No; not an answer!
She calls herself the most conformist rebel she has ever known. From
a tender age she has refused to follow trends and had carved her own
unique set of principles which set her apart from other writers.
Her success lies not only in multi-tasking but also her ability not
to take ‘no’ for an answer once she sets her heart on a task. Her
photographic talents have won her the Travel Photographer of the Year in
Australia and the UK and she is the only woman to ever achieve this
status. Her photos are constantly used by worldwide brands such as BBC
Lonely Planet and Getty Images and published in globally renowned
magazines ranging from Geographical to The Independent.
Our encounter this week is with the multitalented Juliet Coombe who
resides in Galle and owns Sri Serendipity Publishing House.
Q: Award winning news reporter, book author, Lonely Planet
travel photographer, festival manager of the inaugural HSBC Galle
Literary festival, UK Telegraph Travel show public speaker, Co founder
of Australia’s most successful travel magazine ‘Get Lost!’ Travel
magazine and novel publisher …. You have done more than what most people
manage in a lifetime. How do you stay sane?
A: Have two little boys and remind yourself what is important
in life, which are the simple things like enjoying the beach at dawn,
walking the old fort ramparts and sharing a cup of tea with a friend.
Most of all it’s waking up in the morning with Amzar and Samad bouncing
on top of me and being asked what shall we do today and thinking what
new things I can teach or show them.
Q: Your travel writing seems to be written in a diary form. It
almost seems as if you are talking to someone or thinking to yourself
unlike the standard sort of travel books which give straight facts and
figures of the locations rather than small stories. Comment.
A: My books vary from the highly academic, like Sri
Serendipity Publishing House’s recent release The Power of Sri Lankan
Art to taking a left field approach with Around The Fort in 80 Lives
(now in its second edition) involving researching directly with the
people who have lived in these historic buildings for generations about
its real life history.
Often through this line of questioning I found out much more
interesting facts about a subject than just trawling my way through
libraries, archives and existing books on the area.
with her boys keeps Juliet busy
I also feel as someone that has travelled to over 143 countries with
my job that I have never lost my fascination for a place and its people.
My writing warts-and-all has inspired millions of other travellers to
follow in my footsteps, because they feel I am real and not just a
picture postcard writer that lies about a place. My books in a nutshell
are a kind of National Geographic in content combined with real life
experiences, which luckily has proved to be a truly winning combination.
The key, of course, to any book’s success is six things
1) A clever title to grab your attention
2) A brilliant cover design that makes you think about the subject.
3) Superb writing holding a pace and constantly revealing new things
about the story or places people think they know about.
4) Equally brilliant photography/images or illustrations to go with
the story line.
5) Most important of all a well informed editor/ critic who takes the
book to a new level and the publisher and writer listens to.
6) Shop positioning and a good marketing strategy, which includes
sitting up all night answering questions for interviews like this one.
Q:You have commented that it is Sri Lanka’s complexity more
than its diversity that is the real attraction. Please elaborate.
A:Interesting question! I think from a storytellers perspective what
holds their interest in Sri Lanka and I include the likes of Arthur C
Clarke in this answer, who spent over 50 years here, is indeed the
fascinating complexity of the country.
One example came up recently in my researching the subject of black
magic, and the truth about Southern witchcraft, which advises one, does
not leave nail cuttings or hair around or face having a good or bad
spell on you. I believe this is all nonsense and yet some of the most
intelligent people I have met in this country firmly believe it exists
and to be very careful. I now burn my nail clippings as a result!
What I don’t understand is that Sri Lanka has a history that can only
be matched by the ancient Egyptians and Romans. What happened to these
people? And why is a country so rich in resources not a leading nation
in Asia? After all, the people are smart and able to turn their hands to
just about anything.
Q:According to your opinion, what is the ABC of travel
A: Being a great writer first and foremost, and NOT relying on
the travelling for your plot line. Billions of people travel to lots of
exotic, out of the way places and less than one per cent have ever
written anything worth reading about with the exception of travel writer
Keeping a detailed diary is vital with observations, business cards
to cross reference later, and names of people and most importantly of
all, capturing good dialogue that gives you an inroad into how a place
ticks. Taking pictures also helps you at a later date with all those
details that fade with time, or do what I did and write a travel book on
your doorstep so you can go back daily and check your facts. After all
what could be more exciting than the community you have chosen to live
Q: What is the best piece of ‘responsible tourism’ advice that
you can give?
