Trish Nicholson’s Unique Window on the World
Trish Nicholson is one of those interesting people I have been fortunate enough to meet on Twitter. I do enjoy her blog, which is a cornucopia of wonderful commentaries on travel, books and writing. So I recommend you catch ‘Words in the Treehouse’, or you will be missing out on a treat.
Tell me about your background.
I’m a social anthropologist as well as a writer. The anthropology has taken me all over the world to do research and manage aid and development projects, and I fitted in side-trips of my own. I suppose a lot of that comes into my writing, especially the cultural side of travelogues. I usually travel alone and I think you notice more doing it that way and there’s more time to think about what you’re experiencing.
If you’re trained as an anthropologist, are you talking to people, or asking questions in a different way to someone who’s just a tourist?
Perhaps I listen more deeply. Anthropology trains you to be an observer. I’m looking for both differences and similarities; things that seem familiar and things that aren’t, and relating them to the surroundings. And I’m probably more interested in the mundane details of everyday lives in back yards and street corners than the average tourist. I’ve had some interesting chats with cleaning staff, market traders, and with porters on treks, for example.
Do you find you never switch off your inner anthropologist?
It’s just part of who I am. I need a lot of time alone, but I do enjoy being with people. So I don’t see it as anything I can switch on or switch off. It’s become part of my mental outlook I suppose.
As well as travel books, you have written short stories. To what extent does your background as an anthropologist inform that?
I’ve always thought about things in terms of stories. I’m not sure it’s directly related to the anthropology, but when you’re studying the interconnections between people, the rules for behaviour and how they get broken, you do get into the habit of thinking about relationships. I think in terms of networks, and because I also think visually, I see them as scenes and patterns. Social anthropology studies communities, groups of people, and their interactions. We constantly affect each other. And cultures are not set in stone, they’re always being negotiated through changing circumstances and depending on each person’s power to act. I suppose that does come into my stories to some extent, but it’s not something I think about deliberately when writing a story.
You’re probably more likely to be interested in the way people are interacting when you’re out having a coffee or a meal somewhere.
Yes, I am very inquisitive. When I look down the street I notice little things that are happening and wonder what’s going on. I do carry a notebook all the time.
This must be particularly important when you’re travel writing. How do you make notes, because you can’t make them all the time. So when do you find time to do this?
There are gap times, for example when waiting for transport or just taking a break for a meal. In the evenings I’m not one to go to nightclubs and bars and I’m usually in remote places anyway, so if there’s a lamp I write my notes, even by torchlight if necessary.
And I take huge numbers of photographs, so I’m very grateful to digital photography, because now it’s much cheaper and easier. They create a visual record of people and places. Looking over the photographs after a trip helps the memory enormously, and sometimes I notice little details I wasn’t aware of at the time.
When I worked in Papua New Guinea I wrote in my journal every night, partly to record events, but also to help me understand and cope with the experience. After five years, typed in single spacing and without margins to save paper, the journal filled some 600 pages of A4. So yes, I do write everything down.
You must have to be very disciplined, because if you’re tired and particularly if you’re in a remote region and you have to get all your belongings sorted.
Even when I’m tired, there’s still the keen desire to get it down, especially when travelling alone. With a companion, whether you’re tired or not, you’d probably sit for a while and chat about the day before turning in. I chat on the page, so for me, writing a journal is actually a winding down process rather than a chore.
I know you’ve said that the storytelling skills you use in fiction are equally important in writing non-fiction. Why is that?
When I write non-fiction I use creative writing techniques. This doesn’t mean that I invent people or events. Everything I write is how I’ve experienced it and seen it – that’s important to me – but it’s the way of relating and describing it. I use my imagination to find the right words and phrases to transfer the images in my mind to help a reader see it and understand it. In a short story you portray characters in ways that a reader can care about them and what happens to them and in settings that seem realistic, by choosing the right words and adding small details that resonate. In writing non-fiction I try to do the same. It’s like a story: I put down what happened, but it needs some kind of structure and order, it’s just how the brain works to put together a sequence of events with causes and effects. That’s really what I’m doing with creative or narrative non-fiction. But for travel, particularly, you’re trying to transfer experiences of a place and open them up for others to share, so I write from a first person point of view and include my own role in the account. Readers need to know who you are as the narrator because any point of view is always partial to some extent – complete objectivity is impossible. Truth is inescapably an interpretation.
