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Hello Travellers, I’m Jo Frances Penn and this is episode 1 of my new Books and Travel Podcast.
So why this show after 10 years of The Creative Penn Podcast?
It’s all about reinvention, which is part of what travel means to me. When I think about what I want to do with my life for the next 10 years, I always come back to books and travel. I’m fascinated by the inner and outer journeys that both can bring — a change in perspective, empathy, perhaps an entirely new direction. If you know what I mean, then hopefully, you’re going to enjoy this show and my website.
I’m also going to write two books from this material over time — a travel memoir, and The Shadow Book (working title), about writing from the dark side of the self. Both of these books have been bubbling away for years and now I’m giving them this time to emerge.
What can you expect from Books and Travel?
As with my novels, I don’t plot everything in advance and I will find my way over time, but I’d like to start with the ocean as a metaphor to guide us.
Let’s start in the dappled light of turquoise shallows where you’re safe and can bask in the sun with a cocktail in hand, paddling gently, exploring the simple joys of a new place. I’ll be talking about my travels, and interviewing authors around the places that inspire their writing, as well as giving you tips on culture, food and drink that will help you explore when you travel or read.
I’ll also be exploring the dark midnight depths where you should feel an edge of challenge and a pull to the deep. I’ll be talking and writing and interviewing others about the darker side of travel, as well as the inner journey — perhaps the most important exploration of all.
The BooksAndTravel website also has articles about aspects that continue to fascinate me as I research my stories, as well as many of my photos from 35 years of travel. I also share these on Instagram @jfpennauthor if you’d like to follow me there. On the last day of every month, I will share a reading list based on the podcast and articles which you can sign up for at www.booksandtravel.page/read
As I begin this journey of sharing my travels, I wanted to start with three trips that have shaped my life. They may not be the highlights of my travels over the years, but they changed my view of the world. My life would have looked a whole lot different without them. Join me in Malawi, Jerusalem, and the waters of the South Pacific.
I don’t have too many pictures as this was back in the days of film cartridges when you had to pay stacks of cash to develop 24 pictures to get even one you liked.
(1) “Shall we get a new kitchen or go back to Malawi for Christmas?” (1986)
My Mum spoke those words to me and my little brother in 1986 when I was just 11. We lived in Bristol, UK at the time in a house that needed some work. The kitchen was pretty grotty, but there was no hesitation for any of us. We went back to Malawi and headed to the Lake.
We had lived in Malawi a few years prior. My Mum taught at the polytechnic and we went to St Andrews school, where the school lion once bit a teacher, and I got the tacky (spanked with a plimsoll) for something I can’t even remember. We moved back to England so I could go to secondary school, but we all missed the warmth of central Africa.
I remember Mum driving us to Monkey Bay by the lake, giant baobabs stretching to the blue sky above, playing Graceland by Paul Simon on the tape deck, the African vocals accompanying us along the dirt road. Mum loved to windsurf and I read by the side of the lake, while my brother played in the shallows or we both played paddling on lilos. We drank bright purple Fanta Grape and ate chicken in a basket, the height of decadence. We spent Christmas Day by a South African friend’s swimming pool, braai (BBQ) for lunch, the warmth of sun on our skin and forgotten wrapping paper around the side of the pool.
I remember watching a censored version of Teenwolf in the tiny dark cinema, wondering why it didn’t quite make sense. I was 11, with a crush on Michael J Fox.
When we got back to the freezing cold winter of England, with muted colours of grey and rain and early darkness, it was as if we would never see another summer. We never did go back to Malawi again, but it still remains in my heart as a place I loved and only remember as bright and colourful and full of laughter.Choose experience over possessions.Click To Tweet
That decision to choose experience over possessions, to spend hard-earned money on travel and adventure over a new kitchen, shaped my life. I still live in a minimalistic way. I crave memories and photos, not objects. My Mum is still the same — she’s training to walk the Silk Road at aged 71, and my brother has travelled the world as an international photographer.
(2) Jerusalem, Israel (1991)
At 16, I travelled to Israel as part of a Christian group teaching English and volunteering at a school in Beit Jala, on the West Bank.
It was my first taste of (almost) independent travel, and I have always been grateful to my Mum for respecting me enough to let me go. It was only a few months after the end of Gulf War I and there were still reports of missiles flying over the territories.
One night, I went out onto the streets with some of the Palestinian students from the school. We heard shots ahead and ran down the street to see kids throwing stones at an Israeli military vehicle. The smell of smoke from burning tyres filled the air, along with the sound of gunshots and stones ricocheting off metal.
