Bill Arnott’s Travel Beat: Talking Writing and Viking with the UK’s Alex Pearl

(Bill) Hi Alex, thanks for the invitation to this great group of writers! I’m author, poet, songwriter Bill Arnott, and I live on Canada’s west coast. I’ve been a full-time writer for a few years, my work ranging from suspense thrillers to poetry, indie folk music to all-ages fiction. But I may be best known for my nonfiction travel memoirs, Gone Viking: A Travel Saga and Gone Viking II: Beyond Boundaries, bestsellers that have won some literary awards. For this, I extend heartfelt thanks to my amazing friends, readers, and our #GoneVikingCommunity.

I grew up in British Columbia, next to a lake, and that connection with water and its inherent pull to drift, dive, and wander seems to have followed me through life and is probably evident in my writing. And while I still thrive on outdoor pursuits, something I love now is the connection I enjoy with our reading and writing community, knowing each of us is part of something more, the whole being much more than the sum of its parts.

Like most of us, I started writing as a kid, no doubt a transition from colouring. But I like to believe I started writing well in the last ten years or so, the result of a few decades of dedicated reading and the inspiration to create something a bit better than the time before. Now, one of my “soapbox lectures” to writers is to perpetually improve their craft and raise a bar no one else needs to see but that we’re inherently aware of with respect to our work.

(Alex) How would you describe your writing, and are there particular themes/stories that you like to explore?

(Bill) Something I feel strongly about (and say frequently) is that I take the writing seriously. I don’t take myself seriously. Which I suspect comes through in the work. I admire writers who write beautifully but aren’t afraid to “take the piss” or share something ludicrous if it’s genuinely funny and in keeping with the story. And when it comes to travel writing, I have no patience for writers who justify their travels with fabricated rationale. Don’t pretend you need to embark on a journey to a) save a relationship, b) recover from a relationship, or c) raise environmental awareness. If, for example, you want to cycle the continent and write about it, do it! But tell the truth, and don’t pretend what you’re doing is somehow part of something grander. And when you write, make the work exceptional.

That said, I like to push myself as a writer. There’s an old adage along the lines of, “if you’re not stretching, you’re not growing.” (Maybe that was a motivational speaker.) However. There’s truth in there. Like exercise. Breaking down muscles, for example (in moderation) makes you stronger, capable of greater accomplishment. The same goes for writing, honing the craft to create more engaging, sensory stories and deeper connections with readers. Which applies to fiction and nonfiction alike.

(Alex) How do you go about finding an interesting story and how do you sell it to a newspaper or magazine?

(Bill) I write what I like to read; simple as that. I remember reading an interview of a musician I admire, and he was embarrassed to be “caught” listening to his own music in his vehicle. Egos aside, for me, it spoke to artists creating the stuff they (we) genuinely enjoy seeing, hearing or reading. I cringe to think of someone creating something they don’t personally enjoy. So as I read, learn and escape through books, eventually, I catch glimpses of stories I feel have yet to be told. And that’s when I go to work: researching, writing and sharing.

I know I’m not alone in this but I write because I’m a fan of books and reading. My latest travelogue, Gone Viking II: Beyond Boundaries, a follow-up to Gone Viking: A Travel Saga, came about (partially) in response to the pandemic. While the world was on lockdown and travel wasn’t an option, I took it as a personal challenge to create a rich, engaging travelogue irrespective of limited (physical) movement between locales. Which provided a perfect opportunity to stretch my literary wings and share something unique with readers who appreciate the craft (and enjoy my adventures.)

I’m privileged to now enjoy a somewhat established readership, so finding outlets is less of a challenge than it was when I began as a writer. But with respect to selling my work, I’ve enjoyed wearing a range of hats, from entrepreneurial indie publisher to staff writer and editor for newspapers, magazines and literary journals, as well as being part of a stable of writers for a mid-sized publishing house. Each facet of the business has positive aspects as well as challenges, but I love being able to jump between roles, often every day.

(Alex) What was the first book you read?

