Our very own Rob Self-Pierson has just published his first book, Twinned with… an adventure around the twin towns of Europe. He talks to Laura Hunter about writing on the road, guffawing at Bill Bryson and the joy of self-publishing.
Your new book is out in the big wide world. How does that feel?
Hugely exciting. And it makes me feel very proud. I had the idea six years ago, did the travels three years ago. So the last few years have been a crazy mix of writing, researching, remembering, checking maps, emailing and, at the same time, trying to earn a living and live. S’pose there’s some relief mixed in there, too. I done wrote it!
For those who haven’t yet read it, can you describe Twinned with… in 26 words?
10,000 miles. 45 European twin towns. 12 countries. A wonderful girl, a beautiful car. My inquisitive personality. A tonne of learning and plenty of merry mishaps.
Have you always been interested in travel writing?
Since the day I read Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island when I was 14 or so. I’d never been a great reader and for the first time I devoured a book. I remember reading parts and just guffawing in my parents’ living room. Even at that age (I was a bit cocky), I thought: I want to do that. I can do that. I’m going to do that.
Tell us a bit about your process. Did you write on the road or did you pen the whole thing when you got back, a la Kerouac?
The plan was to write on the road. Forty-five little stories/blog posts in three months. Easy, I thought. Three years and a million edits later (including some complete rewrites of those first few blogs I managed while travelling), I’m able to hold the book I imagined all that time ago.
You’ve written the book as a series of letters to people back home. Did you always plan to use that structure and form?
I did indeed. I’ve always enjoyed the epistolary form. And I thought: what works for Bram Stoker can work for me. But the main reason for those letters was to make Twinned with… an inclusive adventure. Rumours I’d heard about town twinning before setting off suggested it was an exclusive members’ club. I thought it’d be fun to open it up and invite people to get in touch and ask me to visit their twin. Then in the old pen pal style, I’d write back. As we got deeper into the travels then returned home, I realised I could use town twinning and my topsy-turvy relationship as themes to hold the letters together and create a narrative.
You came across some surprising things throughout your journey – camels in Eppingen, the Mafia in Poitiers. What’s the most startling thing you found about writing the book?
I didn’t realise how mentally exhausted I’d be after the travels. So I was surprised I took three years to write the thing, even though so many people had warned me it would take an age. But perhaps the most surprising thing was the pride I felt in representing town twinning on what I hope will become a national (maybe even global) scale. I feel writing about this subject – which played a crucial role for Europe after the wars, and has connected so many lives in the last 70 years – came with great responsibility. As did writing about a relationship that’s very dear to me. You decided to go down the self-publishing route. How did you find that?
Lovely. Great. Full on. But overall positive, fun and educational. From having the idea to holding the book, it took six years. That was six years of learning how to apply creative non-fiction techniques to my adventure, how to project manage a book (employ illustrators and designers, throw myself into typefaces and cover design, haggle with printers, negotiate with everyone for everything), how to balance work and life, how to keep people interested and, most recently, how to market the book. That’s meant interviews on BBC radio, phone calls with journalists, chasing contacts, asking cheeky questions. It’s non-stop learning. As life should be, right?
What advice would you give to people considering self-publishing?
If you believe in your idea strongly enough and you’re willing to dedicate a lot of your life to it, surround yourself with brilliant people who have the skills you don’t have and give it a go.
And Airbnb have taken an interest in your book…
Yeah, a couple of weeks ago I had a good chat with their global head of community, Douglas. He was intrigued by my travels and I was keen to quiz him on the similarities and differences between Airbnb and early town twinning. I wrote this blog post about it.
And what’s next for you and twinning?
Me? As always, lots. I’ve just moved to Walthamstow and am speaking to the Forest Poets about how to set up a new… thing (sshhh it’s a secret). In 2009, I travelled around Britain by the light of the full moon and people who have read Twinned with… have asked to read that book. Which means I should probably write it soon. And I think possibly, maybe, scarily but wonderfully, I may have thought of a theme for my third travel adventure. The plan was always three: one set in Britain, one across Europe, one around the world. So that’s two travels down, one to go.
The future of town twinning? Not so easy to work out. Right now, it’s uncertain. If ours and future generations don’t embrace it, it’s going to die out with the generation who created it. I feel it has to adapt. So I’m speaking to a group of very talented people to see if we can give it a helping hand.
Watch this space.
Order your copy of Twinned with… here at the bargain price of £7.99.