It was my first glimpse of conflict, of masked hatred on both sides, a street battle by night that felt like it could flare into something greater. I rolled under a car with my friend and we lay there, hearts pounding. I didn’t tell my Mum what had happened, afraid she would never let me go away again. It was in the days before cell phones, before we reported back seconds after an event, and for that, I am grateful.
We taught English in the school, but we also visited the sites. I still remember touching the Western Wall for the first time, and stepping into the Dome of the Rock before access became difficult. I’d never seen soldiers with guns at the ready. I’d never appreciated what borders really meant before that trip.
I also saw another side to the history of religion, visiting the Ethiopian Coptics on the roof of the Holy Sepulchre, the only place they were allowed to pray. That scene and many others from my trips have made it into my ARKANE thrillers, and Morgan Sierra’s half-Jewish heritage come from my fascination with, and love for, Israel.
I went back to Israel over and over again in the following years – volunteering in Galilee for an organization working for peace, partying in Eilat on very little money, and I always went back to Jerusalem, part of a repeated pilgrimage to see how some things changed, and how so much stayed the same. My last trip was in 2016 – photos here – which inspired End of Days.
That first trip gave me the glimpse into the history and politics of the region, and the importance of borders that still pervades my fiction. It also shaped the direction of my studies. In 1993, Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin shook hands on the White House lawn, hopes were high for peace in the region, and I got a place at the University of Oxford to study Arabic, intending to work for the Foreign Office in the Middle East and then for the UN.
But in the first few weeks, it became clear that the course was not what I had expected. It was classical Arabic, not modern politics. But I loved Oxford, so I switched to Theology and stayed, specializing in the psychology of religion.
On 4 November 1995, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by a fundamentalist Jew, who said that ‘God told him to do it.’ I was 20, filled with the idealism of youth, hopeful that peace would come to a country I loved. Although I had switched away from Arabic, I decided to do my thesis on obedience in fundamentalist monotheism, reflecting on Abraham taking Isaac to be sacrificed because God asked him to, and musing on why people do violence in the name of religious belief. That research became part of my ARKANE thriller, Crypt of Bone, where terrorism is sparked in the name of God.
I could never have foreseen my love for Israel turning into a career as a fiction author instead of politics, but the country continues to turn up in my stories. The Source by James Michener continues to be the book I recommend about Israel as it brings the history alive through generations of people living in Megiddo, the biblical Armageddon.
(3) Blue water sailing on the tall ship, Soren Larsen, from Fiji to Vanuatu (1999)
In 1999, I was living in London, using caffeine tablets and painkillers by day and alcohol by night to get me through a job I hated. I had been implementing Accounts Payable into large corporates since leaving Oxford in 1997, earning great money as a management consultant, and partying hard with the expense accounts that flowed in the days before the Millennium Bug didn’t happen.
I was desperate to leave London, but I didn’t know how to escape the golden handcuffs that bound me to the job. It wasn’t just the money, it was also the expectation of society and my peers to settle down and be responsible. I took a trip alone to sail on the blue and figure my life out.
I arrived in Lautoka, Fiji, having never been to the South Pacific before. I remember people walking in the cool of the pre-dawn, bright hand-painted adverts on blue buildings, little shops filled with all kinds of useful things instead of huge superstores, a mix of Indian and native Fijian skin tones and names.
I joined the crew of the Soren Larsen and as we sailed out of sight of land, I got seasick along with half the passengers, but it passed after 24 hours and then I joined in the rhythms of the watch. I loved to sit on the bow watching the waves, the hours passing with no thought of anything except the blue. It rained for days but it didn’t matter. I had time to think away from the city.
I wasn’t so good with the rigging but I did flake the anchor chain, and I can still feel the weight of it in my hands.
We slept in tiny bunks in the dark of the hull, the smell of salt and sweat below, the cramped heads. I was on antimalarials and dreamed of violence and sex.
I snorkelled for the first time in a shallow reef on the edge of an island, panic-stricken as I put my face underwater for the first time to see fish around my legs, teeth crunching on the coral. I was hyperventilating in fear and clambered back into the boat so fast, I scraped the flesh from the top of my legs. After I calmed down, I went back in and it was magical. My first taste of tropical waters, and the beginning of my love for scuba diving, which I will talk of another time.
