Vancouver author, poet and song writer Bill Arnott talks to AW’s Sabyasachi Nag about his new travel memoir.
SN: A Season on Vancouver Island is your new memoir. As a first-time memoirist how did you define the scope and the dramatic structure of your work?
BA: A Season on Vancouver Island was a wonderfully organic project. I was having a pint with my publisher in Victoria, British Columbia, on a sunny summer afternoon. We were discussing plans for my Gone Viking travelogues – if I was up for a new expedition, which I was, what will be Gone Viking III: The Holy Grail, being released Fall 2023 – when my publisher asked if I’d also be interested in creating a travel memoir closer to home, specifically, something encompassing Vancouver Island. Which made perfect sense as I was spending more time in the area. It wouldn’t require much effort to extend my stay, explore new locales (to me) and then write about it. The result was a three-month excursion around this beautiful part of the world, captured in the visual art and narrative travel memoir that’s A Season on Vancouver Island.
SN: When writing your memoir did you have an audience in mind?
BA: I did. Being immensely privileged to have an established readership by way of my Gone Viking travel memoirs, I feel that I know what my readers enjoy, what resonates, and the writerly voice I’m able to share, along with the manner in which to share it. So I created A Season on Vancouver Island as though I’m already sharing with these readers, and by incorporating multimedia by way of visual art – digitally painted photos of my travels – I hoped to attract new readers as well. Which, to my delight, has been exactly what’s happened.
SN: What doubts (if any) did you have when you first thought of writing the memoir? How did you resolve your doubts?
BA: I realize my experience is no way unique, but naturally I find myself questioning what I share and how I share it, wondering if it’s in any way innovative, or appealing. Each time I share a new project with readers I hope to provide something fresh, then wonder how far I can introduce new nuance, new voice, perhaps push boundaries without offending or distancing myself from those who support me and have been part of this journey. To put it bluntly, a songwriter mentor of mine referred to when he wrote a new album, saying, “This, this was gonna’ be something utterly new, my new creative genius, I just knew it. Until you realize you’re simply writing the same old shit. Then you have to decide if you’re okay with that. Sure, it’s not bad. In fact, it’s pretty good. Just not quite the leap into greatness you’d hoped for. And so, you carry on, doing your best to improve it a bit more each time.” Which is exactly how I feel most days.
SN: How did you deal with time in your memoir? What were the factors that guided your
BA: I loved the fact that for this project I had a delineated task, a goal, and a timeline, laid out for me by my publisher, so all I had to do was deliver. Parameters I’m comfortable working with. A bit of a stretch, but an attainable goal. Of course, I speak of this as my project, but like anything there are a whole lot of talented people involved – any good book is collaborative – in this case involving my publisher, editor, designer and graphic artist, not to mention publicist, promotional specialist, and a score of beta readers, reviewers, blurbers and media writers.
SN: Previous to your memoir you had written two travel books—Gone Viking: A Travel Saga and its sequel Gone Viking II: Beyond Boundaries. What drew you to travel writing?
How did you determine the structure of a travelogue? What questions (if any) were you responding to in the travelogues?
BA: I’ve written travelogues previously but only a few are on readers’ radar. For the Gone Viking travelogues, which have been not only creatively rewarding but commercially successful, I simply started writing what I like to read. In my mind I was creating engaging, sensory diaries, doing my best to catalogue excursions in a manner that I personally enjoyed reading. Providing a touchstone I could reflect on and, perhaps, share with others. It’s no stretch to assume if I like to read it, as with the work of so many who’ve done this before, then others will enjoy it as well. It’s one of those things like sharing a journal, or perhaps glancing at someone’s mail, indulgent glimpses onto a wider world, one filled with wonder, mystery, and yes, escape. Which is what makes real travel writing – not guidebook blogging nonsense – but proper, innovative, engaging travel memoir, so utterly enjoyable and satisfying. Something I hope to continue to create, and for that I remain eternally grateful.
SN: What was the most satisfying aspect of your recently completed work?
BA: I love the fact that A Season on Vancouver Island incorporates my painted photos in addition to my nonfiction prose. The mixed media, I believe, provides a deeper engagement, a more sensory connection with readers. It’s been a great opportunity to creatively grow as an artist.
SN: Poets, writers or artists in other forms or media sometimes influence the way one writes. Can you recall or reflect on a similar influence in your case that might have been proven to be formative over the years?
BA: I can think of many examples of this. Certainly, poets and songwriters have fuelled me and provided me with the courage to write with a greater emphasis on visual imagery and incorporate rhythmic cadence. I find this reveals itself at open readings, when passages of prose can pop like spoken word poetry, or with the lyricism of song. And as is the case with so many authors, my favourite fiction and nonfiction writers continue to raise a creative bar I aspire to.
SN: Do you remember any experience around learning to write that became formative for you in the later years?
BA: I remember a writing instructor pushing me to go deeper with respect to what I was writing. To keep peeling back layers, delving into emotion, especially when it felt challenging, gritty and raw. That’s when the good stuff reveals itself.
SN: Are there any books that you keep visiting for inspiration?
BA: I reread Tim Winton and Robert Macfarlane regularly for inspiration. My favourites are Winton’s Land’s Edge and Macfarlane’s The Old Ways, with Underland running a close second.
SN: Can you recall an experience where you might have worked with another poet/writer or maybe you collaborated with a visual artist, or a performing artist (say a musician/actor/dancer) – how was that experience different or similar? Or seminal or generative?
BA: I’ve been privileged to work and collaborate with a number of extremely talented mixed media artists. Some of my favourites have been readings with musical accompaniment: reading to the music of others as well as personally playing live music to accompany readers. I also love being part of a writing duo with my friend Mala Rai, a brilliant poet and technical writer as well. And I’ve collaborated numerous times – multimedia, song and spoken word poetry – with my friend Michael Averill, a fabulous producer and songwriter. Each of these experiences has helped add richly creative facets to my ongoing work, and for that I’m eternally grateful.
Bill Arnott is the bestselling author of Gone Viking: A Travel Saga, Gone Viking II: Beyond Boundaries, Gone Viking III: The Holy Grail (Fall 2023), and A Season on Vancouver Island. He’s winner of the Miramichi Reader’s Very Best Book Awards for nonfiction, the Firebird Book Awards for travel, is a finalist of the American Book Fest International Book Awards, the Whistler Independent Book Awards, and for his expeditions has been granted a Fellowship at London’s Royal Geographical Society. When not trekking the globe with a small pack and journal or showing off cooking skills as a culinary school dropout, Bill can be found on Canada’s west coast, making music and friends. @billarnott_aps