Travel writing requires a very particular approach.
I suppose does, and there are different kinds of travel writing. Although I have to say I’d never considered myself a travel writer as such, because I’d thought of that in terms of short trips and articles about popular destinations aimed at tourists – where to go, what to see and where to eat and so on. I believe there’s a particular talent required to write those. But I don’t go much to tourist sites and restaurants, or stay in good class hotels. Generally I’m in hostels, or Bed & Breakfast places or camping, and eating from cheap cafes and street stalls. I once spent a week in Venice and lived on coffee and a bun in the morning from a train-station vendor and one slice of pizza later in the day from a pizza shop down an alley because I couldn’t afford to eat as well as stay in the city. I was in a grotty little room over a green-grocers but right in the centre and it had a tiny balcony where I perched in the evenings with my slice of pizza, watching life go on below. What I write is probably what you’d call travelogue or travel narrative or memoir, which is more sharing partly my own experience but also the lives of people I meet as well as the character of the place. It is written for arm-chair travellers as much as for potential visitors.
Do you think you have easier access to these areas that you’ve been going to than we might have in Europe?
Most of my travel was required for my work, with long stints in Papua New Guinea, Australia and the Philippines, and because I was living there, I probably gained deeper access to events and people than a visitor would. But more recently, in the last couple of years, I’ve been doing a bit of personal travel in Europe, for example in Barcelona, and across Italy by slow train, and I found similar things of interest even in urban environments. I love old cities. I found I was doing exactly the same routines as I would do in Bangkok or in a village in the Philippines.
You really are more interested in more out of the way places than the heart of the city and a cappuccino.
Yes, regular readers of my blog know better than to expect articles about gourmet eating and luxury hotels, although I loved Barcelona and Venice, and cities like Delhi and Lima. But I’ve also had a couple of weeks in Bali and didn’t see all that many tourists because I got up at five or six in the morning the same as the local family I stayed with in Ubud. There are no tourists around then and so much life to see. At lunchtime, when visitors are busy eating, I walked or travelled around doing other things. If you do the reverse of most tourists, you can largely avoid the crowds, and staying in a family compound, you are introduced to local activities you wouldn’t normally know about, or have access to.
You do take a lot of photographs. If you were to produce a print travelogue book with all the photographs you’ve got in your e-books, how easy do you think that would be by comparison?
That would be really difficult. This is one of the practical benefits of digital publication – you can use as many photographs as you like, cheaply and easily. Collca is especially good on the technical side of e-publishing and included nearly 40 of my photographs in the book about Bhutan. You simply couldn’t do that in a print book. Well, you could, but it would cost a fortune for good quality reproduction.
Yes, because your books are very reasonably priced.Bookmark
Yes they are, e-books are cheaper to produce and it means more people can enjoy them.
Also you do get a very good quality picture, particularly when you’re using a tablet to read the book.
They do have to be high resolution photographs in the first place. Readers have told me that even on Kindle, in black-and-white, they still enjoyed the photographs and quality of image is good, even when enlarged.
How did you get involved in publishing your books as e-books?
I didn’t start with a book I was trying to publish; I was writing short stories. But I came by accident upon Collca’s BiteSize e-book series while momentarily lost on the Internet. But publish only non-fiction, but I noticed they were expanding their list and they mentioned books about travel. I thought: I could do that, so I sent a submission with two or three proposals, and the response was ‘yes’. So I put my short stories in a drawer and wrote my first travelogue, which is about the Philippines. Masks of the Moryons is actually more anthropology than travel as it focuses on a rather spectacular Easter Week pageant, a tradition preserved in only one small town on one of the many islands. Then I wrote Journey in Bhutan based on a high altitude trek. It’s considerably longer than other BiteSize Travel titles – about the length of a novella.
The good thing about being involved with a small independent publisher is that I don’t need an agent. Most people are aware of the benefits of self publishing, but not enough is said about the opportunities there are now for writers to be published by small independent presses.
I believe publishing an e-book is a fairly quick process.
