David Atkinson is an award winning travel journalist, author and media tutor from Chester. He’s contributed to travel guides published by Bradt, Footprints and Lonely Planet and his articles regularly feature in the Telegraph and the Guardian. As he prepares to run a workshop for the Chester Literature Festival, while finishing his upcoming book Inside Fatherhood, I grab a precious few minutes of his time to talk about the life of a professional writer.
The idea that you could go somewhere really random, where you have no grasp of how anything works, barge your way into people’s lives and ask them questions. And you’re still getting paid. And I thought – wow.”
David is recalling the moment he realised that travel writing was for him.
We’ve met on a lively afternoon at Storyhouse, where shrieks and laughter of excited children offer a soundtrack to half term. Although we’re here to discuss all things writing and Chester’s creative community, I can’t resist encouraging a story-time session of my own.
David’s career has taken him to many corners of the world. From the heady heights of La Paz in Bolivia, to seeing some of the lows of Japan’s economy during his time in Osaka in 2001, as well as the the wonders of Vietnam. As he talks, I’m cruising off on my own imaginary journey.
At the moment we’re in 90s Havana, and David has a sparkle in his eye as he casually drops in the “sacrificing chickens”. Cuba was barely open for tourists at the time, considered to be a bit “edgy” and he’d been sent there to seek out the best story. Somehow, he’d found himself participating in a voodoo ceremony and daubed in chicken blood.
“We were in our early 20s and everything was just fun – everything was a laugh,” he says, talking about this first trip with a laid-back tone that suggests it all just kind of happened.
But, I get the impression he’s always gone the extra mile to get his writing commissioned. As a budding, young journalist, while many of his fellow students were no doubt nursing hangovers in bed, he remembers travelling on a freezing national express coach down to London with his carefully laminated portfolio – only to be turned down on that occasion. This started a determined period of volunteering and contacting local publications to get his byline out there and build his work experience.
“It’s is really hard to break into. The people who make it are really good, or really lucky.”
Having had his own slice of success, David now speaks passionately about how prospective writers can get published. Aside from his work teaching undergraduate and postgraduate journalism, he runs workshops for adult learners which focus on how to write professionally and make money out of your work.
It’s this commercial mindset that prompted David’s to set up the new #Writeherewritenow writer’s group at Storyhouse. Through workshops and discussion, the group has a unique structure and aims to support writers looking to progress their career. David was inspired to set it up after dabbling with a few other creative writing groups.
“They weren’t quite for me. It’s great if you’ve got loads of time on your hands to write a lovely poem about a cat. But (writing is) a business and it’s some people’s livelihood. There wasn’t anything that took that view on it. You need to be thinking about getting paid and not giving your content away for free.”
I’m interested to find out his thoughts on whether he believes it’s possible for writers to see their words in print with the industry changing so dramatically. Are newspapers becoming redundant?
David doesn’t think so, and he sees magazines in particular as bucking the online trend. There’s a big movement towards independent publishing through organisations such as Stack Magazines. He thinks there’s still plenty of opportunities for writers to get out there and get paid.
“It’s going to come down to ideas. Because if you’ve got a really good idea, even as a non-established writer, you should find somebody who will take that story and pay you for it.”
He’s had to reinvent himself a little for the new online world. This has involved changing his writing style and finding new ideas that work better online, but overall he’s positive about the future. After all, it’s not the only time in his life he’s had to adapt to changing circumstances.
When his children were born, David readjusted his travel writer lifestyle to fit his new role as a Dad. He returned to Chester and began writing more about the North West of England and Wales. There were new topics available to him; many of his resulting articles have a family angle and he became a key contributor in the Footprint Travel Guides ‘Lake District with Kids’.
Often, he takes his two daughters on adventures with him. They’ve become part of his writing team.
“They’re old enough now to be quite involved. They’ll ask questions and say ‘I think we need a picture of this’ or ‘your intro is crap,’” he says, “which is good”.
Being a father has also brought opportunities he couldn’t possibly have predicted as a young writer living out of a rucksack in Cuba. When the girls were three and seven years old, David found himself sailing ‘on a sea of pink’ as one of the only men on board a Barbie-themed cruise, attending Barbie afternoon tea, Barbie dance routines and Barbie dress up parties. One of his first commissions for the Telegraph, the article has a serious side which openly discusses some of the challenges of travelling as a single parent with children.
The experience of being out and about with the children on his own have had an undeniable impact on him and his work.
“Society still doesn’t seem to take Dad’s seriously,” he says. Yet, the challenges of this new adventure as a parent ultimately sparked another idea.
“Inside Fatherhood”, David’s upcoming book is due to be published in March 2018. It features interviews with ten men who have very different experiences of parenthood. Some have experienced life changing events, such as bereavement, while others have struggled with mental health or separation. But, what unites them is their desire to try and be a good Dad. He hopes to be able to give a voice to a previously, relatively unheard group, and is bursting with ideas to help them also start writing and expressing themselves.
This change of tone makes me wonder whether he’s putting away the suitcase for good.
“Maybe there’s little bit of me being at a certain age, being a bit reflective and thinking a bit ‘legacy,’” he says.
It’s 25 years since he first walked into a student newspaper to insist they give him a job. After such an impressive writer’s journey, I think it’s fair to say that David can rest knowing he’s left an unforgettable mark on Chester’s creative community.
David Atkinson and the #WriteHereWriteNow group will be running an open workshop for anyone interested in starting a blog or writing for magazines as part of the New Voices day at the Chester Literature Festival. Date: Sunday 19th November | Time: 11.30am to 12.30pm | Place: Storyhouse | For more information please email firstname.lastname@example.org
David’s book ‘Inside Fatherhood’ will be out in March 2018. Please see his website and sign up to the newsletter for more details