INTERVIEW WITH COLIN THUBRON: London, June 2008
BY JAMES DALGLISH
The door opens to the first floor apartment in a West London neighborhood so full of sycamores and shrubbery that it seems at first some kind of urban-rural utopia. This is the address of Colin Thubron who in his books at least prefers a more austere landscape. And now the novelist and travel writer is standing in front of me with a friendly smile that allows time for recovery from the discrepancy between photos and reality. Mostly it’s the shock of white hair and a face that is neither as intimidating or ruggedly Asiatic as some recent author shots suggest. He looks very fit for his age, however, and I can easily imagine him scaling the Assassins mountain barehanded as described in Shadow of the Silk Road.
His invitation to enter comes in a voice that my dull American ear hears as a RP intonation of perfectly pronounced syllables. The same refined sounds introduce me to the author’s life partner, Margreta de Grazia, a professor of English literature at the University of Pennsylvania. We sit in a spacious living room graced by a fireplace and lined with bookshelves (which I’ll later find include few travel titles and none of Thubron’s books). A wide window looks out on a garden/lawn.
Colin Thubron began his literary career with four travel books about three small countries – Syria, Cyprus, Lebanon -- and the city of Jerusalem. (Out of print in the US, they can be ordered from the UK.) More ambitious in 1978, he took on giant Russia - then the USSR - in his first big publishing breakthrough Where Nights are Longest. He turned to another giant, China, just opening in 1986 (Behind the Wall), then pushed into newly independent states of central Asia (The Lost Heart of Asia), then reencountered a post-communist Russia (In Siberia). His latest, reviewed in these pages, improves even upon that. His parallel novelistic career includes seven titles of concise, intense fiction.
Born in 1939, Thubron comes from an illustrious British family that, he acknowledges, gave him a number of privileges in life – but not including wealth, he insists. He’s always had to earn his own way as a fulltime author.
His half-American father was a descendant of Samuel Morse, the inventor of the Morse code. His mother descended from John Dryden, the first English poet laureate – which “fed into my feeling that writing was important.” He himself, unmarried, has no children.
His father’s foreign postings as military attaché provided Thubron his first travel experiences and stimulus to roam later in life. In a typically English colonial pattern, the young boy was educated at boarding schools in England while his parents served their nation abroad. On holidays, he would fly across the Atlantic in old Stratocruisers (Boeing’s first long range commercial aircraft) to visit them. “I think I got an early feeling of excitement about travel because of these transatlantic journeys which I would undertake alone.”
After Eton, the traditional incubator of British prime ministers, he went directly into publishing instead of first going to university (“which always amazes Americans,” he quips). Why the unusual career choice? “I already wanted to be a writer. I never had any doubt about what I wanted to do....It was a passion.” Soon after taking his first paying job was with Hutchinson publishers, he lit out on his own.
Modus operandi [could be a sidebar?]
As his readers will already know, Thubron carries very little into the field. Only what will fit into a small rucksack: one change of clothes, minimal bad weather gear, four-to six moleskins and a ball point pen. No recreational reading—only a phrase book or dictionary. As for money, he hides that somewhere. Plastic and ATM machines are making that aspect of travel easier, he notes, even in Siberia. He takes no camera or recorder.
Each project, he informs me, takes about three or three and a half years to complete. He spends as much as a year researching the country and studying its relevant languages, which prepare him for his most important sources, the people he will meet. Although his travel narratives seem scholarly, even donnish, in their factual backgrounds, Thubron not only attended no lectures at Oxford or Cambridge but is also not a trained specialist in any of the areas about which he has written. “The great material for the travel writer is his experience on the ground,” he insists. “That’s where such originality as he may lay claim to exists.”
Two interviews were not enough for me to discover at which stage of his writing Thubron injects his famous stylistic brilliance - or as a friend put it, his obsession with avoiding ordinary linking verbs. But I did learn that his post-travel production begins with processing his “densely packed notebooks,” the source of each travel book. He then transcribes by longhand the notes while fleshing out the narrative into what he regards as the real first draft.
Q: Between that and the published version do you make any revisions?
CT: Yes, umpteen. First, the notes... are very full. In a way, I’ve got the whole journey there in impressionistic splashes of words. Those get disciplined, you hope, shaped into something by longhand. When it’s eventually on the screen it seems suddenly to have lost the personality it had in handwriting. In handwriting it has a certain energy, but once in print it loses something. Then I start to smash it up. I have to reenergize it and also, paradoxically, to prune it down because it’s overwritten.
Q: Is it tough earning your living as a fulltime writer these days?
CT: As for economics, I'm secure now, but only became so after the publication of my first book on Russia (Among the Russians). Before then it was very tough.
Q: Does it help commercially to work in more than one genre?
CT: I don't think the writing of novels as well as travel books helps much commercially. My publics for each genre are very different. But it does help creatively. When I'm worn out by one genre, I go for the other!
Q; Why has Great Britain produced so much good travel literature?
CT: I have no ready answer. But I suspect it may have something to do with the institution of the boarding school: a peculiarly British phenomenon. It's not a fluke that almost all British travel writers are middle class and have been the victims of boarding school since the age of about eight. I think it inures us to a certain kind of self-sufficiency and isolation, and gives a sense of being able to cope alone. It's a very tough initiation into the world. I don't think it's altogether beneficial I could go on about this! But it does encourage a sometimes dangerous sense of invulnerability.
Q: How did you write your first book Mirror to Damascus?
