Friday, October 28, 2016

The Lost Story of the William & Mary: An Inter-Review with Gill Hoffs

A ship is impaled on a rock in a sea swarming with sharks 1200 miles from home. Worse yet, the almost 200 passengers on board the William & Mary have been abandoned by a cowardly captain. Nearly 200 European emigrants, each with their personal stories, fighting disease, corruption and the mercilessness of the sea. All of this Gill Hoffs brings alive in her new book, The Lost Story of the William & Mary: the Cowardice of Captain Stinson. At the hands of a less stalwart writer, this story might have been tamed, sanitized with a bit of fake grime and a couple of Hollywood heartthrobs, but Hoffs never shies away from the filth and horror of reality. We see and smell and feel every moment of tragedy—but also salvation.

As in Hoffs’ first book about a shipwreck, The Sinking of RMS Tayleur, Hoffs brings us a meticulously researched account of a harrowing disaster at sea. This review is also an interview. I’ve asked Gill Hoffs to talk a bit about the process of writing The Lost Story of the William & Mary, available now from Pen & Sword Books

IMBO: Gill, just how much research goes into projects like these, and what was the most difficult aspect of the research?

Hoffs: Thanks for having me here, Chris, and for the review! The short answer is, a lot. Here’s the longer one: after the initial online exploration to see whether there are enough survivor/witness accounts to allow a whole book (and to check another author hasn’t beaten me to it) I’ll spend a couple of months on sites like the British Newspaper Archive, Trove, Ancestry, and FindMyPast, immersing myself in information. I’ll take another few months to look up everyone involved – though if someone’s name is common it’s usually a fruitless endeavor – and to read around the subject, find out about contemporary events and similar shipwrecks, and have a damn good think.

Throughout this, I’ll also be contacting complete strangers via social media, Ancestry accounts, forum message boards, and institutions for further information on related matters. With the William & Mary book, for example, I spent a while discussing oorijzer (a type of head ornament worn by the Frisian women on board) with people in museums and universities around the world. For the Tayleur, I was very grateful to a doctor at Harvard who took the time to discuss TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury) with me in relation to this Victorian shipwreck.

Below deck on an emigrant ship
While I’m writing the first draft, which takes up to two months, I’ll still be researching people and places, and the same goes for subsequent drafts when my editor or advance readers may flag something up requiring explanation or elaboration. As for the hardest part, well, it’s probably no surprise to anyone who knows me or follows me on twitter that it’s the emotional toll of the research that’s the most difficult part of the job for me. Even though I obviously know who lives and who dies in these wrecks – and by now that generation is long dead anyway – I can’t help but root for these people and grieve when I have to relate their demise and imagine it in often gory detail. My books are memorials to the long-forgotten dead and it’s important to document what happened and, if possible, why. I get through some amount of Kleenex (and Nutella) though.

IMBO: There are so many individual tragedies: the deaths of children, the separation of wives from their husbands and children, disease and betrayal. One in particular is Trijntje de Haan, a woman who holds on to her prized possessions until one last horrible moment when a crew member snatches it away from her. 

Gill, How do these details persist, and aren’t they so full of cinematic potential?

Hoffs: When I read old newspapers etc. it’s immediately clear which individuals should be focused on to carry the reader through my book and which people, sadly, haven’t left enough details behind in online-available accounts and descriptions to allow me to tell their stories in full. Women and children often appear in contemporary reports of these wrecks as “wife of” or “child of” with no further details given, which is utterly infuriating. Whenever I can restore their identities and redress this imbalance, I do, so when I read of Treen’s awful experience in a way I was pleased because I knew it was something I just had to include, and that it would affect readers – I always hope my books will have some kind of emotional impact, it seems the least I can do for the people on these wrecks: we should feel for them. I haven’t lost children as she did on that long and awful voyage across the Atlantic, but I have had four miscarriages and keep my own ‘memory box’ of half-finished home-made baby blankets and scan pictures, and I know I would be gutted to lose them.