On the island of Ambrim, we walked up a volcano, the black dirt sticking to sweaty skin. Afterwards, I got a lift back to the boat in an outrigger. The local man had a Nike swoosh painted on his wooden paddle and it brought home how you can be on the opposite side of the world and still feel the influence of America. This was before the internet was everywhere, and wifi and smartphones made the world even smaller.
I had a summer fling with the engineer, a New Zealander. He gave me a carved wooden turtle necklace so I would remember my first snorkelling experience.
I learned over those few weeks that there is another life out there, that you can just leave and find another life, that the world doesn’t end if you resign your job and give something else a try, that people live in different ways in other parts of the world.'Ever restless, never satisfied, but briefly, there, I was still.'Click To Tweet
I returned back to my job in September 1999 having glimpsed another life. I resigned on my 25th birthday in March 2000, and headed to Perth, travelling around Australia and onto New Zealand. I only moved back to the UK in 2011, so that trip on the Soren Larsen spun me towards the southern hemisphere and a new life.
Whenever I go back to Auckland, I walk down the Viaduct Harbour along the wharf where the tall ships moor up. I’ve seen the Soren Larsen there over the years, and I saw it once across the harbour in Tonga. It always makes me smile to remember that trip.'A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions.' Oliver Wendell HolmesClick To Tweet
So, those are the three trips that shaped my life of travel and writing.
Tina Williams (writing as TL Dyer)
Hi Joanna. How spooky that your new venture with Books and Travel has come along at such perfect timing for me. I’ve just started my author career, with freedom and travel topping the list of my goals. I’m 44 now, and haven’t had the chance to travel much in my life even though there are so many places I’ve wanted to visit. I’ve always felt stifled in one place, but have been held back by a number of things, including my own fear of breaking out of ‘the norm’. So I took the decision recently to make books (fiction) and travel my priority. I thoroughly enjoyed this first episode, and the map of the world I’ve just bought for my office wall is perfect for spotting the places you’ve been on your travels (and much more satisfying than simply googling them). I wish you every success with this new venture. I look forward to listening with interest, and being inspired and motivated to keep reaching for my own books and travel goals.
Thanks so much, Tina. I’m also 44 🙂 so I’m happy to hear that you are re-prioritizing as well. I hope you enjoy the site!
Outstanding, Joanna. I’m blown away by this. My life was transformed by travel in Europe beginning in my early teens, and explains my love of languages. I’ve never been anywhere as exotic as you, though! (Yet…)
Looking forward to your new, metaphorical journey as well as the real ones. X
Thanks Henry 🙂 It’s time for reinvention!
Joanna, thank you so much for this new podcast! I didn’t think it would be much for me since I’m not a traveler, but as a fan of The Creative Penn I wanted to check it out anyway—and it blew my mind. You go so deep just in this first episode. Your stories, despite having little in common with my experience, touched me in a very personal way, prompting me to remember my own journey and inspiring me to live and write closer to my true longing.
Coincidently, I too am about to add a different line to my business (featuring a podcast), and this brilliant example of yours shows me that it is possible and how to do it right. Again, thank you so much for this incredibly valuable gift.
I listened to your new podcast for the first time today expecting to hear about some exciting places that I’ve never been before and I wasn’t disappointed. What I didn’t expect was to hear you talking about the school in Beit Jala. I stayed there myself in 1998. My strongest memories were of enormous centipedes running around the bedroom, having to collect eggs from their rather scrawny and smelly battery hens and being extra polite whilst eating some dish made from spinach – which we all hated.
We borrowed their old minibus to tour around Israel and got given some marriage proposals (plus a few less honourable ones).
Thanks for sharing your memories and bringing back some of mine.
Wow! Small world 🙂 That was Hope School, right?
We went back to Beit Jala a couple of years ago and Jerusalem has spread out all the way to its edge, where it used to be miles away. A shift in borders, indeed. Glad you enjoyed the show!
Thank you for this new Books and Travel podcast. I am thrilled to be one of your first listeners. It feels very fresh, new and exciting. Books, travel and writing are huge passions in my life too.
My role in the corporate world was made redundant in 2008. I elected not to go back into IT (I was a Business Project Manager) but to take the opportunity to change and self-develop.. I qualified as a psychotherapist and began (for the first time in my life) to travel more widely (i.e. outside of Europe). I have now been to Australia and New Zealand several times, South Africa, North America and have many other places to tick off my list.
