WHAT A DIFFERENCE A BOOK CAN MAKE: Pauline Fisk on the Olympic Dream [and the value of occasionally tearing oneself away from the computer]

I’ve told part of this story before, but bear with me because I’ve something new to add, and it’s quite a story anyway. In 2008, the British Arts Council funded me to go out to Belize.  I was interested in the concept of gap year volunteering and the difference – if any - it made to young people’s lives. In particular, I wanted to explore it as a modern rite of passage, comparing it to the rites of passage that young Belizeans - say Kekchi-Mayans from the poorer end of Belizean life - might go through in order to achieve adulthood. The result of my research was a novel for young adults, ‘In The Trees’.

I learnt a lot in Belize. It wouldn’t be exaggerating to say the six week visit changed me. For twenty years I’d been a desk-bound author, living a largely desk-bound life. Sure enough, for ‘Flying for Frankie’ I’d taken to hot air balloon, and for my Children of Plynlimon novels, I’d explored the three great rivers - Severn, Wye and Rheidol - which flow out of Plynlimon Mountain in that region of Wales once called the Wilderness of Elenedd. And I did make some wonderful discoveries on foot, but many more hours were spent in libraries or at my screen. Finally I came to a point where ‘smelling the roses’ wasn’t something I was ever likely to do. I was more likely to Google search it, or look it up in a book.

Well, the tiny Caribbean nation of Belize put paid to that. My first thought upon arriving in Belize City was that I’d entered that literary country known as Greeneland.  But Belize put paid to Graham Greene as well, and Joseph Conrad and any other author through whose books I’d ever explored tropical countries and tropical life. The dusty Hummingbird Highway along which I traveled on local buses and hitched rides, the jaguar heartland of the Cockscombe Basin through which I trekked, the Kekchi-Mayan villages I visited in Toledo District, with their backdrop of the Maya Mountains, weren’t even Fiskland.  This was its own land, and all I could do was discover, respect and – like a teenager on a first date – fall in love with it.

It’s a love affair that’s lasted to this day.  I only have to see pictures of Belize, or meet Belizean people in the UK, or hear the music of Paul Nabor, or Andy Palacio [click this link for a fabulous short film of Belize] and I’m transported straight back. Here it all is again. The heat, the dust, the lush greenness of a country that - from the moment you get off the plane – smells predominantly of trees. The whoops and whistles of the jungle as darkness falls. The open smiles on people’s faces, and their open hearts. The taxi driver who’ll break your journey to raid an orange grove because you’ve never tasted Belizean oranges straight from the tree. The young Kekchi-Mayan girl who gives you a letter when you leave, saying, ‘I will be your friend for life.’ The old woman living in the mangrove swamp, who tells you the names of all the birds. The hustler who tries to sell you a poem.

How can you forget these people? Once met, they’re with you for life.  And so is the Caribbean shoreline and the country’s fabulous interior with its unforgettable jungle, pristine Mayan ruins and tiny towns and villages.  

I came home from Belize with an obligation laid upon my heart.  Firstly I wanted to write about the Belizean rainforest and what I’d seen with my own eyes, both of its fabulous beauty and the awfulness of its despoilation.  Secondly, I wanted to write about the efforts of young people - many straight from school - to help stem that destructive and entirely man-made tide.  I was astonished by the young gap year volunteers whom I trekked out into the jungle to meet.  In remote and hostile environments, working on projects to save jaguars, scarlet macaws, monkeys, trees, even Mayan artifacts, they gave their all to the cause they were fighting for, and I wanted to write a book that not only honoured the country but their achievements too. 

Well, ‘In The Trees’ is written now, and published, so you can read it if you want and measure my success.  I’ve been all over the UK with it, talking and showing photographs from my trip. At the end of my session at the Edinburgh Book Festival, a theatre full of children [and teachers] all put up their hands and said they wanted to go gap year volunteering in Belize.  At the Starlit Festival in Hoxton, London, I was commended for my command of Jamaican [though what I wrote wasn’t Jamaican, it was Bileez Kriol] and asked if I could speak it too [no].  In Westminster Abbey – even there, astonishingly - the book received a commendation from the Belizean High Commissioner who shook my hand and said,  ‘Oh, you’re the writer of that wonderful book.’  And recently, Olympic hopeful, and indefatigable organizer for Team Belize, Andy Wigmore, told my daughter that when he read my book he could even smell Belize  

And it’s that little word ‘Olympic’ that I’m coming to. Slowly, but I’m nearly there.

