Fact File Name: Turtle Bunbury Occupation: Travel writer, historian and author Lives: Co Carlow
In the news for: Bunbury is a renowned historian, travel writer and author of The Vanishing Ireland, which was shortlisted for the Eason’s Irish Published Book of the Year Award 2007, Living in Sri Lanka, which earned him the Travel Extra Long-Haul Journalist of the Year Award in 2006, and The Irish Pub, which will be published in 2008.
Barbara Harding (BH): What was your first paid job after leaving school?
Turtle Bunbury (TB): I grew up on a farm, so I had lots of jobs, particularly working with the sheep. I was a bit of a shepherd between school and college and I was paid for it too, but not very well.
BH: Where did your interest in history and writing originate?
TB: I grew up in a historical house, surrounded by family portraits and bits of furniture from a ship that used to sail around South America in the 1830s. One of my great grandfathers was a lieutenant on the ship and it sparked my interest to find out more about these characters. I also wrote in a diary from an early age, but at 15, I realised my brothers were reading it, so I turned it from a confessional into a public chronicle.
BH: Did you go to university?
TB: I took law for two years and then realised I had no interest in it, so I studied Ireland in the age of the Vikings instead. I wanted to go all around the country and write about the history of battlefields, castles and local museums.
BH: What is the most interesting place you’ve ever visited in terms of history and travel writing?
TB: I did a job in Cambodia near the historic Angkor Wat temples in Siem Reap. It’s an incredible part of the world and I was there around the time they found Pol Pott, head of the Khmer Rouge, who was responsible for the massacre of millions of Cambodians. This happened in my lifetime and you still see the after-effects in the people.
BH: What made you decide to write Vanishing Ireland?
TB: There was a lovely old lady called Betty Scott who raised my father and his sisters and then me and my siblings. She used to tell us all these stories of old Ireland, when everyone was welcome in your home. Her next-door neighbour was Bob Murphy and I recorded conversations between them, while James Fennell took pictures. The book blossomed from there.
BH: You were shortlisted for the Eason’s Irish Published Book of the Year Award in 2007. What are your thoughts on this achievement?
TB: I was kind of stunned initially; I thought it was brilliant, but all I did was interview 60 senior citizens and turn their stories into book form to hopefully do them justice. It wasn’t a work of fiction; it was their lives that made it so interesting.
BH: What was the inspiration behind your latest book The Irish Pub?
TB: I’ve always had a great partiality to the pub and have had many good nights in such places. I realised they were closing down with great regularity across the country and others were changing in a manner that wasn’t my cup of tea, so I wanted to capture them before they disappeared. We went to 700 of the oldest pubs in the country but didn’t have a pint in every one! We photographed 80, and 39 of those feature in the book.
BH: What has 2008 got in store for you in a professional capacity?
TB: I’m working on an outline for a TV script for Sunday night entertainment that I can’t go into too much detail about, but it’s an epic drama. The Irish Pub will be launched in August and Volume 2 of Vanishing Ireland is also being published.
BH: Who is the biggest inspiration in your life and why?
TB: My wife Ali arrived on the scene before I ever had a book published and she’s been instrumental in keeping me focused. I also admire authors who cheer me up, such as Peter Somerville-Large, who wrote a lot of books about Ireland in the Sixties. I asked him about the concept of becoming a writer and he said, ‘if you can get away with it, you don’t have to do a hard day’s work in your life’.
BH: Do you have any advice for others who want to work in this medium?
TB: If you want to be a writer you have to be commercially driven and have a commercial mind. At the same time, be as flexible and diverse as possible. You never know which aspect of writing is going to be in demand, or which one the bottom will drop out of.
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