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Interview: Emily Chappell

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For six years, Emily Chappell was a cycle courier in London, living that dream of cycling-as-livelihood, and she's now written a book about her life. Of course it focuses on that courier lifestyle, but it weaves in so much more - stories about living in the city, romance and heartbreak, psychogeography, love of cycling, and addressing that glamour around couriering, and how it's changed and changing. I talked to Chappell about how she moved from blogging to writing, how couriering lead to bigger bike adventures (Cycling solo across Europe to Japan! Riding across Alaska on a fatbike in winter! Moving into ultra-endurance racing!) and lots more. We talked a lot, and you can read part of the interview here, or click through to my blog to listen to the full thing, with lots more about the writing process - and if you click that link, you can also find out how to win a free copy of the book.

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Emily Chappell. What Goes Around
Emily Chappell. What Goes Around
Faber & Faber

Emily Chappell - What Goes AroundPodium Café: When I first heard about the book, I was thinking cycle couriering - that's like 1980s New York, or a William Gibson novel, very romantic, and you talk about that romance a lot in the book, but is it a weird thing, moving from that to being a writer, which is romantic in a different way?

Emily Chappell: It's funny, because for me they were both jobs which had this huge mythology attached to them, which for a long time stood in the way of me actually going for it. I'd wanted to be a courier as soon as I found out what they were, but it took years before I actually thought I'd be capable of it. And I'd always wanted to be a writer, since I was a kid, so this is now pretty much a dream come true, which is lovely.

PdC: So you were seduced by the romance of couriering - what got you started?

EC: It's always a combination of many things. What it really was, was finishing my Masters degree - it was in Gender Studies, so I was never really going to get a very good job, and there was a recession starting at the same time, and I did apply for a few jobs, and didn't get them, and this was the one that stuck.

PdC: And didn't let you go

EC: It sucks you in. I'm always reluctant to say that it's like an addiction, because I'm not sure that is appropriate, given that an addiction is a serious health problem, but there's so many things it has in common. You get really really into it, and it's great, and you feel like you're omnipotent, and you're flying! And then you think "I might go and do something else for a bit", and you realise that you can't, and if you stop couriering you feel really awful, and low, and grey, and miserable and twitchy, so you have to keep doing it, and it's very, very hard to get out of. And then once you're hooked on it, you start to realise all the bad things as well - and there are loads of bad sides. You sit there on a cold January afternoon, soaked to the skin, shivering, hurting, and you can't feel your hands, you're not going to pay the rent that month, you haven't made any money, and it's all terrible. And then a car hits you - but you can't get out, because you're hooked.

PdC: You seem to have got out by cycling around the world, in bits

EC: It's quite strange how I got out of it, because I didn't want to. I always thought "At some point I'm going to get to the point where I need to, or want to", but I never did. Life just pulled me out of it.

One of the things that made me want to not stop couriering was that people tend to slide downhill a bit after couriering. They tend to go on to quite interesting things, but usually they end up sitting behind a desk, and they put on a bit of weight, and they don't cycle so much. I always imagined that being a courier would be the height of my powers, and my youth and beauty, and when I stopped I would go back to being this slightly plump grad student, who didn't really get enough exercise or fresh air, and I thought that would be quite a shame.

Emily Chappell (c) Selim Korycki
Emily Chappell, photographed by Selim Korycki

But what happened instead is that I found other things to give me the same hit, so I think I'm basically even more addicted - eventually couriering wasn't enough, I had to move onto the hard stuff, so I started with cycling round the world. And then bike touring is pretty hard, but it's not that hard, so I had to find harder things to do, so I got into the winter stuff. And then I realised that along the way I'd got quite fit, so now I've got into racing.

PdC: That's such a brilliantly mad story, because I wonder where it's going to go. You did the TransContinental race, and you're doing Ultra-Endurance racing, so you're starting at the hardcore end as well, so what happens next?

EC: Where do I go from here? That's a really good question! I'm only just getting into Ultra racing, and I didn't finish the TransCo, I had a mysterious chest issue, and stopped on day 8, so I'm going back to hopefully finish the job this year, but there's other races, so there's hopefully enough to keep me busy there. And then what might happen, I'm very tentatively dipping my toe into the off-road at the moment, and so there's a whole new world of pain and challenge there, so we'll see. But I'm never going to be a classic racer, doing the mainstream stuff, partly because I'm a bit old, and partly because I like the obscure stuff.

