Turn two weeks in Bournemouth into a six-figure advance

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
ALMOST EVERYONE dreams of writing a best-seller, and it must often seem that the easiest kind of best-seller to write is a travel book. So today, as the summer holidays loom, I am bringing you a masterclass in the art of writing a travel book, to help you bring back a masterpiece from your hols.

What is a travel book?

A travel book is, in essence, a way of setting your holiday expenses against tax.

Should you fix up a contract with a publisher before you go on your travels? Should you maybe even write the book before you go?

Not necessarily. There are two main kinds of travel book. One is the kind which comes after you have had an interesting experience, which then prompts you to write a book. The other kind happens when you promise a publisher to write a book before you go off and have the interesting experience.

Is it possible to write a travel book without leaving home?

Oh, yes. Marco Polo is now thought never to have gone to China, despite which his book on China is the most famous book about China ever written. Daniel Defoe never got wrecked on a desert island, despite which his book on Robinson Crusoe is one of the most famous of all time.

Is Robinson Crusoe a travel book? After all, he never moves from his island so he doesn't, strictly speaking, travel at all.

Perhaps you're right. Perhaps it is, strictly speaking, a hostage book, a forerunner of all those Terry Waite books in which nobody goes anywhere and nothing much happens. More like a Harold Pinter play, really.

What happens if you promise a publisher a book full of interesting experiences, take his advance and go abroad and spend it, then don't have interesting experiences?

You come back and make them all up.

Perhaps I shouldn't mention this, but in Nicholas Shakes-peare's new life of Bruce Chatwin there seems to be more than a suggestion that Chatwin lived a life of fantasy.

Which is precisely what made him such a good travel-writer. Have you noticed, for instance, that all travel books are full of reported conversations? You don't honestly think, do you, that the writer could remember all those conversations? Travel-writers are like novelists - they create characters and dialogue out of sketchy notes.

Isn't that a bit like improving on reality?

Yes, and a good thing too. One of the reasons that travel-writers are more interesting than TV travel programmes is that a travel-writer can improve on poor old real life. You can't do that on TV any more, otherwise you will be accused of faking. Everyone in TV knows that the faked bits are always the best, that's why travel TV is so dull. People like Peter Ustinov can fake their chat in books or in anecdotes, but they don't fake their chat when travelling on TV, which is why it is so dreadful.

You're not suggesting that people like Michael Palin write better travel books than the TV programmes they make?

Michael Palin doesn't write travel books. He writes "books that go with the TV programme". That's something quite different.

All right - you're not suggesting that a writer like Bill Bryson makes things up, are you?

He is different, too. Don't forget that there are two kinds of travel- writers: those who set out with a gimmick and those who don't. By gimmick writers I mean those who set out on motorbike, or llama, or bicycle, or carrying a fridge round Ireland, and then record the scrapes they have deliberately got into.

But Bill Bryson doesn't have a gimmick.

Yes he does. He is an American. He is an American who bothered to write a book about England. We were so immensely flattered that any American should bother to do this that we fell in love with him.

Wasn't it partly to do with the fact that Bryson seemed to love us and have the same sort of humour?

Not really. Paul Theroux had the same sort of success, earlier, with a book called The Kingdom By The Sea. He went round Britain by train and hated it, and hated almost everyone he met, and said so, but that didn't deter people from buying the book and loving grumpy old Paul Theroux. They just loved to read about themselves.

Wait. This masterclass was going to teach me how to turn my summer holiday into a best-seller. How will all this help me?

It won't. You'll have to wait until tomorrow for the second half...

You mean, this is a cynical ploy to get me to shell out more money for this newspaper ?


Fair enough.