J.D. Sumner, the author of The Excursionist, is a former postgraduate student from The Oscar Wilde Centre, Trinity College Dublin and has a PhD from Royal Holloway, University of London. J.D. Sumner has visited 130 countries, or territories, and has never owned a mobile phone nor sent a text.
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1. What can readers expect from your debut novel, The Excursionist?
Jack Kaganagh wants to visit 100 countries before a landmark birthday and travels to Placentia, Kilrush and Fulgary in the fictional locale of the Coronation Islands, somewhere in the Indian Ocean. Placentia is an eco-resort, Kilrush is the world’s only Irish Protectorate and The Omanalak on Meelick Bay in Fulgary is a seven-star barefoot luxury resort. The novel takes a satirical look at the idea of luxury travel, the commodification of the travel industry and travellers themselves while exploring the themes of inequality, loneliness and materialism. The Excursionist owes its structure, satirical bent and narrative drive to the works of Swift, Waugh and Bradbury. As to what readers can expect: reviews range from ‘a comical, light-hearted look at travel’ to ‘a meditation on loneliness disguised as a travel comedy’ and ‘laugh out loud… It may even result in letting out an involuntary wee’ to ‘a story of self-discovery and coming to terms with the past.’
2. Your PhD thesis focused on Travel Writing and Satire – what inspired you to study this?
I have a mild form of dromomania, which is a compulsion to travel. On every return flight, the first thing I do is dive into the world map at the back of the in-flight magazine to see where I can go to next. I wanted to study in order to answer the question: why do I travel? The closest I have come to an answer is based on Freud’s essay ‘A Disturbance of Memory on the Acropolis’ (1936), in which Freud noted: ‘I had long seen clearly that a great part of the pleasure of travel’ is rooted ‘in dissatisfaction with home and family,’ Freud’s theory was that travellers travel in order to ‘recover an original lost home.’ The desire to travel is, Freud claims, closely linked to the universal human desire to go ‘further than one’s father’.
3. How did studying at the Oscar Wilde Centre in Dublin shape your writing?
I went to live in Ireland because I wanted to study at the Oscar Wilde Centre, Trinity College Dublin as it was Oscar Wilde’s birthplace. There were only thirteen students on the M.Phil course. We published a collection of short stories and, as a result, I was invited to present my work at the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Festival. My short story was based on my experience of the tsunami of 2004. It would be difficult to know what shaped my writing more, my M.Phil or the tsunami.
4. You’ve travelled to well over a hundred different countries – tell us a little about what that was like and what it’s taught you about travel writing.
I have been to 130 countries so far and I’m looking forward to going away again shortly. I don’t travel to get material as such, but if you are hanging around, not doing anything in particular, then your mind drifts off and starts to make stuff up. Everybody has a story to tell and perhaps they are more likely to open up to a tourist who they will never see again, so what is there for them to lose? I have so many questions to ask, so I may as well find out about other people. If you want to appear interesting, ask people about themselves. What I cannot tell you is whether I am a traveller who is compelled to write or a writer who is compelled to travel.
5. Why do you think some people have ‘the travel bug’?
It is essential to take holidays from your own life and, if I didn’t, I’d go off my head. Some measure of physical risk is as necessary to human well-being as physical exercise. If you are interested in human beings and the stories they tell then I think you are more likely to hear those stories when you travel. Literally every place in the world is worth visiting and you need to have a look about as quickly as possible because, as everyone knows, you’re a long time dead.
6. What is your opinion of modern travel writing?
The last three modern travel writing novels I have read are Rory Maclean’s Stalin’s Nose (1992), Tim Moore’s Spanish Steps (2005) and Matthew Engel’s Engel’s England (2014.) I enjoyed all of them and would not hesitate to recommend them. Given Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726) was itself a parody of William Dampier’s A Voyage Round the World (1697) not only do I think modern travel writing is in good shape but also I think it will continue to be so for a very long time.