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Rusty Young explains his creative process

We love chatting to creative people about their creative process. Rusty Young is a celebrated author and all round top guy. You probably know Rusty’s best selling book, Marching Powder. The true story of an English drug-smuggler, a notorious Bolivian prison and enough cocaine to cover the Andes. Here’s Rusty standing in the ‘5 star’ area of that now famous prison in 2002 – San Pedro Prison in La Paz, Bolivia.


Rusty’s about to launch his much anticipated 2nd book Colombiano in October and we cant wait to read it.

We recently sat down with Rusty for a little fireside chat –

Give us the Rusty elevator pitch.
I’m a writer and traveller who spent four months living voluntarily in a South American prison to research my first book. I get completely inspired by unusual people and places and want to share these encounters with the world.

Where do you get your ideas from?
From real life and from travelling the world. There are so many amazing stories out there, you’ve just got to go out and find them.

How do you stay creative?
I find regularly changing locations gives me different perspectives on life.

Do you ever have a creative block? How do you get past it?
It might sound strange, but I often unblock my creative flow by doing lots of intensive exercise such as running, cycling, going to the gym and kiteboarding. The brain releases loads of chemicals that assist in making new links between otherwise ordinary facts.

What’s the best environment to be creative in?
Placing yourself in new and unusual situations can inspire flashes of creativity, but I think the substantial work of creative people requires loads of self-discipline and also sitting still for long periods in order to develop those ‘flashes’ into a cohesive work.

How much prep work do you do before writing a book? What type of prep work do you do?
I believe in deep-immersion research. I first research around the “facts” of a situation (secondary sources), however, the details that give insight and authenticity usually come from firsthand interviews and from actually living closely to the subject I’m working on.

The best way to write a character is to actually put yourself in his or her position. Don’t think for a minute that because you’ve seen firefighters on television or in movies that you know what a firefighter’s life is like. Go and meet one. Spend a week at a fire station, make friends with them, live their lives.

We all know Marching Powder… What made you write it? What was the catalyst?
San Pedro prison in Bolivia was the most unusual place I’d ever been to. And Thomas, the person I wrote about, completely defied my assumptions about drug traffickers. The catalyst was staying overnight in the prison – that’s not an experience most people will ever have (and probably don’t want to have either!).

Tell us about your current project?
I lived in Colombia for eight years and became fascinated by child soldiers engaged in the four-decade-long conflict. The world knows about African child soldier, but few people are aware that there are over 10,000 children fighting in Colombia. It took years to earn their trust and learn their stories. They were all different and fascinating. My next book combines their first-hand accounts into a longer, fictionalised narrative that I hope will be both educational and entertaining.

We’ve heard people say that once you’ve written one book it’s easier to write the 2nd and then easier still to write the 3rd and so on… Has it been easy to write a follow up to Marching Powder?
The second book for me has been ten times harder (and taken ten times as long to write!). Firstly, because this book is fiction, which is more demanding. Secondly, because I’ve set myself a higher standard.

I think writing would have become easier with each book if I had stuck to the same genre and churned out books that were similar. However, I prefer a challenge. I’d rather write three or four good books over my lifetime than twenty that are repetitive.

What constitutes a great story for you?
For me, telling a good story is about providing the optimal reading experience. I enjoy stories that provoke strong emotions, that take me out of my comfort zone and offer challenging insights into the human condition. You’re probably less likely to find those stories in safe, civilised environments. The soul of a story comes from the unique characteristics that set it apart from other stories you’ve heard.

What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to someone who wants to write a book?
Take at least a year out of your ‘normal’ life in order to dedicate your full energy to the project, but also have a backup plan in case it doesn’t work out.