Are you an adventurer?
As a kid growing up in Scotland, I was a bit of a scaredy cat. The ‘adventurer’ in my family has always been my older brother Jamie. He’s the one who’s a search and rescue pilot. He’s the one who’s climbed the tallest mountain in the Swiss Alps, in a snowstorm — for fun.
Still, I’ve always been happiest when I’m outside. And I’m always trying to shake up the scaredy cat inside me.
It took years before I felt brave enough to go wild camping by myself. A few summers ago, I spent a week walking alone across the Isle of Skye — just me and my tent. For lots of people, that wouldn’t be scary at all. But it was for me. I was pushing myself beyond my comfort zone.
What makes you happy?
Watching puffins try to land on the cliffs near my childhood home. Candles. Stars.
So you’re a writer?
I studied law at Edinburgh University, but I was always sneaking off to write stories as the food and drink editor at the student newspaper.
Then, when I spent a year on exchange at Copenhagen University, I couldn’t stop writing about the Scandinavian culture I’d been thrown into. I entered an essay about living in Denmark into a British Council writing competition in 2009 and won the national prize. That’s when I decided I wanted to be a writer.
After graduating, for a few years I took on odd jobs — cleaning yachts in Greece, teaching English in Seoul — so I could meet people from around the world, learn from them, and write their stories.
What did you learn from teaching English in South Korea?
Teaching nearly a hundred primary school kids every day, mostly I learned about Pokémon. I also learned that kids thrive when they’re outside and running around. That’s why I was always figuring out ways to take classes up on the rooftop.
I also realised just how curious children are about other people, other cultures. They all wanted to know all about Scotland. Did my family eat kimchi at dinner? Did Scottish men really wear skirts?
Is there anyone who you’re really hoping will read your book?
Everyone. I hope readers will see that world history goes far beyond Columbus and the conquistadors. I hope girls will read it and realise how much potential they have. I hope mothers and fathers and brothers will read it and realise how much potential they have, how much potential their daughters and sisters have.
In a survey by Outside Magazine, only 13% of participants knew the name of the first woman up Mount Everest. Her name is Junko Tabei. She reached the summit on May 16, 1975.
Which adventurer in the book inspires you most?
The teenager Nujeen Mustafa. She was born with cerebral palsy.
Because she uses a wheelchair, she spent much of her life in a fifth-floor apartment in Aleppo. She couldn’t go to school. Her main connection to the outside world came through television, and she learned English by watching Days of our Lives on repeat.
When fighting in Syria intensified, Nujeen’s family fled the country with millions of others. She and her sister began the difficult journey to Europe as refugees.
As their dinghy from Turkey to Greece pulled up to shore, an aid worker called out, “Does anybody speak English?” Nujeen was the only person to shout out “I do!” For the first time in her life, Nujeen says she didn’t feel like a burden. She could act as an English interpreter for other Syrians making the overland journey across Europe in 2015. She could feel useful.
I can’t imagine how momentous that must have felt. I cried when I heard her say the following words on CBC Radio: “Nujeen Mustafa is happy with who she is. She loves herself. She loves everyone else as well. Nujeen Mustafa loves life and the whole world.”
There’s so much to learn from young women like Nujeen — how to be happy; how to do good in the world.