myWanderlust regular Tom Coote talks about travelling the Silk Road. And the shorter road to getting published
MyWanderlust regular, Tom Coote, has just had his first travel narrative published. Titled Tearing up the Silk Road, it chronicles his journey from China to Istanbul, through Central Asia, Iran and the Caucasus. He talks to Peter Moore about the highs and lows of the journey, as the (relatively) short path to getting published.
Why the Silk Road?
The whole region is hugely underrated as a tourist destination and seems likely to become increasingly popular with more adventurous backpackers. Most of the travel books relating to the Silk Road seem to have been written by former public school boys and I felt that there was a gap in the market for something rawer, less reverent and more contemporary.
Did you do this trip with the view to writing a book?
Having managed to wangle an eight-month sabbatical from my job as a computer programmer I knew that I wanted to do a lot more travelling and write a book. My wife and I set off on a round-the-world trip and then towards the end of this time we rented a cheap apartment in Krabi in southern Thailand and I started working on a novel. After a while I then had to decide whether to finish the novel or to use the time to travel back overland to Europe – I chose to keep on travelling and then to write about it when I got back.
Did you keep a diary? Take notes?
Before leaving Thailand, I bought a nice notebook from a department store in Bangkok, with the express intent of getting around to recording my travels.
I already owned quite a lot of Silk Road related books but once I got back to the UK I bought even more and then went through them all again, taking even more notes.
How long did it take you to write the book?
It took almost exactly the same as it would to grow a baby.
What were the difficulties in turning your journey into a book?
I already had a lot of ideas about what I wanted the book to be about before I even began the journey which it is structured around, so it was a challenge to filter down a huge tangle of ideas, thoughts and feelings into something approaching a cohesive narrative.
On a more practical level it was often quite hard to get my wife off of Facebook and YouTube so that I could actually have a go on my laptop and get it all written down.
How hard was it to find a publisher?
I started off by emailing any literary agents that I thought might be interested but the ones that bothered to reply at all, all told me that it was very hard to find a publisher for a travel book that isn't written by somebody off the telly, doesn't promote aspirational lifestyle changes, or doesn't involve novelty forms of transportation (a perfect travel book proposal might involve Katie Price bouncing to Tuscany on a Space Hopper).
Of the publishers I contacted directly, only three showed any real interest at all, only two requested the full manuscript, and only one went on to offer me a publishing deal. When I mentioned to a previously helpful literary agent that I had been offered a publishing deal, he told me that he wasn't surprised but that he still wasn't interested in representing me (it simply wouldn't have been worth his while for the 15% that he would have received from my 'modest' advance).
From finishing the book to being offered a publishing deal took about three months. I was then told that I would have to wait about another 12 months before the book was actually published.
How did you finance the trip?
I saved up my pennies while labouring away as an NHS code monkey.
What was the most difficult part of the journey?
I knew that it wouldn't be easy to travel that far and that fast, while using only public transport, but I was always lucky. Most of the time I didn't really know what I was doing but there were always people around who were willing to help. There are many more difficult things to do than travelling!
What were the highlights?
There is so much to see, and by the nature of the journey itself I tore through much of it, but some particular highlights would include: Echoing Sand Mountain in Dunhuang, China; Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva in Uzbekistan; and Esfahan and Kandovan in Iran.
What surprised you most?
I already knew that the people of Iran had a reputation for being disarmingly friendly and hospitable but I experienced a comparable level of generosity all along the Silk Road (with the possible exception of a few mercenary taxi drivers). The soldiers were even nice when asking for bribes! This may well start to change as the whole region opens up to more mainstream tourism but for the moment, at least, it is one of the greatest journeys you could ever make.
Did you come away from Central Asia with hope or despair for the region?
One of the themes that run throughout Tearing up the Silk Road is that of generational conflict.
There is a huge difference in the attitudes, abilities and intelligence, between the young and the old in many of these rapidly developing countries. Inevitably, a new, more internationally-minded generation will rise to prominence, but those who are currently in power are unlikely to surrender their privilege without a struggle.
What's your next project?
I've recently finished the first draft of my next travel book Voodoo, Slaves and White Man's Graves: West Africa and the End of Days. This has been harder to write than Tearing up the Silk Road but I think it will be better!
Tom Coote is a myWanderlust regular who has travelled independently in over a hundred countries and his first book, Tearing up the Silk Road, was published by Garnet in August. You can order your copy on Amazon now.