Jane Wilson-Howarth

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Author interview

Thursday, 27 September 2018
We first met through Cambridge Writers. I joined soon after I returned to live in the UK after six years in Nepal.
Sally, you too had recently returned from a momentous trip and that, I believe, is when we formed our Travel Writing group? 
Yes, I joined Cambridge Writers in Autumn 2002.

Are you a local lass?
I am not Cambridge born and bred but we moved to Brandon (near Thetford) not far away when I was three. I went to school in Ely, and Cambridge has been my UK base on and off since I left university. 

Why did you decide to join Cambridge Writers?
I joined because I had (rather naively) decided to write a book about my cycle ride home and thought the input from Cambridge Writers would motivate me and help me to improve my writing. I had never shared my writing with anyone beyond family or teachers at school, was quite pleased with some of my efforts, excited to share it with other writers but also nervous as to the feedback I would receive.
 
Could you give us an outline of the trip you were writing about at the time?
From July 1998 to December 2001 I was teaching in Khartoum, Sudan. In 2000, I decided I was going to cycle home, Khartoum to Cambridge so set off in December 2001, just post 9/11. My route took me through the desert north of Khartoum, into Egypt, along the Nile, turn right into Sinai, cross into Jordan, then Syria, all along the Turkish coastline, across the Dardanelles, then a diagonal across Europe, home.
 
How long did it take you to cycle home and did you keep notes along the way?
It took me 6 months, with several stops with friends along the way and a two-week hospitalisation in Turkey after walking off a wall and badly damaging my knee. I always keep a diary when I travel and these notes then support my writing.
 
Do you think it is important to keep a diary when travelling or are there other ways to hold the memories fresh?
I am sure photos help as a prompt for some writers, also letters/postcards home are often revealing if you read them sometime after your trip. But the discipline of writing my diary every evening means the memories are more concrete in my head. I think this writing it out is important because often, if you do not always talk about something with somebody, share the experience, then it can fade from your memory. If you are travelling alone, you do not always have someone to talk to so I find my diary can become my companion in the evenings.
 
Sally outside her house in Uganda just about to go off on another bike trip. "You can tell it is the start not the end because my t-shirt looks clean and is not covered in orange dust."

Very few writers manage to make a living writing. What’s your day job? Does it interfere with your ambitions to write?
My day job nowadays is being deputy head of a primary school in Cambridge. Yes, the day job interferes with my writing. All day you are being creative, thinking ‘How can I make this interesting for the kids? How can I engage them?’ that you have no creative energy left in the evenings. I can only write far away from school in time and space-during or after a total ‘decompress’ when my head is empty of it and where I am can then fill me thoughts and imagination i.e. the summer holidays!
 
I’ve enjoyed working with you on our various writing projects and it was great to include two of your stories in my book How to Shit Around the World. Were any of your friends and relations shocked by you contributing to a book with such a rude title?
No - perhaps the shit I wrote about may have surprised them!
 
You have written some wonderful tales that are published in “50 Camels.” Would you tell us about the spread of the material you have contributed?
My contributions include some stories from my cycle ride home. I also include experiences from my time living and working in northern Uganda. My more recent writing in the anthology looks at how you can ‘travel’ close to home and how some of your experiences travelling really are unique to you because of other places you have been, things you have seen or read, that add to your understanding of the here and now.
 
What global issues are you most passionate about? Please give us some pointers.
I am not sure if it is a global issue but I firmly believe that a classroom and the teacher in it is in danger of becoming so inward-looking because of everything we as teachers have to be for kids, and that linked to the lives some kids live, there is little engagement with the world outside the classroom. I am trying to make my school better at going out and discovering everything Cambridge has to offer, and to bring the outside in with getting visitors in to speak to and work with the children.
I am also personally tied up with South Sudan, with many friends and ex-colleagues there, much saddened by how the world’s youngest country has unravelled and sad and frustrated that I cannot at the moment be there helping to improve the quality of education. I have both volunteered there and worked there and been a consultant on writing education materials for teachers. I suppose linked to that is the wider question of corruption and how aid and development breeds and sustains this. Development is big business and one day soon needs ‘cleaning up’.
 
Do you remember when we decided we’d combine our stories into an anthology, and how long it took to complete?
I think we decided to put together an anthology when I came home from South Sudan in 2014. Even though a lot of our writing was already there it did take us a long time to decide on pieces, edit them, check each-others’. It was not until we started choosing pieces that we discussed themes and in the end went for a focus around continents. I know I delayed the process because of writing resources for South Sudan and then starting teaching full time again. But we were all very patient with each other. It is not easy deciding a book by a committee of 5 which meets once a month with some long breaks because one of us has been travelling. But we did it and are still friends and meeting to share our writing.
 
Have you any works in progress?
I have two works in progress - in fact completed - they just need publishing. The first is a travelogue about my cycle ride from Khartoum to Cambridge. The other is under the working title of ‘Mwono bye!’- a teacher’s guide to living and working in northern Uganda. One day soon when I have some head space from school these will appear…..

What future writing plans do you have?
Nothing major. I want our group to get back to sharing our writing as a once monthly meet is a motivator to produce something to read to the others. There is a lot to be written about travel that does not involve actually going far.
 
50 Camels book launch with the authors left to right Jane Wilson-Howarth, Sally Haiselden, Fran├žoise Hivernel and Stephanie Green at Heffers bookshop this month. Photo thanks to Alexander Howarth.

Five of us collaborated on our anthology 50 Camels and She's Yours and I have already posted an e-conversation with anthology contributer Seeta Siriwardena; click here for her Author interview. I'm hoping to publish interviews with the other contributers, Stephanie and Fran├žoise, soon.