Q & A

Neil and His WomblesHow, where and when did the idea for the book emerge?

There’s been a Womble in our house for years, but the first time I can remember discussing the idea for the book was with my wife Helen in early 2008, while sitting in a cafe in Bucharest with a chocolate teapot.  (The teapot was full of hot chocolate. It wasn’t a teapot made of chocolate.)

Can you remember the first time you were introduced to the Wombles?

Wombles have been a part of my life since I was a small boy, but there’s no ‘JFK’ moment that I can remember in terms of finding them for the first time.

Do you have a favourite Womble and why?

Orinoco, because he’s the Womble whom I most resemble (see below).

Which Womble are you?

Oh, dear…. confession time. There is no doubt that I’m a natural Orinoco – too fond of food and sleep for my own good – as anyone who knows me well will confirm.  Helen, on the other hand, is one of life’s Bungos, albeit a sensible version.

How long did it take to research and write the book?

I drafted each chapter after the relevant journey, redrafting every few months.  In total, from the first journey to the completion of the manuscript, it took just over two and a half years.  There wasn’t a blueprint for visiting each location in a particular order, or at a specific time of year – although I was keen to visit Siberia in summer rather than winter, if only for reasons for warmth!  Generally the challenge was to find dates to fit in with my own and Helen’s work and research commitments.  The one thing for which I’m particularly grateful is that I didn’t leave it too late to meet Elisabeth Beresford, who has now sadly passed away.

Was it difficult to get published?

Yes! You get to know all the rejection euphemisms from literary agents: ‘not quite right for us’; ‘difficult to sell in the current market’; ‘our client list is full’; and so on. My favourite brush-off was from the agent who reckoned that using the Wombles would ‘limit the book’s appeal’.  (Seriously?  Some of the most famous, best-loved fictional characters of the past 50 years and you think that limits the appeal?)  As well as writing to agents, I went to an event on ‘how to get published’ at my old university, with a panel of alumni who had gone into writing or publishing.  The picture they presented – inadvertently, no doubt – was of a closed shop.  Fiction, fiction, fiction was the main industry interest and, unless you had a literary agent, publishers wouldn’t even talk to you.  They were all very polite, highly professional and thoroughly discouraging.  The initial public response, now that the book has been published, has been very positive – in the top 60 of all travel books on Amazon Kindle at the time of writing.

How did you find a publisher?

I’d had a very positive response, to an initial enquiry, from Leila, in her previous role with an agency.  So, once I found out she was running her own company with her brother, Ali, approaching them with the completed manuscript was an obvious step.  I had considered self-publishing as a contingency, but there’s no doubt the book is better for Acorn’s input.  The final manuscript is sharper and the cover design is cleverer and far more beautiful than anything I could have created.  Handing a manuscript to others is a little like handing over your baby and hoping it won’t get criticised, so I’m grateful that Acorn were sympathetic to the author’s point of view.

Did you have any worries about writing the book?

On the literary level, as travel writing involves discovery and the communication of discovery, I worried in case some of the places turned out to be less than fascinating. From a more prosaic/selfish point of view, I thought the chances were that at least one location would be dull and horrible. Even if bad journeys make for great travel stories, I wasn’t looking forward to finding it out at first hand.  Happily, there was plenty to write about, and I would willingly go back to any of the places I visited.  The great thing was that Elisabeth Beresford didn’t name all the Wombles after well-known tourist hotspots.  Of course I wouldn’t have begrudged visiting (say) Paris, New York or San Francisco, but it’s easier to write about places that relatively few people will have visited, such as Orinoco or Tomsk.  Equally, none of the places that gave the Wombles their names were warzones or completely inaccessible, which was just as well.

Had you been to any of the places before? Would you have gone to any of them, if not for the book?

I’d been to Wimbledon, which is not such a surprise as I grew up in London and now live less than an hour from London.  And I’d been through China (from where Shansi Womble got her name).  Travelling on the Trans-Siberian was the fulfilment of an ambition.  As for the other places, they wouldn’t have been particularly high on my list of places to go, if not for the book.  But Venezuela was a wonderful surprise, and it’s easy to see why so many people are bitten for life by a fascination with Japan.  The other locations had their quirks and their attractions, too.

What was it like to write about such a nostalgic subject?

