Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Interview - Paul Bellamy

THEY say travel broadens the mind but anyone who is or has teenagers who are about to set off on their first round the world backpacking adventure may feel a sense of trepidation if they read the debut novel by a South London writer.
Backpackers by Paul Bellamy is set in and around Thailand, its islands and India during the late 1980s.
It charts the exploits of Andrew and Kirsten, friends who have met whilst travelling and who become embroiled in a series of deadly goings on.
They are an unlikely couple - Andrew is a backpacker seeking adventure and fun, and besotted with Kirsten. Kirsten is a mystery, escaping her past and seeking a revenge which gradually becomes clear as the story progresses.
Unfortunately their holiday is marred by the appearance of Carlo, a smuggler, who is hunting his nemesis, Maurice, a killer with a grudge and a taste for backpackers.
The journey into fear takes them across the backpacking trails of Asia from Indonesia to Nepal and features plenty of sex, drugs and gruesome deaths.
It is the first novel for Paul and was partly inspired by his own travels over the past 20 years.
However, the 54-year-old who was born and grew up in Lewisham says he got the writing bug at school.
"I wasn't a particularly academic child but I absolutely loved writing," he explains. "I went to Stillness Primary and then to St Joseph's in Blackheath and spent a lot of time writing stories.
"Unfortunately I got fed up with school and when knew I wasn't going to get through my A Levels I dropped out and ended up working in a bank in Jamaica Road.
"One day some of my colleagues announced they were going travelling and asked if I'd like to come along. It sounded fun so I did.
"Two years later I was still going even though they'd come home!"
Since then he's been to 94 countries "and counting", left the bank, been kicked out of Iran, had guns stuck in his face in Nigeria, worked in a variety of jobs including as a toilet cleaner in the Falklands, sailed across the Atlantic, was in Tienanmen Square during the student riots of 1989 and is now a civil servant for the Home Office sorting out peoples' visa applications.
But it's the travelling which he really enjoys and inspired the storyline for Backpackers although he admits it was originally intended to be a comedy.
"When I first went off in 1988 I wrote about 600 pages of a travel diary and when I got back I thought it would be good to put something together that was a bit more fun," he says.
"However, it didn't work as a comedy so I set about writing something more serious - I don't know where I got the idea of putting a serial killer in though!" he jokes.
And although he insists it is in no way autobiographical, he admits some of the characters are based on those he has met on his travels and all the places he describes are those he has visited.
"It follows my own travels around Asia but the only people I based specific characters on were a young English couple I met once who were smuggling cameras," he says.
"They did that because it was something to do and you could make a bit of money out of it. Obviously there are incidents with drug smuggling and I saw lots of backpackers off their heads. In the book, Andrew and Kirsten become involved in drugs and drug trading and it helped fund their travels. But it's not the norm for most backpackers - it's too dangerous.
"However, when you are relaxed, away from home and having a good time, that's when you let your guard down, things can happen and some people do get caught up in situations they wouldn't normally.
"I remember once I was getting a new passport in Delhi once and on the wall were a huge number of pictures of people who were missing," he adds.
"I was young, and at that age you think you are invincible but it is quite a shocking and sobering thing to see when you are feeling free and adventurous and miles from home.
"In the end though you do what you can to trust the right people - the book is a cautionary tale."
So, is there a sequel I ask.
He laughs before adding: "Yes I think so, but I am focusing on a screenplay first because some people have said it could be good as a film."
And he says far from discouraging people, he would recommend travelling to anyone.
"Travel broadens the mind," he says. "The last thing I would do is suggest backpacking is a bad thing to do. It isn't.
"It breaks down barriers, you grow as a person and make so many friends. I have friends all over the world - it opens your life up.
"I worked in a job centre in South London once and thought people should spend their benefits on going to live in India to learn about life. Some people might come back really changed.
"I didn't bother with the career thing and I've never married so I've enjoyed a stress free life," he adds chuckling.
"Besides there are still places I want to visit. I have been to 94 countries and am working my way towards 100.
"Malta is one of them, I would like to be posted to Africa so I can go to Kenya and Tanzania and I want to do a safari in Zambia.
"As long as you are careful and have your wits about you it can be the most amazing and fantastic adventure."

Backpackers by Paul Bellamy is published by Troubadour and costs £7.99. It is available from all good bookshops.

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