In early 2009, Ben Groundwater posted a call-out on his blog asking if any overseas readers would let him crash on their couch for a night or two. Four months of sofa-hopping resulted in his new book, Five Ways to Carry a Goat. Andrew Wrathall spoke to the intrepid author.
How did you write the book? Were you constantly jotting down everything?
I was, but I tried not to be too obvious about it! I carried around a little notebook with me wherever I was, and tried to discreetly jot things down as they happened. Not to the point where I was locking myself in the toilets at the pub to transcribe entire conversations, but I would just jot down basic events to jog my memory later. People’s turns of phrase were a big one for me—I really wanted to capture people’s voices well, so I paid a lot of attention to things they said, and wrote down little notes about it when they’d gone somewhere else. Then whenever I had a block of spare time—say, on a train or plane—I’d get out my laptop and write out all of my notes, and the conversations I’d had, while they were still fresh in my mind.
Was it hard to find the local experience, rather than the tourist experience?
It was actually much more difficult than I’d expected. One of the reasons I’d decided to do this trip was I thought it would be a great way to see the local side of cities, given I was staying with people who lived there. So you can imagine my disappointment at the first few places I stayed when I was handed a copy of the Lonely Planet as my host walked out the door to go to work. Other places, though, the local aspect was impossible to avoid. I stayed with a guy who lived in a tiny village of about 50 people in north-eastern Thailand—he couldn’t have found me a Lonely Planet for there if he’d tried. Often, though, I found that Aussie expats don’t actually lead the exotic foreign lives I’d expected them to lead. In Seoul I ended up playing football for the local ex-pat team, then going back to the pub to watch cricket—not entirely dissimilar to what I’d do on a Sunday in Sydney.
Did your lawyer (and girlfriend) suggest you should cut anything from the book? Are you worried about negative reactions from people you’ve written about?
The lawyer didn’t actually read my drafts! She did, however, subtly suggest I choose not to stay with some of the girls who’d invited me to stay with them (by screwing up the pieces of paper and chucking them in the bin). I think we came to a consensus at the end though, and, aside from a little incident in China, I think she’s happy with how it all turned out. As for the negative reactions, it’s definitely something I’m worried about. I certainly didn’t set out to be necessarily mean about anyone, but I did try to be as honest as possible about my experiences, and they weren’t always good ones. I think the nature of the trip—going out to stay at the houses of complete strangers—was always going to mean I wasn’t going to get along like a house on fire with everyone I met. I stayed with people of all ages, occupations, cultures … and most I had an absolute ball with. The others I just hope they think I’ve been fair. Continue reading