In summer 2020, I received an email from an outdoor writer called Andrew Terrill, asking for advice about editing a pair of manuscripts about a truly huge long-distance hike that he’d conducted throughout Europe in the late 1990s. The conversation led to a manuscript edit that I can only describe as one of the most enjoyable pieces of work I’ve ever handled, and The Earth Beneath My Feet, Andrew Terrill’s first title, is one of the freshest and most beautifully written books about long-distance walking I have read in many years.
Working on Andrew’s manuscript was an exquisite pleasure because he invokes his own past experiences in the reader’s mind in vivid, emotionally three-dimensional clarity. He has a real talent for not just placing the reader in the scene but cocooning them in it. I often find editing well-written work more challenging because I’m conscious that the writer has selected every word with great care – it’s a responsibility I take seriously. In this case, however, it was a challenge that I both relished and tremendously enjoyed.
I invited Andrew to answer a few questions about this book. In this Q&A the author illuminates much about his journey, the writing process, and both why and how he decided to self-publish. But before you dive in, I suggest buying the book!
Alex: Please introduce yourself. Who are you and what do you do?
Andrew: My name is Andrew Terrill. I’m a suburban Londoner who found his true home in the world’s wild places. I now live in Colorado, and wandering on foot in ‘them thar’ hills is one of the main things I do. Of course, I also do many other things. I’m a husband, father, friend, global citizen, writer, photographer, and more besides… which means I cook, chauffeur, play, write, create very stinky socks while trail running, plus a thousand other things.
Tell us about your new book, The Earth Beneath My Feet.
The Earth Beneath My Feet is the first of two books about a 7,000-mile solo walk across Europe undertaken in 1997 and 1998. It describes the first half of an 18-month wilderness-focused journey that stretched from Calabria to the top of Norway.
On the surface the book is a travel narrative, but it also explores other themes. It’s a book about the hidden wild side of Europe that many people miss – like the Apennines, a fascinating range overlooked by the majority of Italy’s 60 million annual visitors. It’s a book about stepping away from a suburban upbringing and seeking connection with nature. It’s a book about choosing to take control of life and live it to the full. It’s a book about nature, people, places, freedom, choice, and adventure – and a celebration of them all.
When did you first start writing this book, and how long has it taken you altogether? What effect do you think this long gestation period has had on the final result?
I began writing shortly after I finished the walk, but at first I struggled. I was too close to the journey and couldn’t articulate everything it meant. Later, life itself got in the way – other mountains, further long walks – and then different kinds of journeys: marriage, parenthood, day-to-day living. It wasn’t until fifteen years had passed that I began writing it more seriously, and even then progress was slow. I deliberately put living life ahead of writing about life. To do otherwise would have been to reject one of the key lessons the journey itself had taught: to live in the moment.
But the delay was all for the best. Perspective made a difference in how clearly I saw the journey, although the writing process made the biggest difference. To write a story worth reading I went deeper into the ‘whys’ than I had done while actually walking. Figuring out motives, trying to understand why I reacted the way I did, why events unfolded the way they did, helped me see the journey with real clarity and depth. Arguably, the book provides a more accurate view of wild Europe and my walk than I had at the time the journey took place.
Several reviewers have remarked on the book’s youthfulness and exuberance, even celebrating that I avoided looking back at the walk from an older man’s perspective. This makes me smile. The so-called ‘youthful exuberance’ is exactly how I still feel today. It IS an older man’s perspective! Possibly, I’ve even managed to hold onto that youthfulness because I have been working on the book for so long. The lessons from it have saved me from growing up!
Do you keep a journal on your long-distance hikes, or do you rely on memory and photos to preserve details? Put another way, how much of the writing takes place out there on the trail?
I did keep a journal. I spent up to an hour every evening recording events, conversations, thoughts and emotions. I filled twelve exercise books with notes (and some of the pages still have mosquitoes smeared upon them – how’s that for journaling!) I also have 7,000 slides, visual notes from the walk.
The journals and photos helped, but I don’t believe they were essential. The walk wasn’t like the life of routines that preceded it. Much of it was so novel and intense it still shines as though it happened yesterday. The Earth Beneath My Feet might have lacked accuracy on small details without my notes, but I could have told the full story. It was too off-the-charts extraordinary to ever forget.
In your book you describe a gradual transformation in your way of seeing the world. Tell us about this. How did your perception change, and was it a permanent shift?
I grew up in the suburbs and was shaped by that environment and the people around me to view the world in a particular way. One way was to see myself as separate from nature and even ‘above’ it. But once away from London and fully immersed in the landscape my views changed – how could they not? We are the sum of our experiences, which is why the experiences we choose and the situations we place ourselves within should be so carefully considered. I chose to place myself within a wild environment and live a simpler and more adventurous life, and this gave me a bigger picture. It showed me where I’d really come from and where I truly belonged… and it sure as hell wasn’t the suburbs!
