Q+A with Bill Arnott

What inspired you to write the Gone Viking series? Can you share a little about the journey that led to the creation of these books?
First off, thanks very much to RMB for the invitation to chat about our Gone Viking series. I’d say the inspiration came from my having spent years reading, savouring and rereading great travel literature while gradually seeing more of the world, figuratively and literally. And as anyone with a propensity to write will attest, it’s just a matter of time until you’re compelled to chronicle personal experiences as well. The Gone Viking travelogues are the way I’ve chosen to share some of my own expeditions, documenting excursions that I feel most lend themselves to engaging, relatable and inspiring stories. The Viking theme is something that revealed itself organically, as I often found myself trekking in the footsteps of history’s great Nordic explorers. Which led me to continue on, discovering adventurous new paths to explore across the planet.

Could you tell us about the significance of travel and exploration in your writing?
Travel is one of those wondrous endeavours that can be simultaneously physical and mental, tangible and intangible. As much a state of mind as anything. Being open to new perspectives. Which in no way needs to take place anywhere other than where you already are. An unexpected view, a different outlook. A seemingly simple new experience, even sitting somewhere else, conversing with a stranger, trying food that’s new to you or taking transit in a different direction. Each of these represents exploration. It’s not necessarily about flying or trekking around the world, but rather what you glean from each facet of what you do, where you go, how you get there and what you identify on the way. I see it as the ultimate exercise in personal discovery and empathy. Now more than ever, as we work to reduce our footprints, this is something I’m particularly passionate about.

Are there any hobbies or activities you enjoy outside of writing that find their way into your stories?
As a songwriter and poet, I’m acutely aware of creative structure in writing and storytelling. Meter, tempo, indulging the senses, relatability, humour and a sense of discovery. In the same manner, we may not always consciously know why we find a song or a film deeply engaging, it’s assuredly the result of methodical development, crafting and pacing. So, as a lover of lyrics and music, I strive to share personal stories of adventure, history and humour in a similar manner, the result being something we can repeatedly enjoy experiencing, together.

What’s one thing readers might be surprised to learn about you?
Although it’s only a footnote in my bio, part of my background that contributes to how I do what I do is the fact I’m a trained chef. While I worked full time in another industry, I also spent five years working in a commercial kitchen, part of a “food recovery” program. In addition to mentoring new cooks, I helped the head chef create meals for customers and staff, as well as frozen dinners which were sold at subsidized prices to support the community. Our food recovery initiative meant that each day a five-ton truck would bring an array of goods from selected grocery stores. Food that was still fresh but had to be removed from shelves to make room for incoming stock. It represents one of the most wasteful elements of grocery store inventories. Rather than see huge volumes of good food going to waste, we created high-end, healthy meals at below-market pricing. The positive social and environmental impact we facilitated through the program remains a part of my résumé that I’m especially proud of.

What has been the most rewarding aspect of being an author for you? Is there a particular reader reaction or experience that stands out?
While being privileged to have had excellent interactions with a great many readers, one in particular does stand out, which took place when I went to visit a friend at their office. Another employee there, someone I didn’t know, came up to me, introduced themself, and explained how my first book had provided them with an escape, a smile and a laugh. And hope, as they had read it while sitting in a hospital room with their ailing child, unsure if they would ever leave the hospital together. And they thanked me for creating that book, which had provided a kind of lifeline, a crutch at an unfathomably challenging time in their life. That exchange was perhaps the most humbling experience I’ve had as an author, and a reminder that writing, creating and sharing books is much, much more than words and paper.

