27 February 2020
Peter Fiennes is a travel writer and experience publisher.
Q: Alongside your many accomplishments as a travel writer, you’re a very experienced publisher in the genre. How would you say travel writing was changing, and what advice would you give to writers looking to produce original work in the field?
A: I think the genres are blurring, which has to be a good thing, although it can discomfit publishers and booksellers, who like to know where to ‘put’ things. One worry is that some truly great writing can get lost. These days you will find much more ‘memoir’ in travel writing, as well as current affairs, recipes, economics, gardening tips, you name it. In the end, all that really matters is producing something that people want to read. And the biggest challenge for all non-fiction is to keep people reading to the end; finding a story – a thread that pulls the reader along. If we’re honest, most of us have abandoned huge numbers of non-fiction titles; they are very rarely truly compelling. So – don’t worry about being ‘original’ (or not) – just aim to produce words that other people will want to read. And the best way to do that, as everyone always says, is to find your own voice. Read other people – but practice on your own!
Q: There is a long-running debate among academics and critics over the importance of absolute truthfulness in travel writing. Where do you stand on that issue? What is the extent of poetic license when writing about real landscapes and histories?
A: I think it depends on the context – and the kind of travel writing. If readers believe they are getting a straightforward account of a journey in Iran, say, then that’s one thing: it’s not a country that people know well and they are probably expecting the writer to provide accurate insights and information. But context matters – and there could still be plenty of insight to be gathered from, say, a comic writer making the same journey. The reader knows what to expect, and probably doesn’t mind some exaggeration or indeed downright lies. Beryl Bainbridge was, as she admitted, a compulsive ‘auto fictionaliser’ in her books (including her travelogue ‘English Journey’), but as her biographer Brendan King put it, everything she wrote was ‘existentially true’. I like that.
Q: Digital media has radically changed the way people write about their travels – the travel blog being perhaps the most obvious example. Can you see a time when traditional travel books like ‘Footnotes’ are supplanted by writing for new channels?
A: Never! There’ll always be room for ‘traditional’ books – even if that audience dwindles. People love the long form. But people also love tweets, YouTube videos, blogs, documentaries, you name it. So there’s no doubt that ‘Footnotes’ and other ‘traditional’ books are jockeying for space with many other forms – and I think we can appreciate and embrace them all in their different ways. They each have their appeal – but what the classic travel book offers is long-form narrative, nuance, depth, and what I like to believe is an absence of irritating spelling mistakes.
Q: More broadly, what responsibility do authors have for establishing clear lines between fact and fiction in their work? Is there a place for claims of objective truth in a world where a lack of objectivity does not carry any penalty, and often brings advantage?
A: Again, context matters. If I were running for Parliament then I would like to think I have an obligation to make ‘Footnotes’ as honest and informative as I could. But I’m not… and as you rightly say, prospective politicians have all now learned that lying doesn’t have consequences. So, perhaps it’s becoming important for the rest of us to be even more interested in the truth. One of the reasons I enjoyed researching ‘Footnotes’ is that it gave me the chance to travel around Britain, to steep myself in the journeys and thoughts of some amazing (dead) writers, and to compare what they saw to what is there now. It was like getting off a train in a foreign land, or coming home after a long time away. Everything seemed more vivid. I really did try to give an honest account of what I experienced (with the occasional flourish) – but of course there’s a huge amount of selection and editing going on.
Q: Which are the current authors of any genre whose work immediately makes its way to the top of your reading pile?
A: I read everything that Kate Atkinson writes – the Jackson Brodie novels and her more ‘literary’ fiction. She’s funny and wise. I wish that Patrick O’ Brian were still alive and producing his ‘Master & Commander’ books. I can’t bring myself to read the last (20th) in the series, but I’ve read all the rest at least twice.
Q: What would be the book you would write if time and money were no object?
A: It’s a great question because it’s forcing me to think about what I really want to write. In fact, my next book is set in Greece. I’m looking at some of the ancient myths (and the places where they were set) and seeing what resonance they might have for our current ecological crisis. I would dearly love to spend more time there – perhaps with a crew taking me around the islands in a sailing boat (I can’t sail). I might then set off round the world by train and ferry. But it’s also worth saying that I need deadlines; and I write better and more prolifically when I’m stressed, pressed and time-poor. If I had all the time and money in the world, I worry I’d just end up lying on a beach. Perhaps not – but as Samuel Johnson said, ‘no man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.’
Interview conducted by Trevor Datson.