Trijntje (Catherine Tuininga) Albers de Haan, Copyright Christopher Lindstrom

I read fast but retain little, and I trust my brain to let key moments and telling details ‘stick’. The bits I find myself recounting to my Nana over the phone always end up in my books, like Treen losing her treasured bag of mementoes during the rescue, a fellow emigrant describing another member of their party somewhat scathingly as “not exactly the inventor of the steam-engine”, and a survivor writing home to his parents “I think I will like living here. Americans eat pork three times a day and beef and that is a bright prospect for me.” I think journalists from back then had those same instincts and their articles are often crammed with details meant to engage readers who may have never been to sea or even seen a large body of water, which work 160+ years later in involving other people – myself and my own readers – with these tales of strange events in stranger times.

As for cinematic potential, well, my Most Asked Questions from readers are “When is this going to be a film?” and “Why hasn’t this been made into a film already?” – and that goes for both of my shipwreck books. Little would make me happier than seeing these shipwrecks on the big screen, especially if we could get actual descendants in as extras for the crowd scenes on board!

IMBO: One aspect of Hoffs’ writing I love is that she places the shipwreck in historical context. In this case, the milieu is mid-nineteenth-century Europe, a time and place of dire crisis with millions of desperate people on the move to find a better life. Where there are millions of desperate people, there will be corrupt men there to take advantage of their plight. 

Gill, what similarities and differences do you see between the situation almost 200 years ago and today’s immigrant crisis?

Hoffs: I’m glad you picked up on this, Chris. I was writing this book around the time that photo of a washed up toddler hit the headlines and it really rammed home the point that all these generations later, all this progress later, we still have the same problems: with safety at sea, and with each other. No-one can choose the time or place to exit their mother’s womb so it astonishes me to see apparently rational and decent people decide whether to treat someone with respect and compassion on the basis of geography, politics, and nearness – or how much melanin is present in their skin. The only difference between then and now is that we have fewer excuses for misbehavior and ignorance.

IMBO: I see this book as a movie. Nothing would please me more than seeing the rights sold to a major studio. This cinematic vision begins with Shakespeare: “Ships are but boards, sailors but men” and evolves into an epic story of human nature, Good (Captain Sands) balancing/shaming Evil (Captain Stinson). 

Gill, are there plans to approach a studio? Have you thought of turning this into a screenplay?

Port Lucaya Beach
Hoffs: Yes! The cowardly Captain Stinson continues to fascinate me – though I’d rather be at sea with the heroic wrecker Robert “Amphibian” Sands for obvious reasons! I did try sending James Cameron my ‘Victorian Titanic’ book but unfortunately the address I had was no longer in use. I absolutely agree that these shipwreck stories are prime candidates for adaptation, and when I’m writing the books it feels as if I’m describing the footage of the wreck as it plays in my head. If anyone has any suggestions I’m all ears and they are most welcome to contact myself or my nonfiction agent Jennie Goloboy of Red Sofa Literary Agency. As for writing screenplays, I’d rather write the books and act in an advisory role for the film (and as an extra with the descendants!) than cut my teeth on something so important to me.

IMBO: Hoffs’ boundless curiosity drives her work. It’s beyond evident that this is a writer who loves digging for the golden details. I’m also a writer who can’t get enough of the details. After reading Hoffs' book, I can now tell you what costiveness meant to the Victorians (constipation) and what a jolly boat is (a tender). I now know that bacon is good for a fever. Actually bacon is good. Period. But to discover that at least one Victorian doctor in the mid-nineteenth century included bacon as a treatment for fever is priceless. 

Gill, what detail shocked you the most as you were doing your research?

Hoffs: Prescribing bacon for a fever struck me as somewhat absurd and it’s not something I would necessarily recommend myself! I think what shocked me the most was finding out about the hatchet murders. I could well imagine the desperation involved with swimming for the departing longboat despite the threat of sharks, reaching for the side of the boat as their feet thrust through the water, and seeing the hatchet fall in the early morning sunlight. It makes me feel sick at heart. The captain and crew were responsible for their human cargo’s well-being and survival and had lived beside them in close quarters for six weeks. They knew of the emigrants’ hopes for the future, their families and friends, and their turns of phrase. To then not only abandon them to almost-certain death but actually hack at some of their fellow travellers with a hatchet and kill them is, to me, unforgivable.

