Talking with...Levison Wood

From Nottingham to the Nile, Levison Wood (History, 2004) is famed for his international exploration.

The writer and photographer has just been on our TV screens with his new series ‘Walking with…’ tracking down some of the world’s most iconic and endangered animals.

Last month he was back on campus collecting an Honorary Degree and we tracked him down for a chat.


How does it feel to return back to Nottingham to receive an honorary degree?

It's a huge privilege to come back, it's obviously a big day for the graduating students and just a huge honour for me to be given this award.

I feel very grateful that it's been it's been offered to me and I'm very, very happy to come back. My parents are very excited!

Even just coming on to campus, the memories came flooding back. It's such a beautiful place.

Did you have any idea of what you wanted to do when you graduated?

I was somewhat torn between two directions. On the one hand my first love was travel and backpacking - I think I was a bit of a hippy, really, true to heart! But at the same time, I had my heart set on joining the Army, which were two quite different career paths.

I somehow managed to do both because I used my time after graduating to travel for the best part of a year. I decided to hitchhike to India following the old Silk Road. It started right here in Nottingham, hitchhiking down the A1. I knew I was going to join the Army eventually, but I had to try and get some of the travelling bug out of my system, although that clearly didn’t happen!

So I did have a plan and my studies gave me more of a focus. I always wanted to be an author, that was part of my dream. So it all worked together to help bring that to reality.


You talked in your graduation speech about how much you enjoy travel writing - why is that?

I really wanted to write, having read so many authors’ accounts about their own explorations and travels and journeys that inspired me.

To do that you’ve got to go and travel first, so I turned my focus to trying to see as much of the world as possible, keeping meticulous notes and journals. But I don't think I had the confidence or the temerity to actually write anything until I was about 30. I thought it was a bit cheeky to call myself a travel writer.

When I left the Army, I set up my first business, which was taking people on trips to amazing places in the world and I used that as an opportunity to try to learn to write.

While Walking the Nile was the first book that I published, it wasn’t the first one that I wrote. I'd spent a year writing a 100,000 word manuscript about my journey hitchhiking from Nottingham to India, which nobody would take. I pitched it to every publisher and every agent, and they were all like, “who are you?” So it then took another seven years of doing all those other things to finally get that published!

It took a long time, but it got there in the end. So I think that persistence pays off and whatever field you’re in, be patient, stick at it and don't ever take no for an answer. It’s not necessarily how good you are or the quality of your work. Life isn't always a meritocracy, but it's the whole piece, the bigger picture.

Can you share the techniques that you apply when travel writing?

If you want to write, then you first need to read. Read widely, read broadly. If you want to be a travel writer, you need to know about history, you need to know about geography, you need to know about literature. It's not just about that particular genre.

Some of the best advice I ever got was from a journalist who told me the best non-fiction should read like fiction. It’s not about embellishing truth or writing anything inaccurate, it's about structure. Formulate your story within the realms of what actually happened.

One of the things that I came to slightly later is learning about Joseph Campbell and the “hero's journey”. It's a really useful tool, the monomyth in which all stories are structured, all the way back to Homer's Odyssey, in how to break down a journey.

The journey can be anything. It can be a book, it can be a three-minute speech, it can be a movie. They all follow the same 12-stage narrative arc. I only came to that on my third book. I wish I'd known it for my first book, it would have been much easier!


What inspired your latest show, ‘Walking with…’?

I've always been passionate about conservation and wildlife; in this series we focus on desert lions, orangutans and polar bears, exploring the interplay between wildlife and people within their habitats, reacting to human impacts and global warming.

The indigenous communities who live there are the guardians of these wilderness areas, and they're often overlooked. So it's as much about the people as it is the wildlife, but it's also in the same style as my other journeys in terms of being an immersive adventure.

It’s not planned, it’s just me with my camera - let's try and find a polar bear and see what happens along the way. It's fun. It's disturbing. It’s definitely not Attenborough on the BBC, this is some shocking stuff. The story needs to be told, it’s not the sugar-coated version, that's for sure.


Are there any places that you've not been to yet that you really want to explore?

The main region I've not explored myself too much as yet is South America. So I'd love to do a big South American journey. Let's see if Channel 4 will commission me off the back of watching this latest one!

Catch up with Levison

His new series 'Levison Wood: Walking with...' is available on Channel 4 and find out more about his life's work by reading our 'My Office'.