Q&A: Ben Lerwill, travel writer

As a sub/copy editor, it’s always a delight to edit the work of a writer who knows their craft inside out. One such person is award-winning travel journalist Ben Lerwill, who I first met more than a decade ago and whose copy never fails to conjure up vivid images of shores both near and far, and makes me want to dust off my passport.

And as for the editing, I confess that I always feel guilty if I’m at a magazine and one of his pieces comes in for me to look at, for the simple reason that I have to try to look busy, when in actual fact the feature will be practically error-free and a joy to read, from start to finish.

So while this blog tends to focus on fiction, I thought it would make a nice change to ask Ben a few general and writing-related questions. If you’re thinking of heading down the journalism route, and/or have a passion for travel, hopefully there’s something here for you.

And yes, I think I added one word and a comma.

No, scrub that, just the one word.

When did you first get the travel bug?
New places have interested me since I was tiny. I can still remember the French campsite on our first overseas family holiday. It had terrifyingly large hornets – my brother and I shed tears – but more enjoyably there was an on-site boulangerie serving up warm, doughy pains au chocolat every morning. I can still smell them now. In terms of actual wanderlust, I didn’t get the bug until I was in my early twenties. It was Australia that started it.

When you trained as a journalist, was it always with a view to specialising in travel?
I think at the time that would have seemed too pie-in-the-sky. I was more drawn to the fact that there were a thousand different paths a journalism qualification could help me follow. Getting into the travel side of things was almost more by accident than design, although as soon as I sniffed an opening I was desperate to make it work.

What aspects of your job do you most enjoy?
The variety. And I still love writing – I think that’s absolutely key. Occasionally people who are starting out seem to see the writing aspect as a distant second to the travel itself. My opinion is that it would be hard to build a career like that. On a more general note, I also love the freedom of being self-employed. It’s liberating to crank up a record and dance around in your slippers spilling tea.

And the downsides?
The constant work-life juggling, and the fact that there’s very little control over the inflow of work. Some weeks are super-relaxed, others are a blizzard of deadlines. On the work-life thing, I have two young kids, so my whole approach to going away has changed hugely. I have to think hard about which trips are the right ones to take on. Because of this I’m also doing far more UK stuff, which my 25-year-old self would have thought a little unadventurous but which excites me no end. The Lakes, the Peaks, Snowdonia, Cornwall – we live in an amazing country.

BenIs it becoming harder to secure commissions in the internet age, when so many people post online for free, including travel blogs and reviews?
Not necessarily harder, but the industry is definitely shifting. It’s pretty difficult to second-guess how things might look ten years from now. Social media isn’t my strong point, but I’m aware that there are some excellent travel bloggers out there. I don’t really think of it as them-and-us – I know some great writers who do a lot of work for magazines and newspapers but also maintain regular blogs.

What advice would you give anyone who is starting out and trying to earn commissions?
Try to come up with genuinely interesting ideas. The kind you might see flagged up on a magazine cover, or something that really draws you in. Not just “A Weekend In Dublin”, or whatever. Be prepared for lots of rejection too, and learn not to get downhearted. Once you have a commission, above all else be reliable. Write to the requested word count, meet the deadline and do your best to steer clear of the main clichés – “city of contrasts” etc.

You’ve visited destinations that, shall we say, might come with an element of tension, such as the West Bank and Iran. I imagine it must be very satisfying to have any preconceptions overthrown.
Definitely. You always try to read up as much as possible on the regions you have to visit, but sometimes you’re arriving in a place that has a day-to-day reality you know very little about. Both the places mentioned were almost overwhelming in terms of the warmth and hospitality I was shown. The West Bank was also pretty upsetting.

The flip-side to the previous question, however, is that a regular traveller is bound to find themselves in tricky situations occasionally. Any spring to mind?
Other than occasional injuries and illnesses – one spectacularly horrible bout of food poisoning in Romania comes to mind – I’ve been pretty lucky. I did once get relieved of my possessions in St Petersburg though. Vodka was involved.

There can’t be many countries left that you haven’t visited. Do you keep a running total, and where else is on your bucket list?
I don’t keep a running total, although I used to. I know it’s more than 80. There are tons of countries I’ve not visited. Central Asia is somewhere I’m very keen to explore one day – all those old Silk Road cities.    

Finally, I always like to ask: read any good books lately?
I picked up Daisy Miller by Henry James recently. It’s very short but very good, and was quite controversial in its day by all accounts. And I’m a big fan of Guy Delisle’s books – they’re travelogues in cartoon form. I really enjoyed re-reading Shenzhen a couple of months ago, which is one of his earlier ones.

Many thanks to Ben for answering my questions. For more information, head over to www.benlerwill.com to check out the man and his work.


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