Q&A with Mary Russell, Travel Writing Workshop Director

Mary RussellMary Russell’s latest travel book is My Home is Your Home: A Journey round Syria. Her love for travel began when she was studying for an MA in Conflict Resolution at Bradford University during which time she visited South Africa. The following year she travelled to Sudan, Palestine, Georgia and the Sahara. Her most recent travels have taken her to Syria, Israel and Iraq, which she has written about for the Irish Times and Guardian newspapers. Other journeys include the Arctic, Hungary, Russia and the Eastern Caribbean. She has often travelled alone, once catching a ship to Algiers where she continued down into the Sahara and spent time with the Saharawi, a displaced desert people. Mary has also written short stories, often drawing on her travel experiences and which have been published in various anthologies.

We’re delighted that Mary Russell will be directing our 3-Day Travel Writing Workshop during Listowel Writers’ Week, which runs this year from 27th – 31st May 2015.

Q. Did you want to be a writer from a young age?

A. No. Writing was just something I did everyday like eating breakfast or putting on my school uniform.

Q. How and when did you start writing travel narratives?

A. After I had gone off to Lesotho to do some research for my Masters degree in Conflict Resolution. At that time, it was mainly journalism. The books followed on.

Q. You have said that “everything we do is part of a journey.” So we don’t have to go far afield to write about travel. Right?

A. Absolutely. Even an outing to the doctor’s surgery is a journey and if you keep your ears and eyes open it can be a very interesting journey. An utterly obnoxious habit to cultivate is eavesdropping. I do it all the time, at bus-stops, in cafes, at the checkout. Anywhere!

Q. You have travelled alone to some fairly dangerous places around the world. Have you ever felt frightened or threatened?

A. There’s one thing that brings me out in a cold sweat and that’s snarling dogs. Even walking past a barking farm dog makes me nervous. (I’m basically a coward at heart.)

Q. What would you say is the most fascinating journey you have ever written about and why?

A. Without a doubt, the time I spent with a group of desert dwellers in the Sahara. The desert itself is immense. There are no lamp posts or houses, nothing to give you an idea of distance. Also, the people I was with. I learned from them how very dependent we are on each other.

Q. What writing projects are you currently working on?

A. A marvellous if long term one: I am looking at the old butter roads of Kerry and Cork and walking some of them as well. Glorious.

Q. You spent some time at Cill Rialaig Artists’ Retreat in Ballinskelligs, Co. Kerry. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Cill Rialiag
Cill Rialaig, Ballinskelligs, Co. Kerry

A. Two months later and I’m still on a high. Such a luxury to have time to do nothing except write. Don’t tell anyone, but I swept the floor only once in the whole week I was there. That’s freedom. We were six writers, each of us tucked away in our own little house with nothing to do except write, think, walk – and repeat – for one whole week. I went there with two specific jobs: to read a quite thick book about maps and to organise my research into cardex files. I was able to spread everything out on the kitchen table and know that it would stay there. No clearing the table for tea! Bliss. Thanks to Listowel Writers Week for making it possible.

I quite enjoyed being a hermit and going through a whole day talking to no one but the sheep. However, on two evenings, we all met up in the communal house and got to know each other. Now, if we meet again at Listowel, we’ll be meeting as old friends.

Q. What types of markets are open to the travel writer today?

A. Journalism is one still very obvious market but so too is blogging. The trend now seems to be leaning towards travel memoirs with the writer taking an integral role in the whole story. My agent said once that I should put more of myself into my travel books and I think that’s something that’s got to be done, even though I think the people I meet on my travels are more important/interesting than I am. The challenge lies in getting the balance right.

Q. What are your impressions of Listowel Writers’ Week?

A. The first time I ever came to Listowel was the year one of my short stories won first prize. I’d entered it using a pen name (my grandmother’s as it happened) so I now have a lovely pen inscribed with her name instead of mine. Last year, when I was running some travel writing workshops, I was almost overwhelmed by the huge amount of events that were taking place – poetry readings, plays, sing songs, music, the bog walk and my own small pilgrimage to John B Keane’s grave. All that, as well as the workshops, so it was marvellous. This year, I intend (she says piously) to work out in advance what events I want to attend and thus, I hope, give the impression of being an organised person. Listowel Writers Week is a challenge, so best to be prepared for it.

Q. What topics will you be covering in your Workshop?

A. I have a thing about adjectives – get rid of them. So that will be up for discussion. Observation: we live in a very busy world and half of it seems to pass us by, so I want to get people looking in detail at the minutiae of things, of flowers, street furniture, shoes, hands, windows…. We’ll look at story-telling which is what travel writing is all about. We’ll take a single character we’ve met in our travels and bring that person to life so that the group feels we really know them. This will involve a lot of questions starting with who, why, what, when and where? We’ll also discuss two aspects of travel that need to be explored: the role of fear and the ethics of writing about people generally (photography comes into this one). I’m hoping that people who join the Workshop will bring their personal views and ideas to these discussions. Plus I have a few things tucked up my sleeve which will get us all thinking and then writing. See you there?

You can book a place on Mary’s Workshop here

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