Interview with Jacqueline Buchanan - Author of Tortoises on the Via de la Plata: Walking the Camino di Santiago

First a bit about our author:

I live in South East London, UK with my partner, Alan. My major life defining moments have been having my two sons, surviving the tsunami, walking 600 miles through Spain and being invited to tea at Buckingham Palace. HRH Prince Charles recognized my work with the Red X, and the cucumber sandwiches were excellent, but it bucketed down all afternoon causing my hat to fall apart. I am a teacher (FE). I am a writer.

What would you most like your readers to know about you that they wouldn’t read in your official bio?

I have a dream of getting together with small groups of about six women who want to walk the Camino, but feel they can’t for some reason.  I would like to walk the Camino with them and help them write up their own stories in the evenings. I would love to empower these women to discover that, despite what they are feeling, they are actually amazing.

Tell us a bit about Tortoises on the Via de la Plata, and what inspired you to write this story?

The Via de la Plata (VdlP) is an old Roman road and the start of a pilgrimage from Sevilla to Santiago de Compostela. The route is 1000 kilometres, or 600 miles, long. When I set of to walk the Camino, I only wanted to live a dream, to see if I could actually walk it. Although I felt ‘the call,’ I never envisaged writing a book.

However, on my return home, I was overwhelmed with my experience, (nearly everyone who walks the Camino is inspired), and, although there were lots of books written about the Camino Frances, there was only one, in English, about the VdlP. I wanted to tell everyone that it was just as amazing as walking the Camino Frances.

Was it difficult to share such personal experiences and memories from your life? And, why did you feel it was important to do so?

Yes it was difficult to share some of my personal experiences because the last thing I wanted was to portray my parents in a negative light. I didn't want my readers to think badly of them. Although its true to say that we were neglected and that I had a tough childhood it is necessary to put things into context. My parents were young, they had six small children and serious money issues. They had both known troubles when they were children too. The most difficult part was to write about finding my father with another woman. I had to tell the story as it was because the book was written primarily for my family and my descendants. Wouldn't you just love to read your great grandmothers story? That is why it was important to tell the truth as I remember it.

The book was a wonderful weaving of personal memoir and travel essay. Did you start out wanting to write one over the other?

My idea was to write a kind of guidebook, but with a little more than just the route in it. The first draft was a journal and I did publish it on Amazon Kindle, but later I began to learn the craft of writing and I realised that it wasn’t as good as it could be so I unpublished it.

What was the most life empowering moment during your walk along the Camino?

I am also very competitive and hate it when I can’t keep up with other people. One day on a lonely moor in the middle of nowhere, Alan was up ahead and I was moaning to myself about how slow we were walking when I ‘heard’ a message. The message was to slow down and walk at my own speed or else I would never make it to Santiago. I believe God was talking directly to me. It was profound, or as Laurie Lee would say, “It was a world that I wanted to record because it was such a miracle visitation to me.”

I know you shared this experience with you husband, Alan. Did you ever consider walking solo?

 Alan did not want me to walk, in fact he was set against it. He said it took mental and physical stamina (he was right) and I would never make it. When I first wanted to walk it, I couldn’t even walk home from the shops. But I was pulled in two directions. Alan told me no but the Camino kept calling me. So, originally I decided to go it alone. I changed my mind because I got scared at the last minute and I’m so glad I did. The VdlP is a very lonely road to walk alone.

 What are your thoughts on solo travel for women?

I think women travelling solo is a great idea, but, it takes courage and unless you are going on an organized tour it takes a certain amount of ‘street cred’. By that I mean knowing how to trust your intuition when it comes to strangers, learning about local customs and acting accordingly. If you enjoy your own company that helps too, although there are usually people around in a similar position.

Not every travel adventure makes for a good book. What about your experiences on the Camino convinced you this one would?

It was not so much about writing a ‘good’ book as just telling everyone about the VdlP. The final version was written for my family, for my grandchildren without thinking about a ‘good’ book. Wouldn’t you love to read a book written by your grandmother or great grandmother? I would.

You crossed paths with a wide variety of people along your walk. Was there a person or character that you feel would make a good story?

 All people have a story. It’s the baggage we carry in our rucksacks. I would love to listen to and write down everyone’s stories, so that they could lighten their loads

Can we have an excerpt from Tortoises on the Via de la Plata?

“Lots of people think they’re going to make it to Santiago, but not many do.”

I started to cry. We weren’t at Salamanca yet. We wouldn’t even get that far. I howled. My howl filled the silent air around me. I couldn’t bear to go home. But it looked like we would have to. It was so unfair. A waterfall of self-pity welled up from my belly and cascaded forcefully down my face. Why couldn’t I walk faster? Why was I so slow? I only wanted to live my dream. I only wanted to be normal like everyone else. All the other pilgrims could walk faster than me. Even that Italian woman. And she had a bad leg. Why was I so slow?  If only I could walk faster I wouldn’t have to go home. It wasn’t fair. I only wanted to live my dream…


The voice boomed.

The waterfall stopped immediately. Like lightning. I looked around me. There was no-one there.

“Huh?” I said.

“Stop whining.”

The voice was a thought inside my head. But it wasn’t my voice, not even my nasty inner voice. And it spoke from outside of me too.

 “I’m fed up with the way you try to compete with everyone. I’m fed up with your jealousy, your bitter thoughts. You’re not living your dream. You’re ruining it. You’re ruining it for Alan too. Moaning constantly about getting to Santiago. You won’t ever get to Santiago if you don’t start enjoying it and stop competing. Go at your own pace. Slow down.”

