Writer Wednesdays – Hilda Reilly
Another well-respected Goodreads author, Hilda Reilly is not only a travel writer but has also crossed over into fiction. This Scottish lass has come full circle and after most of her life abroad has returned to her roots. I was blown away by the diversity of jobs she’s done from artists’ model in Paris to English teacher in Malaysia and even a charity worker in Zanzibar. But what really struck me and stands out about Hilda is her tenacity to dig deep into people and places and her strong honesty.
Writer Wednesdays would like to introduce you to Hilda Reilly.
Well, my life certainly hasn’t turned out the way anyone would have predicted when I was younger. At school my forte was maths and science and there were two subjects which I hated – geography and history. So it’s surprising that I ended up spending most of my adult life abroad, eventually getting into travel writing and now embarked on a new career as a historical novelist. I don’t quite know how that happened but it is the kind of chequered background often found with writers. I’m now pretty much back where I started as I recently returned to my home country (Scotland) after picking up the science threads again with a Masters in consciousness studies. This then led to a fascination with topics such as hysteria, hypnosis and neurological illness, which are the focus of my historical novel writing.
How many countries have you visited?
About thirty-five or so. Of course, there is a big difference between visiting a country and living in it. I’ve lived in seven (apart from my own) and travelled in the others.
What is your favourite place and why?
I don’t think I can identify a favourite place. I’ve liked different countries for different reasons, so I can’t really rank them in this way. Also, I think that your feelings about a country will to some extent be dictated by your own experiences there, whether as a tourist or as an expat. If I had to choose I would probably go for Zanzibar, for its beauty, its atmosphere, its jewel-like quality; also, funnily enough, the crazy-making Sudan, which I remember with great fondness although my life there wasn’t easy.
If you could describe your method of travel in one word, what would it be?
Purposeful. I mean that I don’t think I could any longer just ‘go on holiday’. I have to have some objective. So, for example, I recently had a couple of trips to Austria to do background research for my novel (set in Freudian Vienna). I can’t imagine going anywhere now just to laze around or go sightseeing.
What is your most memorable travel moment?
A surreal incident which happened in Jerusalem, when I was living in the West Bank, researching my book Prickly Pears of Palestine. I was being driven up the Mount of Olives by a one-armed evangelical Christian octogenerian when a tyre went flat. Despite his age and his missing arm, Grant refused my help and started to change the wheel. He was still struggling to get the car jacked up when a Palestinian stopped and offered to do it for him. This time Grant accepted. We got chatting to the man while he busied himself with the wheels. He told us that he worked just across the road.
‘Where? What do you do?’ I asked.
‘I’m the gardener in the Garden of Gethsemane.’
I was gobsmacked. It seemed unreal. The Garden of Gethsemane, reputedly the site of Christ’s evening of agony before his crucifixion, had such powerful resonance for me, evoking so much that was at the heart of my religious upbringing. Even though I was no longer a believer, Iyad’s claim to be the gardener there seemed as incredible as if he had said he was the keeper of the Golden Fleece. It was the stuff of myth suddenly become mundane. Grant took it all in his stride. He fumbled in the glove compartment of his car, pulled out a booklet about Jesus Christ and, although Iyad was a Muslim, pressed it on him as a thank you for his help.
What is your dream destination?
An Arctic cruise in winter, for sheer sensory delight. One of the memorable travel moments that I considered when thinking about your previous question was standing at the foot of Mont Blanc and being entranced at the sight. I imagine that the Arctic would be similar, but to the power ten, and illuminated, I would hope, by the northern lights.
How has travel changed you?
Well, I’m no longer a dunce at geography, that’s for sure. Apart from that I cringe when I look back and realise how unconsciously racist I was when I was younger. That may have something to do with the fact that I didn’t set foot outside the UK until I was 27! Going back even further, I remember as a child having a strong sense of superiority for two reasons: one, I was Scottish (and looked down on the English with a withering contempt); two, I was a Catholic, an adherent of the one true faith and thus so much more fortunate than non-Catholics, the catch-all expression used to describe those who didn’t share this faith. This is the kind of mindset which should be studied to get an insight into many of the geo-religio-political messes of today. My excuse for all that was that I was too young to know better, but even as a young adult my yardstick was my own culture and anything that deviated from it was, in some way, ‘not normal’. This was simply a kind of gut response, not something which I had thought through. Travel obliged me to think these things through and I hope I’m now free of all those misconceptions and misguided attitudes.
