Robert Ward (travel writer)


ROBERT WARD, a writer and traveller with a passion for pilgrimages, is the author of Virgin Trails (Key Porter, 2002), an agnostic’s guide to the history and worship of the Virgin Mary; and All the Good Pilgrims (Thomas Allen, 2007), an account of several walks on the Camino de Santiago pilgrim road. Robert studied at the University of Toronto and the University of Western Ontario (MA, English Lit), and taught English for several years in Japan. He’s the author of numerous freelance travel articles, as well as short stories and essays. Robert lives in Toronto with his wife, Michiko.

AL: When and how did you first become interested in writing, and was it always travel writing that attracted you?

RW: There’s a bunch of writers in my family tree and it was somehow taken for granted that I, who was eye-deep in books from the time I was three, would someday write one. So the issue was more, what was I going to write about? It was kind of by chance that I found travel writing suited me. I liked to travel, I wanted to write, so why not write about travel?

AL: You write in the prologue to All the Good Pilgrims that from early on you had “restless legs.” What was your earliest formative travel experience?

RW: We went camping a lot and travelled back and forth across Canada. My parents felt it was part of their job to show their children their country. But it was a high school trip to New York that really got me fired up with the idea that, Wow, there’s more to the world than Yonge and Dundas.

AL: Your wife is Japanese, but you met her in Italy, were married in a Greek restaurant (the late, lamented Ellas), and live in Toronto. I gather she has the travel bug too?

RW: In the worst way. When I met her, she was at the start of two years abroad. She was studying Italian in Siena for a year (I was only there for three months), and going on to a year in the States. I managed to redirect her north for that second year. Since then, we’ve taken trips to (Where’s that laundry list?) Spain, Portugal, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Bali, France, Scotland, Greece, Cuba, Mexico and, this year, Argentina, Uruguay and Chile. She hauls me around with her.

AL: Your passion is pilgrimages, explored in both Virgin Trails and All the Good Pilgrims. What in particular fascinates you about these tradition treks?

RW: Though I’m not religious, I became fascinated with religion through my university studies. Of course I also love to travel, and the thing I like best about travel is the encounters with other travellers. So pilgrimage, where a lot of people are following the same road together to a sacred place, seemed to neatly combine these interests and pleasures. In Virgin Trails, the figure of the Virgin Mary was my focus and inspiration. She became like one of those people you keep bumping into when you’re travelling who starts to feel like an old friend.

With All the Good Pilgrims, I had a whole pile of stories left over from my trips along the Camino and I thought it would be a shame if they never saw the light of day.

AL: At what stage did you approach publishers about each of your books—before or after you made those trips?

RW: For the first book, I approached publishers after taking an initial trip and writing a hundred pages or so. Once I had signed the contract, I went back to Europe to gather the rest of the material for the book. For the second book, I had hundreds of pages of unused material about the Camino in hand, but I still went back and did the Camino one more time to give the book a spine.

AL: Briefly describe your writing routine, as far as it’s possible to have one(!), while you’re on the road.

RW: I always carry a small notebook and pen in a shirt pocket for quick access anytime I see something interesting, or a thought or memory drifts across my mind. I jot a lot. Funny things I read on signs, scraps of overheard conversation, a cloud that looked like a horsey.

In the evenings on the Camino, I would sit down over supper with a bottle of wine and spend an hour or two writing what happened that day or catching up on past days. Which was not an ideal arrangement, because it meant missing out on supping with other pilgrims and, doubtless, a lot of laughs and good stories.

AL: The best travel writing, it seems to me, describes an inner journey as much as an outer one. Do you agree, and if so, how do you strike a balance in writing about yourself and about the places you visit?

RW: I do agree, but we have to be careful not to make up our minds in advance where our journey is going to take us, and what we’re going to learn along the way. The course of the inner journey should be dictated by the occurrences of the outer journey, and these can never be predetermined. I try to let the journey happen, acting as an honest recorder of my own reactions.

Something that I often observe in travel writing is that writers feel obliged to explain themselves and their histories and “Why I am writing this book” in a very clunky, expository way. (In retrospect, I feel the intro to Virgin Trails falls into this trap.) A writer reveals himself most interestingly through his treatment of his subject, and often that is all the self-revelation that is needed. Readers should be able to accept that an author is fascinated by a subject just because it fascinates him (or her); the subject has chosen him, not the other way around. I find it tiresome reading simplistic back-explanations for this mystery.

AL: Often the people you meet while travelling are as important to your perception of a destination as the destination itself. Can you describe one of the more memorable characters you met on the Camino?

RW: One? How do you choose one? I put my hand in the (very big) hat and pull out . . . Maria: A tiny, smiling, soft-spoken, seventy-ish Argentine pilgrim who walked the Camino, hills and valleys and all, pulling her things behind her in a shopping cart. She was an inveterate pilgrim (on previous trips she had been to Rome and Jerusalem) and sweetly reluctant to accept help (“I wouldn’t have come here if I couldn’t take care of myself”). Once, over a communal dinner where people were explaining (some at length) why we were walking the Camino, her turn came up. “For peace,” she said with her little smile. That was it.

AL: What was your worst travel experience ever?

RW: Oh dear. You don’t want to know about my food-poisoning episode in Thailand, when my insides declared an emergency evacuation in the middle of a full-day adventure tour, including rafting and elephant-riding. No, I’ll spare you that.

