Next month Stephen Scourfield will be my Stories on Stage guest at Koorliny Arts Centre. I was privileged to interview Stephen last month and to find out more about the man who is not only the travel editor of The West Australian newspaper, but a notable author and photographer. His first novel, Other Country, was the fiction winner in the WA Premier’s Book Award 2007, shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and longlisted for the 2009 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. Stephen Scourfield is a recipient of a United Nations Media Award and has twice been named Australia’s Best Travel Writer, in 2011 and 2009. A pretty good resume, yes? I hope you enjoy the author insight below … and if you live in Perth, don’t miss Stories on Stage, April 2 at 7pm.
Monique: You make a living as a journalist, travel editor, and photographer. What prompted the move into writing fiction?
Stephen: As I write in the new book Beautiful Witness, I was a child who wanted to be a writer and most of all wanted to be a novelist. But I was a country kid who left home at 17 and needed to make a living. I have been writing fiction on and off all my life (indeed, there are lines in the book that I wrote when I was a teenager, and saved), but it was only when I turned 40 that it really came together. The author Annie Proulx (her Shipping News is one of my favourite books) once said that anyone under the age of 40 who’d written a novel shouldn’t have — I don’t agree with that, exactly, but certainly for me there was both a critical mass of experience and maturity, and secondly a critical mass of research and understanding. The first novel, Other Country, is set in the Kimberley around 1990 – the second, As the River Runs, in the same area but 20 years later. And certainly I have had a long enough experience of writing about the Kimberley to give that critical mass of experience and observation there. So – to get back to your original question, I was prompted to move properly into fiction to answer a childhood dream, and to be the person I have always seen myself as.
Monique: What do you like most about writing fiction? Do you have a preference for writing fiction or non-fiction, or do you find balance in being able to switch between the two?
Stephen: There are three parts to a fiction project (a book!):
- The first is the idea and I love having that, and letting the characters develop, and doing specific research, and having this gorgeous, complicated thing inside me to think about;
- The second part is the physicality of writing – and I love that too. It still amazes and intrigues me (and even I find this a little hard to say), that the characters start to take over the story. I know, I know – I’m the writer. But, for example, with As the River Runs, I had three main characters ready to go (Dylan, Jack and Kate) and in the first scene on the first page, Uncle Vincent Yimi literally turned up (with his name, appearance and back story) and started talking to Dylan. You won’t find a note on Vincent anywhere. The same with Henny Breeze and Airplane Cuttover (though I do have a friend called Helicopter, so I can see where he might have got his name);
- The third part of it is the editing, cover designing, publishing, marketing, blah blah blah – and I don’t think about that. I have control of the first two stages and love them and all I know is that if I don’t do them, the third will never occur. So I do the first two stages without any expectation of the third even happening.
I don’t prefer either fiction or non-fiction – I just think of myself as a writer writing. I do like having the flow of fiction going on in the background (in the back of my head) while I am writing 1000 words of travel essay a day.
Monique: With all your travelling and your paid work, when do you find the time to write books?
Stephen: I have a simple rule that I’ll “have contact with my own projects every day”. I do this whenever, wherever. The Travel Editor job sounds glamorous, but on the road, I can’t do it in less than 19 or 20 hours a day – I just did 22 days straight, getting my head around places like Rwanda, Ethiopia and Uganda, then writing 1000 words a day to tell nearly a million readers about them. But in all that, I still had contact with the next novel. Every day.
Monique: Your books have attracted high praise from reviewers, as well as a number of awards. How does it feel to read words like “assured”, “superb”, “engaging” and “evocative” in connection with your writing? Do you still feel nervous when you’re about to release a book?
Stephen: I spent 7 years writing Other Country, and I did it without expectation – no publisher, no agent, no real thought about what happened next. I just wanted to work all this stuff out. The same with Unaccountable Hours (an overlapping 9 years) and As the River Runs (6 years). I’m happy if people (reviewer or otherwise) get something from a book – they like it, of course. But a letter or email from someone who has really found something in it can mean more than a review to me. I met a lady at a lunch and, to cut a long story short, she was a health worker in the Kimberley and said she’s had such difficulty helping men with issues up there (struggled with it for a year, read every case study) and it was only when she read a novel about them that she “got” the world they lived in and then worked out a program to help them – and it worked. She said “you should read that book”. I said “I wrote that book”. That it helped someone meant more to me than any award.
Monique: Your book Beautiful Witness was launched in a theatre with music composed, arranged and played to complement your reading (it sounds like it was a beautiful night). You’ve since done a number of similar performances and you’re about to do one at Koorliny Arts Centre. How did this idea come about? How does the music enhance the reading? What reaction do you have from audiences?
