A life of wanderlust

Interview: Mary Russell – Travel Writer

Mary Russell is a sole trader. Her trade is in words, both written and spoken. She makes a living out of writing books based on her travels and on freelance journalism for the press and radio.

Many people, even in today’s prosperous times, are trapped by the need to pay bills and make some money. They would like to pursue some dream or idea but they fear poverty and failure.

When asked if she has any regrets about her time as a writer Mary says that she wishes she had started earlier. Many entrepreneurs say this, it’s proof of success. Not only success in getting the written word down on paper, in Mary Russell’s case, but also the practicalities of networking, marketing and selling work. Making the dream pay, in other words.

Mary Russell is mainly known now as a travel writer. She has published three books: The Blessings of a Good Thick Skirt (1986),  Please Don’t Call it Soviet Georgia (1991) and Journeys of a Lifetime (2002). In between she has covered millions of miles around the globe writing of her experiences. A lot of her journeys have been on bike and all of them have been, remarkably, alone.

Her books and writing are not in any sense guide books and some of her work has been based on the travels of others. In The Blessings of a Good Thick Skirt Mary recounts the travels of women over the ages bringing out into the light the daring and achievements of many women who had been written out of history.

Similarly she made a four-part documentary for RTE radio in 2004 entitled Four Roads to Jerusalem, which recounts the travels of four women whose destination was Jerusalem.

Her work was not just based on retelling the tales of the earlier explorers but also on the fact the she herself travelled the same miles. In the case of Four Roads to Jerusalem her own time working as a teacher in the West Bank and her observations of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict gave the insights she needed to write the documentary.

At present she is writing a book about Syria, a country she has visited many times. It holds out a modern and ancient fascination for the traveller. It is a secular country in the heart of the Islamic world. It is caught up in conflicts all around it. And Mary, as a western woman travelling alone in an Arab world, hopes to shed light on some of the heat generated by the ‘war on terror’ and the much talked about ‘clash of civilisations’.

 Obviously, this book will be aimed at a niche audience. But it will pay its way through its publication and the number of features and pieces it will generate that Mary can sell to various newspapers. This demonstrates two things. Firstly, that she can choose to write about what interests her and secondly that she has cultivated the contacts to be able to sell her work.

Her experience in journalism is much broader than travel writing. She started out writing occasional features for The Irish Times and the Guardian. She concentrated for a while on personal finance which was a practical experience for her in that it involved a lot of research on the one hand, and a bit of creativity on the other to make it interesting for the reader. 

None of this paid all the bills and she also worked as a teacher to make ends meet. By 1980 she wanted to return to education and she commenced an MA in Peace Studies at Bradford University. It was this course that sparked her interest in travel.

She decided to write her thesis on the Irish Aid programme to Lesotho and rather than work through stale second-hand reports and statistics, she decided to go there in person. 

“It was the first time I had been away anywhere without my family. And to do it, I had to ask the bank manager at the university for a loan”, she recall. The bank manager said yes and off she went. 

In order to pay for the trip, she had to generate as much articles out of it as she could. One of the pieces she did was on students asking bank managers for money. The bank manager in question actually read it in the Guardian and was delighted that Mary had mentioned him.

So the lessons of networking and maximising the potential of stories had been learned. Her gamble on travelling to Lesotho paid off. She got her MA and she had a number of related articles about the trip published. Her work came to the attention of the Dept of Foreign Affairs in Dublin and they commissioned her to write an information booklet about Irish aid.

Her next trip was to another Irish aid project in Sudan. “The same thing happened. The Irish aid workers were tremendously helpful to me. That was my second big journey and after that I was off,” she says.

More travel followed and she began to get interested in the whole idea of travelling, especially about people like herself, women travelling and exploring alone. She proposed a book to some publishers but she was turned down. Then she did a four part series for the Guardian on modern women travellers, including Irish travel writer Dervla Murphy.

Again, in a spin off from these articles, she was commissioned to ghost write the story of two women photographers who had been stranded on the Falklands/Malvinas Islands during the war. The book was a success and the publisher then asked Mary if she had any other books she would like to write. 

The Blessings of a Good Thick Skirt was the result. It was very well received and sold successfully. “What happened with that is that it was the first book that was written about women travellers and explorers. It just hit at the right time. It would be totally out of date now because people are travelling around all over the place.”  

Over the following years Mary travelled to and wrote about many parts of the world. “I wasn’t making a lot of money,” she says. “But I was going places and seeing things, which was great. I never go anywhere without thinking ‘what am I going to write about this that will finance the trip’.

She travels on her own and has found that she has been able to move around safely having become somewhat streetwise. “These places are never half as bad as people make out. You keep your wits about you and you learn some tricks. For example, on one of my trips to Johannesburg, I had got a lot of cash in the bank and the woman said that I shouldn’t carry it down the street with me. But I ignored her and when I came out of the bank I asked a local woman where such-and-such street was. She said she would show me and so as I walked around people assumed we were together and I blended in.”

Despite the fact that she loves her work she still has to make her job pay the bills. She says that this gives her the writing discipline she needs. “The thought of the phone bill gets me out of bed. It has to be paid,” she says.

Asked for tips for young writers and journalists she says: “Just go for it. Study the papers and magazines well and get to know the editors. And always have something out there, ideas with various publications, ‘would you be interested in this?…would you be interested in that?..and keep on coming up with ideas.”