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Five-minute interview with John Gimlette

The Dolman Travel Book Prize for 2012 was awarded to John Gimlette. Born in London in 1963, John had his first travel article published in 1997, in The Spectator, and it won him the Shiva Naipaul Prize. After eleven years at the Bar, he now had a parallel career. The following year he won the Wanderlust Travel Writing competition. He continues to practice as a barrister, and lives in London with his wife, Jayne Constantinis, who is a TV presenter, and their daughter, Lucy.

How did you get started travelling?
My parents are keen travellers, and always encouraged us to travel. They first let me loose on my own when I was twelve, putting me on the plane to Ireland where I used to spend the summers on a farm. Then at the age of seventeen, they bought me a ticket for the Trans-Siberian railway. It was such an extraordinary journey, lasting eight days, that – after that – I felt anything was possible. During a single journey I’d been spied on, admonished (for talking to the locals), half-pickled by the Soviet soldiers, and had neither washed nor eaten hot food. Despite that, it was one of the most enjoyable experiences imaginable.

How did you get started writing?
People who write have always known they want to write. It’s usually just a question of opportunity. Mine came one night as I was travelling back from work on the train. I saw an advertisement for a travel-writing competition, with a closing date of the following day. I wasn’t in court so I wrote a piece about Paraguay and rushed it across the city by taxi, and caught the deadline just in time. It won, and – after that – I was able to get a few newspapers to take my work, and things took off from there.

What is your biggest challenge in the writing process?
I love the research. The only difficult bit about it is that – at some stage – I have to stop absorbing the detail, and start painting the picture. The writing is harder; some days it flows, and some days I have to take a break. The sheer effort of wringing out the imagination is exhausting, and yet – at the height of it all – I can’t sleep. That’s when I have to go back to being a lawyer for a while, and sleeping like a baby.

What is your biggest challenge on the road?
I feel culture shock very acutely, however well I have researched a place and however much I think I know what to expect. Very often it means that I don’t really enjoy the first week of my travels, and I just hope the feeling will pass. Even Paraguay – which I adore – does this to me, and I feel horribly alien and out of place. But the feeling does pass, or I get used to it – and so it’s not really a challenge at all. That leaves just loneliness. I can’t stand being by myself for more than a day or so, and begin to crave company – almost any company. Perhaps this is an advantage to a travel-writer.

Is that why always meet such colourful characters?
Yes, looking back through my travels, I’ve teamed up with anyone! Drunks, bums, philanderers, a fascist lawyer in Paraguay, bear-trappers in Labrador, and a homeless tramp in the Scottish Highlands. I remember one critic commenting that the only people I ever seemed to meet were oddballs and hucksters. Well, try being me; these are the people I meet, when I’m on the road.

What is your biggest challenge in terms of making the writing pay?
Being a lawyer, I am not dependent on my earnings as a writer. That’s quite liberating. I can write what I want, when I want – and writing is therefore (for all its hardships) still a joy for me. I do sell work to newspapers and it can be frustrating. I tend to go back to the same editors, the ones that I like. Contacting new editors is difficult. No one answers emails, especially in the States.

Would you ever give up your ‘day job’?
No, being a barrister is important to me. I like the work and the clients. And, as I say, it’s liberating. It is also prevents cabin fever, which I imagine all writers must get. It also funds the writing. It terrifies me the thought that – even though you can write a book that’s up there with the NYT’s ‘Books of the Year’ (as both mine have been) the financial returns are slender. I can’t therefore imagine that there will ever be a day when I give up plodding round the courts, and that’s fine with me.

What travel authors or books might you recommend and/or have influenced you?
I enjoy a wide range of travel books, but I particularly like those from the relatively distant past – Waterton, Burton, Cunningham-Graham, Thicknesse, Coryate. I can’t say they have influenced me; they just describe a fascinating world that’s largely disappeared. Modern writers whose books I’d happily take with to a desert island (an appalling thought) include Lawrence Millman, Pico Iyer, Bruce Chatwin, Miranda France, Norman Lewis and Eric Newby.

What advice and/or warnings would you give to someone who is considering going into travel writing?
Look out for travel-writing competitions that will help you get noticed. Start writing articles before you build up to a book. Get another job to have in the background. Try and look at it commercially (Is anybody likely to buy your will-o-the–wisp idea?). Avoid faddy habits when writing (sound-proofed rooms etc).

What is the biggest reward of life as a travel writer?
Obviously the prizes have been very encouraging. But, generally, it’s a source of real pride seeing your work in print and out in the shops. However, it’s a rather transitory thrill. There’s no doubt that the best bit of any book is the travel itself. I’m not going to lie on my death-bed and say I wish I’d never been to any of those paces (although I’ll probably skip North Cyprus next time. It looks almost derelict).

Interview sparked by John Gimlette’s new and very excellent book about travels in the Guianas, ‘Wild Coast: Travels on South America’s untamed Edge‘. Buy a signed copy and read more by this author here.

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