Author John D Burns talks to us about his reasons for adventure
During 2018 GO Outdoors are celebrating the different reasons that we all go outdoors, proving that adventures can be sprawling epics or simply stepping outside to enjoy the fresh air. In this feature, we sat down with mountaineer, author, actor and blogger John D Burns about how he uses his own adventures to inspire his stories.
The outdoors can be a wonderful place to clear the cobwebs from your mind when life gets too hectic, but it can also be a source of inspiration as well. With many artists, poets, authors and more channelling their love for adventure or their adoration for nature into their works it’s important for anyone to stop every once in a while and take in the beauty around us.
We spoke to John D Burns ahead of the release of his second novel ‘Bothy Tales’
Q. After some fantastic feedback on your first novel ‘The Last Hillwalker’, you’re about to release your second with ‘Bothy Tales’ – For those who may not have read a John D Burns story, what can they expect from your books?
A. “When I began writing about the hills and my experiences as a climber and hillwalker I wanted to take the reader into my world. The reader can expect to glimpse the things I have seen, meet the people I have met and to share in my journey, to feel the wind against their face and the texture of the rock against their finger tips.
My life has been enormously enriched by the challenges I faced and my time in the outdoors and that is an important part of my writing. For me there is a deeper message in the stories I tell of life and death battles in the hills or wild bothy nights underneath all these things is the contact with nature that they bring. We don’t just come from nature, we are nature”
Q. Has writing always been a passion of yours or something you discovered later on?
A. “I think that I was always a writer although it’s only over the last ten years that I have been able to explore that aspect of myself. When I was a boy I used to fish small pools with my father and round the water’s edge I would imagine fantastic underwater cities and civilisations.
Later, at University I was fascinated by theatre, poetry and literature but I never considered that these things were something I could create, I thought they were for other people. I grew up in a working-class background where you were lucky if you could find work and fanciful things like becoming an artist were discounted.
Oddly it was my daughter’s struggle with Autism, a disability which makes language a uniquely challenging part of life, that rekindled my interest in the meanings of words and how they pin us to reality. This became a fascination and opened the door to a creative part of myself that I don’t think I’d be able to close now even if I wanted to.”
Q. Your book ‘The Last Hillwalker’ is an account of your own adventures in Britain over a 40 year span, as you grew into your love of the outdoors, did you always have an idea in your mind that you’d eventually like to get your experiences down on paper?
A. “I never dreamt I’d write a word about the outdoors. When I started to write it was at a time in my life when I had deliberately stepped away from my outdoor life. I had decided to turn my back on that part of my life to pursue other challenges such as acting and writing. My first book began for me as a way of saying farewell to the hills. I thought if I wrote about it I could put it all in a book, close the pages and walk away.
What happened was the complete reverse. As I wrote The Last Hillwalker I began to relive my experiences in wild, remote places and recalling how being out in the natural world rekindled in me a desire to go there again. I think my need to have a relationship with wild places is now stronger than it ever was.”
Q. Humour is a big part of your storytelling, do you find the outdoors is often portrayed in a very serious light? It can often be the small moments along the way that make the trip more memorable. It seems it’s the attention to these smaller details that your readers seem to resonate with.
A. “Above all, being out in wild places should be about joy. After all that is where we come from, when you are on a mountain ridge, in a forest, or spending a night in a lonely bothy, you have come home. When you are at home, with your friends and family, isn’t that where you should enjoy yourself most and fill the silence with laughter.
Humour is very important to me. I enjoy making people laugh and I think laughter connects us to something inside ourselves and with each other in a unique way. Bill Hicks, the great American stand up, used to talk about the ‘healing laugh.’ I think there is a way that laughter helps us deal with the darker parts of life. There is something absurd in the small details. Picture the mountaineer who, finally stands on top of a majestic peak that has been his life’s ambition, only to be acutely aware that his big toes are cold. There is something very human in that image.”
Q. Residing in the Highlands of Scotland, there is no shortage of outdoor inspiration around you – do you find your time out on the hills helps to inspire new ideas, or do you use it as a way of clearing your head when the dreaded ‘writers block’ takes over?
A. “I often walk through some of the most majestic landscapes in the British Isles, yet it is frequently the small things, especially in my visits to bothies, that set my imagination racing. I’m fascinated by the knowledge that when I sit beside a bothy fire I am sitting where generations of folk have passed through before me. I always wonder what lives the bothy has watched lived out before my visit. I wonder whose hand touched the candlestick that flickers beside me, whose feet trod the little path that leads to the bothy door. I want to bring those people to life and inhabit their lives.