How about something more existential? Twenty years old and all alone, on my first trip abroad, to Ireland and the green west of Galway, full of dreams of wandering over craggy hilltops thinking lofty Yeatsian thoughts; and finding myself instead buzz-bombed by gnats, in a cold, pitiless drizzle, on a hillside covered in sheep dung—and locked out of the hostel till 6 p.m. with no shelter for miles. It wasn’t the physical discomfort of it; it was having my nose rubbed in my illusions. The sad realization that what we imagine in looking at a picture of a place is something different from what we feel when we’re actually plunked down in it.

AL: You must end up with copious notes, and much more material than you’re able to use in the final manuscript. How difficult is it to cull?

RW: Difficult, difficult. But the decisions get made somehow, and once something’s been cut, I almost never look back with regret.

AL: Which aspect of writing or structuring Pilgrims challenged you most as a writer?

RW: Figuring out how to keep five different walks in different years and seasons trudging along in step. Don’t know how well I managed.

AL: Once you had completed your initial manuscript, what was the publisher’s editing process like for you?

RW: I was given all the space I needed to knead the text and bring it to where I thought it should be—which turned out to be a lot of space. Next time I suspect my editor will be freer with the whip.

AL: Is there anything you’d do differently if you could approach the writing/editing/marketing of Virgin Trails or Pilgrims again? What did you learn from the experience that you could pass on to aspiring writers?

RW: I’m sorry that Virgin Trails was only published in hard cover, as a lot of readers (me included) tend to “wait for the paperback.” But of course I had no control over that decision.

I’ve been reading a fair bit of travel lit recently and have discovered that while I can happily go along with an author for about 200 to 250 pages, after that I start to experience the same fatigue one gets in real life from spending too much time with another person, even a delightful one. So I wish I could go back and trim down my old books, and will definitely make the ones to come shorter.

If I had one piece of advice for would-be travel writers, it would be to think about the “hook.” Publishers are looking for something distinctive in a travel narrative, not just “My trip to . . .” but “My quest for . . .” or (that other perennial favourite) “In the footsteps of . . .” This results in a lot of gimmicky books, but it results in good ones too, as it provides an organizing principle and an element of suspense (Will he find what he’s looking for?).

AL: In what way or ways, if any, did you feel that you returned from your Camino adventures changed?

RW: I’m much smarter, gooder, kinder and more spiritual than I was before. My breath smells sweeter, my jokes are funnier and people of both sexes find me irresistible . . . Seriously, I think I am more patient now. I have the knowledge that I can take on something ambitious (like writing a book) and work my way through it. I have a well of memories to dip into when I need refuge from an unpleasant moment or just something to make me smile. I’m more thankful—or at least I know I should be—for the good things life gives me.

AL: Years ago a writing instructor told participants in a seminar I attended that the worst travel-writing cliché ever was “X is a land of contrasts.” And, believe me, I’ve seen that in print many times since. What’s your pick for the worst travel-writing cliché?

RW: Travel writing suffers from adjectival overload. Stop beating me over the head with how wonderful this place is! Enchanting and compelling destinations, full of dizzying nightlife, staggering, visionary architecture, sumptuous food, dazzling skies, pristine beaches . . . Such a heart-stopping place does not exist on this earth, or if it did, we’d all go there and never leave.

The one line that makes my teeth grind (though it’s something more spoken than written) is “We did . . .” as in “We did Venice in two days.” What a presumptuous statement. There are people who spend their whole lives “doing” Venice. I always want to ask, “Was it as good for Venice as it was for you?”

AL: So which travel writers are your personal favourites?

RW: As I only tend to read books about places I intend to go, or where I have been, I choose my reading more by destination than by author. So I’ll mention titles rather than writers. A Fez of the Heart, by Jeremy Seal, is a fine example of how an author can follow one of those gimmicky-seeming conceits (he is touring Turkey in search of the fez, the classic headwear banned by Ataturk in the ’20s) to some real discoveries. Will Ferguson’s Hitching Rides with Buddha represents an interesting experiment: Ferguson chooses a lovely hook (following the blooming of the cherry blossoms from the southernmost point in Japan to the northernmost), but leaves the fulfillment of his program to chance (he hitchhikes the whole way). Eugene Robinson’s Last Dance in Havana takes a more structured, journalistic approach, using music and musicians as its master key to unlocking the secrets of Cuba. And for just plain adventurous spirit and storytelling, it’s hard to beat Gerald Brenan’s classic South from Granada.

AL: Have you got a work in progress, and if so, will it involve more trekking?

RW: Several ideas in line, one of which I will settle on in the next month or two. (I’m currently breaking in my walking shoes.) I may continue to follow the pilgrimage trail—candidates are the classic walk to Rome, an “in the footsteps of San Francesco” around Tuscany and Umbria, or the ancient Buddhist route around the Japanese island of Shikoku. But I also have an idea that I picked up in Argentina: something to do with race issues and the curious parallels between there and here. A bit of a departure for me. Still in gestation.

AL: And of course I have to ask this. What three destinations top your travel wish-list?

RW: Travel wish-list? There are so many places I want to go back to—I guess because I feel I didn’t “do” them the first time round: Italy, Cuba, Japan, Scotland, even (yes) the Camino . . . But somewhere new? Brazil (the music!), the Czech Republic (Prague), Morocco (souks, couscous, fezzes).

For more about Robert Ward, visit his website here. To read an excerpt from All the Good Pilgrims, click here.

Copyright 2009 Allyson Latta.

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