An ex-pat Brit who travelled to NZ 35 years ago and settled in Lyttelton, Joe Bennett is an award-winning travel author, writer, and columnist. His work has been described by fellow travel author Bill Bryson as ‘brilliant’ and ‘deadly accurate and absurdly funny’.
JANE DANIELL asks Joe Bennett about his life and travels.
Q: Why travel writing?
I had never aspired to travel writing. But around the year 2000, I had given up teaching and I was making a living as a columnist. I had had several collections of columns published both here and in the UK, and the UK publishers were asking for longer work.
I would have liked to write a novel, but I didn’t think that I could. Travel writing seemed the obvious answer, and New Zealand seemed the obvious subject.
Q: Describe one thing that has topped your travel writing experiences.
Of the places I have been, none has been as startling as Xinjiang, the Moslem far west of China. Just the list of the countries it borders is a good read:
Tibet, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Russia, Mongolia (and I may have left a few out).
And of the things that happened there, most of which remain vivid, perhaps the most vivid is descending rickety steps into a tomb to see thousand-year-old corpses preserved by the aridity. Corpses with hair and skin.
Q: Your award-winning travel book ‘Where Underpants Come From’ took you to China. What else has left you with indelible memories of China from 15 years ago?
What struck me most about China was its scale.
It is vast and populous, with more than 1.5 billion people, centrally run, as it has always been, whether by an emperor or communist party.
For most of human history, it has led the world in technology and wealth. China has never forgotten that.
And the sense I got was that China was reasserting what it saw as its rightful place at the vanguard of the world. And I was surprised to find that I enjoyed myself there.
But the authorities are too authoritative for my taste.
Q: You have ‘An eye for oddity and an ear for a story’ (Simon and Schuster). When did this curiosity begin, and how has it influenced your travel stories?
As a young man, I hankered for elsewhere. Just to read names like Aleppo, Samarkand, or Cadiz, was to feel a stirring in the bowel.
It is natural when travelling, to be engrossed by your own situation. But your job as a travel writer is to look and to listen. Every place is unique in its details. Every person is unique in his or her story.
Q: What general advice would you give a novice travel writer?
Writing is a craft, like carpentry. What you say matters less, far less, than how you say it.
Learn your craft. Study good writers. Learn technique.
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About the Author
Jane Daniell is a freelance travel writer. She possesses a lifetime curiosity about life, travel, and people. She recently decided to combine these interests into completing a travel writing course at the New Zealand Writers’ College. She was born in Malaysia and has lived in England and Australia. Maybe there’s a message there! Her other interests include yoga, gardening, and reading.
© Jane Daniell,2022
Photo credit: United Agents UK