PdC: I was a little bit worried, before I started your book, that it was going to be just courier stories in terms of "and then this bus nearly hit me, and one time I picked up a job from a celebrity", but I found it really interesting, because the book covers so much more - it's got that psychogeography, London love story, it's got a lot of stuff about your personal life, and it's got a lot of nostalgia, being nostalgic for couriering before you'd even stopped it, and always being nostalgic for a golden age. How did you come to write like that, or did it just come naturally?

EC: It came naturally. I think, when I started writing the book, and started thinking about how it would be, there were so many different things and themes I wanted to put in. And now it's just about ok, but when I first finished and signed it off, I felt awful because I'd only managed to put ten percent of what I wanted to put in into the book. There are so many characters and relationships that aren't even in there. There's so much to the job, it's just a diverse, mixed bag, and there are so many registers to tap into. There's the social, and the amazing camaraderie and the characters, and there's all the London stuff, and the things you think about, time and space and movement, as you go around it all. Any one of those themes, I could have written a book on, and maybe one day I'll come back and write an 800 page novel. Also, with a novel, I could put in all the gossip!

PdC: When you were planning it, did you have the structure or shape planned in advance, or did that happen more organically, or by editorial direct?

EC: There was editorial direction! It was the first book I've written, and the first draft was this big pile of chapters, that had no interrelation whatsoever, and no order - here's a chapter about rain, here's a chapter about camaraderie, here's a funny story, and I just handed that to my editor and buggered off to Alaska for three months. And then I got back, and had to turn it into something with a bit more of a plot. And very predictably, my editor said "we need more of you in this, we need to mine your backstory a bit, give us some more of yourself", which I'd trying to avoid doing, and that's when all the stuff about [her former partner] Ash came in, and it became more about me and my journey, and all the detached stories became attached around that.

PdC: You'd been writing for various publications, and had been blogging for years, so did it feel hard, having someone say "do it completely differently", or did it feel fun, or interesting?

EC: The latter! I'd always felt I could do with more feedback, and it's always hard to find someone who's qualified, and willing to give it. And I was really looking forward to having a professional, literary editor looking at my work, and saying "this is good, but we could make it even better by doing this, and this, and this, and what about trying this?" So I enjoyed the editing process.

PdC: You talk in the book about being really interested in other couriers' stories, and courier mythology and history, but what made you sit down and write the book about it?

EC: Very prosaically, a literary agent got in touch with me and said "I think you should write a book about this", and said she could sell it to a publisher, and I put up a token resistance, then then said ok then! I had a courier blog, and every now and then people would say I should turn this into a book, and I'd always say "No, no, I really shouldn't, because it's such a diverse, beautiful industry and one person could never represent all that, so the only possible way to do it would be an anthology with lots of different voices, and I feel I would be letting the community down by profiting from their stories". That was my view for a long time.

But of course, couriers being the wonderful people they are, they don't feel for a moment that I'm profiting from their stories. When it came out that I had a book deal, everybody was coming up and congratulating me, and everyone was really pleased and proud of me, and I realised I was being paranoid.

PdC: I was quite surprised that it took me to the last third of the book before you started talking about traffic, and nearly dying, and awful drivers, and things like that. Was that a conscious choice?

EC: It wasn't, but you could say that it wasn't until a bit later on that I realised how awful traffic is, because earlier on I was just in the first flush of being head over heels in love with this job, and the bad stuff happens, and you gloss over it, and you deal with it, and it's fine, and it's only later on that it starts to get to you. And that did actually happen with me, the traffic and the road rage got worse as the years went on, and it affected me more. And that's not the way you'd expect it, at all. I would have thought I would have eventually have found ways to get over it, but it got to me more and more, and it's harder and harder to flush it all out of my system.

PdC: I liked that about the book - I liked that it confounded my expectations. It's so much part of every cyclist's story, about riding in any city, "the people who nearly killed me", but I hadn't realised I'd missed it until I got to it.