IMBO: Hoffs’ The Lost Story of the William & Mary: the Cowardice of Captain Stinson is a page-turner full of the voices of the people who were present, the people who were fighting for their lives on this fated voyage. Gill Hoffs’ generous and vivid portrayal of this tragedy provides us with a vital record and testimony to the courage and fate of the migrant.

Brava, Gill!

Hoffs: Thank you, that means a lot to me. In case anyone reading this interview is thinking “I reckon my ancestor had something to do with the Tayleur or the William & Mary…”, my email address is gillhoffs@hotmail.co.uk – I love to hear from descendants, it’s a privilege to be able to answer questions (if I can) and even incorporate information received into future editions of my books.

IMBO: I Must Be Off! readers, be sure and comment below. One lucky person will win a copy of Gill Hoffs' book. A few weeks after this inter-review runs, I'll draw names out of a hat. You'll love this book, so make sure you leave a comment.

I must be off,
Christopher

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Christopher Allen is the author of Conversations with S. Teri O'Type (a Satire), an episodic adult cartoon about a man struggling with expectations. Allen's writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Juked, Eclectica Magazine's 20th-Anniversary Speculative anthology, Indiana Review, FRiGG, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, and over a hundred other great places. Read his book reviews in [PANK], Necessary Fiction, Word Riot, The Lit Pub, and others. His creative non-fiction has appeared in Chicken Soup for the Soul, Bootsnall Travel, and lots of other fine places. A finalist at Glimmer Train in 2011, Allen has been nominated for Best of the Net, the storySouth Million Writers Award, and the Pushcart Prize. He is the 2015 recipient of Ginosko Literary Journal's award for flash fiction and in 2016 took third place in the K. Margaret Grossman fiction award given by Literal Latté. Allen is the managing editor of SmokeLong Quarterly.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Walking and Cycling Bordeaux

It's not really fair to a city like Bordeaux--to approach it with such dogged ignorance. But this is the way I travel: without preconceptions, without study. I just go. I must be off, so they say. The short answer to why I don't do (much) research before I travel is that I have no time for lengthy preparation; the long answer is that once I know a lot about something, I lose interest. God forbid I see pictures of the place.

So that's why when I get back from a weekend trip to Bordeaux I find out that the square where we sat enjoying the sun--eating nothing at a McDonald's table--is supposedly the largest square in Europe. Then a student tells me the mayor of Bordeaux will probably be the next President of France. Did you go to this or that unpronouncable place? Say, Chrandeauxlisémontéschwée pronounced Chuh? OK, I made that last one up, but you get the idea. There was some local must-try speciality, but it turns out it was liver and fried (so I wouldn't have eaten it anyway).

The advantage of visiting a city without the strictures of a guidebook is that you're less likely to see the city as a connect-the-dots tour of typical sights you've already seen and read about. I can't tell you what joy and trepidation turning a corner brings to me, not knowing what will be there. I'm lucky to be alive.

Hank the Cellphone Repairman's Assistant had the great idea of downloading a walking tour on his Android. We're modern guys. And we're walkers. Sometimes I walk 10 kilometers a day, so I'm all over the walking tour idea. Hank the Cellphone Repairman's Assistant is famous for his sense of orientation, so I'm also confident that he will be a great walking tour guide. After all, he has the tour on his Android. What could go wrong?

We set off walking toward the tour starting point, which I consider to be an excellent first move. Hank the Cellphone Repairman's Assistant, however, sees a Ferris wheel in the distance in the opposite direction. He needs to check this out before we start the walking tour.

"It's a Ferris wheel," I say in my bored voice. "And there's no one on it." Because no one rides Ferris wheels anymore.

"It's a Ferris wheel!" He goes skipping off like a puppy.

