In a world saturated by email and social media updates, there’s nothing like receiving a letter. When Kathryn Joyce travelled to Pakistan to volunteer, her friends were so impressed by the ‘newsletters’ she sent home that they urged her to write a story, and when an encounter sparked an idea, she decided to give it a go…
Discovering inspiration in Pakistan
Volunteering in Pakistan had a huge impact on Kathryn. She was inspired by local people who had the courage to make a difference by, for example, helping support people stigmatised by HIV. She was touched by their dedication and resourcefulness, one organisation even running its office from a bike repair shop.
Far from being a tourist, she was immersed in the culture. Of all the people she met, it was one family with a son, who had been infected with HIV through a bad blood transfusion, who moved her most.
The family also inspired her as she began to write the story which became Thicker Than Soup. She wanted to write something moving and get people thinking about some of the political, cultural and geographical challenges in the Pakistan. She also wanted to dispel some of the myths and inspire people to travel to the country. Several reviewers have since said they would indeed like to visit so her intentions may have worked!
Bringing travels alive in writing
Reading Thicker Than Soup, I was first struck by the depth of the characterisation born out of Kathryn’s love of people and her interactions while volunteering. When the story moves from England to Pakistan I felt it truly came alive because of the culture captured and the challenges of communicating abroad: “She realised how little Urdu she knew. She understood gosht was meat and aloo was potato, but what was rutabaga?”
Also vibrant is the sensory description which is worked into characters’ experiences. Sound is prominent: “A cockerel crowed, someone coughed, then the electronic crackle heralded the Azan. Lights appeared as neighbours rose to perform their morning prayers and water ran as they performed the ablutions. Sally sat on a garden seat and listened to the rise and ebb of the Mullah’s chant.”
Sight is used to convey emotions from curiosity to nostalgia: “Tucked into the edge of the cooler were the three photographs she’d brought with her, their edges curling in the heat.”
Smells and tastes are particularly well captured. I often felt as if I was eating local cuisine and I liked the way the characters embrace new flavours: “The metallic Pakistani tea was impossible to drink unsweetened and, to her surprise, she’d grown to enjoy the sweet milky drink almost more than its English counterpart.”
Savouring the writing journey
Just as Kathryn savoured her experiences in Pakistan, she was keen not to rush her writing journey as she crafted a story about love, loss, and discovery. There’s a surprise pregnancy and then doubts over it, which shatter the plans of the leading couple, John and Sally, before their child and their travels change their lives further.
Written around a hectic lifestyle, Thicker Than Soup took seven years to finish. Kathryn didn’t intend the story to become a novel or for it to be published but, when trusted readers said it could be both, she rewrote it, had it professionally edited and polished. It’s truly a story crafted with love and one that, Kathryn says, teaches us that life has ‘no get out clauses’.
Now that the book is out there, Kathryn enjoys going to book groups, festivals, and signings as well as the occasional interview. After such a long novel journey, she’s currently hooked on writing short stories, even achieving success in the Eyelands 5th International Short Story competition and being published in a collection called Borderline Stories.
You can use your travels to inspire your writing too
Whether you’re going abroad or to a place you’ve never visited near home, travelling is great for generating writing inspiration. Here are four tips for getting the most out of it…
- Go where people are: Though plot and settings are important, it’s characters who make stories come alive. When travelling, head to where people gather. You’ll have a chance to observe how people act, interact and get a feel for what matters to them.
- Look for the unexpected: While moving around, don’t look for things that reconfirm stereotypes or expectations. Find surprising details to make what you write different.
- Think in five senses: Be conscious of the sights, smells and sounds around you. This is how we experience the world and recreating this on the page makes settings more real.
- Keep a notebook handy: When travelling, there is so much to absorb that it can be hard to remember it all when you get home. Keep a notebook handy to capture things as you go and refer to it, drawing on the visual, auditory and kinesthetic, as you write.