Will Ferguson started life as a travel writer and later turned to novels, including Giller Prize winner 419. His latest, The Finder, follows a mysterious thief, an Interpol agent and a debauched travel writer called Thomas Rafferty to cities around the globe, including Christchurch, N.Z.
Pre-COVID, how frequently were you travelling?
Your regularly is different than a normal person’s regularly.
It’s gone down a lot. I used to write a travel column for Maclean’s so I was travelling all the time. That was a really great gig but it starts to tire you out. But last year I went to New Zealand and Australia and took the Rocky Mountaineer on assignment. And then I went to Scotland, where the book ends.
Your fiction still seems very informed by your travels.
Yes, but the travel writing plotline came out of being in Christchurch and writing about after the earthquake. I remember thinking, “As a travel writer what would I have done if I was here when the earthquake hit?” Because you’re supposedly observing, right? You’re not supposed to insert yourself into it, which is not true at all.
We meet Rafferty in Christchurch, at the bar with other travel writers. When I read that scene I thought, “He’s writing the book that every travel writer wants to, showing what goes on behind the scenes.” Are you curious to see what the fallout is from your fellow travel writers – including the renowned Bill Bryson, name-dropped by Rafferty?
People will recognize themselves for sure. They’re an odd bunch. And some of those conversations are word-for-word conversations that I’ve either listened to or had. But I’m covering my traces. Not only do I change their names, often I’ve changed their nationalities as well. And, of course, Bill Bryson doesn’t have a neck tattoo or snort crack. It only works because he’s the nicest guy. It wouldn’t work if it was someone with a rough reputation, because you might wonder. But you never know.
Maybe he’s got a final book that will be published after his death and it’ll all come out.
I encourage anyone who goes to a Bill Bryson event to secretly check if he’s got a neck tattoo.
Is not travelling having an effect on you? Does it influence what you’re writing?
I don’t want to play the sad violin because we’re all in the same situation. And I’m sure there’s people whose dream trips are cancelled. So the fact I couldn’t get to Iceland or Russia is disappointing, but it’s not some unique tragic situation. But it absolutely does affect my work. I’ve been doing a lot of reading and a lot of writing and I’m well into the next book, but it was supposed to involve Russia and Iceland. So I have to write around it. I’m plotting it out and leaving huge gaps, so when this crazy thing ends I can go and fill those gaps in.
Would it ever get to a point where you say, “Okay, I’m just going to have to write these sections through research?” Or is it like, if you can’t travel, it doesn’t happen?
You don’t have to travel. If you write about a war zone in Baghdad you don’t have to go to Baghdad. If you write a murder mystery set at a remote Antarctic research centre – do you know how many years I’ve been trying to get to Antarctica? Unless you’ve got a huge fat wallet it’s really hard – you don’t have to go there. You can write around it. You can write to your imagination. You can take imaginary trips. But – spoiler alert – this is the same character, it’s Rafferty again. It’s based on travel writing, so that’s why in this case I really do need to go.
You had such lovely details in this book. What is your note-taking process when you’re travelling?
Research is easy now with the internet. You don’t have to jot down dates any more. When I started out if a guy told you the Cardboard Cathedral [in Christchurch] involved 72 tonnes of cardboard, you’d have to write that down. I use my camera phone to quickly take photos of historic plaques. I write scads of notes. I always bring a tape recorder, and what I really try hard to get is the dialogue. When I went to Northern Ireland they spoke with such a distinct accent. I would go into the washroom and repeat what they’d just said. I remember once I did it so much a guy asked, “Are you alright mate?”
Often I sit in a coffee shop and rewrite my notes because otherwise they’re illegible when I get home. So whenever I scribble, I set aside time later in the day to read. You will forget stuff if you don’t record it. You think it’s vivid but it’s not. I was hiking through the County Down, which has these rolling green hills in Northern Ireland; they look like green eggshells that go on and on and on. And I had all these beautiful images, like they look like a body under a blanket, which I forgot, but I found it in my spoken notes.
Are most of your notes then done verbally, as opposed to written?
It’s both. If I’m by myself, if I’m walking, I just use a tape recorder. But when I’m writing, like I said, I’ll scribble down a bunch of notes and then later in the day I rewrite them. You kind of edit as you do. You go, “Ya, that wasn’t that big an insight.” And sometimes I sketch plans of the town, like how the road turned or where the corner was. Even though The Finder is fiction, I wanted it to read like non-fiction, like someone was there.
So what’s Thomas Rafferty doing during COVID?
He may not be aware of COVID; he tends to stumble through life. Actually, no, he’s not a dumb guy. He’s probably sitting in a bar somewhere with the lowest COVID. Yes – he’s probably back in New Zealand. He was probably responsible for that outbreak. I think he showed up and did not self-isolate. He probably tried to and then lost track of time and just wandered out and infected half of New Zealand.
This interview was condensed and edited.
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