Oh god. It turns out that the Ferris wheel is only the tip of a carnival iceberg complete with real rides and a haunted house--and of course games! Shooting games, that game where you're never in a million years going to knock over all six tin cans, the one where parents watch their children catching ducks with a fishing pole (a most illogical game), and my favorite: the horse race where you advance your horse by rolling balls into the colored holes to win a giant stuffed pony. I'm pretty good at games and would love a stuffed pony, but Hank the Cellphone Repairman's Assistant, Ferris wheel lover, won't play.



The end of the GPS walking tour is actually near the carnival, so we decide to do the walking tour backwards--which is coincidentally the story of my life. And so the walking tour begins (where it ends). To Hank the Cellphone Repairman's Assistant's credit, he's a brilliant tour guide for the first two stops. I place myself before the famous what-not and stare as Hank reads the text. It's some 16th-century building. Apparently, somebody used it for something pronounced wrong by Hank sometime around a million years ago. And onward. The next stop is very similar to the first stop. Somebody (pronounced wrong by Hank) did something a long long time ago, and then time moved forward, unlike us who are moving backwards. Hank has trouble finding the third stop, we make a wrong turn, wander from rue to câlé to carrent, end up at a Starbucks. The coffee is good. But the walking tour is over.

"You're a sucky tour guide," I say.

"I found a Starbucks."

"I actually found the Starbucks."

"Touché," Hank the Cellphone Repairman's Assistant does not say.

(French. Do you really need to speak French these days in France? Of course you need to try. You need to practice common phrases, be able to order your vin and your viande. These days, however, lots of younger people in France have no trouble communicating in English and are really very happy to do so. It's ridiculous to think that you need to learn every language of every place you visit. It's just not possible. Learning some basics can be fun, though. I've found a nice app for that called Duolingo.)

Since the walking tour was a bust, I decide we're going to do a biking tour of Bordeaux and beyond the next day. I won't bore you with the details, but if you read the above walking tour train wreck and simply replace "walking" with "biking", you'll get the picture.

"You're a sucky biking tour guide," I say.

"I found the--"

"Don't even try."

Seriously, a biking tour in principle (without Hank as the guide) is a great way to see Bordeaux. We cover a lot of ground--motorways, the busy promenade on the Garonne river, derelict trails, dangerous neighborhoods, the dump--so I guess I should be grateful for having had the opportunity of seeing "the other side of" Bordeaux. Again: lucky to be alive. More about biking in Bordeaux next time.

While you're waiting to hear about our cycling snafus, why not check out a couple of stories of mine that have been recently published? Checking out my stories has been proven to increase one's adorableness by a whopping 84%.

The Air Between Us 

My Little Cuckoos

Target Practice


I must be off,
Christopher

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Christopher Allen is the author of Conversations with S. Teri O'Type (a Satire), an episodic adult cartoon about a man struggling with expectations. Allen's writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Juked, Eclectica Magazine's 20th-Anniversary Speculative anthology, Indiana Review, FRiGG, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, and over a hundred other great places. Read his book reviews in [PANK], Necessary Fiction, Word Riot, The Lit Pub, and others. His creative non-fiction has appeared in Chicken Soup for the Soul, Bootsnall Travel, and lots of other fine places. A finalist at Glimmer Train in 2011, Allen has been nominated for Best of the Net, the storySouth Million Writers Award, and the Pushcart Prize. He is the 2015 recipient of Ginosko Literary Journal's award for flash fiction and in 2016 took third place in the K. Margaret Grossman fiction award given by Literal Latté. Allen is the managing editor of SmokeLong Quarterly.









Tuesday, October 11, 2016

An Interview with Graham Mercer, winner of the 2016 I Must Be Off! Travel Writing Competition

Graham Mercer was born and brought up south Lancashire, England. He spent nine years in the Royal Navy before becoming an elementary teacher. Mercer lived and taught for 34 years in Tanzania, East Africa where he met his Pakistani wife, Anjum. Now they live in north Cheshire, England. Interests include wildlife, writing, travel, reading, photography, cricket, the company of young people.
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IMBO: First, Graham, congratulations on winning the 2016 I Must Be Off! Travel Writing Competition! We were fortunate to have many accomplished writers among the Top 18, long- and shortlists—and of course you were among these. You write mainly about Tanzania. What led you there?

