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Hackney-based writer wins Sunday Times award for his maiden book, Kings of the Yukon

PUBLISHED: 12:50 19 December 2018 | UPDATED: 14:39 19 December 2018

Hackney resident Adam Weymouth has won the Sunday Times' Young Writer of the Year award. Picture: Ulli Mattsson.

Hackney resident Adam Weymouth has won the Sunday Times' Young Writer of the Year award. Picture: Ulli Mattsson.

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We speak with Adam Weymouth on the epic journey that inspired his book and why it’s time climate change made a return to the mainstream media.

The cover for Weymouth's debut book, Kings of the Yukon. Picture: Ulli Mattsson.The cover for Weymouth's debut book, Kings of the Yukon. Picture: Ulli Mattsson.

The morning after Adam Weymouth was named as The Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year, he expressed his delight on Twitter: “I’m absolutely buzzing, woke up and it was still true.”

Catching up with the 34-year-old one week later, my first question was whether his victory had started to sink in.

“No, I still don’t really feel like I’ve come down yet! It definitely wasn’t something I was expecting and if you had told me this would happen three years ago, when I set out to write my book, I wouldn’t have believed you.”

Weymouth – who lives on a 100-year-old narrowboat on the River Lea – landed this most prestigious of prizes for his debut book, titled Kings of the Yukon. The story charts his personal experience of a four-month journey spent canoeing the waters of the Yukon River. Set across 2,000 miles throughout Alaska and the most north-westerly reaches of Canada, the Yukon is also the location of the longest salmon run in the world, where hundreds of thousands of king salmon complete an epic journey to the waters of their birth, before breeding and dying.

But climate change is having a critical influence on this whole process, and the numbers of fish completing the salmon run are falling in big numbers.

Weymouth researched for his debut book via an epic four-month journey across the Yukon River. Picture: Ulli Mattsson.Weymouth researched for his debut book via an epic four-month journey across the Yukon River. Picture: Ulli Mattsson.

“On the face of it, the book is a classic adventure story,” adds Weymouth.

“It’s about travelling along the longest free-flowing river in North America, and doing it at the same time as the king salmon run.

“The idea was to look at the reasons for the salmon’s decline – it has crashed massively in recent years – and to investigate its wider impact on the ecosystems of the people living on the river. I went out to look at how fundamentally connected people and nature are.

“It’s always felt like such a personal project but it’s focusing on a fish, which isn’t the most charismatic of animals.

“The unravelling of the Yukon’s ecology is a story that needs to be heard, and it has relevance far beyond Alaska.

During his trip, Weymouth spoke with people from communities whose economies depend on the king salmon. Picture: Ulli Mattsson.During his trip, Weymouth spoke with people from communities whose economies depend on the king salmon. Picture: Ulli Mattsson.

“From a personal point of view it was fascinating to go from the heart of a massive city to one of the most sparsely populated parts of North America.”

Weymouth embarked on his four-month visit in the summer of 2016, paddling against the flow of the king salmon and collecting first-hand accounts of the people whose livelihoods correlate with the prosperity of this fish.

The author then returned to London where he spent a year writing Kings of the Yukon while reflecting on his experience, before it was published in April.

“It’s such an important time to be talking about climate change,” he continues.

“There have been a couple of high-profile reports, everyone is talking about plastic in the oceans, and it feels like a conversation that faded away but is coming back.

“Climate change is such a bad news story and it’s a long news-cycle. It’s also hard to get anything that isn’t Brexit or Trump-related in the news right now. It feels like it’s time to get climate change back in the papers again.”

Judges of the Young Writer of the Year award heaped praise on Weymouth after he was announced as the winner.

Susan Hill said she was “knocked sideways by this book,” while Andrew Holgate revealed there was “a strong and excited consensus among the judges for the winner.”

Kamila Shamshie – herself the winner of this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction – completed a hat-trick of glowing feedback, calling Weymouth “a nuanced examiner of some of the world’s most fraught and urgent questions.”

So how does Weymouth feel about these comments?

“Intimidated! It’s very flattering to hear, but I’m on book one here and I don’t think I’m quite at that level.

“It is exciting though and a lovely prize to win, the award is very supportive of young writers – it is hard to make a living this way.”

Weymouth became a father early in 2018, and although he has lived on the River Lea for the last couple of years, his young family are moving to Lesbos, Greece, in January as his osteopath partner begins work running a migrant project.

As he begins to focus on his next book, Weymouth says writers looking to follow in his footsteps should “write about what you’re passionate about, not what you think you should write about.

“Grants are a great way to get access to stories that you wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford to do when starting out – the Winston Churchill Travel Fellowship got me to Alaska for the first time.

“Writing is a totally legitimate job that you can make a living from, don’t let anyone convince you otherwise!

“We need a much greater diversity of voices in media and literature, if you don’t feel like your voice is represented, all the more reason to try and get your work out there.”

For more information about Adam Weymouth and Kings of the Yukon, visit his website here.

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