Author and traveller Extraordinaire talks to the Booktrail today about books, travel, literary travel and more…. Jen, it’s over to you –
Back in 2001 when I’d recently come to the end of six months travelling in Asia – having quit my job as a literary agent to have an adventure and decide what to do next – I had a conversation in a pub in Toronto with a woman called Amy who got just as excited as I did about the inspiration we got from travel.
One thing led to another and, after reluctantly binning the idea of starting a literary travel magazine, we put together a book proposal for a collection of eclectic, true travel stories by poets, novelists and non-fiction authors. It was published a couple of years later by Vintage Canada as AWOL: TALES FOR TRAVEL-INSPIRED MINDS. By the time it came out, I had already moved to France, where I was working as a freelance editor and in my spare time writing a book of my own.
In 2004 I returned to the UK and applied for a dream job as commissioning editor of travel writing (among lots of other things) at Summersdale Publishers. I started to learn more about a genre I’d always loved – literary travel, personal stories of extraordinary adventures. The first book I worked on there was Pedalling to Hawaii by Stevie Smith, and I generally worked with about a dozen narratives every year.
The new knowledge I’d acquired editing fabulous stories helped me to polish up the manuscript I’d been working on, and in 2008 I was proud to see my first book in print: MEETING MR KIM: OR HOW I WENT TO KOREA AND LEARNED TO LOVE KIMCHI.
When I’d gone to South Korea I had no expectations whatsoever. I was simply looking for a travel adventure, and an opportunity came up. At first I found it hard to connect with Seoul, but then I left the city behind and went wandering around the small towns and villages, and soon I was discovering something really special through exceptionally welcoming people. The book is about allowing yourself to be surprised, taking an unknown path and seeing where it ends up. My books aim to be as much about life as they are about the places they’re set.
Still, I ended up being invited back to South Korea the following year and helping to promote the country as a tourist destination online for a while. By that time, I’d asked the publisher I worked for if I could reduce my hours to four days a week so that I could spend more time writing. And soon, another place was calling me.
Since moving back to the UK, I’d re-connected with the country where I lived for a year after finishing university: Greece. Greek islands appeared unbidden in my dreams regularly in winter, the language was somewhere locked inside my brain along with happy memories of childhood holidays, and it had started to occur to me that I would love to try an experiment: to see if it were possible to continue my work from home, but on a Greek island, where I could counterbalance the hours at the desk with walking and swimming in the sunshine. I didn’t want to feel I was always rushing through the year to get to those two weeks of holiday in Greece. If I lived there, I could enjoy more of the year.
FALLING IN HONEY: LIFE AND LOVE ON A GREEK ISLAND is inspired by this astonishing place that I found, a wild island in the south Aegean with only a few hundred residents (but thousands of goats). The book got some great publicity, featured in newspapers and magazines, and has now been published in North America and translated into Bulgarian, Polish and Latvian.
I’m writing this from Tilos, in my office in the village of Megalo Horio, a place that’s been inhabited for a few thousand years, with a view over the valley to the cave where the bones of the last elephants in Europe were found. As usual, I’m working barefoot, to the sound of birds and bees, and if I walk out the door to stretch I’ll see the sea and the mountains, and get a little love from the ‘office assistant’, Lisa the Labrador cross…
I’m now completely freelance, working as an editor and agent, and I especially love to work on books with an international flavour, especially travel memoirs. I continue to work as an occasional travel journalist and a writer for hire – I’ll do anything wordy that can be done from my home office. I’m also hoping to complete, over the coming months, my new book about what life on the island was like for the first two years. I’ve had a unique opportunity to live in a fascinating environment, and as always I hope I can somehow convey that through my writing.
And now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a dog to walk to a beach…
Editor and agent: www.jennifer-barclay.blogspot.com