James Innes Williams went to Marrakech in the company of Travellers’ Tales, the travel writing and photography training company.
After exploring the souks of the Medina and the vibrant Jemaa El Fna, they then travelled up and over the High Atlas, and made in roads to the desert, all the time practising their writing and photography techniques.
At the end of the week, James caught up with the three tutors, Jon Lorie the director and ex-editor of Traveller magazine, distinguished travel and history writer Anthony Sattin and the force behind the BBC Unforgettable series, photographer Steve Watkins. Here, in the third of a series of interviews, James talks with Anthony Sattin.
How did you become a travel writer?
Quite by chance. I’ve always travelled and I’ve always been a writer but I had no ambition to be a travel writer at all. Then quite by chance, I had an idea. I was a fiction writer and I had an idea about writing a book about travellers in Egypt – the history of the European advance into Egypt. So I travelled around in Egypt and was loving that and then quite out of the blue The Sunday Times called and asked if I would write a travel story for them. And I had no idea that people did such things. I don’t think I’d ever read a travel story at that point. But they were just creating the travel section in the paper; there was a travel page before. And they were looking for writers rather than journalists, they actually made that distinction. So they were particularly looking for novelists who would stand out. So I said, “Yeah, sure, why not?”
And you’ve been doing it ever since. But you’re writing a lot of history too, why is that?
Yeah, more history now than travel. It was partly a response to reviewing so many travel books and being so disappointed with so many of them! But also travel writing goes in cycles, I think, and you know there was this huge boom in the nineties and there was a huge amount of indiscriminate publishing. Every publisher suddenly had to publish travel books and they were selling, especially in the early nineties, late eighties, and that has more or less petered out. You ask the big publishers now and they’ll say travel doesn’t sell. But I am planning a travel book but it’s just a question of in which order I do the things I plan to do.
I’d always been completely against teaching; it had never interested me at all. I did this creative writing course at East Anglia, and there were eight of us on it, and I think of the eight two of us went on to publish fiction and four went into teaching and the other two just dropped out completely from that world. And there was that line, ‘Those that can, do; those that can’t, teach.’ So that had always been part of my thinking too. If I can write, then why not write? But here in Marrakech last year I was running a literary salon for a weekend, talking about my work. It was a charity event. Part of the deal was that I would give a writing talk in the morning and so there were some people who had paid a huge amount of money to come along to this but there were also some kids from the American school here in Marrakech, Moroccans, and they were so wonderful and it was such a thrill to have these kids who’d never thought of writing something like that before. And just to open that door for them, I came away completely excited by it.
You’ll carry on?
Yes, I don’t want to do too much of it. I remember the boredom of my lecturers at university going over the same old stuff. I wouldn’t want to do too much, but I enjoy it for that.
It’s completely different. And I think generally it does appeal to one person or the other. Do you have the stamina to write a travel book? You know it takes a lot of time and, let’s be practical about it, a lot of money as well. You know, we live in an expensive country. And how are you going to do it? So lot’s of people immediately rule themselves out from writing travel books because it’s not something they could do. And I encourage everybody to be realistic about their aims and, I think, if you’re going to start something you owe it to yourself to finish, so you owe it to yourself to be realistic about whether you can finish it or not. But it’s a lot easier to break into travel writing as a travel journalist writing for newspapers and magazines.
The top tip for writing description, as for writing anything, is finding significant detail. Finding something that expresses something, that will say something general within that specific. You know, the little detail, the little thing that immediately says you’re in Marrakech.
And your top tip for impressing an editor or publisher?
Know who you are talking to, do your research. Let them know that you know who they are, that you have bothered to find out. I get into trouble still.
Being able to be in a place that’s particularly inspiring. You know, there’s so much to write about here. And being able to go out, walk around, come back and get everyone to write about what we’ve all just seen and in a group of ten, get ten completely different takes on the same little walk you did through the souk. It’s wonderful. It’s not something you can do so easily if you’re sitting in a room in Hampstead.
I love the beginning of every trip. I still get excited going to the airport or to the port, my life just reduced to one bag and I’m off. Who knows what will happen? It’s the possibilities, the anticipation and the possibilities – on a good trip the possibilities are endless. I think if I didn’t have that sense I wouldn’t travel anymore. I would hate to go in to thinking, “Oh God, I wish I wasn’t leaving home.”
Oh, airlines obviously. Usually it’s the most expensive part of your travel and the least pleasant part of the experience. Why is the food so bad? Why as someone of 6’2” do I have to sit with my knees up around my ears? Why, why, why. Why is the air so bad? Why don’t they pressurise the cabin properly? It’s quite easily achieved.
When you invite me! It’ll be Egypt again, Egypt in the winter of 1849. The winter we would all have loved to be in Egypt sailing up the Nile.
So, do you have a publication date you’re aiming for?
Yes, but it would be embarrassing to tell you because I’m obviously not going to hit it!
Author: James Innes Williams