“Oh my God,” I said. “It’s you.”

I’m going to pause here for a moment because, my reader, I know you don’t believe me. If you had written that you’d heard the voice of God on a wild and windy moor in the middle of nowhere I wouldn’t believe you either. But I swear it was true. I heard this voice and I’m certain it was God. Now on with the story.

I answered the voice.

“God, I’m so sorry,” I said. “I’ll apologise to Alan, he’s been my rock. And I’ll stop competing. We will go slowly God. As slow as…I paused to think. A tortoise came into my mind. As slow as tortoises” I said. “We’ll be your tortoises on the Via de la Plata. Is that OK with you God?”

But I never got an answer. The voice had gone. For a moment, I felt unhinged. Then I realised that I wasn’t unhinged, I was untethered. Wings had replaced my cart. I felt like Pegasus. I could fly. So fly I did. I flew along the road for a hundred and fifty metres.

“Oh Alan, I’m so sorry. You are absolutely right. We are doing the best we can. And, I love you. I really love you. Thank you so much for coming with me and please, can we keep going?”

“’Ere, steady on Jack.” He gave me a big hug. “Sorry would be fine. I’m sorry too. I’ve been moaning a lot lately. I haven’t been sleeping well and…”

“You don’t have anything to be sorry about. You’re in the right. I shouldn’t poke my nose into other people’s business and we are doing our best.”

“Well I’m glad you agree to that. We are doing our best. But there’s something else…”

“Oh?” I shied away a little. “What?”  He pulled me back to him.

 “Come here,” he said, putting his arm around me as we walked.

“Do you remember how you had to sleep in the afternoons when we first started the


I pulled away again. I had to defend myself.

“I couldn’t help that. I was always knackered in the afternoons. I wasn’t used to walking then.”

“Come here and stop kicking up your heels. I want you to listen to what I have to say. It’s really important. So listen. You’re not knackered now are you?”

“No. I’ve had a lot of walking practice since then, ha-ha.”

“Well, remember that old saying?”

“What old saying?”

“The only person you should compare yourself with, is the person you were yesterday.”

“Yes I remember it,” I said. “Why?”

“Because Jack, if you look back, you’ll see just how far we’ve come.”

What is your writing process?

 I write down what I am thinking and then I edit it as I go along. I continue with chapter 2 all the while editing chapter 1. I think the first part of Tortoises has been edited a hundred times. I repeat this process throughout the book, which is probably why it has taken me four years to write. As for the editing part, I don’t think it is ever done to perfection but you have to come to a point where you say ENOUGH and get it published. Perfection is not attainable.

What is the most interesting activity you’ve participated in for story research?

Definitely walking the Camino. I have learned a lot more about Spain though, especially its legends and its history since I returned home.  Having said that, this year I went to Madrid and I loved seeing the statues of the kings I had written about. It sort of brought the book to life.

Has writer’s block ever been a problem for you?  If so, how do you deal with it?

 When I first started writing my book I had no writer’s block at all. I could write for hours. I thought my every single word would be riveting to the world at large.

Four years later I do get writer’s block. I think every writer does. I take the story I have written and write the opposite. So, for example, if it’s romantic, I try something factual. Or I change the focus from character A to character B. Or I play around with different openings because I always have to write chronologically. I like starting stories with dialogue.  

What do you enjoy most about writing?

When I have a story to write, I have a door to unlock.  Going over the story in my mind is like having a big box of keys. I try each key in turn. When I find the right key and open the door, the story just tumbles out in its entirety. I love the way it comes out so fast. Oftentimes, I can’t keep up with it and I’m always amazed at what my mind has to say when it’s in this mode.

What do you enjoy the least?

 When I’ve tried dozens of keys in the lock and none of them seem to fit at all. I have to remember that one of them really will fit, even it’s the last one out of the box.

Do you have a favorite quote?

I love quotes. Here are some of my favorites: “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside of you.” “If you limp, you’re still walking.” “The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.” “Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass, it’s learning to dance in the rain.”

What writer has inspired you the most and why?

At school I hated reading boring descriptions. Now I love them and use them myself. Cider with Rosie, by Laurie Lee, bowled me over and showed me how to turn a phrase. I love writers who make me emotional as well, Maya Angelou, Rachel Joyce and very recently, a brand new, unknown writer, Zahara Schara who wrote The Syrian’s Story. I nearly never read her book because of grammar and spelling issues but I am so glad I did. I can’t wait for her next book.

Now for a few fun questions:

If money were not object, where would you most like to live?

I would like to live in Sri Lanka. Despite being caught up in the Tsunami, I really loved the country. Then again I love London, UK where I live now, but it’s a bit cold. I think my ideal would be for the rest of my life to walk the world with only one change of clothes and my credit card in my rucksack.

What is your favorite curse word?

Wanker- I was a bit embarrassed to answer that question Bobbi.

What sound or noise do you most love?

My boys laughing together and thunderstorms.

What sound or noise do you most hate?

I hate the noise of traffic horns in India. Every driver on the road is in competition to see if they can beep the most.

What are you currently reading?

Pilgrimage to Heresy, by Tracy Saunders.

What is the one piece of advice you would give for all of the aspiring travel writers out there?

Minute details in chronological order are boring to read. It took me at least three years to learn that.

What book or projects do you have coming up in the near future?

I am writing a small anthology of around half a dozen stories, or ten thousand words, based on true stories/memoirs and an aspect of mothering. For example, Mother Nature is about the birth of green turtles in Ghana, and Mother at War is a memoir I wrote for a friend based on her memories of WWII.