Stephen: Performing a book’s just another way of storytelling – but I love it. I also perform The Luthier from Unaccountable Hours with a violinist and a compressed version of the novel As the River Runs with a guitarist – we’ve done it all over the place, from Broome to York. But I really like the Beautiful Witness performances. The novels feel like they are about other people’s lives – Beautiful Witness is very much about mine. Working with Jesse Deane is a pleasure – enthusiastic, talented … brilliant. The idea first came about as part of the Winter Arts Festival, and we performed The Luthier in four parts, each with a course at a dinner at the University of Western Australia Club. Last year I did a different dinner, with Jesse, with the chef matching food to four different stories from around the word, and Jesse composing and playing. Brilliant. This year we are going the next step – I’m working with musicians and a dance company.
Monique: How important is music to you? Do you listen to music as you write and travel?
Stephen: Music’s a big thing for me. I have had a few instruments made for me and play mandolin, guitar, electric bass, violin, ukulele. I bring home instruments but only if I am going to play them – baglamas from Greece, Kabosy from Madagascar. I love sarod music from India, oud from the Middle East and the Baghdad lute. I become totally enthused about local music and play nothing else while I’m heading for and in a place, and then for a while afterwards. My music collection must look a little odd.
Monique: How do you write when you’re travelling? Do you take notes as you go? Do you use photos to jog your memory?
Stephen: My shorthand’s still pretty good to 140 words a minute, and I take a selective note all day long. I have every notebook I’ve used since Sept 9, 1977. But I download and caption (with detail) every picture every day, so that provides a real diary.
Monique: What’s the biggest myth about travel writing?
Stephen: It’s a hard one of me to answer. I don’t really think of myself as a travel writer – just a writer who’s travelling and writing. Working out the world, meeting people, sharing stories. I don’t think I fit into the “travel writer” mould. I travel mostly on my own but when I do travel with “travel writers” I am amazed by their ability to describe a hotel room. I think there’s the myth that it’s all about lying around a swimming pool and calling for pina coladas – and doubtless it is for some people, but not for me. I work hard and like working hard. I need nearly five hours writing a day, generally I’m in a different bed every night, and out and about all day.
Monique: What are some do’s and don’ts for people interested in travel writing?
Stephen: People often say “I want to be a travel writer – I’m going to send you a story”. I say “send me your tenth”. If you are serious about it, start working, writing every day, getting your eye in. I wouldn’t expect to go out and play a cricket test match if I hadn’t been in the nets hitting balls. Really analyse what publications do, how writers tackle different subjects.
Monique: When you’re not travelling, what’s your writing process like? Where do you write? Do you need complete silence or can you cope with noise? How do you get into the “zone”?
Stephen: I write anywhere, everywhere, all the time. I can write on a laptop in an airport waiting for a six hour plane connection, on a napkin on a breakfast table, in a notebook in the back of a local bus. It’s been important to me to break any sort of “pattern” in the mechanics of how I write. It’s about the story and the words, and it doesn’t matter how or where I put it down.
Monique: When you write, what is your biggest weakness?
Stephen: Goodness, there are just odd moments when I wish I could go back to my old Scheidegger portable typewriter – the internet is the most wonderful change in my researching life, but the biggest “sidetracker”. My biggest weakness is that I am interested in so many things that I am easily led astray by the internet, and sometimes prefer to be offline (that’s where the typewriter reference comes in). I’m struggling with the next novel because I have got lost in a lot of fascinating agricultural detail, when the main character is a photographer and the book is mainly about image making. Is that a weakness?
Monique: Which writers do you admire the most?
Stephen: I require total honesty in life and in books. Authors? Annie Proulx, John Steinbeck, Bruce Chatwin, Dylan Thomas, David Malouf lots of Indian writers, Salman Rushdie.
Monique: Which book are you reading now?
Stephen: Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World by the Dalai Lama and The Worm Forgives the Plough, by John Stewart Collis (both are a form of research for the next novel).
Monique: Do you ever skip ahead a few pages or read a book’s ending?
Stephen: Never. I chose carefully – I don’t have time for poor writing. I read slowly, let the words roll around. If a book’s not up to it, I stop.
Monique: If I came over for dinner now, what would we have to eat?
Stephen: Something vegetarian. Roasted vegetables, goat’s cheese, hummus on top. No alcohol. (Mmm. You might want to meet at a restaurant.)
Monique: Which song best describes you?
Stephen: A Pilgrim by Kris Kristofferson … “He’s a walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction”.
Monique: Which book character are you most like?
Stephen: Brilliant question. Wouldn’t it be exciting to be Nessim from Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet. In my own books, I’d like to be like Dylan Ward in As the River Runs – empowered by his goodness. (My constant fear is ending up being like the visiting travel writer in the Dylan Moran TV show Black Books.)
Monique: Which book in your collection would you most like to have autographed by the author?
Stephen: The Bible.
Monique: You’ve travelled all over the world, but where in Western Australia would you take a friend/relative to showcase the State?
Stephen: I’ve been to the Kimberley more than 100 times and I am just on the way there again. It’s different geology – it drifted in and welded on. It feels different. It’s exciting every single time. It’d have to the be the Kimberley.
Thanks for answering my questions, Stephen.