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Gavin Thomas Interview

Writewords talks to Gavin Thomas, travel writer and editor

Whatís your writing background? How did you first start writing?

I first began writing at the age of about seven or eight, when I spent a long hot summer writing a wildly ambitious mystery epic called something like The Forbidden Castle -- a kind of unholy union between Jules Verne and ScoobyDoo. My professional writing career was a complete accident, however. I originally wanted to be a classical music composer, and fell into a career in publishing as a way supporting myself. A bit later I started writing music journalism, keeping myself going for a few years by churning out reviews and articles for various magazines. Later still (after spending a couple of years travelling) I got a job as an editor at Rough Guides. After making a thorough nuisance of myself, I persuaded my employers at Rough Guides to let me do some writing as well. My first travel-writing jobs were as an updater on various established European Rough Guide titles, with an initial trip to Spain, followed by stints in Menorca and Belgium. Although the first-hand experience of life on the road (innumerable threatening Castilian hoteliers; rabid Menorcan sheep; a very wet week in Belgiumís equivalent of Swindon) wiped out whatever faint romantic notions Iíd had about the nature of travel writing, I became strangely hooked. Following these trips I talked my employers into giving me my own book -- the brand-new Rough Guide to Sri Lanka -- which Iím currently working on.

What mistakes do you think you made early on, and how did you learn?

The worst thing any novice writer can possibly have is ambition. The best advice is to ruthlessly suppress all urges to write the great 21st-century novel or the definitive travel book, and instead concentrate on producing a perfect 200-word description of a man sitting at a bus stop. In terms of learning, the best thing to do is just read and read -- I think that as soon as you start writing yourself, you develop a significantly different and much more analytical way of reading, and a much more enquiring attitude to words, whether youíre looking at a novel by Tolstoy or an advert for shampoo.

How did you find your agent/publisher?

I got a job as an editor first of all, then persuaded my employers to let me write as well -- a fairly common transition in travel book publishing, where the border between writing and editing is notoriously fluid.

What was your breakthrough ?

Iím still waiting for it.

Whatís the best thing about writing? And the worst?

The best thing: the professional obligation to investigate all sorts of weird and wonderful things, and the pure pleasure of choosing and arranging words. The worst: the endless struggle against cliche, second-hand opinions, recycled facts, tedium, bathos.

What are the most common mistakes would-be travel writers make?

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