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Interview with Derek Grzelewski

DEREK GRZELEWSKI’S first major magazine assignment, about New Zealand glaciers, was in 1993 and involved climbing Aoraki/Mt Cook. Since then, he has been a prolific contributor to top-end magazines like New Zealand Geographic, Australian Geographic, Smithsonian and GEO, specialising in adventure, travel and natural history. He is the author of Going to Extremes, and in his other life, also a professional fly-fishing guide. His books The Trout Diaries and The Trout Bohemia have been globally acclaimed to be among the finest in their genre. The Smallest Continent is his latest book. You’ll find him at www.DerekGrzelewski.com.

What is a typical working day for you?

I work in the morning, early, no news, no distractions, just a good breakfast, coffee and go. I have a little ritual tuning in, being still and silent for a bit, and then I usually find the flow and pick it up from the day before. I work for a few hours, until about mid-day, then I walk the dog but still have my digital recorder with me. I find that the mind has a certain momentum after I've stopped writing and some of the best ideas and solutions often come to me then. In the afternoon, I usually revise what I've done in the morning, most commonly listening to it via a text-to-speech software which I find gives me a bit more distance from the work. I repeat this routine over following days and weeks until the work is done. Routines are important in writing, they have their own momentum too, they carry you through the slow days. And then, of course, at some point, the story starts to propel itself, acquires its own life and pace, and that's always feels like magic.

What are your three favourite books of all time? And why?

THE SONG OF THE DODO by David Quammen, DESERT SOLITAIRE by Edward Abbey, and THE POWER OF NOW by Eckhart Tolle. The dodo book inspired much of my early nature writing, it showed me how to combine adventure and travel writing with science and bigger, more meaningful themes. Abbey's book is amazing in the sense that the guy just goes for solitary walks in the desert, and nothing really happens, and yet he brings so much richness to the hike, and sees so much, you can't put the book down. The Power of Now is to my mind the most important book anyone can ever read, it's right up there with the Tao Te Ching but written in a way everyone can understand. It is both an explanation and the solution for the insanity of our civilisation.

Which author do you admire most? And why?

I go through phases, when I find an author I really like I read everything they've done. So, from the earliest days, I went through Paul Thoreau and Bruce Chatwin, the entire writers' stable which centred around the old OUTSIDE magazine - people like David Quammen, Jon Krakauer, Sebastian Junger and Randy Wayne White. Now I'm still firmly in the grips of Edward Abbey's magic. I read him, and say to myself "man, I'll just never be able to write like that." And this is a good thing because we must be regularly floored by someone else's writing, to know what it feels like, to then try and give our readers a similar experience. Beyond that, Abbey stayed true to himself until the end, he never sold out, never took the easy way. So, as wise voice from the wilderness, he continues to speak to us today, and his messages are even truer now than they were in his time.

What tips would you give aspiring writers?

Read! I'm amazed how many people who want to be writers do not actually read! How are they to know what's good writing and what's bad? This culturing of literary taste comes only from reading a lot, especially the good stuff. Also, realise that learning to write is not something you get and have but a lifetime process, a journey. Be true to yourself and this will show in your work, the readers appreciate honesty. Do not try to write like someone else, you won't be able to anyway, so find your own voice and find what you are passionate about, and write about that. There is only one of YOU in this whole world.

What’s your most memorable experience at a Literary Event?

Talking to some 800 teenagers and holding their attention for all of five minutes! Most recently I was a part of "Words and Wine" event at the NZ Mountain Film Festival and I was the last one to speak in the lineup of several extreme and hardcore adventurers, Lydia Bradey type (she was there too.) I could not run further or climb higher or harder than they did so I changed my talk from what I had prepared to something completely improvised, talking about not only looking at the landscapes as athletes but looking and interacting with them in the ways of an artist. Later, several people from the audience came and said how much they appreciated this and how they felt overwhelmed by the overachiever approach of the extreme athletes, to the point where it was totally behind their realm of experience. So, it was satisfying to remind the audience that adventure can be had at any level, it's just finding one's comfort zone and then exploring a little bit beyond it.

If a movie was made of your life, what three songs would you want on the soundtrack?

The soundtrack would contain songs from Mark Knopfler solo albums, that's for sure, "Postcards from Paraguay," "Camerado," perhaps "Our Shangri-La" as well. The lyrics from Eddie Vedder "Long Night" (from "Into the Wild") also speak to me at a very deep level. I wanted to use a snippet of them in my TROUT BOHEMIA book but we ran into copyright issue. So I just play and sing it myself now, ideally by a riverside campfire. It goes like this:

"I'll take this soul that's inside me now

Like a brand-new friend I'll forever know

I've got this light

And the will to show

I will always be better than before"

What advice would you give to your younger self?

Do not be so serious about it all! Do not think of writing as work - as trying to squeeze blood from a stone - but treat it as a creative play. It is a lot more productive and more fun, for you, and the readers.


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