Writing About Place: An Interview With Writer Julian Hoffman

The renowned travel writer Julian Hoffman reveals how to write about place and the most important skills an aspiring travel writer can learn.

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Photo © Jon Webber

Julian Hoffman is an acclaimed travel writer whose work focuses on place, and on the communities (both human and non-human) that populate them. What challenges does he face as a travel writer, how does he pick what to write about, and why should aspiring travel writers learn to love the edit? 

How did you get started?

Writing is something that I have done since I was a boy – in my early teens I remember trying to write some convoluted sci-fi novel. I held onto this idea through university and kept dabbling with it, although I was very much in love with being a writer rather than sitting down and doing the actual writing. It’s a daily craft, a livelihood, you don’t always want to do it but you sit down and actually do it. I eventually committed to the craft.

What unique challenges do travel writers face?

Travel writing is arguably more difficult than other forms of writing. When I’m at home, I’ve got my own space and I’m quite happy to spend the day working at my desk. But, when I’m traveling – whether it’s been a long day walking over marshland, or meeting people in a city – and I think it would be just nice to sit down and have a beer and chat with someone, I realize I’ve got to get some notes down. At the end of those days, you really need to capture at least the essence of what you have seen, as those memories are often blown away very easily: the colors, the sights, the sounds, the smell, a few words you heard in a snatched conversation – if you can’t pin them down, at least in rough sketch form, they’ll be lost very quickly from memory.

How important is capturing place in your writing?

Place is probably the very heart of my writing – place is not only a character, it’s also something that shapes the thinking, the emotions, tradition and behaviors of those other characters; the human communities and the wildlife communities, so it’s central to shaping the lives of others. Place is always the first thing I connect with – rather than the music or the imagery – when I travel; I am always trying to understand what a place is, and what does it mean to the people that live here? What are its layers of history? How has it changed? How might it change? It’s always been at the very core of my craft. It partially stems from the fact that I emigrated as a very young boy and it took my parents several journeys for them to find work in Ontario – so I moved back and forward between the northeast of England and Canada. I’ve often seen that as the seed of my later engagement with place: the idea that we’ve been in movement but attuned to different places. 

One of my favorite bird species is the kestrel, which has that really wild, mad hover of wings over meadows as it’s looking for rodents. Studies have shown its eyes move less than 6mm in any one direction – so amidst that wild fluttering of wings, the kestrel is essentially still. I suppose that’s my way into writing about place. We can be in motion, but we can be still at the same time. And that stillness is borne from a deep attentiveness and curiosity from whatever place you might happen to be in, from the wildest mountains to the most tightly packed neighborhood. It’s about paying attention, and ultimately it’s about deep curiosity about the lives you encounter, and those lives can be human or non-human.

How do you research a trip?

I read a lot before traveling anywhere. One of the greatest keys to writing well about place is to recognize your own limitations; to understand that in say a week-long trip to Tuscany, you will carry your own personal, cultural and psychological limitations, because you can never truly know that place like you would if you had lived there your whole life. The framework of feelings that make up the great many textures of a place are largely cultural in character, and, of course, when we go somewhere as outsiders, there are often a lot of closed doors and shut windows, so it’s difficult to engage. So, I think the very first thing you need to do is to recognize you are an incomer, and you have to approach it in as sensitive a manner as possible. You can never replicate that sort of insider knowledge, but what you can do, through empathy and listening, is to try to understand a place within your own set of limitations, and try to learn what that place might mean to others who are there.

How important is the editing stage?

I rewrite a lot and I edit a lot. For me, editing is the absolute wonderous part of the craft. A lot of writers dislike the editing stage and prefer the thrill of getting the words out. As a writer you are suddenly a different type of artist – you are still a writer, but through editing you also become a sculptor, and a composer, as you have to start paying attention to the cadences and rhythms of your work. I find the editing stage enables an extraordinary freedom from within, as you become this very different type of artist.

How does someone turn bad travel writing into good travel writing?

There’s the practical aspect, which is to continually return to your work; to go back with as clear an eye as possible, and that might mean just having patience. What I’ve noticed is that I can work on a piece for several months, but my mind becomes cluttered. There’s nothing finer than putting that manuscript away for a month, two months, or even a year, and when you return to it, you’ve obviously changed, and you might unlock whatever part of the process you have been struggling with. So, I think letting pieces lie fallow for a while is a profoundly good practice to have. 

How do you know when a piece of writing is finished?

I’ve had pieces that are extraordinarily short that took me years to write and others that are quite lengthy that have been knocked out relatively quickly. I see them as paths, but the problem with paths is you never know when they end. And sometimes it is deadline-driven, and that can be a real bonus. You have to intuitively know that even if you have reached a destination and finished an article, that the path will carry on and in future years, you may wish to rewrite some of it, but you also have to learn to let go of a piece of writing and move onto the next thing.

How do you choose what to write about?

There are always new ideas, new images and new stories, and I choose the ones that I think could lead me down an interesting path. Ultimately though, I’m a firm believer in what Nabokov said, that the human life is a spiral and the great themes we carry through our lives are often there from the beginning. I look back at my own life as a writer and, even from the earliest days, I was working through riddles and questions that I am still working out. Within in that of course, there’s plenty of scope to branch out into different subjects. 

What advice would you give aspiring travel writers?

Listen and be generous as you make your way in the world. As a travel writer, you are charting a course that you often don’t know where it will lead and at the heart of that you need both mindfulness and a great generosity of spirit to make the work of value and to make the stories you tell of those places worthy of the places they come from. 

I think it’s really important for young writers to learn how to be receptive to criticism from an editor. If I’m not edited by an editor, I’m almost disappointed. The help and shaping an editor can bring is profoundly important, as they can see aspects and angles of your story (or your book) that are simply beyond your reckoning as you have lived with it for so long as the writer. So, learn how to dwell positively with good criticism and with the shaping an editor can do – it can be difficult when you see things getting cut, but ultimately the only thing that matters is the story.

It’s also very important to learn to listen, as it’s very easy to get in the way of the stories we are trying to write. Sometimes, by placing ourselves too much in the story, the writing becomes about us rather than the place we are writing about. Soak up and listen, and I don’t mean just the sounds, but the faint echoes of history, the lives that have lived before. Be generous with ourselves but also with other people, other places and other species for that matter. To engage with a place as a travel writer is to be giving and to be receptive, to find that place where you can hone in on things that have already happened there.

About Julian Hoffman

Julian is a writer living beside the Prespa Lakes in Northern Greece. He is the author of The Small Heart of Things, which won the 2012 AWP Award Series for Creative Nonfiction and the National Outdoor Book Award for Natural History Literature. He was also the winner of the Terrain.org Nonfiction Prize. His latest book, Irreplaceable, is an account of endangered places around the globe and the people fighting to save them.

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