Escape and inspiration about unusual and fascinating places, as well as the deeper side of books and travel.
I'm Jo Frances Penn, author of thrillers and non-fiction, and I'll be doing solo shows about my own travel experience and interviewing authors about how travel inspires their writing. Interviews cover places to visit and tips for travel as well as thoughts on modes of travel like walking, cycling, and travel by train and other modes. Plus book recommendations for every interview so you have things to read on the move.
Not Quite Lost. Travels Without A Sense Of Direction With Roz Morris
How can you see your own country with the eyes of an outsider? How can you follow your curiosity and discover new things about a place you already know?
In this interview, Roz Morris talks about finding fragments and tiny miracles while exploring England and how we can experience our own land from a new perspective, increasingly important while we can’t travel in the way we used to.
Roz Morris is the author of Not Quite Lost: Travels Without A Sense of Direction, literary novels, My Memories of a Future Life, and Lifeform Three, as well as books for writers.
* The joys of discovery when traveling without direction
* Seeing your own country with new eyes and following your curiosity
* Finding unusual and interesting places to stay
* Visiting sites out of season
* How writing fiction can be inspired by travel
* On using a specific notebook for travel and why that matters
* Personal connections to a place
You can find Roz Morris at RozMorris.org
Transcript of the interview
Jo: Roz Morris is the author of Not Quite Lost: Travels Without A Sense of Direction, literary novels, My Memories of a Future Life, and Lifeform Three, as well as books for writers. Welcome, Roz.
Roz. Hi, Joanna. It’s great to be here.
Jo: I’m pleased to have you on the show. I want to start with the title of the book because I always know my direction.
Why is it so compelling for you to be without a sense of direction?
Roz: Several reasons. I’m also very focused most of the time in what I do. I go running. I ride horses. I write books. I have a lot of deadlines in my life. I’m always really focused. I’ve always got a task in mind and somewhere that I’m heading.
But when I go out wandering, the kind of travels that were in this book, they were more with my mind off the hook. They were about just noticing what was around me. It’s a different state of mind. It’s like browsing.
Another thing I love is junk shops, so just looking around them and finding little pieces of history just in what’s in front of me instead of having to have a goal and going somewhere. But there’s also another aspect to that part of the title, Travels Without A Sense of Direction, which is that I have no sense of direction at all.
My husband, Dave, who figures strongly in the book, he’s my counterpart traveler in it. He will say things like, ‘Look, just turn south.’ I say, ‘I turn what?’ And I can’t even split the world into left and right. It’s all a different experience. I just notice odd little things when I’m in that mind zone. That was one of the things I wanted to capture, just the joy of discovery, noticing where you are, noticing what’s around you.
Jo: Even before you leave, how do you decide where to go? Do you and Dave agree you’re going to go to a particular place or is it really that you head off in the car just somewhere?
Roz: Yes. We do know where we’re going when we start off. Most of the tales in this book are when we have decided to go somewhere. So we decided to go and stay in a little folly in Somerset or something like that for a week. Then once we get there, we’re thinking, ‘Okay, let’s just see what’s around us’.
Some travel books are written about someone who sets out to do something like walk the Pennine Way or walk across Australia or something like that. We don’t tend to do that. We just go somewhere and then see what it’s going to bring us if we just open our eyes.
Jo: That’s what I like about the book. I think it’s a much more gentle travel book than a lot of the things we talk about, certainly on this show.
The Gardens Of Mars. Madagascar With John Gimlette
An island nation off the coast of Africa, Madagascar has an incredible diversity of unusual landscapes and wildlife, of which lemurs are the most famous but by no means the only ones! 90% of its flora and fauna are endemic, found nowhere else in the world.
While there are some resorts, much of Madagascar is remote and escapes the influence of modern life with unique religious and cultural practices, as John Gimlette talks about in this interview.
John Gimlette is a multi-award-winning travel writer. His latest book is The Gardens of Mars: Madagascar, an Island Story.
* Unique aspects of Madagascar including the landscape and wildlife
* Influences of Borneo, Africa, and France
* The beliefs about ancestors that guide the Malagasy life
* Food and drink in Madagascar
* Recommended travel books
You can find John Gimlette at JohnGimlette.com and on Facebook.com/JohnGimlette.
Transcript of the interview
Jo: John Gimlette is a multi-award-winning travel writer. His latest book is The Gardens of Mars: Madagascar, an Island Story. Welcome, John.
John: Hi, Jo. Nice to be here. Thanks.
Jo: Welcome to the show.
Where is Madagascar and what are some of the unique aspects?
John: Well, yes, let’s place it first. It’s in the Indian ocean, about 240 miles off Africa adjacent to Mozambique. But the thing to really get about this place is that it’s enormous.
