Mary Russell
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Click the questions below to read my answers.

  1. How did you become a travel writer?
  2. Do you always travel alone?
  3. Do you ever feel lonely on your own?
  4. Where is your favourite place?
  5. Are you ever feared for your safety?
  6. Have you a favourite travel writer?
  7. Do you only write travel books?
  8. Have you always been a writer?
  9. What newspapers do you write for?
  10. Is it true you have to know someone in order to get into newspapers?
  11. What is your working day like?
  12. Does it take long to write a book?
  13. What about your short stories?
  14. What gets you going?
  15. You have a house in Oxford and one in Dublin. Where is home?

How did you become a travel writer?

Continental drift, really. I was doing some research for an MA thesis which took me to Lesotho, which is how I got my first taste of Africa.

Do you always travel alone?

Always. Travelling with someone else, you isolate yourself. You talk among yourselves in your own language, you reinforce your common prejudices and you cut yourself off from others. People are much more likely to invite you into their homes if you're on your own. Anyway, I'd be hell to travel with: I always want my own way. On the other hand, travelling with friends can be fun so see my piece on walking the Camino with 13 friends!

Do you ever feel lonely on your own?

I'm not on my own: I write in my notebook everyday, sometimes for two or three hours. That's my substitute companion. Plus I'm good at getting into conversation with people e.g. I'm inquisitive and nosey. ( The downside of that, is that,  if I get the chance, I read other people's diaries and letters,) Anyway, being lonely is a state of mind - you can be lonely in a relationship, in a roomful of people, in a crowd.

Where is your favourite place?

The Sahara desert. It filled me with awe. No other word.

Are you ever feared for your safety?

Once or twice: dry mouth, heart thumping. That was when I was a novice rock climber. ( I've since given it up.)

As far as travelling is concerned: I may take risks but they're always calculated risks – as in a poker game.

I'm not terribly keen on looking down the barrel of a gun - either in Northern Ireland or in occupied Palestine  - but talking is a great way to distract someone from their evil intents. Plus, I always listen carefully to what people on the ground say. Their advice and experience is important though  you have to weigh that up against your own experience. A month after the suicide attacks in the US, I travelled to Baghdad. I reckoned that though the US were threatening to bomb Saddam, they had their hands full, for the time being, with their activities in Afghanistan.

In Syria, semi-feral dogs snapping at my bike pedals was a bit unpleasant but I survived.

Have you a favourite travel writer?

Eric Newby's a canny writer. His self-deprecating style is of another era. A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush is great. I was lucky to meet him and his gorgeous wife a few times.

For adventure and a celebration of solitude, I loved Stanley Stewart's book about Genghis Khan.

My favourite travellers are Margery Kempe who walked to Jerusalem from Norwich in 1413, Jane Digby-Stewart who lost her heart to a desert sheik and is buried in Damascus,  Anne Davison, the first solo woman sailor to cross the Atlantic and Alexander David Neel, who left her husband of one week and set off on a 15 year voyage of discovery to Tibet.

For a traveller's autobiography, you can't beat Dervla Murphy's Wheels within Wheels.

Do you only write travel books?

Not at all. I write for radio - the BBC broadcast my radio play about Margery Kempe and I’ve made a number of documentaries for RTE ( Irish radio.) You’ll find details of these under Sound.

I also write for newspapers and magazines though my favourite medium is the short story. At the moment, I'm thinking about writing a novel.

Have you always been a writer?

In my head yes, but I only started writing seriously, e.g. hoping to get paid for it, in the mid eighties.

What newspapers do you write for?

The Irish Times and The Guardian mostly, with occasional forays into The Independent, The Sunday Times, The Times Educational Supplement et al.

Is it true you have to know someone in order to get into newspapers?

I knew no one when I started. What I did was to write a piece on saving money wisely - I've always been a wise virgin. ( That's two lies in one sentence.) I sent the piece to the Features Editor of The Guardian, tying it in with making New Year resolutions. It came winging back but, undeterred, I rejigged it, tied it in with giving up things for Lent ( another way of saving money ) and this time sent it to the Money Pages Editor of The Guardian. Tom Tickell, the editor of the day, bought it - and many other pieces after that. I discovered that, being a former editor of Isis - the Oxford University paper - he liked a bit of learning so I always made sure to sneak in a literary quote or a Latin reference. However, try doing that in a money article nowadays...

What is your working day like?

I lie in bed thinking about getting up. An hour later, I get up. That's basically the rhythm of it. Unless I have a deadline. The day is divided up like a school timetable, starting at 6.20 am with a 40 minute jog along the canal if I’m in Dublin or a visit to the gym if I’m in Oxford. That’s followed by a cappuccino ( 2 shots of caffeine sets me up for the day ) and a read of the paper. Then back to my desk around 9 am.

Does it take long to write a book?

Say a year or so doing research, most of which I do in the Bodleian Library in Oxford. Alongside that there's the planning of the journey - tickets, visa, making contacts, getting acquainted with the language of wherever I'm going to. Then there's the travelling itself. This may be a series of short journeys or one long one or both. Once home, I start the writing and that can take another year. Then a further year maybe before the book is published, if you’re lucky.

What about your short stories?

I usually have an idea in my head - an incident or a remark, say - and I take it from there. One prize-winning short story (The Flag) I incubated for about three years and then wrote it in four hours. Others might take a day or two or even a week. A lot I discard.

What gets you going?

A visit to a book shop. I want to rush home, sit down at the computer  and get on with it.

You have a house in Oxford and one in Dublin. Where is home?

Wherever my toothbrush is. The two cities are complementary, though. Oxford is quiet, the traffic reasonably bike-friendly. I have a tributary of the Isis flowing at the end of my garden and of course, there's the Bodleian Library.

Dublin, on the other hand, is frantic, full of movement. I'm energised in Dublin and I have water there too: a canal lock at the top of the street, complete with swans. Basically, though, I can make a nest anywhere.

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