EC: I think also, I tend to restrain myself from talking about that sort of thing, because it's so easy, as a London cyclist, to spend all your time going on and on and on about road rage, and it makes me angry and frustrated, and bored, and that's a really toxic combination - and if you're not careful, you get together with some couriers in the pub after work, and you can spend the whole evening talking about it, and I'm kind of fed up with it, so I try to avoid getting into those conversations - they put me on edge, and don't make me happy.

PdC: I was also interested in the balance of how you explained the geography of London, because one of my worries, about the book was going that it was going to be a lot of stuff talking about how you get from Paddington to Soho, or whatever, and I found it really interesting because I grew up in London, so there's a lot of places you talk about that I can picture, but equally, there's a lot of places I can't, but by the way you talk about them, I know what it means. I was wondering how you balanced not being a street map with making it understandable for people who've never seen London.

EC: I wasn't doing that particularly consciously, but it was on my mind, worrying that I would be either be giving too much detail about places, and bogging the reader down a bit, or just reeling off this list of street names, and people would glaze over. There's going to be a variation in people who read the book - some will be couriers, and know London better than I do, and some will be my mum, who doesn't know it at all. So for some readers there'll be this kind of pleasant exoticism - reading "I rode down Holborn", and wondering where Holborn could be, or it'll just be this name that could be anywhere. And for other people, they'll know exactly what Holborn looks like, and where the traffic lights are, so I think anyone who reads the book will have this completely unique identification with the geography of the book, as we all do with London, really. We've all got our own map, and the bits we know, and the bits we don't.

For me, East London still is a little bit "Here be dragons" - once I've got past Mare Street, I'm kind of lost, so for me, talking about various places in East London would have this vague "somewhere else" kind of thing, whereas if I was reading a novel set in South East London, I'd know those streets turn by turn.

PdC: You've alluded to more books in the future - do you have any planned?

EC: Let's see about that! I've got a couple in mind, but not firmly, yet, there'll be a bit more evolution. I think the next one I would like to write would be about Ultra-Distance racing, because it's very interesting, and there are a lot of interesting people in it. It's got everything - it's got blood, it's got bikes, it's got pain, it's got roads - I'd read that! So maybe that. And I've also got this thing - when I was going across Asia, I spent some time in Pakistan, and really liked it, and I want to go back there for a while, because there's a lot to see and do and explore, and I'd like to take my fatbike and go up into the mountains, and write about that - but what sort of book that would be would need a lot of discussion.

PdC: How far around the world have you actually got now? You've got a great blog about it, with lots of advice for other women who want to ride solo, but in a nutshell, where have you been - and where have you got left?

EC: This should come with a massive caveat that there's no such thing as cycling around the world, because there's no such distance - you just ride a few lines across a few continents, and add it all up, and say roughly! I'm almost a bit embarrassed by the whole "cycling round the world" thing now, but let's say I'm still cycling round the world.

PdC: It's a slightly tongue in cheek description

EC: A completely flawed premise! But anyway! I started off in mid Wales, and rode through the UK, across Europe, through the Balkans, into Turkey, across Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, over the Karakoram Highway to China, across China - so big, so hot, I had a lovely time as well, but it was hard work. And then across to Korea, I did South Korea and then did the length of Japan, and then came home!

The more recent bit was this winter just gone, where I went from Anchorage to Seattle, in the cold. Next summer I'm supporting a friend in the Race Across America, and if I've got time, I'd like to fly in to Seattle and ride down the West Coast, to get to the start of that, which would be good training for me, and that would be the next chunk, and then at some point I'll make it to Central America, etc etc.

PdC: Ending up in Patagonia....

EC: I've been wanting to get there for years, but I keep getting distracted by stuff!


Emily Chappell - What Goes Around Emily Chappell's book, "What goes around: A London cycle courier's story" (Guardian Faber, ISBN 9781783350537) is published on 7th January 2016, but you can pre-order it from your favourite local independent bookshop, or from Amazon - and keep an eye out on the Café Bookshelf, as Feargal will be reviewing it too.

You can follow Emily's adventures as she continues cycling round the world, getting into racing, and all kinds of other things, on her blog - and if you've ever thought about solo cycling adventures, check out her Q&A sections about the practicalities, including answers from other women about their international travels. And of course you can follow her on twitter, and go and see her talk when she turns up in bookshops.

Big thanks to Feargal, and to Lauren Nicoll at Faber for setting this interview up - and of course to Emily for her time.