It’s the fourth largest island in the world. Just to put that in perspective, if you were to lay it across a map of Europe, it would stretch from London to Algiers. And yet it’s got a smaller road network than Jamaica, where there are roads but tend to get washed away every year.
Now it’s unique because it was separated from Africa during the great tectonic shifts of the earth, about 150 million years ago. And then after that, India and Sri Lanka also broke off from it and they floated off to the North. But the plants and animals that you have in Madagascar are really survivors from a much earlier age.
So whilst there were once lemurs everywhere, even in South America, now they’re really only here and there are 107 species of them. In fact, 91% of the wildlife of Madagascar is endemic, you will only find it here.
In cross-section, the Island looks a bit like a wedge, and oddly, most of the people live right on the very top of the Ridge and on the steeply sloping sides of the East coast. Why do they do that? Because that’s where the water is.
And the capital is up there. It’s a sort of Shangri-la city, if you like, on a group of islands rising out of the rice and it sits at 3,000 feet
Beware to the South and the West it gets much drier. And some of the people there, one group I’m thinking of in particular, the Antandroy where their whole life is a struggle for water and they’ll walk up to 40 miles a day just to get at what they need.
In that vast area of the Southwest, others really only went there for the first time at the beginning of the 19th century. So yes, it is in a sense, a lost world or a real-life Jurassic Park.
Jo: Wow. I’ve seen it on maps and I was saying before we started recording that I worked there remotely, but I’ve never been. I just didn’t realize it was so big. It’s like it always gets missed off things that people don’t even realize it’s there.
Would say that it’s more influenced by Africa, or you mentioned India, is it more Asian?
John: Do you know,
This Too Shall Pass. Thoughts From The Pilgrims’ Way With J.F. Penn
“Man’s real home is not a house, but the Road, and that life itself is a journey to be walked on foot.” Bruce Chatwin
In late October 2020, I walked the Pilgrims’ Way from Southwark Cathedral in London to Canterbury Cathedral in Kent, 182 km/113 miles on foot, alone, carrying my own gear… during a global pandemic.
A Roman road 2000 years ago, the route became popular for pilgrims after the martyrdom of St Thomas a Becket on 29 December 1170 at the hands of four knights of King Henry II. In literature, The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer follows a cast of colorful pilgrims on the way, and T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral dramatically captures the archbishop’s bloody end.
In this episode, published on the 850th anniversary of the martyrdom, I’ll share the personal side of my journey. I’ve written separately about the practical side of the pilgrimage with day by day photos here.
* Fernweh. Longing for escape.
* Why pilgrimage?
* Transience and permanence. Questions I asked myself on the way.
* “Stranger, pass by that which you do not love.”
* Pushing the boundaries of your comfort zone and tackling fear
* Give it time to settle. The lessons of pilgrimage may not be immediately obvious.
* The next step
Longing for escape
The word ‘wanderlust’ means ‘a strong desire to travel,’ and I certainly have that! In 1983, when I was 8, my mum took us to live in Malawi, Africa (which I talked about in episode 1) and since then, travel has played an important part in my life. I presume it does for you, too, since you are listening to this!
The last time I traveled was in February 2020 when Jonathan and I had a few days in Bilbao and San Sebastian, crushed into tiny pintxos bars sampling the local cuisine, wandering freely around the cities, walking through the Guggenheim with no thought of a mask. It seems like a different world now and my wanderlust has shifted into fernweh, a German word meaning ‘a longing for far off places.’ That longing goes deep and this time of enforced stillness intensified it so much that, at times, it spilled over into frustration and anger — at the world, at the virus, at myself, for not being able to quiet the need to get away.
I am safe and well and loved and busy, and able to work from home. I acknowledge my privilege and yet some days, I felt… still feel… like a bird banging its wings against the bars of a cage. I’m not an angry person, but when anger and frustration bubble up every day, I know I have to get moving. Walking every day has helped during the pandemic, but I have circled the local routes over and over, day after day, as the seasons changed.
During the summer, it seemed that perhaps there might be hope for an end and we had some glorious days in the sun — but then it became clear that the winter would be long and dark and it would be spring again before the beginning of the end of the pandemic. I needed a long walk for my mental health before the winter set in, and after weighing the risks, I decided to get out before the bars of my cage shut once more.
As I write this, a new strain is spreading across the UK. Countries have closed their borders to us and I couldn’t travel right now even if I wanted to.
Lava Fields, Trolls, And The Hidden People. Iceland with Michael Ridpath
From the ice of the glaciers to the black church near the lava fields and on to the steaming hot pools of the blue lagoon, Iceland is a country of stark natural beauty and interesting folklore.
In this interview, Michael Ridpath talks about the hidden people, the trolls, and the ghosts in the mist, as well as the landscape as a character, and why he keeps returning to the country for inspiration.