A: Stop dropping rubbish, plastic in particular which as my
sons tell everyone; kills animals. Sea turtles for example, who think a
plastic bag is a jellyfish and after eating it often through not being
able to process it, die. Remember if the fish eats your rubbish and you
eat fish curry tonight, you are in turn eating your own rubbish. So take
that plastic bag or bottle home before you find yourself living off
Q: You must have learnt quite a number of amazing things
during your travels. Out of the lot, which experience really took you by
A: Eight weeks in Antarctica. You can hear a penny drop it’s
so silent and magical. It’s also a relief to see the wildlife able to
truly enjoy their environ without cities encroaching on their homes.
Whether it was watching King Penguins nursing their chicks on their feet
in the ice and keeping them warm, or passing million year old icebergs,
each moment is one I will always treasure.
Q:Addicted: Generation T is different from your other work as
it focuses on a habit of the people of the country rather than an area.
What inspired you to select this topic?
A: I love tea and drink lots of different types it all day
long. After water it’s the world’s second largest consumed drink and as
it’s one of Sri Lankans’ most important exports I thought it was
important to document what you can see and do in the six different
regions of tea. Plus highlight a new style of food ‘tea cuisine’ which
is very healthy and the book is packed full of inspiring dishes as a
Q:Tell us about some of the Sri Lankan writers that you have
A: I work with a lot of excellent Sri Lankan writers and think
Herman Gunaratne who wrote The Suicide Club is amazing, and Ruwan
Jayakody who wrote The Power of Sri Lankan Art is not only a brilliant
poet but also a very thought provoking writer who gets readers fired up
and angry. The important thing is to work with writers that challenge
you and want to push the boundaries in the subject.
Q: Don’t you like to try your hand at writing a novel?
A: I am currently writing a novel Miss Judged? My father was a
highly respected Old Bailey Judge for fifty years who dealt with some of
England’s most serious crimes and this is about an unsolved murder story
set between the Burma (Myanmar), the UK and Sri Lanka.
It’s a very grim read and reveals that paradise can sometimes be hell
and what you think you see is a mirage. My other working title was the
Q: I read that your biggest strength is your photographic
talent. Which photograph taken by you do you consider the prize of your
collection and why?
A: I have amazingly won photography prizes in three continents
and always for images of people that in some way instigated change. I
think my most powerful photograph is still one I took in my teens for
It was a photograph of cardboard city in London that focused in on a
person who was forced to turn a supermarket box into his home. The
picture caused the housing act to be over-turned and for homeless people
to be given social housing and help with rebuilding there lives. Like
the picture of the Vietnamese girl running down the street on fire
during the Vietnam war, photography has the ability to move millions of
people in a way a drawing never will.
Q: Are you more of a rebel than a conformist?
A: I am the most conformist rebel I have ever known. I refused
to do drugs in London, smoke, steal or anything inner city London kids
get sucked into, because in short I feel people who do this are like
sheep and peer pressure forces young people along a track that can often
lead to their own self destruction rather than self discovery, which is
projected by those who push this ‘xxxx’ onto young people. I could
always be found in the library asking whether democracy works anymore
than communism did. It seems as Europe goes into economic meltdown that
I might just have been right and more than that, I wanted to think about
what sort of system could work.
Q: What challenges do you face as a publisher, especially in
the international market?
A: I think the hardest thing is breaking into new markets and dealing
with the distribution of books. However good a book is, if you don’t
have enough outlets it won’t even cover its production costs.
Also people think that only Sri Lankans that go overseas can write.
Do they eat an airplane inflight meal and turn into award winning
writers overnight? Everyone knows you are either a writer or not a
writer and it does not matter if you live in a Colombo ghetto or a
village in the back of beyond.
Writing is an inherent gift that requires opportunity and someone
without social prejudice, which is hard here as everything seems to work
on who knows who and what school they went to.
I am proud to say after seven years of saying Sri Lanka has some
great homegrown writers, that people are no longer saying Sri Lankan
writers can’t write!
Q: Tell us about the Thambili Awards.
A: I wanted an award that gave everyone a chance and would
work on an equal playing field.
A coconut is something everyone drinks like water and like tea it’s
one of the countries most important exports.
Q: What are you working on right now and when will you be
launching the book?
A: I am working on Sri Lankan 60 Hits: an All Island Guide in
a National Geographic style, a new edition of the Colombo guide
collecting together all the exciting sites that are opening up, a sexy
novel The Other Sister.
Our next book signing is at Odel all day on the May 12 for The
The writer and I will be available from 10 am till 4 pm, so come down
if you’d like to chat or have a book manuscript you want considered for
publication. Then in June a very glamorous style of launch for The Power
of Sri Lankan Art is planned and discussion on Sri Lankan art.