A Conversation with Rory MacLean

Rory Maclean, the author of UK bestselling books Stalin’s Nose and Under the Dragon, knew travel writing was his gig-of-choice since childhood.  The kind of kid who spent his free time constructing cardboard-and-crayon atlases, Rory has found a lifelong love for places both imaginary and real.  From holding travel writing workshops to writing about the fall of the Berlin Wall, his books have won awards from the Canada Council and the Arts Council of England, were shortlisted for the Thomas Cook Travel Book Prize and nominated for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary award.  See his newest blog project on Berlin here.

You’re a bit of an anomoly as you found relatively quick success as a book author—and a novelist even—before doing much travel article work. How did you manage that?

By being flexible, and open to new ideas, media and technologies.  The success of my first books led to commissions for articles.  Now travel journalism is going through a bad patch, but I’ve been lucky enough to be asked to write a weekly blog on Berlin, my new home, which has just been short-listed for the prestigious Erasmus EuroMedia Award 2010.  There’s even some interest in turning my book on the Asia Overland hippie trail, Magic Bus, into a movie.

How did you “break in to travel writing”? What have been the keys to your success?

I won the first Independent (London) newspaper travel writing competition back in 1989.  That lead to a commission to write a book on eastern Europe.  Then Soviet President Gorbachev was kind enough to knock down the Berlin Wall, making my subject highly topical.  The resulting book, Stalin’s Nose, made the UK top ten.

Where do you see your career as a travel writer being three years from now? How will your income mix change and what are you doing to adapt to the changing media landscape?

The numbers rarely add up for a first book.  But if you’re serious about writing then you just have to take the risk.  I was lucky.  Because of the success of  ‘Stalin’s Nose’, I earned good advances for my second – and subsequent – books.  I am now working on the eighth, which is set in Berlin.  As for the future, I didn’t earn a penny from the web three years ago.  Now it generates 50% of my income.  So goodness knows what’ll happen  in three more years.

Knowing what you do now, if you were starting from scratch today to become established as a travel writer, what steps would you take to ensure success?

A good travel book is one that is written from the heart.  Readers want to know how a journey affected the writer, what he or she learnt through the trip, and how he or she was changed by the experience.  Whether that book is commercially successful or not is a matter of fashion and luck.

What advice would you give to someone near and dear to you who wanted to become a travel writer—assuming they had zero credits to their name. (Besides “Don’t do it”?)

Write. Write. Write. Then write some more. And if you feel you’ve had enough, it’d probably be a better idea to do something sensible like becoming a dentist or raising rabbits.

Tell us about the writing workshops you have conducted over the years and what (you hope) the students get out of it.

I run small, intensive travel workshops with fellow writer Dea Birkett in London, Dublin and Paris, as well as WriteAway weekends in Marrakech, Cairo and Berlin.  Participants learn all the steps of travel writing, from taking notes, to constructing a story, to how to get into print or online. It’s suitable for those new to travel writing and those who want to improve their skills whether for articles, blogs or books. The aim is, by the end of the weekend, an editor or publisher can only say ‘Yes!’

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Rory MacLean’s seven travel books, including UK best-sellers ‘Stalin’s Nose’ and ‘Under the Dragon’, have challenged and invigorated the genre, and — according to the late John Fowles — are among works that ‘marvellously explain why literature still lives’.  His books have won awards from the Canada Council and the Arts Council of England, were shortlisted for the Thomas Cook Travel Book Prize and nominated for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary award. He has also written and presented over 50 BBC radio programmes and worked on movies with David Bowie and Marlene Dietrich. Born in Vancouver, long resident in the UK, he now lives in Berlin where he is writing a travel book on that city.  See his personal website here.

See a modified excerpt from one of his books here: Sun-bathing with Ghosts in Cassadaga.

Interview conducted in August, 2010 by Travel Writing 2.0 author Tim Leffel and edited by Kristin Mock.

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