Click the questions below to read my answers.
- How did you become a travel writer?
- Do you always travel alone?
- Do you ever feel lonely on your own?
- Where is your favourite place?
- Are you ever feared for your safety?
- Have you a favourite travel writer?
- Do you only write travel books?
- Have you always been a writer?
- What newspapers do you write for?
- Is it true you have to know someone in order to get
- What is your working day like?
- Does it take long to write a book?
- What about your short stories?
- What gets you going?
- You have a house in Oxford and one in Dublin. Where
How did you become a travel writer?
Continental drift, really. I was doing some research for an MA thesis which took
me to Lesotho, which is how I got my first taste of Africa.
Do you always travel alone?
Always. Travelling with someone else, you isolate yourself. You talk among yourselves
in your own language, you reinforce your common prejudices and you cut yourself
off from others. People are much more likely to invite you into their homes
if you're on your own. Anyway, I'd be hell to travel with: I always want my
own way. On the other hand, travelling with friends can be fun so see my piece on walking the Camino with 13 friends!
Do you ever feel lonely on your own?
I'm not on my own: I write in my notebook everyday, sometimes
for two or three hours. That's my substitute companion. Plus
I'm good at getting into conversation with people e.g. I'm
inquisitive and nosey. ( The downside of that, is that, if
I get the chance, I read other people's diaries and letters,)
Anyway, being lonely is a state of mind - you can be lonely
in a relationship, in a roomful of people, in a crowd.
Where is your favourite place?
The Sahara desert. It filled me with awe. No other word.
Are you ever feared for your safety?
Once or twice: dry mouth, heart thumping. That was when
I was a novice rock climber. ( I've since given it up.)
As far as travelling is concerned: I may take risks but
they're always calculated risks – as in a poker game.
I'm not terribly keen on looking down the barrel of a gun
- either in Northern Ireland or in occupied Palestine -
but talking is a great way to distract someone from their
evil intents. Plus, I always listen carefully to what people
on the ground say. Their advice and experience is important
though you have to weigh that up against your own experience.
A month after the suicide attacks in the US, I travelled
to Baghdad. I reckoned that though the US were threatening
to bomb Saddam, they had their hands full, for the time being,
with their activities in Afghanistan.
In Syria, semi-feral dogs snapping at my bike pedals was
a bit unpleasant but I survived.
Have you a favourite travel writer?
Eric Newby's a canny writer. His self-deprecating style is of another era. A
Short Walk in the Hindu Kush is great. I was lucky to meet him and his gorgeous
wife a few times.
For adventure and a
celebration of solitude, I loved Stanley Stewart's book about
My favourite travellers are Margery Kempe who
walked to Jerusalem from Norwich in 1413, Jane Digby-Stewart
who lost her heart to a desert sheik and is buried in Damascus, Anne
Davison, the first solo woman sailor to cross the Atlantic
and Alexander David Neel, who left her husband of one week
and set off on a 15 year voyage of discovery to Tibet.
a traveller's autobiography, you can't beat Dervla Murphy's
Wheels within Wheels.
Do you only write travel books?
Not at all. I write for radio - the BBC broadcast my radio
play about Margery Kempe and I’ve made a number of documentaries for RTE ( Irish radio.)
You’ll find details of these under Sound.
I also write for newspapers and
magazines though my favourite medium is the short story.
At the moment, I'm thinking about writing a novel.
Have you always been a writer?
In my head yes, but I only started writing seriously, e.g. hoping to get paid
for it, in the mid eighties.
What newspapers do you write for?
The Irish Times and The Guardian mostly, with occasional forays into The Independent,
The Sunday Times, The Times Educational Supplement et al.
Is it true you have to know someone in order to get
I knew no one when I started. What I did was to write a piece on saving money
wisely - I've always been a wise virgin. ( That's two lies in one sentence.)
I sent the piece to the Features Editor of The Guardian, tying it in with making
New Year resolutions. It came winging back but, undeterred, I rejigged it, tied
it in with giving up things for Lent ( another way of saving money ) and this
time sent it to the Money Pages Editor of The Guardian. Tom Tickell, the editor
of the day, bought it - and many other pieces after that. I discovered that,
being a former editor of Isis - the Oxford University paper - he liked a bit
of learning so I always made sure to sneak in a literary quote or a Latin reference.
However, try doing that in a money article nowadays...
What is your working day like?
I lie in bed thinking about getting up. An hour later,
I get up. That's basically the rhythm of it. Unless I have
a deadline. The day is divided up like a school timetable,
starting at 6.20 am with a 40 minute jog along the canal
in Dublin or a visit to the gym if I’m in Oxford. That’s
followed by a cappuccino ( 2 shots of caffeine sets me up
for the day ) and a read of the paper. Then back to my desk
around 9 am.
Does it take long to write a book?
Say a year or so doing research, most of which I do in
the Bodleian Library in Oxford. Alongside that there's the
planning of the journey - tickets, visa, making contacts,
getting acquainted with the language of wherever I'm going
to. Then there's the travelling itself. This may be a series
of short journeys or one long one or both. Once home, I start
the writing and that can take another year. Then a further
year maybe before the book is published, if you’re
What about your short stories?
I usually have an idea in my head - an incident or a remark,
say - and I take it from there. One prize-winning short story
(The Flag) I incubated for about three years and then wrote
it in four hours. Others might take a day or two or even
a week. A lot I discard.
What gets you going?
A visit to a book shop. I want to rush home, sit down at
the computer and
get on with it.
You have a house in Oxford and one in Dublin. Where
Wherever my toothbrush is. The two cities are complementary, though. Oxford is
quiet, the traffic reasonably bike-friendly. I have a tributary of the Isis flowing
at the end of my garden and of course, there's the Bodleian Library.
Dublin, on the other
hand, is frantic, full of movement. I'm energised in Dublin
and I have water there too: a canal lock at the top of the street, complete
with swans. Basically, though, I can make a nest anywhere.
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