As I listened to this podcast, several things resonated with me; the inner and outer joinery, the Other and the shadow side to name a few. I love that you intend to share your thoughts and feelings about these things and in so doing reveal more of yourself. It is brave. I am left wondering if this is your way of easing yourself in to memoir writing? I do remember you saying on The Creative Penn podcast how you feel reluctant to write memoir and struggle with the concept of memoir. Maybe now is the time and you see this podcast as the vehicle to make it happen?
Whatever, I feel inspired and look forward to following this new journey of yours.
All best wishes, Lyn
Thanks Lyn, and yes, this is a travel memoir in the making. I didn’t expect it to be so, but it already is 🙂 Thanks for joining me on this new journey – both inside and out!
Oh Joanna, what a great life for a young girl, no wonder you write such crazy stories. I envy you but also love you for what you do. How much you do for others in a writing way and how you helped your mother writing her books. Seeing this other side of you in your upbringing, makes me feel like I know you so much better.
Love and Blessings, may the other half of your life or more, be just as exciting as the first one for you.
Thanks Annamarie, and I’m definitely finding that I want to write about this side of myself. It takes a long time to be able to share more personally, but I know I have a supportive audience from The Creative Penn, so this is just a start! I hope you enjoy the new show.
It seems like this podcast is all of your creative loves in one place, an authentic and natural next step.
Let me raise a glass–a gin and tonic perhaps– and wish you much success and personal growth on this leg of your journey.
Thanks so much, I shall raise my G&T in return 🙂
I’ve been listening to the Creative Penn for years, so I figured why not give your new podcast a go. I loved the first episode so much more than I expected! Everything from the intro (the music is perfect), to learning more about you and some of your past experiences, to smiling at all the details from your time in Malawi. I’m South African, so I had to chuckle at takkies, fanta grape, braai—and so many cockroaches!
You’ve had a fascinating life so far, and I’m looking forward to hearing more about your travel adventures. I didn’t think this would be a podcast I could ‘learn’ anything from (pretty much everything I listen to is writing/publishing related) but I’m happy to have been proven wrong already!
I’m so glad you enjoy the music, I spent ages finding the right piece and I also think this is perfect 🙂
I haven’t been to South Africa – it’s on the list – but I’ve worked with so many South Africans in Brisbane and my brother-in-law is South African, so it’s definitely on the cards!
I’m glad you enjoyed the show – and sometimes, ‘learning’ is just another person’s experience, right?
An auspicious debut:) You finally have a forum for all that personal stuff you’ve judiciously withheld on TCP. I will be following this journey–of your journeys–with keen interest, as books and traveling are my two top passions as well. In fact, like you, exotic locales have formed the basis of my books so far, as well as for my upcoming series. So glad you found the time and inspiration to share more of yourself, enriching us all.
Thanks Bill, and I think I needed time to learn how to share about the other things before I started sharing the more personal things, which I have talked about in my novels through the mouths of my characters, but now it’s time to start writing about in other ways. Glad you also enjoy exotic locales 🙂
Love the new show, Jo! I hopped over from The Creative Penn (though still listening there as well!) It’s super fun to hear more details about the travels you’ve alluded to over the years and to think about how my own travels impact my writing.
My top three places: Angers, France – 2011; Pune, India – 2015; Mallaig, Scotland – 2017
Can’t wait for more stories from Jo Francis 🙂
Glad you like it 🙂 and India will have its own episode at some point! I love it there.
I’m not a great lover of being away from home, but this podcast enabled me to be an armchair traveler – totally hooked! Well done, Joanna
Jo Frances Penn
Glad you enjoyed it, Lucy!
I don’t love podcasts but I had to listen to this one because books and travel are my twin passions! I have to say, the first episode didn’t disappoint. I really identified with your discussion of minimalism and preferring experiences over things. My partner and I are very much that way now and we Marie Kondo’d the heck out of our previous apartment to go backpacking for six months last year.
I’d say my first real experience of conflict was when I visited my family in Ireland when I was 20 and the village they lived in (a pretty patriotic traditional country area) still had active IRA families which at that time I didn’t even know was a thing. My Irish cousins and I crossed over to Northern Ireland to visit Dublin and I remember being pretty freaked out when the bus we were on was boarded and our passports checked by security people with guns (I’m Australian and we don’t do guns).
My big trip last year helped me think about a career change. I don’t regret prioritizing travel freedom over money for a second. I really love the nomadic life style.
Anyway, thanks for this podcast. I’m excited to listen to more!
Jo Frances Penn
Thanks, Maureen, I’m so glad you enjoyed it!