Inside Travel Writing: An interview with Hilary Bradt

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This edition of Inside Travel Writing is an interview with Hilary Bradt MBE, one of the most widely respected figures in the industry. In this interview Hilary reveals which destination she’s planning on travelling to in 2020 to write a guide book.

In October Hilary was presented with the 2019 Special Contribution Award at the United Kingdom’s Travel Media Awards. She was one of the founders of Bradt Travel Guides and continues to be published in national newspapers. It’s an honour to feature this interview on MannedUp.com.

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.

Hilary Bradt

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

Places that are little known with a strong element of natural history. I’ve loved nature from early childhood, so it was a bonus when I found myself writing hiking guides to places where the flora and fauna were part of the scene.

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

Hmm. I’m proudest of pieces that I’ve written that are not merely descriptions but have more depth, such as an article on the ethics of cultural tourism which I wrote for Travel Africa, or a recent one in the Sunday Telegraph about an non-governmental organisation in Madagascar with an innovative approach to conservation.

But I’m also happy with the two narrative travel books, Connemara Mollie (£) and Dingle Peggy, about my thousand-mile ride on horseback around Ireland. It was wonderfully self-indulgent writing, all about me (and two remarkable ponies)!(£):

What do you enjoy most about travel writing?

It’s a great feeling when I have a commission, the writing is going well, and the deadline is still far away. A rare combination! And how lucky we are to be writing about travel, not politics or street crime.

Do you have a favourite destination?

You know, travel writers hate this question! After all, we’re in the business of seeing new places and writing about them so generally don’t go back to a favourite place.

That said, I have authored or co-authored 12 edition of our Madagascar guide and visited the country some 35 times as a tour leader – so that does suggest that I’m talking rubbish! So I admit it – Madagascar.

Madagascan trees silhouetted by the low sun by Hilary Bradt
Madagascan trees silhouetted by the low sun. Image courtesy of Hilary Bradt.

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

Yes, it would need to be a typical day of writing because I’m not a full-time writer. If I’m working on an important article or when I was writing the Ireland narratives, I have to accept that I do my best writing late at night, when I’m tired. This is a bit weird, but it’s as though the division between my conscious and unconscious mind becomes permeable and thoughts and descriptions flow unbidden onto the screen.

I let it happen, avoid re-reading that night, and come back to it the following morning in my pink fluffy dressing gown with my first cup of tea. Then I can be disciplined, shifting things around and doing lots of deleting, but there’s always some good stuff there. This means that I may greet the postman at 11 or so, still in my dressing gown, but I’ve given up being embarrassed.

Do you ever suffer from writer’s block?

Not writer’s block per se, assuming it means staring at a blank screen. But certainly I can fail to find any spark to ignite those passages of good writing we all aspire to. I’ve learned not to worry too much, just to get stuff down, however dismally it may read, and revise it when I’m feeling brighter. A pre-breakfast run will often get the creative juices going.

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

My cynical answer would be don’t. It’s really hard to get published these days and those who succeed are often those willing to be quite pushy and who are experts in social media. So if you are an extrovert and are writing for pleasure about places you love, you’re on to a good thing.  Just don’t give up the day job and do enter as many competitions as you can. If you get shortlisted it’s firm evidence that you write well.

Oh, and always be courteous to commissioning editors; they hold the keys to your future.

Which writers inspire you and why?

This is going to sound really naff, but for articles it’s Adrian Phillips, Bradt Travel Guide’s managing director. His pieces are a masterclass on how it should be done, and because we run an annual travel-writing seminar, along with Jonathan Lorie, I see the nuts and bolts of our teaching put into practice in exemplary form. Adrian is extraordinarily versatile. He can do humour, wildlife, food… whatever is required, and that takes real talent:

For book authors, I rate Peter Matthiesson’s At Play in the Fields of the Lord (£) as the best travel book I’ve read. It’s a novel but his empathy and understanding of tribal people, missionaries and the natural world is completely authentic (£):

For non-fiction travel I would rate Jan Morris, Colin Thubron, Bill Bryson and Peter Fleming. The latter has fallen out of favour because of his upper-class colonial attitude, but he’s a gloriously funny, and astute, writer.

What do you aspire to achieve as a writer?

To get a reply from travel editors if I pitch an article!

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

Putting aside the obvious things like the internet reducing the number of print articles being published, and the difficulty for even excellent writers to find a book publisher, I think the biggest challenge is to maintain the quality of travel writing.

In the olden days – and I speak as someone in her late 70s – all books and articles were carefully edited and only good writing got into print. Now that self-publishing and unedited blogging is within everyone’s reach, there is a tendency to believe ‘I travel therefore I write’.

That’s why we at Bradt run our travel-writing competitions; they draw out the outstanding writers from the mediocre crowd.

Trees in Madagascar. Image courtesy of Hilary Bradt.

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

Yes, and I’m going there in February! I’ve wanted to go to the Yemeni island of Socotra for as long as I can remember, and I’m finally achieving it.

Everything about Socotra seems to be mouth-wateringly ideal for a guide book (which Bradt will be publishing) and for articles: landscape, flora and fauna, and people. A cornucopia of delights (and ripe for any clichés I can come up with).

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

I’m half-way there already! Since retiring from running Bradt Travel Guides I’ve spent a lot more time on my long-term hobby of sculpture, and now exhibit and sell my work. There’s an overlap with travel writing in that I create animal sculptures in various media, often inspired by the wildlife of countries I’ve visited.

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

I’m very aware of the big gap between professional travel writers, such as members of the British Guild of Travel Writers, and aspiring travel writers. Professionals live in the privileged world of PRs, press trips, freebies and suchlike. Yes, it’s very tough for a freelance writer to make a living, but there are certainly compensations. For those entering the profession, my one bit of advice is to expect to fund your own travels.

Hilary’s feature on Black Lemur Camp in Madagascar, one of the finalists of the British Guild of Travel Writers’ 2019 International Tourism Awards, appeared in the Sunday Telegraph. You can find out more about Hilary via her website, hilarybradt.com.

If you enjoyed this Inside Travel Writing interview why not read those with John Zada or Tim Bird.

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