The Wondering Wanderer: a conversation with Hugh Thomson
Hugh Thomson lives an amazing life. A read through his biography will have you redrafting your bucket list. As an explorer he’s ridden, driven and hiked across Mexico, Bolivia and the Himalayas. He’s canoed along parts of the Amazon and journeyed across Afghanistan. He’s led several expeditions through Peru, including one in 2002 which resulted in the discovery of an Inca ruin, Cota Coca. Today he faces a travel challenge on his home-turf: getting to Oxford through the floods that have turned part of the UK into an archipelago. Later in the year he’ll fly to Brazil to sail down the Amazon from Manaus to the Atlantic so it’s good practice, although he won’t be battling with rail replacement services in the jungle.
Thomson leads a second life directing documentaries. He’s focused his scrutinising lense on all manner of subjects: the history of rock and roll; the life of Patricia Highsmith; India; Afghanistan; Russia. His passion for documentaries led him to be a founding member of Doc/Fest; an international documentary festival in Sheffield described as the Cannes of the documentary world. It’s still expanding after 21 years.
Between travelling and filming Thomson has somehow found time to gather his thoughts and write six books about his adventures (or misadventures), including Cochineal Red in 2007, Tequila Oil in 2010, and The Green Road into the Trees in 2012 about his exploration of England.
“The thing about The Green Road is the idea of treating your country as a foreign country. A travel journal can be written about anywhere. It’s not about the quality of the journey; it’s the quality of the writing.”
Thomson’s vast array of experience makes him invaluable to aspiring writers. He has tutored on a variety of courses for organisations including Arvon and Bristol University. In May he’ll be tutoring writing classes as part of a Ways With Words reading and writing course at Fingals Hotel in Devon – a creative bolt-hole cherished by many writers. “I enjoy teaching,” he explains. “It’s a chance to re-engage.”
Thomson, always on the hunt for new challenges, is now working on his first novel, which is set in Peru.
“I’ve done two non-fiction books about Peru and I wanted to write about the country in a different way. It’s an archaeological novel. I’ve always had an interest in archeology and history and making that accessible to readers.”
And how is he finding the experience of writing a novel compared to non-fiction?
“In some ways it’s very liberating. You don’t have to do quite the same extent of research. Obviously you do some research, but you can take more liberties and use more imagination.” But are there different challenges? “You can get away with loose ends in non-fiction because it’s real life and people expect there to be loose ends in real life. In novels the reader expects things to be tied up so that makes writing a novel harder.”
Thomson’s most recent publication is more lighthearted than some of his other books and has taken him along yet another path into the world of Kindle Singles. As Hugh himself puts it, At The Captain’s Table shows what it’s like to travel “…round the world the soft way.” Kindle Singles commission established writers to produce short books directly through Kindle. Compared to traditional publishing it’s a much quicker process.
“Normally you’re looking at about a year-long lead into getting a book published but with the Kindle Singles, although there’s some quality control, you basically press a button and it’s finished.”
Our conversation reaches its end as Hugh approaches the next stage of his journey to Oxford. He is someone who is always on the move, not just physically but mentally too. Above all he is a writer who explores rather than an explorer who writes, and this makes him a rare thing.
Hugh Thomson will be leading writing classes for Ways With Words from 18th – 23rd May at Fingals Hotel in Dittisham, Devon. For more details visit wayswithwords.co.uk or call 01803 867 373.