Noo Saro-Wiwa stops by Travel Writing World to answer a few questions about her career as a travel writer. She is the author of the critically-acclaimed Looking for Transwonderland: Travels in Nigeria.
How did you first become interested in writing travel books?
Initially, I wanted to be a news reporter. Then in my early twenties, I read Martin Fletcher’s Almost Heaven. He was a news reporter but decided to travel around the backwoods of America and explore people and issues that didn’t make the news headlines. That really appealed to me and opened my eyes to the possibility of non-fiction books. Then while I was at Columbia University journalism school I read Joan Didion’s Miami. That’s when I fell in love with creative non-fiction, and knew that travel writing was the perfect genre for me.
How did you manage to get your first travel book published?
Actually, the first book I wrote was about my travels around South Africa. After some Google research, I sent the first three chapters to seven agents. Two of them responded and I signed with one of them. I was offered a deal for the book but turned it down for various reasons. My agent then secured me a deal for Looking For Transwonderland.
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?
On the road I write a daily diary, which contains a lot of my emotions, my movements, my thoughts about people and places. I also have a separate ‘daily dispatch’ which is filled with observations, names of people and places, contact details, interesting web links, etc. Basically anything that I might need for my book.
I often record my conversations. Otherwise I scribble quotes from people as they talk or soon after the conversation has ended. I then transcribe everything (my least favourite chore). Research is done along the way throughout the duration of the project. I don’t start writing the book until I return home in London, but I do a lot of writing in my head while travelling.
I’m a slow writer – lots of procrastination and angst. In total, I would say it takes me about 18 months to travel, write, and edit a book. But external circumstances tend to derail my schedule, plus I usually have a day job that I often have to prioritise. So completing a book usually ends up taking about three years. I’m desperately trying to shorten that time and be more prolific!
What travel books or travel authors influence or inform your own work?
Martin Fletcher, Joan Didion, Miranda France, VS Naipaul, Michela Wrong, Paul Theroux, Ryszard Kapuscinski, Tété-Michel Kpomassie, Wendell Steavenson, AA Gill.
What advice would you give to someone interested in writing a travel book?
Be self-aware. Acknowledge your identity and your view of the world, and be prepared to have your preconceptions confounded. Do prior research but don’t be too wedded to your plan – embrace serendipity.
What is so appealing about the travel book as a literary form?
I love the fluidity of the form. It combines my two loves: reportage and literature. It is novelistic yet journalistic. With non-fiction, you enjoy the freedom of not having to invent dialogue (because truth is stranger than fiction), and the story – your journey – comes with its own narrative arc.
Why write about travel?
Travel is something all human beings do, deliberately or as a part of life. We are constantly on the move, meeting new people and encountering new places even if they’re only 5 miles away from home. Those experiences can teach us so much about ourselves as well as others. Travel is inspiring. All innovations, cultural or scientific, are the result of travel and exchange of ideas.
If you enjoyed this interview with Noo Saro-Wiwa, you might enjoy our author profiles section for more behind-the-scenes interviews with authors of travel books.