“It’s in my blood to write with humour in mind.” Andy Smart – @AndySmart01
Very bravely author Andy Smart did what most of us only ever dream of doing and took off on an incredible adventure. It was to be an adventure filled with terror and amazement. Just Turn Left is a truthful account of his travels which is highly relatable. We wanted to know more and had the opportunity to interview Andy himself.
Without a shadow of doubt, the actor that I would love to see playing the lead would be Richard E Grant. His roles in Withnail & I and How to Get a Head in Advertising unfortunately remind me all too clearly of how I was when I hit the road back in 2005; utterly useless; self-absorbed; filled with judgement and blame while making the most embarrassing cock-ups imaginable. As a very middle classed Brit hovering around mid-life and firmly set in their ways, I couldn’t think of a more appropriate person to revisit the journey, bringing three years’ worth of excruciating situations back to life.
What do you think people will enjoy most about the book?
It’s in my blood to write with humour in mind. If I’m laughing and writing at the same time then I know I’m doing something right. With an internet dating nightmare from hell, to a first Chinese haircut, to the most fearsome waitress in Guilin, from start to finish the book is filled with comic anecdotes that make it hard to put the book down. Indeed, one of the most common things people say is how quickly it is to be turning the final page.
To add to that, hand on heart, I have to write about my travels with the upmost honesty in a manner that the reader can identify with. In this respect you will definitely not be confronted by an intrepid explorer heroically discovering new cultures. Instead, the reader receives a mixed bag of amazement and terror from a professional couch potato who has never used his passport before.
I’ve always been interested in real-life tales of survival and adventure whether on land, sea or air. I remember being utterly drawn in by tales of how far we can go beyond the limit. Joe Simpson’s Touching the Void and Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air are but two examples of this. However, until 2004 I always felt like adventure was something outside of my capability. Such stories belonged to heroes that you may run across on National Geographic or the Discovery Channel and certainly not for the likes of me. However, at some point the TV series and book Long Way Round really grabbed my attention. With Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman, here were two celebrities getting involved in situations that were ‘out there’ to say the least. Mistake after mistake followed by yet another calamity matched by their endearing personalities made the journey addictive. This was something that I really wanted and needed to do.
A lot of authors set themselves certain daily or weekly goals in regards to number of pages or words written. Do you take this approach to your writing?
I write only when I’m in China as I am able to teach EFL in the afternoons and evenings. This means I can wake up and start writing before breakfast while my brain is sharp. It also means that it’s possible to write every day and build up a rhythm without interruption. Each day merges into the next so that the details of the last are still fresh in the memory. During the hours between writing I keep lists and make notes which act as a bridge keeping the focus. It’s a wonderful status to be in and it is possible to float through months indeed years like this while in the flow. At the same time I am living in a state of total absorption by such an utterly fascinating and limitless culture.
I write what I write on that day and see how it goes, though always with the aim of finishing at least a single paragraph. I find it easy to pressurise myself if I don’t hit my daily targets though if that’s the case go at it aggressively the next day.
I am very OCD with lists. I have lists absolutely everywhere often involving targets that I need to do in order to move forward. I have lists of long term goals, broken down into smaller ones until I am faced by a row of post-it notes in front of the computer with the daily targets. Aside from the actual writing process there are hundreds of other things an author needs to sort out such as ISBNs, your W-8 BEN form and EIN number to avoid being double taxed by Amazon in the States, your cover, your blog, maps and art work; its endless! I keep lists in my pocket including blank paper ready to go. I keep spare pens in my pocket and in my bag. I have both a white board and pin board as well as a year’s worth of old lists and notes I haven’t thrown out.
What do you find to be the hardest part about writing and what is the most rewarding aspect?
The hardest part about writing is undoubtedly when some other external task arises. For me it may be lesson planning or working on the schedule for the month. In China it may be something massively important like the visa or residence permit that you can’t procrastinate over. For me, to put my ideas to one side for even an extra twenty four hours is agonising. If life goes on for an extended period with no writing then I can feel the tension building within, only soothed by continual attention to the notes and lists.
On the flip side to that, I am sure any writer will say that being in ‘the zone’ is one of the most rewarding things. When you are in free flow and your material is literally falling out of you it’s one of the greatest feelings. When a great idea merges into another I walk around the apartment shouting “Yes! Yes!” before diving back onto the computer.
Finally and most importantly of course, is that I can touch someone with my work and make them laugh while informing them at least a little about this wonderful country that is China. Perhaps they may live on the other side of the world, a notion which I am still getting used to. At the end of the day you can never get tired of getting good feedback from your readers and that’s all there is to it!
Who edited your book and how did you select him/her?
I do all the work on my books, from illustrations, covers and editing. Just Turn Left has been re written now twenty three times. After the ninth time, the artist Andrew McConnach and poet Simon Hayes read it and gave me a ton of useful advice and for that I will forever be indebted to them. From that point appeared a clear vision of what needed to be done, transforming my writing completely.
What are you working on currently?
A few years after the journey recounted in Just Turn Left had finished, I was playing pool with a colleague of mine somewhere in the Haidian District of Beijing. He asked me if the feeling of adventure had vacated the premises yet as he was bored and really wanted to go back to the States. Though I defiantly replied that every day was an adventure, inwardly I could feel that maybe he was right. For a Westerner, things really are comfortable in Beijing even if you are surrounded by streets filled with fly-pitchers, stalls and vendors. It wasn’t that I’d fallen out of love with China, it was that I’d yet again descended into a predictable pattern of work becoming lazy, spending less and less time focusing on travelling.
In 2013 my wife and I decided to move back to the UK. A separate story in itself, the year back in Blighty has merely served to fuel my appetite to hit the road across China with an absolute vengeance. I am planning the second trip like I’ve never planned before, having even designed scrolling montages of where I want to go, maps and resources as desktop backgrounds. My OCD list making has reached an all-time high with no limitations. My company in China have given me carte blanche to take time off for the trip whenever I want. With years of experience in the PRC and a slightly improved Chinese speaking ability, it’s time to push it ‘out there’ and start doing things I would have never thought possible ten years ago. I am now so excited that it’s often hard for me to contain myself. As a travel writer you simply must have that spark and passion which will be evident and absorbed by the reader. You just cannot keep on hitting the road year after year and hoping to maintain it. You have to be patient and wait for the next window of opportunity.
Mine is fast approaching and even now the process has already started!
This is what it’s like to be a travel writer!