As a writer do you feel you see the world and approach travel differently than if you didn’t write?
Not so much differently, more in-depth. Rather than simply experiencing, wondering and marvelling I dig deep and develop a much richer acquaintance with the place in question.
How long did it take for your first book to come to fruition? (From concept, writing to published)
I had the idea for my first book, Seeking Sanctuary, after I’d been living in Sudan for about four years. It was shortly after 9/11, when there was a lot of negative reporting in the West about Islam, particularly Western converts to Islam such as the Shoe-bomber who were giving Islam a bad name. I knew a number of Western converts who had moved to Sudan because they wanted to live in an environment more consonant with their new lifestyle and who were nothing like the demons portrayed in the media. I thought it would be a useful counterbalance to write about them, or rather to interview them and put together a compendium of their stories. The idea was accepted right away by the first publisher I approached and, after discussion, we agreed on a format – part reportage, part travel writing – with the converts’ experiences being set within the wider context of my own experience as an expatriate in Khartoum. After that it took about nine months to complete the writing and then, I think, about another year or so for whatever it is that publishers do between receiving the ms and getting the book out.
Do you have any new books on the horizon?
I’m currently writing a second book about Sudan, titled At Home In Khartoum. I’m serialising it on my website as a ‘work in progress’.
Do you have any upcoming trips? If so, to where?
I think I’ve reached my final destination, my home town of Perth which I moved back to earlier this year. When I was younger I couldn’t get far enough away from it! But now I feel that I belong here, in a way that I don’t anywhere else, and for the last few months I’ve been wallowing in nostalgia and Proust-like moments. This doesn’t preclude trips elsewhere. There’s just nothing on the agenda as yet.
What is your must have travel accessory?
My passport! I’ve never been so aware of its importance as when I was on a recent business trip to Iraq. While changing planes in Vienna en route I discovered that I no longer had my passport on me. I was going to run a week-long course for a group of teachers who had been brought together from all over Iraqi Kurdistan and put up in a hotel in Erbil. Without me it couldn’t take place. Yet without my passport I could get neither on the plane nor out of the airport. ‘Panic stations’ doesn’t begin to describe my mental state. I was going to be stuck in international limbo, like Edward Snowden in Moscow airport. I cursed the security precautions which I was sure had led to the loss of my passport – gone astray during the many manipulations involved in removing laptop from bag, taking off shoes, emptying pockets and so on. Checks at the various security points drew blanks. I squirmed at the impending embarrassment of calling the company who had hired me for the job, at the thought of the colossal loss of money my carelessness would entail, the disappointment to the Iraqi teachers who would be sent home again after a wasted journey.
The story ends happily as the passport was eventually found – in a café which I hadn’t even been in – in time for me flight. My relief was ineffable!
What is your favourite travel book?
Well, it’s not really a travel book as it’s a novel but it’s written by a travel writer: Foreign Land by Jonathan Raban. It’s about an English man who retires to England after spending most of his life working in Africa, and about the difficulties he has in re-adjusting culturally to his own country. I’ve read it three times over the years since it first came out in 1985, I think because much of the character’s thoughts and situations resonated with me. Now that I’ve been back in the UK for about nine years I no longer have these feelings of being out of kilter, a foreigner in my own land, although I can still understand the kinds of predicament experienced by Raban’s character.
What is your favourite travel quote?
I had to go googling to find an answer to this question. From the plethora of quotes thrown up, this comment by G.K. Chesterton appeals to me:
‘The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land.’
I think it ties in with what I’ve said above about returning to one’s homeland, but not necessarily in the negative way as depicted by Raban; more in the sense of realising that one’s own country is not the benchmark of all that is ‘normal’, rather that it is simply one country among hundreds of countries, all of which are to a greater or lesser extent foreign to the others.
To learn more about Hilda Reilly and her books visit www.hildareilly.com
I’d like to thank Hilda for all of her wonderful photos and her depth of honesty!