Following Unusual Paths: Interview with Nick Hunt

Nick Hunt is an author from the UK.

His books include Outlandish; Where the Wild Winds Are; Walking the Woods and the Water; The Parakeeting of London; and Loss Soup and Other Stories. His debut novel Red Smoking Mirror will be published in July 2023.

Walking the Woods and the Water and Where the Wild Winds Are were both finalists for the Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year in 2015 and 2017, while Outlandish was chosen as Stanford’s Book of the Month in June 2021.

Nick has written for The Guardian, New Internationalist, Emergence, Resurgence & Ecologist, Geographical and other publications.

He is an editor and co-director of The Dark Mountain Project, and an editorial consultant for John Murray Press.

Talking About Books asked Nick about his journeys and the way the planet is being changed by human activity.

TAB: Your travels are unusual: you look for Europe’s unlikely landscapes and follow its winds. How do you select your journeys?

NH: I try to look for paths across landscapes that might not at first be obvious. In my first book I followed the footsteps of the travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor, who walked from the Hook of Holland to Istanbul in the 1930s, and my second book was a journey following the invisible pathways of Europe’s named winds. My latest travel book, Outlandish, is an exploration of what I call “unlikely landscapes”: arctic tundra in Scotland, a desert in Spain, a primeval forest in Poland and Belarus, and the edge of the Eurasian Steppe in the east of Hungary. The trick is to look beyond the obvious routes of political borders, rivers or coastlines, and conceptualise the world in ways that feel fresh.

TAB: In Outlandish, you paint a picture of how our world has changed over time, mostly through human impact. What can we learn from the way these “unlikely landscapes” are transforming?

NH: I didn’t set out to write about changing landscapes when I started researching Outlandish, but it very quickly became a book about human-induced climate change; increasingly it feels impossible for travel writers not to write about this, if we start looking even a little way into history and into the future.

As an example of this, the first chapter of the book is a winter journey in Scotland’s Cairngorm Mountains, home to the Lairig Ghru, Britain’s greatest glacial valley. Looking into this valley from above transported me to the ice age that ended 11,000 years ago, a vision of deep time—but simultaneously I found myself looking at the Alps or the Himalayas in the year 2100, when 90% of glaciers are predicted to have vanished. All these journeys turned out to be walks in three parallel timelines: the deep past, the present and the near future. In Spain’s Tabernas Desert, which I visited during a heatwave, I had a very clear vision of what a climate-changed future will look like—and, much worse, will feel like—when I got heatstroke on a long walk and met a recluse who emerged from a canyon like a sun-crazed demon.

TAB: What were the things that stood out for you during your trips? And what were the challenges?

NH: The challenges were often simple ones: extreme cold, extreme heat, the militarised Poland-Belarus border (which I’m sure is impassable now), and the daily problem of getting lost. Ironically for a travel writer, I have a terrible sense of direction! The things that stood out, as always, were the moments of imaginative transportation that took me from, say, a mountain in Scotland to the tundra of Greenland or Siberia, and from a grassland in Hungary to the steppes of Central Asia. I also saw my first wolf, at dawn one day in the Polish forest, which was a moment of pure magic.

TAB: You have written a book of “gonzo ornithology” called The Parakeeting of London. What is gonzo ornithology?

NH: “Gonzo ornithology” is an entirely made-up term, applied by a friend of a friend to describe the exploits of myself and Tim Mitchell as we blundered around London looking for parakeets. On our search for these wondrous birds we made the decision to do no research and not to consult real ornithologists—not because we weren’t interested, but because the stories that most engaged us were the bizarre urban legends (such as parakeets escaped from a film set in the 1950s, or were released by Jimi Hendrix on Carnaby Street in 1968), and what (so-called) ordinary Londoners thought of the avian influx. We remained as ignorant as possible for as long as we could, believing that serendipity and open-minded listening were better guides to the phenomenon than anything we could read in books. And for the purposes of this project, they absolutely were.

TAB: You have recently written a collection of short stories and are now working on a novel. Does your travel writing affect your fiction?

NH: I was writing fiction before I wrote travel, and they influence each other. It’s all storytelling in the end—and while travel writing is “true” (though many of our greatest travel writers, including Patrick Leigh Fermor, have always used fictionalised elements such as composite characters and conversations that didn’t quite happen), it’s also an imaginative craft, as the writer gets to decide what to emphasise and what to reduce, where to compress time and where to speed the narrative up. Outlandish is about the imaginative journeys you take while travelling as much as it recounts real places and people, so there’s a fictional feeling to parts of that book for sure.

My next book is a novel, Red Smoking Mirror, which is an alternate history set in 16th-century Mexico, so it’s entirely invented… but the landscapes, atmospheres and sensations of that alternative world all come from my memories of travelling in Mexico, Spain and Morocco in my early twenties, so it also feels a bit like a travel book. It helped that those memories are vivid, yet dreamlike and blurred by time, which I think are excellent conditions for writing a work of fiction.

TAB: I am intrigued by The Dark Mountain Project. What exactly is it?

NH: The Dark Mountain Project is a loose network of writers, artists and thinkers responding to the times we’re in and the predicaments we face—climate change, ecological breakdown, mass extinction and political chaos—without attempting to find “solutions” or tell people what to do. We believe there is creative value in uncertainty, and it’s important to hold a space where people can honestly admit their darker feelings of fear and despair, and to see what might lie beyond that. What we’ve found is that there is a kind of hope beyond hope—that the end of the world as we know it is not the end of the world, full stop, but the start of something new, or many things that are new. In many ways Dark Mountain laid the substrate from which recent movements like Extinction Rebellion took root, but we remain a non-activist organisation. We publish two hardback books a year and run regular events and workshops.

TAB: Is writing something you have always done? Who were the writers who inspired you?

NH: Too many to count: travel writers, novelists and poets. I’ll just name two who are in my mind today, for some reason—Russell Hoban and Ursula K. Le Guin, both of whom showed me paths into writing I’d never have found elsewhere.

TAB: I enjoy your travel writing and your unusual journeys. I am looking forward to discovering your fiction! Thank you for doing this interview.

Read my review of Outlandish: Walking Europe’s Unlikely Landscapes.

Go to Nick Hunt’s website.

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