The writing and editing are no quicker or easier, of course, but the speed with which an e-book can be produced does, I think, contribute to intellectual freedom. Because of the technology, overhead costs and risks are less, opening the arena not only for self publishing, but for small independent publishers. As a result, they can afford to be more flexible and even experimental in the type of material they publish.
If I write in a different genre, as long as it fits with my publisher’s general ethos, there isn’t a problem. After the two travelogues, I wrote a popular science book that crosses boundaries between science and literature: From Apes to Apps: how humans evolved as storytellers and why it matters. It meant that as a writer, I was able to publish an innovative extended essay, and write it in my most potent voice, even if it was not necessarily a big commercial idea.
Large publishing houses are not keen on their authors suddenly deciding to write in a different genre. They maximise sales by branding authors, but branding limits literary choice, for readers as well as writers.
I was passionate about writing From Apes to Apps because I could see the whole concept of storytelling being distorted and taken over by spin doctors and corporations to serve their vested interests. I wanted to make everyone aware of what was happening and encourage them to hold on to their own narratives. It is available on the market only because my publisher was willing and able to be flexible. In fact, he published it as the first in a new BiteSize Science series.
How do you communicate and work with your publisher?
Collca is based in the UK, and when I was there two years ago I had the pleasure of meeting Mike Hyman. But usually everything is done via email, and occasionally by telephone. We have an excellent working relationship and for me that’s really important for the whole practice of writing for publication.
How much editing is done on your books?
I use a professional editor although I edit and polish the work myself first – she is eagle-eyed and very strict; it’s a point of honour for me that she shouldn’t find much that needs changing. But I always receive useful suggestions and comments, and corrections because I am a recidivist in one thing in particular and that is the misuse and abuse of hyphens. It’s my blind spot.
What is your newest project?
It was published in July: Inside Stories for Writers and Readers. Another change of genre because it’s like a companion or a personal mentor for creative writing and reading, although it would also be a useful source for writing and reading groups. I discuss inspiration, characters, voice, theme – all the major aspects in writing fiction, and I use my own short stories, quoting professional critiques, to illustrate various points. I had to be brave to do that, but there is value in sharing these insights. I think readers get so much more from their experience if they understand some of the creative process.
I think these days it’s getting harder to tell the difference between a writer and a reader. All writers are readers, of course, and partly due to blogging and the digital revolution, far more people are now writing whether or not they intend to publish. I don’t think it’s helpful to view readers and writers as being in different camps. But it’s more than that: I wanted this book to be inclusive because, to me, good prose creates a unique relationship between the voice of a writer and the voice of a reader. I wanted to explore that chemistry within stories.
Because your books are produced as e-books you can’t do signings. How do you do a book tour?
I can’t really, unless I do virtual tours and blog hopping, but they are used more for fiction than non-fiction and I’ve seen no data to suggest that sales are worth the huge amount of time required to participate in them. Marketing, specifically ‘discoverability’, is still difficult for e-books because people are used to seeing the physical product in a bookshop window or on a shelf. And mainstream reviewers don’t yet support e-publishing as much as they could. I think that will come, though.
Inside Stories will also be in print. This is Collca’s first print title. They were always aware of the option, but were waiting for the right book to come along and Inside Stories is a full-length volume, not a BiteSize book like most of their list. The paperback edition has From Apes to Apps bound with it. I’m really thrilled to have this one in bookshops because I love physical books as well as the advantages of e-books.
You have a very strong social media presence on the Internet. So you probably use this as part of your marketing strategy.
Yes, I do, as long as it doesn’t take up too much time. I write guest posts, and maintain an author page on several book-related websites, but also I have my own website for weekly blogging which I use in conjunction with a Twitter account – there’s no point having a blog if you don’t promote it, it won’t otherwise be visible among the thousands of new blogs going on-line every day. I usually post an article each week, which is a lot of work because I write to publishable standard. I don’t think there’s much point otherwise. So these aren’t just updates, but feature articles about writing, about travel, and sometimes reviews or interviews, or photo-essays. I also promote my books on Twitter, but in moderation, focusing mostly on giving some value on the blog in exchange for a reader’s attention. I don’t have time for other networks, but Collca uses a wide range of social media for marketing.