Mercer: My father served in India during WW2 and the stories he told when he came back often involved the jungle and its wildlife. As a young boy I was entranced, especially by the “big game” animals such as tigers. My interest extended to East Africa and its own “mega-fauna”. As a young sailor with the Royal Navy my first ship, a survey vessel, took part in the International Indian Ocean Expedition 1962 – 64, based in Mombasa. I fell in love with Kenya and with life on safari. After qualifying as an Elementary teacher I was determined to go back to East Africa and in 1977 got a job at the International School of Tanganyika in Dar es Salaam. I went for two years and stayed for 34.

IMBO: What adjustments did you have to make culturally in those first few years living in Dar es Salaam?

Mercer: When I first went to live in Dar the Tanzanian economy was doing a bungee jump – often you couldn’t buy the basics, such as bread and butter, let alone “luxury” goods. On safari we virtually lived on corned beef. There were shortages of petrol (driving after 2 pm on Sundays was in any case banned in Dar), occasional water shortages and power cuts. TV, incidentally, was also banned. But of course the ordinary Africans were much worse off – they made us, as expatriates, seem like wimps. This degree of poverty was distressing but the Tanzanians generally bore it all with typical stoicism and good humour. Having an African “household help” (or servant) was also hard to get used to but they needed a job and we were grateful for their support. The climate (for us) could also be gruelling for much of the year – there was no air-conditioning in the school then and only the bedroom in our flat had a/c. But again, compared to the Africans we lived quite comfortably.

IMBO: During my youth in the American South, Zanzibar always represented that exotic place I’d never have enough money to visit. Now that I’m an obsessed traveler, I will at some point go to Zanzibar if I have my way. What are your feelings about the place and the people? How has the place changed over the last 20 years?

Mercer: My first ship (mentioned above) was the first ship to arrive in Zanzibar harbour during the revolution there in 1964. I wasn’t aboard but later heard horror stories about the uprising. Thirteen years later I visited Zanzibar for the first time and found it fascinating. I have been many times since. On my first visit there were two hotels, now there are hundreds, around the coast and in the old Stone Town, which is (structurally) much the same as it was in the days of the sultans, the slaves and the famous explorers such as Livingstone and Stanley. It is my favourite part of Zanzibar though there are many beautiful beaches and excellent dive-sites. The island is very popular with honeymooners, but for more adventurous backpackers etc its sister island Pemba is worth a visit also.

IMBO: Is Tanzania safe? What should tourists avoid doing there? 

Mercer: I hardly had a security problem in 34 years though my wife was mugged and petty theft is quite common. Tourists and travellers need to use a bit of common sense, as you do in most places – don’t go around wearing expensive jewellery, don’t carry too much money, don’t walk around the back-streets etc at night, be aware of potential bag-snatching etc. etc. But don’t become paranoid either or what’s the point of being there?

IMBO: There will be lots of young or new travel writers reading this interview. What advice can you give them about writing a successful travel article?

Mercer: I make no claims about my own writing but good writing is good writing, whether in a novel, an academic thesis or in a travel article. Make every word and sentence and punctuation mark count, be ruthless with your “purple prose” and with adjectives and adverbs and avoid “weasel words” – “really”, “basically”, “actually”, “very” etc. Be specific – don’t just say “trees”, say “Oaks or elms or Acacia tortillis”. Talk to the locals, look for interesting facts or places that others might have overlooked. Enjoy the cultural differences and the absurdities and your own misadventures but remember that it isn’t essentially about you, it’s about the place, the people and the experience. Edit, edit and re-edit – I must go through short articles about 50 times. The art of writing is as much about leaving things out as about putting things in. And try to hook the reader in the first few sentences. And to look for a different slant on things. Read good writers. Often. And never, ever, give up. Oh – and choose your travel partners wisely.

