Inside Travel Writing: An interview with Solange Berchemin

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Solange Berchemin is a travel and food writer and photographer based in Greenwich, London. Her work has been published in various national and international publications, including France Magazine, EuroNews, The Times and Trip Reporter.

Disclosure: Some of the links below — marked with (£) — are affiliate links, meaning, at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.

Solange is the author of eight books, her latest is 111 Places in the Lake District that You Shouldn’t Miss (£):

In which travel-related niche do you specialise?

I have never thought about writing in terms of niche. I think in terms of stories and readership. I look for stories and then I’ll share and adapt them to an outlet. I’ll go where the stories take me from the steppes of Mongolia to the streets of Chicago.

Reading has been my escapism route from a very young age. Later I worked in a library, then in education with languages, so writing is just a natural progression. Same with traveling, first I travelled to get away and then travelling became my default mode.

Solange Berchemin.

Which piece of writing are you most proud of and why?

111 Places in the Lake District that you Shouldn’t Miss (£), but ask me next month and it will be something else. I flit from one story to the next with the ease of a butterfly. I love them all….one at the time.

What do you enjoy the most about travel writing?

Travel writing opens doors which otherwise would remain closed. There are places which I would have never been to or stayed in, and people I would have never had access to if it had not been for my job.

I need to get out of my comfort zone to be at my best. Travel writing gets the best out of me, every single time.

At the market in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Do you have a favourite destination?

That is just impossible to answer. I could tell you which destinations I hated, and even rank them in order. But I loved too many places, each for a different reason.

I have lost my heart in many places. I do have a soft spot for Malapascua, an island in the Philippines, and the Calanques near Toulon — waking up to the sound of the sea and the ‘tuk-tuk-tuk’ of the fishing boats is my perfect start of the day.

What would be a typical working day for you?

I try to write every day. When I get out of this daily regime, I find it difficult to discipline myself back in.

It is common knowledge that travel writers spend their life on the road or on the beach, right? It does happen but mostly I’ll be at my desk, at home, and I’ll do a nine to five day.

As writers, we have a lot of freedom, but at the end of the day, if you don’t deliver that copy within the deadline, you will not get another chance. The competition is though, you have to make sure you remain as good as your last article.

Do you ever suffer from writer’s block?

Isn’t that a myth? If it did exist, I don’t have such an affliction, which is great. But it can be a little dangerous too, sometimes I get carried away and have to be reined in. Thank goodness for editors.

Lumiere in Lyon, Solange’s home city.

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

Hone your skills, focus on what you want to achieve, don’t waste time. You’ll need to have good ideas and be able to present them well. Keep your contacts close and help others. This is a community where reputation and kudos are important. Last but not least, you’ll need to be able to live on a pittance until your number comes up, when it does, it’s special.

Which writers inspire you?

At first it was the modern classics such as Muriel Cerf (£) and Bruce Chatwin (£):

I interviewed Colin Thubron for Writers in Black & White (£), a book I co-wrote 10 years ago: I thought I had gone to heaven (£):

They are the writers who made me dream big. Later, I moved on to feature writers, I read every travel magazine I could put my hands on. Then I started writing, found my voice and stopped reading so much about travelling but I get a thrill watching and listening to travel reporters.

What do you aspire to achieve as a writer?

Fame. Just kidding.

It’s such a privilege to live through all these incredible experiences,  that, in itself, is enough.

I want people to get hooked on my opening sentences and continue reading until the end of the article. I want people to realise that they too can go and explore these places, eat in these restaurants and meet people they will learn from. I want to picture ‘the difference’ in a positive way.

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

It is hard to remain independent, I had a column in the local newspaper until a few months ago. The Greenwich Visitor was a much-loved paper because it was independent, opinionated and positive. It folded, like many local papers do, and I can’t see anything replacing them. The whole industry is walking on a tight rope

What about its opportunities?

They are there, though it gets much easier when people know your name and your face.

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

You know the old chestnut “it’s not the destination…”? For me the journey is important.

I used to hitchhike. I did so across the desert in Egypt, around the Lebanon, and met some incredible people. Now, I tend to write for eco-luxury magazines, so my hitchhiking days are over.

I love train travel. I once travelled from London to Istanbul. I’d love to do more of that. I’ve always wanted to go to Iran, but as a journalist it is not wise. So far, Belize, Panama, Ukraine, Ibiza, and Scotland are on this year’s editorial-list. For holidays, it would have to be an island.

Typing at a laptop on Palawan in the Philippines.
Typing on Palawan in the Philippines.

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

I would have to be a world correspondent or reporter.

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

That is an easy one, I have spent the past 18 months writing a guidebook to the Lake District in Cumbria, 111 Places in the Lake District that You Shouldn’t Miss (£),in the 111 Places series. The series has over 250 titles. It is aimed at locals and experienced travellers. The idea is to reveal local secrets, hidden views, unusual landmarks. Each of the 111 places is accompanied by a photograph. Not only are the stories are fascinating but the pictures are gorgeous (£):

What were the highlights of researching your book?

It was just brilliant to spend so much time in one area. I loved Driving through Cumbria’s breathtaking scenery. I was captivated by the stories emerging from the West Coast.

What were the biggest challenges in the writing process of the book?

The 111th place, I turned up and in spite of six months negotiating and having been promised entry, I was refused access: point blank, no discussion allowed. We had four hours left till the train home, I was in tears, went for a coffee. It so happened that Farrers of Kendal has been Tea & Coffee merchant, in the same shop, for the past 200 years; a little gem. It became my 111th place.

Getting about on two wheels.

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

Please, get in touch!

I blog at www.solangeberchemin.com and www.pebblesoup.co.uk.

I tweet at @solangeweb and my Instagram account is @pebblesoup.

The photos illustrating this article were supplied courtesy of Solange and are her work.

If you enjoyed this interview, take a look others in the Inside Travel Writing series, including those with Simon Parker and Victoria Trott.

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