Michael Ridpath is a British author of crime and thriller novels. His Magnus crime thriller series is set in Iceland. And he has a website, WritingInIce.com, which features articles and pictures from his research travels.
* Why Iceland is so compelling to visit
* Suggestions for the most beautiful places to visit in Iceland
* The Hidden People, and other interesting folklore of the region
* How long winters impact the Icelandic temperament
* Things to see and do in Reykjavik
* How to write evocative stories where the landscape is a character
* Recommended books about or set in Iceland
You can find Michael Ridpath at MichaelRidpath.com
Transcript of the interview
Jo: Michael Ridpath is a British author of crime and thriller novels. His ‘Magnus’ crime thriller series is set in Iceland. And he has a website, writinginice.com, which features articles and pictures from his research travels. Welcome, Michael.
Jo: It’s great to have you on the show. So, first up, you’re British with close ties to the USA.
What drew you to write about Iceland in the first place and to keep going back there?
Michael: I think your question kind of encapsulates it because I knew nothing at all about Iceland, that was its attraction. They say when you start writing, you should write about what you know.
I used to be a banker a long time ago. I wrote a number of financial thrillers, which were set all over the world in places like Brazil, and Wyoming, and South Africa, and the Czech Republic. And those were really well to start with, and then they kind of run out of steam, as these things do.
So, I needed a new plan. And I decided I would write a detective series. I had the same main character in each book, which seemed like an interesting idea. But I needed the detective to be distinctive.
And because I like writing about foreign places, I thought, well, he needs to come from an interesting country. And I had two ideas, the first one that came to my head, which you should always go with the first thing that comes to your head, was Iceland because I’d been on a book tour there in 1995 and it was the weirdest, most surreal book tour I’ve ever had.
I thought, well, one day I’ll write about that. And I did lots of analysis and thinking and came up with an idea about an honest cop in Saudi Arabia, which seemed like a really good idea for a story. And then I decided I would make sure people would buy the book when I’d written it. So I asked people whether they prefer to story about an Icelandic detective or one set in Saudi Arabia, and there was a huge, huge majority in favor of Iceland, which people like me didn’t know about but wanted to find out about and no one was interested in Saudi Arabia. So, Iceland, it was.
Jo: Fantastic. That’s really interesting, because in my head, Iceland versus Saudi Arabia, these are two very different temperatures, let alone anything else. And you mentioned that you like traveling to foreign places.
What was it about the foreignness of Iceland that attracted you?
Fjords, Vikings And The Northern Lights. Norway With David Nikel
From the stunning Northern Lights of Lofoten, to the fjords of the western coast, scenic train journeys across the mountains, Viking history, and the culture of the cities, David Nikel evokes a country that has much to explore. In this pandemic year, I’m certainly dreaming of kayaking the fjords!
David Nikel is a British writer specializing in all things Scandinavia. Since moving to Norway in 2011, he’s traveled the length and breadth of the country producing the first and second editions of The Moon Norway Guidebook. He also runs a successful website and podcast Life in Norway where he talks about everything from relocation and travel advice to stories from the Viking age.
* Why fjords are such a feature of the Norwegian landscape
* The Northern Lights at Lofoten
* The different ways to explore Norway including by car and railway
* Places to visit in cities like Oslo
* On the New Nordic cuisine movement focused on simple, fresh ingredients
* Locations for authentic Viking experiences
* Aspects of Norwegian culture that are unique from the rest of Scandinavia
* How Norse mythology fits into present-day life in Norway
You can find David Nikel at LifeInNorway.net
Transcript of the interview
Joanna: David Nikel is a British writer specializing in all things Scandinavia. Since moving to Norway in 2011, he’s traveled the length and breadth of the country producing the first and second editions of The Moon Norway Guidebook. He also runs a successful website and podcast ‘Life in Norway’ where he talks about everything from relocation and travel advice to stories from the viking age. Welcome, David.
David: Hi Jo. Thanks for being here, I’m looking forward to introducing Norway to everyone.
Joanna: Oh, I’m very excited. And we have to start with the fjords because I have your guidebook, and of course, if you go on Google Maps, it’s really obvious that the fjords are a big thing about Norway. So, can you start there?
Why are fjords such a feature, geographically, and what are some of the highlights?
David: That’s actually a really interesting point and it’s something I tell everyone to look at is get out a map and you’ll see the fjords instantly. They are huge.
They were formed by giant glaciers, so huge heavy chunks of ice, in previous ice ages, literally carving away the rock. And an interesting fact about them, and I only found out this recently, is the reason they’re so calm, calm enough to kayak on and for big cruise ships to sail them, is they’re actually shallowest at the mouth, so where the ocean is, rather than further inland. They’re much much deeper further inland. And that of course facilitates tourism.