IMBO: Excellent tips, Graham. How do you go about talking to locals? I’m shy or maybe just reluctant to make contact with other people. Any suggestions here to get me out of my shell?

Mercer: I myself have always been very shy but when travelling I have always found the locals ready to talk if you approach them with some sensitivity (rather than poking a camera lens into their faces, for example). Fishermen, national park rangers, hotel staff, taxi-drivers, fellow-passengers on buses or trains, snake charmers, “dancing bear men” and Maasai “warriors” will often talk quite freely in my experience. In some places (India springs to mind) some individuals will even seek you out. A sense of humour is important. As a man I sometimes found it more difficult to talk to local women, especially Muslims, but once they know you are sincere they too will talk (though they won’t necessarily let you photograph them. Which is fine – don’t push them). My wife is Muslim (and talks to just about everyone) so in places like Zanzibar and Pakistan she was a great help. I think the secret is to be respectful, patient, genuinely interested and a good listener.

IMBO: If my information is correct, you’ve moved back to the UK. After so long in Tanzania, what culture shock are you experiencing?

Mercer: I find life here more comfortable but less exciting than life in Tanzania – for months after we came back I would walk through a local woodland keeping an eye open for elephants and looking for lion prints in the mud. And I miss the international nature of Dar es Salaam. Life here can sometimes seem trivial, also, after Africa, so many people seem to live their lives at second-hand, preoccupied with so-called “celebrities”, reality TV and material possessions. Bureaucracy is another issue (though it was bad in Dar also) – I seem to spend half my life filling in forms, responding to questionnaires (not this one!) and answering requests for information. Having said that we love being in England and there is much to see and do and be grateful for, so no complaints.

IMBO: Finally, some readers may have noticed that you and this year’s judge, Paola Fornari, both have a connection to Tanzania—which surprised you both.

Mercer: When I read about Paola’s background I was both intrigued and worried. Worried because I thought that in the unlikely event of me winning the competition she would be accused of “cronyism” when readers found out that she and I had spent so much of our lives in Tanzania. In fact we never met though our paths must have crossed many times. And thankfully, when she was judging the competition, she knew nothing of my own background. Fortunately too my article was not about Tanzania but Kashmir.

IMBO: Thank you for taking the time to talk, Graham. I wish you all the best.

Mercer: Many thanks, Chris. Not least for your part in organizing the competition. I think competitions like this provide wonderful opportunities for writers or would-be writers to improve their skills. Some people might think that writing 1,200 words is simple but it is much easier to write 12,000 words – the discipline and ruthlessness involved in cutting back your writing to the bare bones is a really valuable to a writer, whether he or she is short-listed or not.

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Christopher Allen is the author of Conversations with S. Teri O'Type (a Satire), an episodic adult cartoon about a man struggling with expectations. Allen's writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Juked, Eclectica Magazine's 20th-Anniversary Speculative anthology, Indiana Review, Night Train, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, and over a hundred other great places. Read his book reviews in [PANK], Necessary Fiction, Word Riot, The Lit Pub, and others. His creative non-fiction has appeared in Chicken Soup for the Soul, Bootsnall Travel, and lots of other fine places. A finalist at Glimmer Train in 2011, Allen has been nominated for Best of the Net, the storySouth Million Writers Award, and the Pushcart Prize. He is the 2015 recipient of Ginosko Literary Journal's award for flash fiction and in 2016 took third place in the K. Margaret Grossman fiction award given by Literal Latté. Allen is the managing editor of SmokeLong Quarterly.

