Sarah Anderson founded the Travel Bookshop in Notting Hill in 1979 the shop that later featured in the film Notting Hill. She was educated at the London University colleges of SOAS and Heythrop, has travelled widely, taught travel writing at City University, writes regular travel pieces, reviews books and gives talks worldwide.
She has been a judge for the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award and for the Whitbread Biography Prize. Her publications include Anderson’s Travel Companion, The Virago Book of Spirituality, Inside Notting Hill, Halfway to Venus: A One-Armed Journey and most recently The Lost Art of Silence to be published in December 2023.
She has had solo exhibitions of her paintings at the Tabernacle in London and the Aldeburgh Art Gallery and has also exhibited at St John & St Elizabeth Hospital, the Dovedale Arts Festival and Green & Stone.
Can you start by telling me about your new book, The Lost Art Of Silence?
It’s something I’ve been thinking about for many years but it's just taken a while to get to publication! We live in such an incredibly noisy world and I really do think that most creativity — whether it's painting, writing, composing or just listening to music — needs silence.
It may sound odd to say music but when I spoke to musicians during my research, many said that the moments of silence — during music — can be the most important part. So, I do think that almost all creativity needs silence and that was one of the reasons I embarked on the book.
What inspired you to write a book about silence?
One of the key moments was in 2005 when I went to The Antarctic. While we were there, we went on a big icebreaker vessel and then moved onto small zodiacs one day. We were zooming in and out of the icebergs and then our guide turned the engine off. It began to snow and it was completely silent.
I think that was really the inspiration for the book. I'll never ever get that moment back, but I've got the memory of it.
When is the book launching and who is it published by?
It’s being published by Shambhala Publications in America and the publication date is 5th December 2023. In the UK, Shambhala is distributed by Penguin Random House so I'm hoping the book will be in every bookshop here.
How are you marketing the book?
A few different methods: my website for starters; I am speaking on Front Row on BBC Radio 4 on December 14th; and a friend of mine is hoping to get me to give a talk at the Colony Club in New York.
The UK representative for Penguin Random House said most of his authors are in America so it’s hard for them to hop on the radio last minute but I’m here on hand so hopefully something will come of that!
This isn't your first book. Can you tell me a bit about the other books you've written?
I founded the Travel Bookshop in 1979 and I was asked to write a book about the shop. The bookshop was arranged by country but it had other subjects too such as fiction, histories, guides, maps, biographies and natural history all on the same shelf. I was asked to write a book in the same format. It was published by Scolar Press and called Anderson's Travel Companion. That was my first book.
Virago Press then asked me to write a book about female travellers but then retracted this as they’d been sent a manuscript from America on the same topic. They asked me to think of another topic so I thought of women's spirituality and that was published in the nineties: A Virago Book of Women's Spirituality. In America, it was called Heaven's Face Thinly Veiled and was actually published by Shambhala, my current publisher, so I have a bit of history with them.
Then the famous film, Notting Hill, was based on my bookshop and so a friend, Miranda Davies, and I wrote Inside Notting Hill, which included walks around the area and interesting essays that people wrote specially for the book. That did fantastically well, especially in Notting Hill.
I went to launch the book in America and the date was September 11th 2001. I couldn’t cancel the launch because there were no phones and so people did turn up. I learnt that after a tragedy like that, all people really want to do is to talk. I’ve never talked so much as in that subsequent week.
Then I wrote my autobiography, Halfway To Venus, which I published myself in 2008. I hadn’t written a book since then until now so it’s really exciting for me!
How did you find writing an autobiography?
Well, the trigger is that I only have one arm and so I really wanted to write about what it's like having one arm. I looked at history and other people who had one arm and how they've dealt with it. There are so many people with one arm in literature, so I actually found the book very easy to write.
I really wanted to let people know what it feels like and I received some very nice reviews so I was very pleased with that.
How did your bookshop being the centre of the film Notting Hill impact the visibility of your bookshop and sales?
The visibility of the bookshop soared as you can imagine. Even today, anywhere I go in the world and I say that I founded the travel bookshop which featured in the film Notting Hill, people go absolutely bananas and want to take my photograph!
From the fame point of view it was fantastic but from the business point of view, not as much. Record numbers of people came to the shop but few ever bought books.
Did you meet interesting people when you were running the bookshop?
Yes, I was very lucky. When I founded the bookshop in 1979, it was the beginning of the eighties which was really the golden age of modern travel writing. I met authors including Bruce Chatwin, Jonathan Raban, Paul Theroux, Colin Thubron, Norman Lewis and so I got to know them all and many more besides.
I'd never actually written myself and in the late eighties, somebody suggested that I go to Sri Lanka to write a piece for a magazine called Departures, which was the American Express magazine. That was the start of my writing career
It also meant that any time I went travelling, I could ring up an editor and write a travel piece for them so that was also fantastic.
Are there any more books you want to write?
Funnily enough, there's a woman who very few people in England have heard of called Mary Austin. She lived in about 1900 in the southwest of America and she was an extraordinary woman.
She was a mathematician, a philosopher, a novelist and she was interested in the environment. There’s hardly anything about her in this country and I think very few of her books are still in print in America so I’d love to write something about her.
I’m also trying to write a thriller too at the moment!
When you're not writing, what do you enjoy doing?
I paint. I've had a few exhibitions and Shambhala wants to do something with my paintings for the book which I think is a great idea.
I'm actually going to Japan in November just before the book comes out on a painting trip and I was on a painting course in Dorset this summer. I paint still life, landscape and some collages.
What is the best book you've read in the last year?
Well, the problem at the moment is that I'm a reader for a literary prize, First Biography Prize, which means that I’m having to read about fifty biographies/memoirs that I’ve been sent so I haven't chosen a book for quite a long time.
I have, however, sneaked onto my Kindle a book called Haunts of the Black Masseur by Charles Sprawson. It’s about swimming and I absolutely love it so I read small bits of it when I'm fed up with reading other people's memoirs!
If you can think of all time do you have a favourite book that comes to mind?
It’s a very difficult question because I've enjoyed so many books. When I was in the bookshop, I read a lot of travel books and really enjoyed Bruce Chatwin’s Songlines and actually his book On the Black Hill I thought was fantastic too.
Thank you Sarah!