This wasn’t my first long walk, but the previous walks – even at six months long – hadn’t been long enough to deliver a major shift in outlook. A year and a half, however, definitely was long enough! Walking through a hot summer, an entire winter, then another summer, and then back into winter again – spending it all outside in forests and mountains – took my immersion within nature to a whole new level. It led to a transformation in outlook on so many aspects of life. I leant lessons I could never have imagined. Afterwards, there was no going back to who I’d been before.
Tell us about your writing process. What do you find easiest about writing a book, and what is the most challenging?
Describing the events – the people met, the places experienced, the highs and lows – this was all relatively easy, a simple matter of accurately recording the details that occurred. (Although trying to render them in readable prose was definitely time-consuming!)
The greatest challenge was articulating the ‘whys’ that underlay the journey. For example, why did the first wild forest intimidate me so powerfully? Why had I chosen to travel alone and endure so many discomforts when others chose a more social and comfortable path through life? What was it about certain places and situations that left me feeling so elevated, so incredibly alive? The answers to questions like these are where the real story lies, but finding these answers, and then – even more critically – understanding them, took real effort and honesty.
Who are your influences in outdoor and adventure literature? Which are the books you love the most in the genre, and why?
This is a hard question to answer! I’ve read so many books across so many genres that it’s practically impossible, and arguably misleading, to pick out individual books. Each book I’ve read has become a part of who I am, just as each event on a journey changes who I am.
However, to make a stab at it: Tolkien’s The Hobbit, first read at the age of seven, introduced to me the romantic idea of adventurous travel in wild places. James Herriot’s books, read in my early teens, revealed the radical idea that nature didn’t have to be a foe to fear. Chris Townsend’s The Great Backpacking Adventure, read at eighteen, showed me that multi-month journeys on foot were something that could be done. Ted Simon’s Jupiter’s Travels, read in my early twenties, demonstrated that journeys could be vehicles of growth. But honestly, there are hundreds of other worthy and much-loved contenders!
What made you decide to self-publish your book?
Because I wanted my book to see the light of day, and I’m not convinced it would have if the traditional route had been my only option.
I first attempted to break into the publishing world in the early 90s – writing a book has been a dream for three decades. Early rejections were almost certainly deserved, but since then my storytelling has progressed, and I’ve also critically analyzed books within my genre that have been published. I began making enquiries three years ago for The Earth Beneath My Feet, but responses made the publishing industry feel like a closed world. There are just too many gatekeepers, commercial margins are reportedly too tight, and publishers and agents appear to be taking fewer chances on new authors. I suspect I would have spent years trying to break through, with the odds very much against success.
On top of that, I felt the usual author’s fear that a traditional route would have meant signing away creative control – fears legitimized by horror stories told by some writers. It would also have meant lower royalties. I spent over two decades crafting the story, but I’d only receive 5% of royalties – that just didn’t feel right! And several disgruntled authors had told me that a traditional publisher’s marketing expertise was of dubious benefit in the long run. As a first-time author I’d still be expected to do the bulk of my own marketing, especially once the initial launch period had passed.
As a graphic designer, I had many of the skills needed to publish independently, and could hire professionals for the skills I lacked. (Such as editing. I remain eternally grateful to you, Alex, for taking the book to the next level!) I’ll never know for certain that publishing independently via my own imprint was the right choice, but – honestly – it feels as though it was the only real choice I had.
Of course, I aim to keep my options open. The first book has been well received. Award-winning author Jim Perrin called it ‘a classic of outdoor literature in the making’. I may still look into a traditional route for the second book.
Tell us about how you approached the self-publishing process.
It involved a mountain of research, and a great deal of learning on the job – with an immense amount still to learn. Book marketing, for example, is a key component still to master! I wanted to produce a book that told a story worth reading, that was professionally edited and proofed, that was beautifully designed, and that avoided the kind of errors that can give independent publishing a bad name. I wanted my book to be indistinguishable from a book a large publisher might produce, and, happily, feedback suggests this has been achieved.
What can you tell us about the upcoming second book?
On Sacred Ground continues the journey. It picks up the trail north of the Alps and takes readers across the forested mountains of Central Europe, through a long, snowy winter, and then up Norway into some of Europe’s wildest and remotest landscapes. The book develops the themes begun in The Earth Beneath My Feet, introduces wild locations that many readers may not have heard of but might be excited to explore, and reaches a real climax in the Norwegian Arctic. Whether the climax at the end is good or bad I won’t reveal – you’ll have to wait for the book to find out!
If you could give one piece of advice to aspiring writers in 2021, what would it be?
Perhaps to let go of the hope/expectation that thousands of readers will rush to purchase your book! Don’t write with any expectation of making money – write because you have something to say and you desperately want (or need) to say it.
For me, the number of copies The Earth Beneath My Feet sells is, ultimately, unimportant. Writing it changed my knowledge and outlook in profoundly positive ways. It was a journey worth taking regardless of the outcome… exactly like the adventure it describes.