Friday, October 7, 2016

An Interview with the 2016 I Must Be Off! Travel Writing Competition Judge, Paola Fornari


Travel writer Paola Fornari was born on Ukerewe Island in Lake Victoria, Tanzania. She has lived in a dozen countries over four continents, speaks five and a half languages, dabbles in several others, and describes herself as an expatriate sine patria. In every new posting, her curiosity leads her to explore every corner of her host country, and experience as much ‘real life’ as she can. Her travel and lifestyle articles have appeared extensively online, and in print magazines as diverse as Cycling World, Practical Fishkeeping, The Oldie and The Buenos Aires Herald. She has judged several writing competitions, and was co-judge in Expatclic’s prestigious Travel Reflections competition in 2013. In 2013 she won the Senior Travel Expert travel writing competition, and was third in the Go Walkabout competition. She joins me today to talk about her experience judging the 2016 I Must Be Off! Travel Writing Competition and to offer some tips for writers considering entering next year.  

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IMBO: First, thank you so much for judging the 2016 I Must Be Off! Travel Writing Competition. We were inundated with entries this year. It was a lot of work, and I’m very grateful to have had a judge who put so much passion into it. Do you feel as if you’ve been around the world and back with these stories? I certainly do.

Fornari:  Indeed: with fresh eyes, I have revisited places I know, such as the mountain lakes of Dominica in the Caribbean and the Scottish Highland glens. I have even returned to my birthplace, Lake Victoria in East Africa. I have been transported to new places: coastal Albania, Iceland, Sumatra…but above all, I have had a gamut of experiences I would never have thought possible: I have smelt blood at a bullfight in Seville, counted turtles at dawn in North Carolina, felt the presence of the young Nelson Mandela in prison in Robben Island, tasted bakalar in Croatia, cruised down the Elbe, ducked missiles in Gedera in Israel, ridden in a hot air balloon in Burgundy, and even been shaken by an earthquake in Ecuador.

IMBO: After all these weeks we have finally revealed the winners, although each of the Top 18 is in some way a winner. It’s an insanely difficult question, but why did you choose Graham Mercer’s “Wild Encounter” to win first place?

Fornari: In his poem “Foreigners”, Cameroonian poet Ndjock Ngana writes:

‘…they go to Africa
to live in Europe:
they go to Africa
but they never get there.’

I was looking for stories that go beyond what you can read in a guidebook, beyond ‘If it’s Tuesday this must be Belgium’, beyond people snapping selfies in front of the Taj Mahal or going to a game park where rangers radio each other when they spot a rhino and tourists are more intent on ticking the Big Five off their lists than experiencing this exciting moment that will never again happen. I was looking for writers who ‘get there’, who make connections with the place they visit and the people they meet.

Once this criterion had been fulfilled, I scored every story against these questions:

     Was it interesting/entertaining/informative?
     Was there a strong sense of place: did it transport me there through detail and description?
     Was the angle original?
     Was it well-written, which to me meant written in a clear, unfussy, unpretentious style?
     Were the characters believable?
     Was the story complete, rather than something that read like a blog extract?

Many stories fulfilled all these criteria, so I added another, perhaps more subjective one: on a scale of one to ten, how much did it wow me? This meant did it make me laugh out loud? Did it give me goose bumps even on the sixth reading? Did I lie awake at night thinking about it, feeling it with all my senses?

I was left with about half a dozen stories, and reread each of them several times.

Graham Mercer’s shone. 

“Wild Encounter” has it all: the structure – opening with a fairy tale bear and ending with a terrifying real one – is superb. The characters are well-drawn ‘…Farouk says “Shalimar Gardens” with the joie-de-vivre of a Southern Rail Guard announcing Clapham junction…’. The images are original ‘…a serrated, explosive snarl, like the momentary bite of a chainsaw ripping into teak.’ The language is economical, and the sparing brushstrokes of detail haunting: ‘glib-tongued charm’, ‘stippling the still waters’, ‘raddled, hatchet-faced features’, ‘mouldering, mushroomy decadence’, ‘a golden oriole is pouring out its melancholy, fluting call’. I giggled at Ali Mohamed’s ‘wipers’…and wept with relief and joy each time I read this sentence: ‘And time remembers to tick and hearts to beat’.

IMBO: Can you give some general advice to writers entering contests like the I Must Be Off! competition?