(Bill) I think the first book I read (on my own) was a Hardy Boys detective story. But two titles that truly expanded my young mind and no doubt planted a writerly seed were Stephen King’s Different Seasons and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Tolkien’s work still strikes me as the ultimate travelogue – engagement, adventure, and human endeavour. While that particular book of King’s (four stories in fact) left me thinking, “You can say that in a book?!” It was quintessential literary empowerment, as though realizing we can, in fact, fly!

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(Alex) How much research do you do and what does it usually entail?

(Bill) My first traditionally published travel memoir, Gone Viking: A Travel Saga, was an eight-year project (trekking the northern hemisphere). The follow-up travelogue, Gone Viking II: Beyond Boundaries was ten years in the making, between travel, writing and research. So I joke that at this rate, I should be able to bang out the next book in a mere twelve years! (But don’t tell my publisher.)

When I write travel lit, I need it to be engaging and sincere, but I also want to ensure that readers know they’re getting my very best work. Proper research, I feel, is part of the equation. Something I tell writers is, “Don’t bore me with details or backstory. But do put your back into it, and make sure you know those details.” That comes through in the end result, which may include seemingly simple, concise references, but the whole will be significantly better because of the effort that’s gone into thorough research.

(Alex) How do you market your books?

(Bill) I’ve incorporated a range of marketing efforts for book sales. Some of my past titles were of a genre that made companies want to hire me to speak to staff, and they’d purchase books for a meeting or seminar attendees. So that was more about speaking gigs with books being distributed or sold “at the back of the room.” I also enjoy the intimacy of signing events at bookstores, which creates great engagement with readers and subsequent sales. More recently I’ve utilized social media and cross-promotion, nurturing relationships with booksellers and partnering in our promotional efforts, which consistently results in ongoing, win-win experiences.

One of my indie-published titles, Bill Arnott’s Beat: Road Stories & Writers’ Tips (a #1 Bestseller) is a blend of travel memoir and author reference material, and outlines a range of ways in which I’ve generated successful sales. So rather than sharing all my secrets here, I’ll let you find them (as often as you like) in the pages of Bill Arnott’s Beat. Maybe that’s another marketing advice nugget; answer questions in a forthright manner, but expand on it in another book!

(Alex) What are your interests aside from writing? And what do you do to unwind?

(Bill) My social media handle, @billarnott_aps, is a reference to my being an author, poet, and songwriter, which pretty much answers the question, “What do I do to unwind?” Then again, maybe it winds me up as well! But I do love reading, writing, and playing music – usually indie folk on acoustic guitar. And while I do each of these things professionally, they’re actually how I spend my downtime as well. One of the best lessons I received from a mentor (who happens to be a composer) was to hop between creative outlets to stimulate respective activities. I think most writers are aware of this. Even alternating genres for a while can generate great new stuff. It’s the same premise as going for a walk if you feel stumped, or simply doing something different for a while, effectively shifting focus between the hemispheres of your brain to tap into different sensory stimuli. In addition to the creative stuff, I love being outside, going hiking, irrespective of the terrain – beach, desert, forest, mountains – you name it, I enjoy it.

(Alex) Which authors do you particularly admire and why?

(Bill) Some of my favourite authors are Robert Macfarlane, Anna Badkhen, Michael Palin, Monisha Rajesh, Patrick Leigh Fermor and Tim Winton. I consider each in their way a fellow Viking, mentor and friend, contributing to my love of the written word and making me want to consistently create better work.

Thanks, Alex, for this fun opportunity and all that you do for our writing community!

Bill Arnott is the bestselling author of A Season on Vancouver Island, the Gone Viking travelogues, and A Perfect Day for a Walk: The History, Cultures, and Communities of Vancouver, on Foot (Arsenal Pulp Press, Fall 2024). Recipient of a Fellowship at London’s Royal Geographical Society for his expeditions, Bill’s a frequent presenter and contributor to magazines, universities, podcasts, TV and radio. When not trekking with a small pack and journal, Bill can be found on Canada’s west coast, where he lives near the sea on Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh land.