I have been waiting for this, my first ever Listowel Writers Week, for a decade and a half. When I first determined that I wanted to be a writer in 1996 it was visions of book spines emblazoned with my name, kind-hearted readers, and summers spent reading at the likes of Listowel that bewitched me. I was living in a hovel in the Himalayas at the time, up on the border of India, Tibet and Nepal, and decided to come home, build myself another hovel in Westmeath, out of bales of straw, daubed with lime plaster, and begin to write. It took years of false starts and wrong turns, of poverty and frustration, in the draughty, crumbling straw house before I finally taught myself to write reasonable prose. All the usual vain-glorious fantasies of the wannabe author fuelled me during those years, and high on the list was the dream of impassioned conversations with fellow authors and perspicacious readers at distinguished literary festivals. The delusion was so intense that it kept me powering on despite sheaves of rejection letters until finally, in 2006, Brandon published my first book, Angels and Rabies.
Since then, I’ve been going to festivals around the country, and picking up various myths and rumours about Writers Week in Listowel – the intensity, the bacchanalia, the claustrophobia and even the odd startling moment of epiphany.
What concerns me most now is how travel writers will be regarded there among the elite of the more esteemed literary genres there. Travel writing has never had much status in the hierarchy of literature, being a mongrel mix of memoir, history, anthropology, geography and adventure story. Colin Thubron admitted that ‘travel writing is relegated to something people do in the gap between adolescence and maturity.’ Theroux, too, recalls that before turning to travel writing he found the genre ‘a bore’, written and read by ‘bores’.
At least, we travel writers are held in higher esteem than the other group with which I identify myself, travel journalists. Within journalism, we are regarded as little higher than the tabloids’ 3am girls – tourists with typewriters, talentless freeloaders. We are ‘journalism’s tiramisu’ – fluffy, soaked in booze and of little sustenance. I’ll be giving a three-day workshop on travel writing during the week, and I wonder will the participants be more interested in travel literature or travel journalism? It’s disconcerting how much towards the journalism side of the spectrum I’ve shifted in recent years – from truffle pig of travel to porcine concubine to the PR industry.
The prejudice against travel writing is partly the fault of the writers themselves. The work can too often appear jingoistic, patronising and superficial. While Paul Theroux, Colin Thubron, Jonathan Raban and the rest of the travel writing pantheon of the 1970s and 80s made great progress in developing the genre, it has since slipped back, mostly due to gimmicky accounts of fatuous journeys carrying fridges, etc. Serious travel writing in print (as opposed to the excellent work found in some blogs) is mostly confined to the realm of grand septuagenarians who, while having done pioneering work 4 decades ago, now do little more than genteel laps of honour in which they reaffirm their cold-war prejudices.
I hope to have a chance to tease out these issues at the ‘Wanderlust’ travel writing forum on Fri, 1st June with Mary Russell and Brendan Harding. We may get a chance to see whether travelers really are better yarn spinners than other writers, whether the open road hones one’s inner seanchaí. I maintain that any group of vagabonds around an open fire or gathered in some seedy flophouse will invariably start telling tales, and unless you can hold your own, you’re soon eclipsed. We’ve all started out being the quiet dull one sitting on our bunk alone, and worked our way up through the ranks, so that we can hold a room or even a campsite of weary wanderers under our spell; keeping them with us even as they pick away at their blisters, mend their rucksacks and slurp noodles from battered pots. It makes facing a festival audience somewhat easier.
This trip to Listowel will be significant to me as I have only recently began working on my second novel. I am hoping it will be invigorating to be in the presence of so many committed writers and readers. Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers has had the most searing effect on me of any novel in many years, and being able to hear him read will be a particular thrill. In fact, it is his book that has made me return to novel writing again. His particular brand of quirky genius has condemned me to 2 years of struggles at my desk – a fact for which I both love him and loath him.
Overall, I’m hoping Listowel will be a return to the well; a reminder of what I set out to do back in 1996, of why I suffered those 7 years of penury in my nasty little house learning how to write.