But their impact, it’s not just about how beautiful they are, although that does bring tourists into the country, it’s also had a big impact on the development of Norway. A lot of the early rural communities, they grew up along the fjords because of the access to fishing and the access to the mountains for farming in the summer. But they also kept a lot of Norway very remote for very many years.
And you even see that today, if you take a road trip through Norway, through the fjord region, you will have to take several ferries. They are in process of building tunnels and bridges and so on but ferries are still a very integral part of traveling around the region.
Joanna: So, a bigger question, because when we say, ‘Scandinavia,’ when we say, ‘Norway,’ I feel that sometimes people put that whole region together in their brain. So, just to be clear, Norway is the one on the western coast, if you’re looking at a map. Which is why the fjords are so important because they’re basically that wh...
Life On The River. The Mississippi River Valley With Dean Klinkenberg
“The face of the water, in time, became a wonderful book … it was not a book to be read once and thrown aside, for it had a new story to tell every day.” Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi
The Mississippi River runs through ten states and has brought life to countless generations, from the first Native Americans, through to the settlers, and into the modern, industrial age. There are great cities along the river, as well as remote wilderness, and a huge variation in landscape, ecology, and culture along the way.
In this interview, Dean Klinkenberg shares his passion for the Mississippi River Valley and gives his tips on where to go, what to see, and why the river continues to be a source of endless fascination and inspiration.
Dean Klinkenberg writes mysteries and travel-guide books about life along the Mississippi River in the USA.
* Geography along the path of the Mississippi River
* The changeable nature of rivers
* Different spiritual meanings of the river
* Cities and towns of interest along the Mississippi south to New Orleans
* Areas of historical interest
* Options for activities like hiking, canoeing, and kayaking on the river
* Local specialties for food and drink
* Recommended books about Mississippi
You can find Dean Klinkenberg at MississippiValleyTraveler.com
Transcript of the interview
Joanna: Dean Klinkenberg writes mysteries and travel-guide books about life along the Mississippi river in the USA. Welcome, Dean.
Dean: Thanks, it’s a real treat to be here and to talk to you about my favorite body of water.
Joanna: I’m very excited. Obviously, to any new listeners, I’m British so I’m going to ask some basic questions. So let’s start with the geography.
Where is the Mississippi and what are some of the landscapes it cuts through?
Dean: The Mississippi runs right through the heart of the United States, cutting a north to south path, from Minnesota down to the Gulf of Mexico. So it touches 10 of the U.S. states in about 2,300 miles. States like Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, my home state of Missouri, and then ending just about 100 miles south of New Orleans, at the Gulf of Mexico.
It cuts through some really diverse parts of the U.S. and some diverse landscapes. And it’s an amazingly different river, as you travel from north to south.
Up in the northern reaches of the Mississippi, it’s really a small stream, and there are a lot of places in the 400 miles or so above the Twin Cities, of Minneapolis and St. Paul, where the river has been damned a little bit or there’s some obstacles, or even a couple of places you have to dodge a beaver dam if you’re canoeing or paddling down the river.
And then, it gradually gets bigger. By the time it gets to Minneapolis, it reaches the largest set of waterfalls. They’ve been greatly altered today but, at one time, they were a pretty impressive set of waterfalls. And then, the river passes through a narrow gorge for a few miles before opening up into a valley that’s about 5-miles-wide that was carved by melting glaciers a few thousand years ago.
It’s framed by these absolutely gorgeous 500-foot-tall limestone bluffs that run for hundreds of miles south of the Twin Cities, all the way down to St. Louis. Although the further south you go, they lose some elevation.
And then, 100 miles or so south of St. Louis, the bluffs end and the river enters the wide Mississippi delta, as people know it, or what scientists call the Mississippi Embayment. Just a very very wide floodplain that’s up to 100-miles-wide that at one time was covered ...
Customer ReviewsSee All
After listening to Jo’s interviews, I add a new item to my bucket list each time. I look forward to the moment when we’re able to travel again so I can fill my creative well.
Fascinating interviews and discussions
I've been listening to Joanna Penn on her other podcast since last summer, and I was excited to check out this new podcast.... because I love books and travel, too! And she doesn't disappoint. Joanna is a keen observer and has so many interests that every interview or discussion is super interesting.
Love Joanna, love Jo Frances.
I have been listening to The Creative Penn podcast since...2012? I listened to her before I was an author, and she gave me hope as a confused college student trying to figure out my life. I listen to her now that I am a full-time author, and she gives me much-needed encouragement weekly. To get to experience this more personal side of her is truly wonderful. It is so neat to hear more about her life and gain insight into her experiences. Thank you, Joanna! You are a treasure.