Travel writing allows readers to experience new cultures and places vicariously. What do you hope readers will take away from your books in terms of cultural exploration and understanding?
Back to the concept of empathy. Most of our world’s woes would vanish if more individuals embraced greater empathy. We may disagree, live radically different lives, but virtually everywhere people value the same rudimentary things: a meal, some shelter, compassion and caring. Don’t get me wrong, I still enjoy a good laugh when someone impersonates a great accent well (including my own), but knowing that it comes from a place of play, common space and occasionally just being silly. Laughing not at but with others. I’d like to believe I contribute to readers not only being stimulated and entertained, but perhaps having their perspective broadened a little bit more. Fuelling a sense of wonder and a desire to cherish what we have and experience, wherever that may be.

Writing a book series is quite an undertaking! How has your writing evolved from Gone Viking: A Travel Saga to Gone Viking III: The Holy Grail?
A few readers shared something interesting following the success of Gone Viking: A Travel Saga, the text of which included selected quotes from other explorers and travellers. As a writer, I wanted to provide as much insight as possible, sharing additional viewpoints to supplement or enrich my words. Then several people said that as much as they enjoyed the first book, they didn’t really care what previous writers had said. But rather, they wanted to know what I had to say. They had, after all, chosen to buy and read my work, not the work of others. Which instilled in me greater confidence and an obligation to not only continue to share my very best writing, but to share more of my own insight and personal perspective. Which has been extremely well received among those who’ve read Gone Viking III: The Holy Grail. In addition to what readers have come to expect from my journeys – adventure, history and humour – they’ll now find a greater sense of raw truth and shared vulnerability. This latest trek, once again in the present tense, real time, is very much an odyssey readers will effectively enjoy alongside me, experiencing remarkable things as an inquisitive, sincere and fun-loving team.

Could you share a writing tip that helps you when you’re writing?
A literary hero of mine is Australian novelist Tim Winton, whom I had the privilege of visiting with at a writers’ event. His advice? Read. Read. Read. Which I took to heart. And although I’m no longer sure which of us came up with this ratio, it’s one I stand by and recommend to every writer, wherever they are in their writerly journey. And that’s to spend at least ten times the amount of time you spend writing, reading. Want to write for an hour? Then I hope you’ve spent no less than ten hours reading, ideally a diverse range of books. Not only is it the surest way, it’s the only way to truly hone your craft.

Could you share a behind-the-scenes moment that didn’t make it into the books but left a lasting impact on you?
A rather cool experience I haven’t yet shared found me on a beach after midnight, a long way from a town, night sky vivid with the smear of the Milky Way. It was a time of the year when bioluminescence was probable, so I tiptoed through barnacle-encrusted rocks for an ocean dip, to see if I could stir up those wondrous blue swirls of plankton, a watery version of aurora borealis. Despite my splashing around, nothing happened. The weather had been blustery, the water was churned, and the odds of a bioluminescent effect grew less likely. I gave up and shuffled through the black up a hill to the Quonset hut where I’d be sleeping. I was watching my step in the dark, my eyes straining to focus in starlight. For some reason I was compelled to look up, which I did, at the instant the brightest shooting star I’ve ever seen rocketed across the sky in a razor-straight, north-south line. Its trail glowed for a full count of two Mississippis. And I laughed, realizing I had missed nothing down at the sea. And that the lingering streak of celestial luminescence was in fact what I was meant to see. Which to me defines life and travel. Tapping into less utilized senses. Keeping an open, wondering mind. And relishing newfound experience, anytime, anywhere it presents itself.

What advice do you have for fellow writers who want to embark on their own literary journeys, whether in the realm of travel writing or other genres?
Great advice I’ve received from others, and continue to share, is that if you want to write, and write well, then keep writing. Read a ton. Read some more. Then write, and rewrite, a lot. When you feel your work is as good as it can be, go back and rewrite it at least ten more times. Another invaluable ten-to-one ratio. And when you finally think it’s perfect, you probably only need to rewrite it three more times. Seriously. If someone is willing to part with their time and money to read what you’ve written, you owe it to every prospective reader to make your work exceptional. Life’s too precious to waste on mediocre writing. Do write. But work at it more than you ever thought you would have to. Then continue to keep writing better.