Q&A With Will Ferguson

Will Ferguson: you’ve likely heard the name, if not, well, he’s one of Canada’s best travel writers and novelists.

Often humorous, and always engaging, he has written more than a dozen books which include, Beyond Belfast, Beauty Tips from Moose Jaw and more recently, Road Trip Rwanda: A Journey Into the Heart of Africa. In addition to travel memoirs, he also writes literary fiction (419, Hustle, Spanish Fly). He has won numerous awards in his career thus far, including three Leacock Medals for Humour and a Scotiabank Giller Prize. In addition to these accomplishments, he has traversed the globe and was the head writer for the Vancouver Olympics Closing Ceremony. 

I was very excited to catch up with Will recently, to chat all about a subject that is near and dear to both of us: travelling.

What would you say is your favourite place in Canada?  What about in Ontario?

Churchill, Manitoba stands out. Watching polar bears lope past under undulating Northern Lights was a highlight. That said, I’ve always had an affectionate spot for Cobalt, Ontario, a rugged, blue-collar town riddled with mining shafts and sinkholes. On a more personal level, camping at Sleeping Giant with my then four year old son is a nostalgic memory I still hold onto, especially the detour to Silver Islet, a miner’s village re-imagined as a secluded, almost secret, summer getaway.

Where was the first place you ever travelled? What did you love (or not love) about it?

Growing up in Northern Alberta, our “big trip” was always the five-hour trek down to Edmonton. For me, Edmonton was a distant southern city, almost balmy in comparison to Fort Vermilion, where I grew up. Of course, I realize now that the rest of the world does not see it that way.

How has your travel style changed over the years? Do your reasons for travelling change as you get older?

I’m less patient. I used to fling a backpack over my shoulders and hitchhike to the nearest youth hostel. Now, I want my own bath and a decent bed. The thought of sleeping on bunk beds among farting strangers has long since lost its romantic allure. The reasons for travelling stay the same, though: to find out more about the world, about yourself.

What has been your most memorable travel experience? 

Negatively: getting robbed at knife-point in Amsterdam. Positively: hitchhiking across Japan and being invited into peoples homes, including that of a Buddhist priest on Shodo Island.

Is there anything you hate about travelling?

The wait at the airport to board the plane. That seems to get longer and more annoying every time.

What are some of the challenges of travelling and writing at the same time?

Travelling on assignment forces you to get out and engage with people. Travelling purely for pleasure (to Mexico, say) is more relaxing, but less focused I find.

Who are some of your favourite travel writers or books?

Bill Bryson, Jan Morris, Paul Theroux: three very different writers, with three very different temperaments, three very different styles, but all exceptional in their originality.

 In your opinion, what makes a travel story great?

A distinct and honest voice. Travel is not about “place,” (that’s reporting) it’s about a person in a place. A good travel story is a collision between person and place.

What do you do in your downtime?`

Downtime? Who has downtime?

How do you decide which area of the world you are going to write about next? For example, what made you decide on Rwanda?

Rwanda grew out of a long friendship I had with a man who escaped just months before the 1994 genocide. That project percolated for years. Generally, I am attracted to wounded places (Northern Ireland, for example) or ones with a quirky sense of character (Moose Jaw, for example).

What are you currently working on?

A novel. On my book length projects, I try to alternate between fiction and travel. I think they use different parts of the brain, so it’s good to let your “nonfiction” brain lie fallow while you tackle imaginary places and imaginary people instead (and vice versa.)