Inside Travel Writing: An interview with Nick Redmayne

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Nick Redmayne is a travel writer whose work has been published in The Independent, Wanderlust magazine and on the radio, by the BBC.

In this interview he talks about the places he finds most interesting and his daily routine when travel writing.

Disclosure: This article contains click-through links to affiliate marketing websites, which are marked with (£). If you make a purchase we stand to make a small commission at no additional cost to yourself.

What kind of travel related niche do you specialise in and what drew you to it?

In the 1980s, as a young man, I worked in Sudan, at the time wracked by Africa’s longest running civil war. Resilience and innovation are human qualities less obviously expressed in Western Europe and I believe our lives are poorer for it. To date, having visited over 80 countries, the profound impression left by Sudan’s people and landscapes is something I carry with me always.

Perhaps as a result of this experience I’ve been drawn to lesser-visited corners of the world, those shrouded by negative preconceptions or recovering from natural or manmade catastrophes. In such places the worst and best attributes of humanity are often easier to discern – it’s here my interest lies.

Sierra Leone is a country that epitomises resilience. I visited after the civil war, later when real progress was being made, and most recently at the tail end of the Ebola outbreak. I’d recommend Sierra Leone to anyone wishing to immerse themselves in 100 per cent undiluted West Africa. Here’s some copy I wrote for the late lamented Independent on Sunday.

More recently, at the end of 2016, together with a mixed contingent of Egyptians, expats and a couple of internationals, I completed the inaugural group hike of Egypt’s first long-distance hiking route, the 220km Sinai Trail.  Without doubt it was my best trip of the year. I reported for BBC Radio 4 here, The Independent and others.

Lightening things up, in 2017 I spent time in Slovenia, attending a men-only sausage festival held in Melania Trump’s hometown of Sevnica. Here’s my take on it for The Independent.

People in a shop in Yemen.
People at a market stall in Yemen.

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

Surprisingly, two pieces that were never published…  I was in Benghazi during the revolution to overthrow Gaddafi. The editor I’d been dealing with went unaccountably. He didn’t even have the courtesy to answer my emails – despite the ends endured to research, write and send the material.  Inevitably the story grew stale.

However, I still think the words capture some of the spirit from those heady days of revolution.  Whether the dispatches should have seen the light of day in print is here for you to judge, on my blog, as the story Benghazi by Bus.

I made two trips to Benghazi, during the overthrow of Gaddafi and later, after the US consulate attack. The hopeful energy of youth was electrifying – life turned up to 11.  The hijacking of Libya’s revolution by local strongmen, religio-political militias and criminals is still hard to stomach.  Other copy filed from the UK was published and broadcast; a piece for BBC Radio 4’s From Our Own Correspondent, The Middle East magazine and many others.

I’m still in touch with Libyan friends in the sure and certain hope that security will return, and I’ll be able to report on positive progress for a great country.

A sign in Benghazi during the Arab Spring.
A sign in Benghazi during the Arab Spring.

What do you enjoy most about travel writing?

Meeting people with diverse backgrounds and stories is addictive. My back catalogue of places and people has, for the most part, been facilitated by travel journalism. Writing has made my life rich in experience, and in the final reckoning perhaps that’s all that matters.

Do you have a favourite destination?

I’d find it hard to focus on one place in particular – I’ve been lucky enough to enjoy so many different places, each with unique attributes. If pushed, Sana’a in Yemen springs to mind – the architecture, sights, sounds and smells are remarkable. I sincerely hope the fighting ends and Yemen’s people can rebuild their lives.

I’d also like to return to Aleppo in Syria. If I can one day sink down in a saggy leather armchair and enjoy another beer in the Baron’s Hotel then a circle will be closed. I think often of the generous hospitality offered by Syrian people.

A child waves flags in Benghazi.
A child waves flags in Benghazi.

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

When the kids have left for school I make a pot of coffee, clear my email inbox and crack on with pending writing. Around lunchtime the dog needs a walk. We take a turn up a lower summit of Simonside – one of Rothbury’s primary resources (along with the Co-op!) – or around the lakes at Cragside, former home of Victorian industrialist Lord Armstrong. Then I’m in the office until around 4pm when the children start returning home. When not on an assignment I look after the catering. Occasional late nights require increasing amounts of intravenous coffee, and leave me with a caffeine hang-over.  I try to avoid these.

Do you ever suffer from writer’s block?

It happens. Decamping with my laptop to a local café or getting a haircut, or both, seems to work for me.

Haircut? How about a trip to a market in Yemen.
Haircut? How about a trip to a market in Yemen.

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

Examine your rationale for wanting to become a travel writer. Writing is more important than travelling, and in many ways the harder journey. Oh, and nothing succeeds like persistence.

Which writers inspire you and why?

I read mainly autobiographies and biographies, those by journalists or centred on historic travellers. However, among writers of novels, Graham Greene really stands out as a favourite (£):

His prose melds the personal dramas of fictional characters with insightful renderings of real political and historical landscapes.  The Comedians – based in Haiti, and The Quiet American (£) – based in Vietnam, are examples of this.

And I defy anyone not to laugh out loud at Greene’s Travels with my Aunt (£):

What do you aspire to achieve as a writer?

Getting paid on time would be nice…

I’d like to think that every so often someone reads a piece I’ve written and is inspired to engage with the subject, adding something to their own lives and those of the people or destination featured. This may sound a little high minded, but if it happens we’re all winners.

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

To be brutal I’d find it hard to recommend that anyone enters the travel writing industry.  Current fees for copy mean any expectations of a making a sustainable living through writing alone are nigh unrealistic.

Apocryphal stories of bloggers coining sizable incomes through clever cross marketing, product promotion and other commercial transactions abound. However, the closer you approach the reality, the less credible these stories become.

People celebrating in Benghazi in 2011.
People celebrating in Benghazi in 2011.

What about its opportunities?

You have to make your own opportunities, particularly as a freelancer. It’s necessary to identify a goal and work towards it. Just sitting around, periodically checking your email, it’s unlikely that anything will happen, ever.

Hadramut in Yemen.
Hadramut in Yemen.

Is there a destination you are particularly keen to visit and write about? 

I’d like to get back to Socotra, a forgotten archipelago at the mouth of the Gulf of Aden, sometimes called the Arabian Galapagos for its incredible endemic flora.  I wrote about it once for Wanderlust magazine.

Since Yemen has been overcome by its own troubles, and those thrust upon it by other regional powers, Socotra has been cast adrift. Flights to the airstrip have been suspended and only way to get there is by boat. Stories now emanating from the islands are intriguing to say the least.

A craftsman at work in Yemen.
A blacksmith at work on an anvil in Yemen.

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

My blog is The Irresponsible Traveller. They can also follow me on Instagram and Twitter.

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

The owner of a good second-hand bookshop.

Buildings in Sana'a, the capital of Yemen.
Buildings in Sana’a, the capital of Yemen.

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

Nora Ephron was right when she said, ‘everything is copy’.

The photos illustrating this post were supplied courtesy of Nick Redmayne.

If you have other questions that you’d like to see MannedUp ask leading travel writers then please send a message or post a comment below.

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