The art of travel writing, and fiction inspired by travel

I have always loved to travel; to explore new places, unfamiliar cultures, to discover new languages ​​and meet new people. Travel builds empathy and understanding. The stranger is no longer a stranger, but oftentimes becomes a friend. Travel too is disconcerting, uncomfortable, uncertain – it forces you to live in the now, to see things fresh, to move outside of all that is familiar.

As writer Pico Iyer has described it, “… if travel is like love, it is, in the end, mostly because it’s a heightened state of awareness, in which we are mindful, receptive, undimmed by familiarity and ready to be transformed”.

Early on, I began to learn languages ​​– each language a door to a different world, and a bridge to travel to new places. I fell in love with the travel stories of many wonderful writers – amongst others, Patrick Leigh Fermor, Paul Theroux, Dervla Murphy, Freya Stark, Jan Morris, Colin Thubron, John Steinbeck, Bruce Chatwin, and that first great writing love, Laurie Lee .

As a young girl, like Laurie Lee, I too could play the violin. And as I read As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, bathed in the Spanish sunshine that he painted with words, and the exhilaration of wandering free, without a fixed route or particular plan, simply trusting to life, for the briefest of moments I could picture myself too, violin case underarm, meandering along country lanes. Although, as I played the violin rather badly, it was but a floating moment of the imagination, but it was a beautiful possibility nonetheless.

When it came time to choose a new language to learn, I chose Spanish, quite simply because of Laurie Lee, who wrote of travel: “I felt it was for this I had come: to wake at dawn on a hillside and look out on a world for which I had no words, to start at the beginning, speechless and without plan, in a place that still had no memories for me.”

This adventurous spirit, this blank page of a day, called to me too – and many of my own early travels took me to Spain, living for a time in Andalucía, and it is indeed this country’s islands which I now call home.

Of course, the reader travels also with every story – early on I traveled with Sagan to the hot summers of the south of France, with Tolstoy to Russia, with Camus to Algeria, with Hemingway to Cuba. With Yeats and Seamus Heaney’s poems I traveled closer to home – for travel, as Jan Morris points out, “… is not compulsory. Great minds have been fostered entirely by staying close to home. Moses never got further than the Promised Land. Da Vinci and Beethoven never left Europe. Shakespeare hardly went anywhere at all – certainly not to Elsinore or the coast of Bohemia.” Travel then is not simply distance, it is looking anew, and the journey can be short or long.

There is a mystery and a fascination to it. WB Yeats captured that beautifully, reminding us that, “the world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper”. That same magic can be found in so many pieces of travel writing – because when we travel our senses do indeed grow that bit sharper.

I loved the writing, the curiosity, the reflective natures of Chatwin, Thubron, Leigh Fermor – the connections made along the journey way, the stories moving between description, anecdote, theme, emotions, place, sensations – the journey as much inward always as outward. I traveled with these books through Asia, Africa, Latin America, Australia, the Middle East, Siberia, Central Europe, and the forgotten edges of Europe.

There is often the joy of the unknown, the sense of possibility and hope that each day of new travel brings. As Colin Thubron describes it in Shadow of the Silk Road, “sometimes a journey arises out of hope and instinct, the heady conviction, as your finger travels along the map: Yes, here and here…and here. These are the nerve-ends of the world…”.

Along with the question of where a journey might take you, there was always the question of how – by bicycle, foot, boat, or train perhaps. And with Paul Theroux, I indulged that romantic love of travel by train on The Old Patagonia Express and The Great Railway Bazaar. And these were beautiful journeys.

By now, I was traveling much more myself – Asia, Europe, Latin America, North America, the Middle East, North Africa. And I began to seek out more writing by female voices and delighted in the travel adventures of writers such as Dervla Murphy and Freya Stark, who chart the particular challenges of traveling alone as a woman to remote places. Their resilience, good humour, and their undimmed determination brought alive their accounts of journeys across inhospitable terrains and unknown lands, and when I would travel myself I would find solace in their words and encouragement for the journey onwards. As Freya Stark describes it in Baghdad Sketches, “to awaken quite alone in a strange town is one of the pleasantest sensations in the world. You are surrounded by adventure. You have no idea of ​​what is in store for you, but you will, if you are wise and know the art of travel, let yourself go on the stream of the unknown and accept whatever comes in the spirit in which the gods may offer it .” How wonderful that sense of acceptance and openness.

When writing fiction too I am often drawn to writing about remote or unusual settings – when writing Lenny, a story that travels between Libya and Louisiana, I took inspiration in part from my own travels in North Africa, bringing memories of the open skies streaked with stars at night above the desert sands to the story.

As a reader too, for me, one of the great joys of travel writing, and indeed of reading fiction, is that it allows us to travel regardless of where we find ourselves. As writer Pico Iyer says, “movement is only as good as the sense of stillness that you can bring to it to put it into perspective.”

For the last two pandemic-filled years, like everyone else, I have by necessity traveled much closer to home, seeking to appreciate the stillness and the quiet moments. In the words of John Muir, I have gone to the mountains. In this time of reflection and quietness, I revisited many of my favorite beloved travel writers’ books, and in doing so, I realized the many stories I too perhaps have to share from my own travels over the years. On the horizon, new stories call and adventures await.
Lenny by Laura McVeigh is published by New Island Books.

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