Shafik Meghji: Author Profile

by Travel Writing World
Shafik Meghji

Shafik Meghji stops by Travel Writing World to answer a few questions about his career as a writer. He is the author of Crossed Off The Map: Travels in Bolivia (2022).

How did you first become interested in writing travel books?

Really, it’s thanks to my parents, who passed on passed on their love of travel. Some of my earliest memories are of family holidays: rock-pooling in Cornwall, staying on farms in the Welsh hills, snorkelling in the Mediterranean. Books also played a major role. I’ve also always been an inveterate reader and childhood books about places like the Himalayas and societies such as the Inca captured my imagination and never let go.

After university, I worked as a news and sports journalist in London – a job I’d always wanted to do – but though I learnt a lot it wasn’t quite what I’d expected. My girlfriend at the time was eager to go traveling and, after finally tiring of successive 5 am shifts, I resigned. It was the best decision I ever made. We spent nearly a year backpacking around India and South America, during which I wrote my first travel articles. By the time I got back to London I was determined to become a travel writer.

After many months of fruitless pitching, cold calling and speculative emails to editors and publishers, I eventually got my first break with Rough Guides – a commission to update the Estonia chapter of The Rough Guide to the Baltic States. That got my foot in the door, and I went on to specialise in Latin America and South Asia. 

The idea for Crossed off the Map emerged from my research trips for The Rough Guide to Bolivia, which allowed me to explore this overlooked country in far greater depth than would otherwise have been possible, during a period of great political, social and cultural change. Bolivia is rarely covered by travel writers or the international media, so I saw a space for a book that explored both its fascinating history and how it is coping with a host of contemporary challenges.

How did you manage to get your first travel book published?

I wrote the first three chapters of Crossed off the Map and a synopsis before approaching agents and publishers. There were plenty of rejections, but also some useful responses. I was then long-listed for the Penguin Random House WriteNow program, which supports writers from under-represented backgrounds and provided a session with a senior editor. This helped me to refine the manuscript and, eventually, the book was picked up by the Latin America Bureau and Practical Action Publishing.

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?

As much as possible, I write up my notes on the road, while they’re fresh in the mind, and transcribe interviews as soon as I get home. I also take photos and sometimes audio recordings to jog my memory when I’m back at the desk. 

The bulk of Crossed off the Map is based on three extended research trips spread out over several years. I also spent countless hours searching for and scouring source material – books, reports, newspapers, academic papers — and conducting interviews. It took a couple of years to write the manuscript, as I had to fit it around other work commitments. Refining and editing it took another year or so.

What books or authors influence or inform your own work?

Books by Pico Iyer – particularly Video Night in Kathmandu and The Global Soul  Paul Theroux and Graham Greene first got me interested in travel writing as a genre. Now I really enjoyed the work of Noo Saro-Wiwa (Looking for Transwonderland), Monisha Rajesh (Around the World in 80 Trains), William Atkins (The Immeasurable World) and Adam Weymouth (Kings of the Yukon) – authors who take a critical, nuanced, self-reflective approach to travel writing (and, crucially, put it in a wider context). And, of course, Barry Lopez’s Horizon.

For Crossed off the Map, I drew more on books about history, science, economics, archaeology and anthropology, such as Charles C Mann’s excellent 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus

What advice would you give to someone interested in writing a travel book?

Take copious notes and record as many interviews as you can – you never know which direction conservations will take or what will prove useful in the future. Seek out – and take on board – honest feedback from fellow writers, editors and readers: it can be difficult to hear, but your book will be immeasurably improved as a result. And avoid the temptation to seek out stories, experiences or quotes that simply back-up a pre-existing idea, while ignoring those that contradict it. 

What is so appealing about the travel book as a literary form?

As a broad, all-encompassing genre, it allows you to explore disparate interests and an incredible variety of subjects. For Crossed off the Map, for example, I was able to write about issues as distinct as Andean architectural movements and the ‘war on drugs’, the behaviour of pink Amazonian dolphins and the future of renewable energy, while drawing on everything from declassified CIA reports to obscure 17th-century poems. 

Why write about travel?

On a basic level it allows me to spend my life doing work I find rewarding, challenging and invigorating. Travel writing has taken me to all seven continents, giving me the opportunity to swim with sharks in the Galápagos, scale glaciers in Antarctica, sip yak butter tea in Himalayan monasteries. Moreover, it constantly throws me into contact with new people, places, ideas and experiences, while indulging my curiosity and restlessness.

But beyond the sheer enjoyment, travel writing – when it’s done well – can offer a window into other cultures, beliefs and ways of life, providing context, undermining prejudices and promoting understanding – something that feels particularly urgent at the moment. And for me, it’s also about engaging, unflinchingly, with global issues such as the climate emergency, inequality, populism and migration, and their impact on people and communities. 

Shafik Meghji stops by Travel Writing World to answer a few questions about his career as a writer. He is the author of Crossed Off The Map: Travels in Bolivia (2022).

If you enjoyed this interview with Shafik Meghji, you might enjoy our other author profiles for more behind-the-scenes interviews with authors of travel books.

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