Inside Travel Writing: An interview with Murray Stewart

Murray Stewart is the travel writer behind Bradt Guide’s 2016 publication The Basque Country and Navarre.

Here, Stuart Forster puts questions Murray, who answers with wit and insightfulness.

What kind of travel related niche do you specialise in?

I couldn’t say that I have established a niche, being still relatively new to travel-writing.

I am definitely not interested in luxury travel, as I think that often separates the visitor from the host.

Long-distance walking is certainly a passion for me, it gives me time to think and get close to nature and people.

As for style, I am always on the lookout for quirkiness and humour to include in my writing.

Murray Stewart at the 2017 British Guild of Travel Writers' AGM in Reims, France.

Murray Stewart dressed for dinner.

What recent examples of your work do you want to point people to?

My guidebook on The Basque Country and Navarre was published last year and was fortunate enough to have won an award for Best Guidebook of 2016 from the British Guild of Travel Writers. But the real pleasure for me from this book is from the opportunity to promote a region with a strong identity that holds some intrigue and mystery — and for some, a little fear, due to its recent chequered history. It’s very close to the UK, very foreign and very fascinating. And very safe!

Which piece of writing are you most proud?

I did an article for Wanderlust magazine about the Camino de Santiago (the pilgrimage route running to Santiago de Compostela in north-western Spain).

It was the first piece I ever had published and paid for. I still enjoy reading it, although the camino has become more of an up-market, bucket-list item for many who walk this ancient pilgrimage route.

What do you enjoy most about travel writing?

Meeting people of different nationalities, finding out about what I have in common with them and finding out how their lives are different. Travel writing for me is as much about people as it is places.

Do you have a favourite destination?

With around 60 countries behind me — and therefore, still 120 still to visit! — there are plenty to choose from.

I have a passionate interest in northern Spain, especially the Basque Country and Galicia. My fondest memories of places are always associated with people and how welcoming they are: in that respect, I visited Syria in 2000 and was overwhelmed with the hospitality I encountered.

The Peloponnese region is another favourite and for the same reason — wonderful people.

And I recently visited Kerala in southern India and loved the gentleness of the Keralans. As well as the chance to eat curry three times daily!

For scenery, I have found nothing to beat Patagonia: I still look at my photos of the Torres del Paine peaks and don’t believe that they are real.

Men working Chinese fishing nets in Kochi, Kerala, India.

Fisherman working next to the Chinese fishing nets at Kochi in Kerala, India.

What would be a typical working day for you, if there is such a thing?

When I’m working abroad, researching for a guidebook, I start early and finish late, with daylight hours spent out and about, and the evenings engaged with writing.

But the best travel experiences are often found by going with the flow, tearing up your plan to pursue something interesting that stumbles across your path. I lack self-discipline, so any random encounter that distracts me is welcome.

Do you ever suffer from writer’s block?

Very rarely. A short walk with some fresh air usually solves it. Shutting me up is more difficult than getting the words flowing.

What tip or tips would you offer to anyone entering the industry?

First, prove to yourself that you can write.

Second, prove to those you love that you can write.

Third, prove that you can get published.

Fourth, prove that you can get paid for getting published.

Fifth, prove that you can make a living from getting paid for getting published.

I’m still only between stages four and five!

Also, make as many contacts as you can.

Adrian Phillips, the director of publishing at Bradt Guides, with Murray prior to a gala dinner in Reims, France.

Adrian Phillips, the director of publishing at Bradt Guides, with Murray prior to a gala dinner in Reims, France.

Which writers inspire you and why?

I don’t follow particular writers, but books that made an impression on me include Ghosts of Spain, by Giles Tremlett, which unlocks some of Spain’s quirks and idiosyncrasies through several stand-alone chapters.

Clear Waters Rising: A Mountain Walk Across Europe, by Nicholas Crane, is another book that makes me think ‘I wish I’d written that.’ It documents a fantastic journey by foot across our continent.

What do you aspire to achieve as a writer?

If you can inspire your readers to do something different, something outside the comfort zone, then that feels like success. Travelling is an opportunity to self-educate.

It’s a tough industry, what do you see as its biggest challenges?

Not confined to travel writing, but the on-line world creates a platform for everyone, as does self-publishing.

In the world of the internet, every contributor is an ‘expert’ and there are not enough filters to weed out poor quality content; it also creates a massive downward pressure on remuneration for those trying to make a living by it.

What about its opportunities?

There will always be opportunities to find something new or at least to introduce a new audience to something old. But it is becoming tougher.

Are there destinations you are particularly keen to visit and write about?

I intend to walk more of the various Caminos de Santiago in Spain.

Walking is a great way of meeting people and meeting people of every nationality, character and motivation on these pilgrimages is fun, educational and inspiring. It’s also a great way of gathering travel anecdotes for future writing.

Further afield. I would love to do a safari in Tanzania.

Maybe a trip to Murrayfield will be on the cards, during the Six Nations rugby tournament?

Maybe a trip to Murrayfield will be on the cards, during the Six Nations rugby tournament?

Do you have a website where people can find out more about you?

No – I’m a bit of a dinosaur! My resolution for 2017 is to get blogging.

If you weren’t a travel writer what would you like to be?

If I was a teenager, I would reset my ambitions and self-discipline and try to be a professional rugby player (though I know deep-down that I never had the talent).

Nowadays, I am happy being a travel writer but also have a hankering to do more voluntary work when time allows.

Is there anything else you’d like to say to MannedUp readers?

Maybe nothing that they don’t know already, but traveling with an open mind is always the key to getting the most out of it.

The photos illustrating this feature are by Stuart Forster of Why Eye Photography.

A picture for the sake of it - the face of a Kathakali performer in Kerala.

A picture for the sheer sake and colour of it – the face of a Kathakali performer in Kerala.

3 Comments

  1. Carl Horner says:

    I’ve read some of this gentleman’s work and recommend it. The Bradt guide proved extremely helpful during my recent travels there. Thanks for suggesting it.

  2. Peter Francis says:

    I’ve been reading some of his works after discovering him here. I like the book on northern Spain.

  3. Gina Harris says:

    This writer’s guide was very helpful on our holiday to northern Spain. Thank you, Murray!

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