What we writers can achieve at our computers is astonishing.  But what we can achieve by getting up from them and going out into the world, can be astonishing too.  I was mindful of this recently when I read Julia Jones’s piece here on Authors Electric about sailing on her [and Arthur Randsome’s] boat, Peter Duck, with John McCarthy.  But it’s not just authors who can achieve great things.  By going out into the world, our books can too.     

My daughter Grace has a nasty habit, by which I mean she smokes.  It’s strange how one thing can lead to another.  Fag-breaking on a pavement outside the fashion house she worked for, Grace forged a friendship with Team Belize's Andy Wigmore, who worked in the same building. His surprise at her knowledge of his country was compounded by her mother having been there, and written a book. One thing followed another, by which I mean that fashion followed literature, followed by Team Belize, who were coming to the Olympics for their fiftieth year [an amazing achievement for such a tiny nation] and at that point without a specifically designed kit. Did Grace, working in fashion, and quite plainly a friend of Belize, know anyone who might help?

Grace’s partner, Luis Lopez Smith, is the highly talented Chief Designer for the sportswear brand, Head. You can put the rest together for yourselves.  Working independently, Luis has designed a kit which is quite definitely going to make waves.  Last week saw the four of us - Grace, Luis, and me, along with Andy - guests of the  Belizean High Commission in London, being thanked by their Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Hon. Wilfred Elrington, for services to Belize. How amazing is that?  And, in my case, for a book.  I couldn’t be prouder if I tried. 

What a strange chain of events.  The night before I flew out to Belize, I lay awake in a state of mortal terror, wondering what lay ahead. It took real courage to go - and I wasn’t the courageous type. But every author knows that it’s from the books themselves that courage comes. Ideas get hold of us, and we have to run with them.  They won’t let go.  And so it was with me about Belize.  For years I waited for someone else to write that gap year novel for young teenagers, but no one did. And now I’m so glad that it fell to me.

The writer’s life is an extraordinary one.  You truly never know what will happen next, nor what will come of the things you write. Since ‘In The Trees’, my writer’s life has brought me here to Authors Electric, trekking through the internet with e-books in hand rather than my machete.  And where to next?  Another novel?  For adults, or for children?  A foray into flash fiction?  A ghost writing opportunity that’s looming on the horizon, too fascinating to miss?  Maybe all of them - but one thing's for sure. 

When the Olympics opens, I'll be rooting for Team Belize. 

- To follow Team Belize on Facebook
- For extracts from my Belize journal [click on 'Belize Journal entries' in right hand column]
- To buy ‘In the Trees’ in Paperback, Amazon Kindle or in the Apple Store
- Contact details for author visits: paulinefiskauthor@gmail.com


Lee said…
Lovely post!

(Of course, there's also Proust ... which goes to show that what works for one writer doesn't for another!)
CallyPhillips said…
Great post very interesting and reminds that all kinds of connections can come from all kinds of places. We just have to keep our eyes open for the opportunities to 'share' of ourselves and our beliefs. It's a much nicer side of being a writer than all the marketing stuff! I have similar feelings you have for Belize for Cuba. And will 'share' them next year!
Kathleen Jones said…
What a fantastic post Pauline! Isn't it strange how things spin out sometimes? Glad it all worked out so well.
Susan Price said…
Wonderful, Pauline - and I salute your courage.
Pauline Fisk said…
Sue, I honestly think that nothing takes more courage than to live the life of a writer. Sometimes it's exhilarating, but mostly it's just hard slog. Talk about trekking in the jungle - that's a doddle compared to sitting at the same computer day by day and year after year struggling with your sense of story, striving for something you know is there somewhere but can't quite reach, polishing and hacking until the true story emerges and takes shape, juggling with the thrills and disappointments of public indifference or acclaim -and then getting back to your computer once your novel's written, and starting all over again.

'In the Trees' was its own reward. But what happened in Belize - and what's happened since - has been the icing on the cake!

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