How did you first become interested in writing travel books?
It was an accident, really. I always knew I wanted to write, but didn’t know I wanted to write travel books. In 2011 and 2012 I walked from Rotterdam to Istanbul, in the footprints of Patrick Leigh Fermor, which I had always dreamed of doing since reading A Time of Gifts when I was eighteen. I kept notes all the way, and those ended up becoming my first book Walking the Woods and the Water. And that opened my eyes to the wonderful possibility of going on more walking journeys and writing about those journeys.
How did you manage to get your first travel book published?
Again, it was fairly accidental. My original publishing deal fell through because the publisher went bankrupt, so I wrote most of that book not knowing if it would be published or not. A very kind man called Andy Hayward liked it, and showed it to lots of people, and eventually it ended up in the hands of my first publisher Nicholas Brealey. There was a wonderfully awkward period when he was waiting for me to say yes to him and I was waiting for him to say yes to me–I really had very little idea what I was doing. Eventually he asked me, rather grumpily, what exactly I was waiting for. And I realised he wanted it. That was a happy day.
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 carry a notebook and make lots of notes when I’m walking. It’s one of the reasons I travel alone, because I’m constantly stopping to write down something that’s in my mind–it would make me a very frustrating travel companion. After the journey I transcribe everything and then it’s a process of cutting out all the stuff that’s no longer interesting and teasing out a narrative, working out when to speed it up and when to slow it down, when to delve into research and go on tangents. I can cover two weeks in a paragraph and then spend several pages on one moment or one conversation–it’s really a process of playing with time. Normally it’s a couple of years from travelling to a finished book. I’ve always been lucky enough to have fantastic editors who can see the book from further away and spot things I’ve missed.
What books or authors influence or inform your own work?
Patrick Leigh Fermor was obviously an early influence, and Bruce Chatwin. I love Freya Stark, Isabelle Eberhardt, Colin Thubron and Edward Abbey. More recently I’ve been reading William Least Heat-Moon, Sven Lindqvist and William Atkins, who are all brilliant. But actually lots of my influences don’t come from travel at all, but fantasy and science fiction–my latest book Outlandish has a bit of a sci-fi feel to it (to me, anyway), because it’s about journeys of the imagination and stepping into other worlds. And Lord of the Rings must be the greatest travel book ever written.
What advice would you give to someone interested in writing a travel book?
It sounds obvious, but: just begin the journey. Starting is the hardest part. You can have all the best ideas in the world, but until you actually put yourself in another place, get a bit lost, make yourself vulnerable, none of it is real. Always be prepared to go on tangents and get into conversations with strangers–random encounters have been some of the key drivers of my books, steering me in directions I never thought I’d go. And this sounds obvious as well, but you have to become obsessed with it. And just keep working away at it. I always know a book is finished when, quite suddenly, I become bored–the mystery is finished, and there are no more puzzles to solve. This echoes the paradoxical disappointment I often feel at reaching the end of a journey, and thinking about going home.
What is so appealing about the travel book as a literary form?
I suppose the form is infinitely flexible and can be so many different things. It’s a form that literally contains the world. And just as one type of travel writing seems to die away, another bubbles up. We can see this is the nature/travel crossover that’s currently dominating bookshelves, which makes absolute sense in a world experiencing climate and ecological breakdown, but the form will change again. It never stays the same, because our experience of the world never stays the same.
Why write about travel?
Most basically, because I love travelling. And I love writing. And I’m so thankful that I have a job where the two things come together.
If you enjoyed this interview with Nick Hunt, you might enjoy our author profiles section for more behind-the-scenes interviews with authors of travel books.