Q&a with shortlisted writers

JOHN HARRISON: ‘THE RAINS OF TITIKAKA’

New Welsh Review: Where were you when you found out you’d been shortlisted, and what was your initial reaction like?

John Harrison: I was at my desk, and was extremely pleased. There were some strong writers on the longlist with weighty and topical topics, such as refugees. Even if I am pleased with a piece, I know different readers look for different things. It’s not always the ones I like most that gain recognition.

NWR: What first inspired you to write about travel?

JH: I’d always wanted to try my hand at it, but travel writers seemed omniscient, they knew everything about everywhere. It took a little courage to have a go. I started to learn what it was about when I realised that describing characters you meet travelling is very like finding people you’ve met and using them in fiction. The person is a starting point. You should find a useful character, but be flexible, as you would with a character in fiction, the people in a travel book have a narrative job to do, and you work with them to make a useful point.

NWR: You say in 'The Rains of Titikaka' that 'monuments compel by their endurance'. Which sight or monument in Bolivia did you find the most compelling?

JH: The temples and palaces of Tiwanaku, a city which managed its land so well they built rich surpluses at an altitude where few crops prosper. Like many civilisations in the region, the variable climate, related to El Niño cycles, caused its demise. We are not learning from these lessons and think one brand of technology fixes all.

NWR: I love the image of Bolivia as a crab, as described by the old lady in the street. Do you agree with her that Bolivia 'bustles sideways throwing up dirt, but never goes forward' or do you have a different take?

JH: Bolivia had the courage to embrace a new form of politics, with the election of the Movement for Socialism party under Evo Morales in 2006.  Despite the truism that you can’t trust socialists with the economy they have run a budget surplus every year they’ve been in office. They have achieved stability, something many of their neighbours must envy, but growth is slow.

NWR: Are you working on any writing projects at the moment?

JH: I am doing something I have been mulling over since I started my first travel book: writing about Britain. I have been reading up on something that was unavoidable when writing my Mexico travel book, 1519 A Journey to the End of Time, about the belief of the Aztecs, Maya and Spanish in the coming of the End of the World. What do we want from religion? It will be tied in with a journey; just how, is the task I will be solving this summer, but it will include a trip through southern England and Wales.

 

NATHAN LLYWELYN MUNDAY: ‘SEVEN DAYS, A PYRENEAN TREK’ 

New Welsh Review: Where were you when you found out you'd been shortlisted, and what was your initial reaction like?

Nathan Llewelyn-Munday: I was riding my bike on the Taff trail near Tongwynlais. I was surprised!

NWR: What first inspired you to write about travel?

NLM: First inspirations were: a one-off National Geographic subscription bought by Tesco vouchers, family photographs taken in France, my father's postcards from his conference trips written in Welsh (he was a learner), and itchy feet during my degree.  .

NWR: I found your piece memorable because of the vivid descriptions of place and because you captured the characteristics of the people you met. Which one of those was the bigger challenge?

NLM: That's a good question. Creation, nature and genesis are themes in the book. In creation stories, humans tend to complete place. They become a part, as well as the pinnacle, of creation. This framework was on the back of my mind. I then enjoyed exploring how different people react in these lonely places — individuals do stand out. Encountering less people makes conversations richer and memories clearer. Even the mundane is memorable and I wanted to capture all of this. 

NWR: How did you go about recalling and then writing Hemingway's stories?

NLM: Hemingway is not his real name of course but most of the stories are taken from real conversations I had with this gentleman over dinner. I have a good memory which helps! I also had a book of Pyrenean folklore which fuelled the dream-like tale in Chapter 3. Furthermore, I'm interested in the boundaries between those myths and reality. I think Hemingway floats between the two. 

NWR: Are you working on any projects at the moment?

NLM: I've got a couple of ideas. Maybe something fictional set in Iceland? I also have my PhD!

 

MANDY SUTTER: ‘BUSH MEAT: AS MY MOTHER TOLD ME’

New Welsh Review: Where were you when you found out you’d been shortlisted, and what was your initial reaction like?

Mandy Sutter: I was only thinking the other day that because of the digital age, nearly all the good (and bad) news we receive nowadays comes via email. So I was, very boringly, sitting at my computer when the news arrived. And I was utterly delighted. I yelled out to my partner Tim, who happened to be in at the time and I kept reading and re-reading the email to make sure it was true.

NWR: What first inspired you to write about travel?

MS: I have always been very affected by places and by architecture and landscape. I remember a boyfriend (ex!) telling me that I ought to try and get over it. So place has always been an intrinsic part of all the writing I do, without really trying.

NWR: In 'Bush Meat: As My Mother Told Me' the narrator gets homesick after finding a bottle of HP sauce. Is there anything that makes you feel that way about Nigeria?

MS: That’s a brilliant question! I don’t know if I could describe it as homesickness, but I tend to feel at home in big, arid countries where you can travel for miles without seeing a soul, and where you get the feeling that much of the country is unexplored by humans.

NWR: One of my favourite things about 'Bush Meat: As My Mother Told Me' is how the language — particularly that of Michael — captures the people and creates a sense of place. Was that challenging to do?

MS: Thanks for the compliment about the language. Yes, it took me many hours because I can’t actually remember anything that anyone said at the time. I spent a lot of time reading online Pidgin English dictionaries. There is a particularly good one by a Nigerian man called Babawilly.

NWR: Are you working on any writing projects at the moment?

MS: I’m working on more pieces to accompany 'Bush Meat: As My Mother Told Me'. I’ve just finished one called 'Gold Cloth'. Like 'Bush Meat' it’s written from the point of view of my mother and centres on some gold fabric she buys at the market from a character called Chukwuma Three Shilling.