Writer Will Ferguson on writing journey fiction with out with the ability to journey
Will Ferguson began his life as a travel writer and later turned to fiction, including Giller Prize winner 419. His latest title, The Finder, follows a mysterious thief, an Interpol agent, and a depraved travel writer named Thomas Rafferty to cities around the world , including Christchurch, NZ
Pre-COVID How often have you been out?
Your regular is different from that of a normal person regular.
A lot has gone down. I wrote a travel column for Maclean’s so I was out and about the whole time. That was a really great gig, but it tires you. But last year I went to New Zealand and Australia and did the Rocky Mountaineer on commission. And then I went to Scotland, where the book ends.
Your fiction still seems very informed through your travels.
Yes, but the act of writing travel originated from Christchurch and writing after the earthquake. I remember thinking, “What would I have done as a travel writer if I had been here when the earthquake hit?” Because you’re supposed to be watching, right? You shouldn’t get involved in what’s wrong at all.
We meet Rafferty at the bar in Christchurch with fellow travel writers. As I read that scene, I thought, “He’s writing the book every travel writer wants, and showing what’s going on behind the scenes.” Curious to see what the impact of your fellow travelers – including the famous Bill Bryson, named by Rafferty?
People will surely recognize each other. They are a strange bunch. And some of those conversations are word-for-word conversations that I either heard or had. But I hide my tracks. I not only change their names, but often also their nationality. And of course, Bill Bryson doesn’t have a neck tattoo or a cold. It only works because he’s the nicest guy. It wouldn’t work if it was someone with a bad reputation because you might be wondering. But you never know
Maybe he has one last book that will be published after his death and it will all come out.
I encourage anyone who goes to a Bill Bryson event to secretly check to see if they have a neck tattoo.
Doesn’t travel affect you? Does it affect what you write?
I don’t want to play the sad violin because we’re all in the same situation. And I’m sure there are people whose dream trips are canceled. The fact that I couldn’t get to Iceland or Russia is disappointing, but it’s not a singularly tragic situation. But it absolutely affects my work. I’ve read a lot and written a lot, and I’m well into the next book, but it should include Russia and Iceland. So I have to write about it. I plan it and leave big gaps so I can fill in those gaps when this crazy thing ends.
Would there ever get to a point where you say, “Okay, I just have to do some research to write these sections?” Or is it like that if you can’t travel, doesn’t it happen?
You don’t have to travel. If you are writing about a war zone in Baghdad, you don’t have to go to Baghdad. If you’re writing a crime thriller set in a remote Antarctic research center – do you know how many years I’ve tried to get to Antarctica? Unless you have a huge fat wallet, it’s really hard – you don’t have to go there. You can write around it. You can write to your imagination. You can go on imaginary trips. But – spoiler alert – that’s the same character, it’s Rafferty again. It’s based on travel writing so on this one I really have to go.
You had such beautiful details in this book. What’s your note taking process while traveling?
Research is now easy with the internet. You no longer need to write down any data. When I started when someone told you about the cardboard cathedral [in Christchurch] With 72 tons of cardboard you would have to write that down. I use my camera phone to quickly snap photos of historical plaques. I write notes. I always bring a tape recorder and what I try really hard is dialogue. When I went to Northern Ireland, they spoke with such a distinct accent. I went into the washroom and repeated what they had just said. I remember doing it so many times a man asked, “Are you okay buddy?”
I often sit in a café and rewrite my notes, otherwise they will be illegible when I get home. So when I doodle, I take time to read later in the day. You’ll forget things if you don’t pick them up. You think it’s alive, but it isn’t. I wandered through County Down, which has those rolling green hills in Northern Ireland; They look like green eggshells that go on and on. And I had all of these beautiful pictures like they look like a body under a gap which I forgot, but I found it in my spoken notes.
Are most of your notes then taken orally rather than in writing?
It is both. When I’m alone when I go I just use a tape recorder. But when I write like I said before, I write down a few notes and rewrite them later in the day. You edit like you do. They say, “Yes, that wasn’t such a great insight.” And sometimes I sketch out plans of the city, how the street turned or where the corner was. While The Finder is fiction, I wanted it to read like nonfiction, like someone was there.
What is Thomas Rafferty doing during COVID?
He may not be aware of COVID. he tends to stumble through life. Actually no, he’s not a stupid guy. He’s probably sitting in a bar somewhere with the lowest COVID. Yeah – he’s probably back in New Zealand. He was likely responsible for this outbreak. I think he showed up and didn’t isolate himself. Probably tried and then lost track of time and just went out and infected half of New Zealand.
This interview has been compressed and edited.
Expand your mind and build your reading list with the book newsletter. Register today.