Many bothies were shepherd’s cottages that date back over two hundred years. Before that, the valleys they occupy, were homes to generations of people who ranged from subsistence farmers to clan warriors. Much of that history has been lost but sometimes, in quiet moments, as evening falls over a remote glen and the shadows length, I imagine I hear the voices of people who once lived in those places.”
Q. As well as your books, you’ve also been known to write and perform an array of one-man plays. Are these also inspired by your love of the outdoors, and would you consider turning your own stories into a play?
A. “I’ve written two plays about mountaineers one about George Mallory, whose disappearance on Everest is one of the greatest mysteries in mountaineering and the other about Aleister Crowley who was also a fine mountaineer but whose climbing achievements have been overshadowed by his reputation as an occultist.
In writing and performing my plays about these men I think I am also saying something about the lives of all of us who go into the mountains, including my own experiences. Anyone who has ever ventured on to a mountain and found themselves alone and cold, in a place where the certainties of everyday life are stripped away to reveal the stark reality of the natural world, knows something of what these men felt. Mallory stepped into the unknown in his pursuit of Everest and Crowley led some of the earliest expeditions to the highest mountains on earth but all of us have shared their experiences to some degree and can imagine how they felt when faced with extremes. When I write about these men I am also writing about my relationship with mountains in the way I share some small part of their lives on stage.”
Q. Your latest book ‘Bothy Tales’ – Where did the inspiration come from for the story?
A. “The Last Hillwalker got so many fantastic responses from readers, so many people felt I had told their story of life in the hills, that I realised I had many more stories to tell. Bothy Tales is not just one story but a collection of many. Some are taken direct from my own experiences whilst others owe more to my imagination. Despite their different origins I hope all the stories have something to say about our relationship with wild places.”
Q. Without giving too much away from the book, have you had any strange Bothy experiences yourself?
A. “I have had only one odd experience, it occurred in the mountains and not in a bothy. Oddly I’ve never written about it or even spoken of it until you ask. I was heading up to climb on a remote mountain face where the cliffs towered over my companion and me. We were overtaken by a ferocious blizzard and decided to retreat even before we started to climb.
On the way down, we looked back and saw, through the swirling snow, two figures coming down from the cliffs. They were moving slowly and with some difficulty and moved out of our sight behind a huge boulder. Thinking that this pair might be in some difficulty, we climbed back up the mountainside to where we had seen them go behind the boulder. When we arrived, there was no one there and no footprints came either to the enormous rock or left from it. I always wonder if I saw some kind premonition of what might have happened to us if we had continued.”
Q. The outdoors has clearly been a part of your life from a young age, did your sense of adventure come from your parents, or did it stem from somewhere else?
A. “I think my father had a great influence on me. He was not a hill person, but he had a great love of nature and took me on many fishing trips, which perhaps inspired my own enjoyment of the outdoors. When I was a child he would read to me the poems of Robert Service. These are great stories of the Yukon set in deep winter snows where the characters are beset by ferocious cold nights and fierce snowstorms. Those tales fascinated me as a child and inspired me to want to experience extreme places for myself. I pictured myself wandering through vast snowy wastes in places where I had to rely on my own wits to keep me alive. I suppose in a small way, through my life in the mountains, I’ve achieved that boyhood dream.”
Q. You have also spent time as a Mountain Rescue volunteer, How did you find that experience?
A. “I have tremendous respect for everyone who works in our Mountain Rescue Teams. Working in the rescue service made me realise, more than ever, just what serious places the mountains that I enjoyed so much can be. I think it gave me a great respect for our mountains. I’m glad to say that the pleasure I found in hill walking and climbing was not diminished but it made me understand just how important it was that I approached the hills with the right skills and equipment.
You can go into a shop and buy the best gear there is, you can go on courses where you can learn proper navigation and rope techniques but the one thing you can’t buy is the experience of encountering situations where everything is against you and you have to rely on your own skills to get you home safe. It’s that experience that makes a real mountaineer.
It meant a great deal to me to be part of a team and to know that I could rely, absolutely, on the people around you who would support each other in even the most extreme of situations.”
Q. Lastly, you’ve spent a lot of your life in stunning locations such as The Lake District and the Highlands of Scotland – Do you have a particular happy place, or place that you’ll often go to for inspiration?
A. “I could think of many bothies that I visit or high hills that I often wander across, but the truth is that I enjoy anywhere where there is a contact with the natural world. Nowhere in Britain can be described as true wilderness but I do think that there are many places where you can catch glimpses of what I like to call wildness, that can be as simple as watching a deer and her fawn pass by or seeing an owl fly across the night sky.
I am most at home in a remote bothy when the world shrinks to a small arc created by the firelight and is encompassed by a few flickering candles, there, is a place where peace resides.”
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