Interview with the amazingly well-traveled Darcy Shillingford, Canadian novelist and blogger for the travel site travelingspaceopera.com
Pic info: “just as I was about to hop on a bus, leaving Cabanaconde to head to Arequipa, then eventually Cuzco. Caesar, who I’m pictured with, was our host in Cabanaconde.”
What is your writing process like?
It varies depending on the kind of writing I’m doing. With my travel blog posts, I try to put myself in a relaxed, informal state of mind. I give myself freedom to let my stream of consciousness flow, while trying to maintain some kind of structure and thematic consistency. Imagery is important to me, and despite the fact that I can throw in as many pictures as I want, my goal is for my writing to be able to evoke colourful detail with or without them. I want the reader to feel like they’re walking alongside with me.
As far as fiction goes, I can’t force creativity. I can sit there looking at a blank page or computer screen for a long time and nothing comes to mind. Other times, I’ve been lying in bed at two in the morning and suddenly think of an idea concept that I have to write down and develop a little bit before I can go to sleep. When I’m on a role, though, I try to let it snowball and see how far I can take it. The only fiction I’ve put a lot of effort into is in the sci-fi genre, and I try to write what I would want to read if I were to pick it up myself.
How do you compare travel writing with fiction writing?
For me, fiction writing has been far more time consuming. In addition to creating a plot, out-of-this-world (literally) settings, characters, and so forth, there is a great deal of research involved due to the genre choice. I’m no scientist, but I do take advantage of the relatively unlimited academic resources at my disposal and have put in countless hours researching elements of astrophysics, the gathering and employment of military intelligence, planetary and solar physics, religious and political history at a global level, various elements of the social sciences, philosophy, and so forth.
What gives you inspiration for fiction?
It depends on what aspect. I get inspiration for characters from my daily interactions with all kinds of people. I work at a restaurant and meet dozens of people a day. Also, the people I’ve met traveling are so varied and interesting that I can’t help but be inspired by them. When it comes to plot, I’m inspired by my education, particularly in the realm of history and politics. I like grand, I like big, I like epic, but I also like obscure. Random bits of military or colonial history that were glossed over in school, or missed altogether, fascinate me.
What are your favorite books?
Use of Weapons and Feersum Enjinn, both by the late Scottish author Iain M. Banks are certainly in my top five. I also appreciate classic or golden-era sci-fi, but I also think some of the classics haven’t aged well, particularly in regards to their social commentary. I also grew up loving the Harry Potter series. Stephen King is awesome as well; very psychologically immersive and vivid.
Why did you choose to spend your time in 2013 traveling in Southeast Asia?
I simply had to. I was at a point in my life where I’d recently graduated from university and didn’t quite know what I wanted to do with my life. My girlfriend and I had done some all-inclusives, but had also discussed doing some “real” travel. What began as an idea for a month or two in South America turned into half a year in Southeast Asia. When I look at a picture of the two of us at a wedding a couple days before we left for this trip, I get jealous of that guy. He has the best adventure of life just on the horizon.
Is it difficult to write about your experiences going back two years? Did you keep journals at the time or anything like that to help you to write about it now?
I did keep journals, but I rarely need to refer to them. I usually only look at them to remember the name of a person I met along the way. Having taken a couple thousand pictures makes it fairly easy to track everything we did, but every so often, a detail or nuance will creep into my memory that I hadn’t thought of since it happened.
You most recently traveled in South America, correct? What cultural differences have you come across that contrast with the Southeast Asian experience?
I actually wrapped up the Peru trip in mid-April. We were there for 18 days. The first thing I took into account were the similarities with Asia: the scorching heat, the abundance of cheap stall food, the hokey tourist areas where local merchants spout silly lines to travelers in order to charm them into overpaying for whatever product or service. All great stuff, in my opinion. The thing with Southeast Asia is that I visited seven countries so there are dozens of differences even between those countries. I found, though, that the food in Peru is a lot heavier and starchier. Also, the weather was far more erratic, perhaps because we spent much of the journey either in the Andes or the Amazon Jungle.
Which country or countries (Southeast Asian and/or South American) gives you the most inspiration?
Vietnam may have been the most inspiring, but as I’ve written in the past, I have a heavy bias. My girlfriend, Teresa, was born in Canada but her parents are from Vietnam and she speaks, reads, and writes it fluently. This had a vast impact on our experience there when it came to interacting with the locals and we really got to know people there more than anywhere else we’ve ever traveled. Also, Vietnam has a great deal of variety (accents, landscapes, cuisine) and its geographical makeup made it really easy to travel in a fairly straight line without missing too much along the way.
Do you prefer the bustle of developing cities or the splendor of natural, untouched-by-man places?
I try my best to appreciate every little bit of traveling, but I’m the type to prefer what I don’t have access to. I think a lot of people are that way. The last beach I was on was in Pulau Weh on the northern tip of Sumatra. In Peru, we never got a chance to hit up a beach so our next trip will be a multi-island destination with plenty of beach options. Like my fiction, I like big and epic when it comes to travel. Colca Canyon in Peru took my breath away. I loved the feeling that we had the whole mountains to ourselves. But I do like big cities too, for very different reasons. I live in a busy city of about 6.5 million if you count the outer areas so swarms of people don’t give me anxiety like they would some people. The stall food in Lima was out of this world. Teresa and I spent a day walking around seeing how many different items we could find and consume. Believe it or not, one of the best things I ate in Lima was a grilled shwarma wrap from a little stall on a busy street.
Do you find any notable differences between the styles of “expat” bloggers versus travel writers?
Perhaps the one that really stands out is the comparison of travel writers “trying” things, whereas for expats, they aren’t just dipping their toes in the water to test it out. They’ve jumped in long ago and there is more of a sense of “home”. I met several expats in Asia and it certainly takes a different kind of person, or a very impactful experience, to leave everything behind and live in a country that is quite different from their own. I feel like expats have a more similar mentality to me compared to a lot of other travelers who I honestly find I’m not always able to relate to, for various reasons.
Planning your next trip yet?
Hell yeah I’m planning my next trip! I’ve dropped hints here and there on my blog and on my Facebook page, but I might as well just come out with it. All of my friends and family here at home know anyway. Next up: The Philippines at the end of August for 30 days. In my opinion, Teresa and I made a mistake when we assumed it would be too inconvenient to get out to the Philippines the last time we were in Asia. We didn’t know about Air Asia back then and we didn’t realize how cheap and easy flights could be in this region before we traveled. The biggest group of Southeast Asians who live in Toronto are arguably Filipinos and they are always bugging us as to why we never visited their country. And it’s true; I am certain we would have had a blast. I don’t regret anything about our past Southeast Asia trip because we truly made the most of every day. But I need a basic hut, a secluded beach, and something to puff on for a couple of weeks because it’s been too damn long. I’m looking forward to the mountains, volcanos, and hiking that I’m sure we’ll do when we’re there. But right now, when I think of the Philippines, all I can think of is 7,000 islands of sunny goodness.
Read more from Darcy at travelingspaceopera.com