Fornari:

     First of all, and this may seem obvious, read the guidelines carefully, and comply with them. Many competition entries (such as one particular near winner in this one!) are disqualified because they are not in line with the guidelines: they have been previously published, or are over the prescribed length. This is such a pity, because it can be easily avoided, and just wastes a lot of time and effort.

     Research your judge. Of course, judges are as objective as possible, but they are human: finding out what your judge is passionate about can only point your creativity in the right direction.
  
     Get to the point quickly. If your story is about learning to make rum punch in the Caribbean, or climbing Kilimanjaro, we don’t need to know about your plane journey to get there, or your Skype call to your mother, or what the hotel receptionist said to you that morning. Start right into the action. In this competition, unfortunately, I eliminated a lot of good stories because the preamble was too long and I was bored by the time the real story started.

     Don’t feel obliged to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Leave out details that don’t contribute to the whole. The reader doesn’t really care that your Auntie Gladys was with you if she didn’t say or do much. You can even leave out the guide, if he or she isn’t particularly interesting: let’s just have you out there, making connections in your new place. Omit the fact that the bus stopped and you all piled out to have a cheese sandwich, if the stop and sandwich aren’t relevant and don’t move the action on. As a writer, you are allowed to be creative in order to end up with a better story.

     Put yourself in the mind of your readers – will they understand where you are, for example? Don’t assume they know where Brong Ahafo is just because you do: you don’t want to break the flow of the story by obliging them to switch to Wikipedia to check information.

     Don’t pepper your story with too many foreign words. A few go a long way to create atmosphere. Make sure you get them right. Misspelt foreign words show carelessness and, in my opinion, disrespect for other cultures.

     Use speech tags sparingly. And use simple ones. Dialogue is great in a travel story: it can show empathy, anger, frustration, and so many other emotions. The occasional ‘Ahmed said’ helps us keep track. But it’s the spoken words that convey the emotion, not the ‘he reiterated/’she exclaimed’/’John hinted’ and so on. Excessive tags are unnecessary hurdles blocking the reader’s way.
  
     Read, read, read. Read previous winners of the competition: this will give you a feel for what the organisers are looking for. Read winning travel stories on other sites. Read travel writers. And read your story aloud to yourself. This will help you pick up small errors in continuity, or big howlers. Perhaps you initially wrote your story in the past tense, then decided to change it into the present…but missed a few verbs. And read your story to a friend you can trust to give an honest opinion. 

IMBO: Great tips, Paola! I couldn't agree more. What are you working on right now?

Fornari: For me, experiencing is more important than writing. I’m working on getting to know Ghana better. Did you know, for example, that the white-necked picathartes, a rare rockfowl that has no feathers on its head, is found here? My ambition is to spot one. I also want to learn more about the people who migrate to Europe from Ghana across the Sahara desert, looking for a better future. I want to study traditional Adinkra symbols, and get more practice in beading and making batiks. Maybe, inspired by this competition, I will look for turtles on Ghanaian beaches. I will organise a home stay in a village in the North. And if some of these experiences inspire me to write stories, that will be an extra bonus, and I will be delighted.

IMBO: Paola, I hope you’re able to have all these adventures and that they lead to some great writing. Thank you again for all the work you did for the 2016 I Must Be Off! Travel Writing Competition!

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Christopher Allen is the author of Conversations with S. Teri O'Type (a Satire), an episodic adult cartoon about a man struggling with expectations. Allen's writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Juked, Eclectica Magazine's 20th-Anniversary Speculative anthology, Indiana Review, Night Train, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, and over a hundred other great places. Read his book reviews in [PANK], Necessary Fiction, Word Riot, The Lit Pub, and others. His creative non-fiction has appeared in Chicken Soup for the Soul, Bootsnall Travel, and lots of other fine places. A finalist at Glimmer Train in 2011, Allen has been nominated for Best of the Net, the storySouth Million Writers Award, and the Pushcart Prize. He is the 2015 recipient of Ginosko Literary Journal's award for flash fiction and in 2016 took third place in the K. Margaret Grossman fiction award given by Literal Latté. Allen is the managing editor of SmokeLong Quarterly.