I’ve always been a lover of the travel writing genre, ever since my mother gave me a paperback of Bill Bryson’s ‘Neither here nor there’ which took me backpacking through Europe before I left high school.
Since then I have made my way through many travel writing classics from Paul Theroux to Bruce Chatwin. Many great writers throughout history have also been great travellers.
Together with contemporary travel writing, there is also the historical travelogue which not only does it allows you to explore a particular part of the world but gives you a sense of how people from other centuries travelled and how the specific destination has changed through time.
While doing research for my own attempt at this genre after a decade of living in Sicily, I came across the work of Brian Johnston who has become one of my favourite writers. His book Sicilian Summer: a story of honour, religion and the perfect cassata is a beautiful read and captures the spirit of this mysterious Mediterranean island while guiding us through its cuisine, history and culture.
Invited by a friend to visit family in Sicily Johnston takes the opportunity to experience some wonderful Italian hospitality. What he discovers is not only the vibrant cuisine of Sicily but also the seductive way the islands infectious personality can draw you in.
As Brian Johnston himself says about his one Summer in Sicily:
I found myself unexpectedly swept up in flamboyant family dramas and complex village politics, eccentric personalities and age-old feuds. As the cover blurb puts it, this is “a delicious and wholly irresistible tale of passion, power, politics and pasta”.
It also turns out Johnston is a professional, down to earth and approachable guy who graciously accepted to do a ‘virtual’ interview via email and I was thrilled to talk with him.
How would you describe your books to someone who has never read your work?
My books are travel books on a simple level, inviting the reader to discover a destination, but I also like to infuse them with some of my personality – after all, it’s a place seen through my own very particular eyes. And I hope they are thoughtful, thought-provoking and amusing as well. I don’t think anyone should take themselves too seriously.
Do you have a certain method when you are working on a travel writing piece? For example, how did something like Sicilian Summer come about?
Sicilian Summer just started with being inspired and jotting down notes of my experiences and thoughts wherever I went. Then trying to make some semblance of order and sense out of them, and a whole lot of extra research when I returned. I suppose even short articles work more or less the same way in miniature. Good note taking at source is certainly the basis of any good travel piece.
Montalto is the fictionalized town in Sicilian Summer, what is the real small Sicilian town near Messina it was inspired by? Why did you feel the need to disguise the name in your book?
There would be no point in disguising the name if I was going to tell you where it really is! I just felt that, given I was writing about the personal lives of so many people in that village, that I should protect their privacy. You know, writers always dream of having bestsellers. I had visions of queues of fans knocking on villagers doors… I don’t think they would have wanted that.
Have you visited Sicily since writing Sicilian Summer and what else have you discovered about this intriguing island?
Actually, I haven’t been back to Sicily. Sometimes I’m a bit wary about returning to places where I’ve been really happy. They’re never the same the second time around. Sometimes they’re best left in the mind…
Sicilian Summer is very much a love letter to Sicilian cuisine. What is your ultimate Sicilian meal from appetizers to dessert and why?
I might start with some pasta puttanesca, fiery with chilli and garlic, and some grilled fish to follow the lemon and capers. The dessert is a hard one, too many temptations. A cassata perhaps.
Please tell us about your other travel books …
My first book was Boxing with Shadows, an account of the two-and-a-half years I spent living and travelling in China. Humorous encounters with a TV crew, a snake, a drunken shoe salesman and China’s most famous rock star are interwoven with more serious observations on political campaigns and ethnic minorities and balanced with personal reflections.
My second travel book, Into the Never-Never, is about me and my sister Nicola’s adventures across Australia. Sicilian Summer was my third and alas so far my last, apart from contributions to anthologies. Too busy earning money as a journalist!
You also have a travel blog The Thoughtful Travel Writer how are you enjoying the world of blogging? Do you think all writers should have a blog or are there simply too many bad blogs out there?
There are a million travel blogs out there. Some may be bad, but most have their market, even if it’s only the 10 people in the blogger’s family. Nothing wrong with that. But I’m not convinced all writers should have a blog. It’s incredibly time-consuming for little or no monetary return. You just have to do it for the joy of it, and hope some readers get pleasure out of it too.
What advice would you give to a writer who wants to get into the travel writing business?
The great Victorian writer John Ruskin observed ‘I know of no genius but the genius of hard work.’ The world is full of travel-writer wannabes, but only hard work and unflagging professionalism will take them from part-timers to professionals.
As a freelance writer, how important is it to get great photos for your own articles? Please tell us what camera do you use and perhaps a little advice on how to get a decent photo.
Few freelancers can get by these days without supplying photos, so it’s very important. I recognize that I’m a better writer than a photographer, so often provide a mix of my own photos and those supplied by tourism offices. I use a Canon EOS. I’ll leave the advice to others better qualified!
Books can take us places without leaving home, do you have a favourite travel book which you think best describes a particular place or the art of travel in a particular way for those who are unable to travel.
When it comes to the art of travel and what travel means, I’m a big fan of Australian author Bruce Chatwin. Try his Songlines or What Am I Doing Here.
Do you think travel writing has become fashionable? If so is this a good or a bad thing?
I think travel writing has come and gone in literary fashion over the decades and even centuries. I’m not sure as a literary genre that it’s that fashionable at the moment – difficult to name a truly well-known travel author since Bill Bryson’s heyday a decade ago. Online travel blogging is another creature; there has certainly been an explosion of interest in that. Surely it must be good that people take such an interest and enjoyment in travel.
What are you working on right now?
An article on Bordeaux for a newspaper travel section, and several articles for various magazine on everything from Singapore to Sydney and New Zealand.
Is there any part of the world you are dying to visit or write about if so where and why?
People always think I’ve been everywhere, but that’s far from the case. I’d love to see East Africa, a place I’ve fantasized about since seeing the movie Out of Africa as a teenager. Seeing those vast animal migrations would be awesome.
Do you think travel writing is about luck or good planning? Why?
There’s no luck involved in travel writing. To be successful in anything takes a lot of hard work and hustle. Outsiders see only the glamorous side, but to make a full-time living as a travel writer takes a lot of exhausting travel, work and marketing.
If you could spend one week in any major city of the planet, where would it be and how would you spend the time?
I know it’s a cliché, but I’d choose Paris to while away a week. It has so many good museums, and the streets are just made for walking. There is beauty all around.
Where is Brian Johnston heading off to next?
Off to Romania and Hungary shortly. Should be interesting!
Thanks so much to Brian Johnston for finding a moment in his busy schedule to talk, if you want to know more about his work and his current obsession with river cruises see his travel writing webpage here.