’s a lot more paths still to explore!
What advice would you give to someone interested in writing a travel book?
I’m slightly wary of giving advice, because the travel book is a genre that has to keep renewing and reinventing itself, and new writers will find their own ways of doing it. What helped me was reading—lots of travel books, but lots of other kinds of books: novels, poetry, biographies, etc.—and studying languages. The language thing is particularly helpful if you don’t have loads of money, and is the single most important factor, I’ve found, in connecting with the people whose countries you’re visiting. It can also lead to surprising experiences—like, for me, helping a Moroccan friend in Fez translate American rap lyrics into Arabic, or being asked to be a go-between for two separated lovers in Iran.
What is so appealing about the travel book as a literary form?
Its honesty. It’s like taking the back off a watch and looking at the inner workings. Many of the best travel writers are brutal with themselves, more than with the people they meet on their journeys. At its best (and I appreciate it’s not always at its best!), the travel book can be a forensic, warts-and-all insight into the world we live in.
Why write about travel?
“To travel is to live,” wrote Hans Christian Andersen. The world is so fascinating, so beautiful and strange, it would be a shame to miss it. Travel writing is, at its heart, an exercise in curiosity. It’s an opportunity to connect and learn about different ways of thinking and living. That isn’t to ignore the many ethical issues connected with travelling. Researching about nomadic life in North Africa, and refugees fleeing war-zones in the Middle East, for my last two books, I was concerned by the dangers that drive many people around the world, and how different those journeys are from those undertaken freely by travel-writers. Neither invalidates the other. By noticing different experiences, travel-writers are able to draw attention to situations and ways of life that are otherwise ignored, just as they are able to point out cultural and natural riches that don’t make it into the mainstream spotlight.
If you enjoyed this interview with Nicholas Jubber, you might enjoy our author profiles section for more behind-the-scenes interviews with authors of travel books.
Last Updated on 1 December 2020 by Travel Writing World
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