Well, the Wombles aren’t purely a matter of nostalgia.  They’ve never really gone away, as anyone who saw the 1990s TV series for instance – or the more recent Carphone Warehouse advertising – will know.  Also, when the Wombles first emerged from their burrow in the late 1960s, recycling and general environmentalism were far less in the mainstream of people’s lives. The Wombles were ahead of their time then, and environmental concerns are all too topical now.

Why do you think the Wombles have such a timeless appeal?  What do you think they’ve got to offer today’s children compared to all the other distractions that weren’t around in the 70s?

Three things, I think.  Firstly, there’s the way they look.  The illustrations for the first book, published in 1968, portrayed Wombles as rather bear-like, and there’s nothing wrong with that – but the redesign for TV made them much more distinctive.  I gave a reading from Journeys From Wimbledon Common recently, at a conference of academics, and I took Orinoco with me.  The minute they saw him, this critical hard-boiled crowd just dissolved into surprise, delight and laughter… even those who came from parts of the world which haven’t heard of the Wombles (yes, there are some).  The cuddly shape, the big child-like eyes, the snout – it’s such a clever design.

Secondly, there are the Wombles’ individual character quirks, their interactions as a group and their lives in a burrow.  They aren’t a conventional, traditional, nuclear human family – there’s a great-uncle, but no mum or dad – but they look out for each other, they work as a family (a bit like the Simpsons, who are often described as dysfunctional).  They get into scrapes, but nothing really dangerous, and they live in a burrow.  In other words, they’re safe… and that means that adults love them, too.

Thirdly, there’s the Womble way of life – recycling, making the most of what they have.  We tend, in the relatively rich West at least, to have a view that each generation acquires more ‘stuff’ than the last.  This may or may not change in the future, but the Wombles offer an alternative vision. They don’t depend on having the latest brand of anything or the newest computer or phone.  They don’t have superpowers – they just Womble around, rather like small children.  But they still have a lot of fun.  That’s powerful and timeless.

Many travel books involve the writer travelling alone – but not in this case…

That’s true.  And particularly where there’s a high degree of isolation or danger, the ‘sole traveller’ approach can work brilliantly. But, for more reasons than there is space to record here, I am pleased and relieved that my wife Helen not only put up with me writing this book, but agreed to come on most of the journeys as well.  A second pair of eyes is always useful, and so are other skills such as the ability to speak and read languages that use other alphabets (Helen’s knowledge of Russian was invaluable).  We also had one or two Wombles along for the ride…

How did other people react to your Wombles as you travelled?

They loved them. How could they not?  We all have hobbies and interests that other people think are naff or uncool, but the Wombles make people smile, and laugh, and want to cuddle them.  Small children, who didn’t see the Wombles the first time round, love them just as much as people like me, who did.  Even in Japan where, as far as I know, the Wombles aren’t well-known, we saw middle-aged ladies tittering over their tea in cafes. Now, if only someone could get the Wombles launched in Japan in the manga market…

You met Elisabeth Beresford, the Wombles’ creator. What are your memories of her?

What a smart, impressive, hard-working, compassionate woman.  I vaguely knew she’d written other children’s books, but had no idea how much romantic fiction she also wrote (and, as it turned out, neither did she).  Visiting Alderney gave me an insight into how much the people of the island loved her, too.  The news of her death saddened me, but her books will be read for many years to come.

Is there any advice you can give to budding writers?

It might be presumptuous for me, having written one book, to dish out advice! But, for anyone interested in becoming a travel writer, I can recommend two companies which run training events: Travellers’ Tales (www.travellerstales.org) and Travel Writing Workshops (www.travelworkshops.co.uk).  I’ve used them both, enjoyed them both and learned a lot.

Where are you travelling next? And do you think differently when you are on holiday now that you are a travel writer?

Helen and I are off to Sicily, one of our favourite places. Then it’s Hayling Island, Alderney (again) and Belfast, for various reasons. Beyond that, nothing is fixed.

Inevitably, as a writer, you look at places in a different way.  In a nutshell, you notice more.  To me, that’s a good thing… you get more enjoyment and insight from your holidays, whether or not you choose to write about a specific place or a particular trip.

What are you writing next?

Helen and I are working with a friend on a little project called The Pachyderm Paradigm – which will explain management buzzwords and catchphrases… using elephants.  I have ideas for travel books on holiday camps and on British islands.  There may also be a book version of my PhD thesis on the modern history of British travel and tourism.  And you never know – if I ever get to Adelaide, there could be a second edition of Journeys from Wimbledon Common!

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