CT: I’d traveled there with my parents, actually, when I was a student. And became fascinated by the inland cities of Syria… It’s always been the desert Bedouin that people have romanticized. But to me it was always the urban civilization. I was fascinated by cities like Damascus, Aleppo, and Hama. You wander these streets and you see nothing. You’ve got mud walls on either side, a door is left open, you look in, there’s a little marble paved courtyard and a lemon tree. You don’t know what is going on. I didn’t even know what a mosque was really. And so like all my books, it was a journey of discovery for myself. It wasn’t something I felt I knew about and was telling the reader [as an expert]. It was like taking the reader into the experience of my own astonishment, discovery, sometimes disillusion, whatever it might be.
Q: Could you describe your interest in a travel writing as a geographical or cultural passion?
CT: It’s both really. I think would put it like this. The actual business of traveling is exciting to me, being on the move in solitude, cut off from everything familiar. That has a certain geographical excitement. But I’ve always felt at least that I traveled not for its own sake but for an object, for a place. As you noticed, I do a lot of research, and get a strong sense of what a place is going to be like, and then get a passionate desire to go there. So there’s always this feeling the first thing is the place rather than the journey.
Q: How do you create vivid scenes in which the reader feels he’s reliving your journey?
CT: My style is sort of automatic now. I don’t really think about it. I don’t think: How am I going to say this? At least I try not to. I think about what I’ve got to say and hope that the writing will follow. So I go back to the notes... The notes have an immediacy, which a recollected journey would not have by itself alone. And it’s possibly from that the sense of lived immediacy comes from...
Q: The color of the sky, the weather...?
CT: Yes, all that’s gone down in great detail in the notes. Because those are the things you forget. After a few weeks, I find that the early experiences have faded. I mean you can usually remember how a conversation normally went. Or what a landscape looked like, or what a building looked like, but you can’t remember the precise expression someone used, or the texture of those rocks, or the exact color of that church wall... or whatever it is. That’s what I get down in notes and that’s often what gives life to the description. Those vivid little details, which bring things to life and those of course you forget unless you get them down in notes. People think that I must have a good memory but I don’t.
Q: Do you have a stylistic ideal?
CT: I do. I suppose I can only say that I’m trying to get simpler. A little bit more economical now. Which I think is a typical product of getting older. When one’s young, one’s very exuberant, everything gets poured in ... I’ve noticed with people who get older there’s a kind of economy creeps in, sometimes a dryness. Fortunately, I began with a super abundance of imagination and color so I can well do with a little pruning down that my instinct is to do now... My drift, if you will, now is toward something a little simpler and starker.
Q: How do you as a travel writer deal with the point of view that we are all culture bound and therefore can’t escape our own cultures or really understand those of other people?
CT: I think these two things: One is that in travel writing, as opposed to academic work, you introduce this person into the drama which is the “I” figure, walking across the landscape, having these conversations. How he reacts, how he feels is all going to be implicit in that narrative. ... The traveler is out there holding himself up for judgment whether he wants to or not. He’s this person who’s being staged, and his idiosyncrasies, his tastes, his values, are all up for the judgment of the reader.
The second thing is that, particularly in American academe, there’s an idea—maybe this comes from Foucault--that it’s all about power. The traveler has power. He is visiting a culture that he has some understanding of. He comes from a culture that the people he is traveling amongst don’t know at all. Presumably he is in most cases middle class and educated, traveling among peasants, factory workers and fishermen. Who knows? Anyway the power balance is unequal. But I don’t go with this extreme idea that this therefore makes encounters with the foreign country in some way invalid. This would turn all human contact into paranoia. So those two things I would weigh against the Orientalist argument from the travel writer’s point of view. They don’t eliminate for me the very obvious idea that you can’t lose your own culture. Of course you can’t but you can begin to be conscious of it and even use that in the travel narrative.
Q: Compared to some travel writers you keep yourself pretty much out of the narrative. Any reason for that?
CT: Maybe I’m very English, I don’t know. It’s not an intended technique, it just happens. I don’t have anything very interesting to say about that. I’m concentrating very much on the country I’m in. And I tend to take my discomforts for granted. Whatever I happen to be feeling or thinking is pretty secondary to the fascination with the country itself where I am. And my personal reactions and thoughts tend to get lost in that process. That may be a fault because I know people want a little bit more of me very often.
Q: OK. What about the creative element in your writing?
CT: Is that a polite way of saying do I make up things?
Q: No, what I meant was...
CT: The answer is no quite firmly. I don’t believe in fictionalizing. Certainly in England there’s a kind of literary---not exactly a movement but idea-- that it’s all right to turn your travel book into fiction and to make up stuff. I think the ordinary reader—and that’s the huge majority -- takes it on trust that what happened happened. And in my case, it seems a failure of imagination or a failure of the journey if you’ve got to make a lot of stuff up to make it interesting...Usually the experiences you have are so extraordinary you don’t have to make anything up.
Q: Actually I wouldn’t have questioned your veracity. But it’s a good issue...
CT: The other thing is that in my case, I’m traveling among cultures I don’t feel I sufficiently understand, and if I were to make up, say, what a Chinese reaction to something would be, or even a Russian one, I would go horribly wrong. What I have done sometimes is to conceal people’s identity... in almost all the books it’s been necessary to safeguard someone’s privacy, even their safety politically.
Q: And the dialogue?
The conversations are condensations of what was spoken and what was important to me rather than literally word for word [transcriptions]. A whole lot is left out.
Q In Shadow of the Silk Road, is the ‘intermingling of cultures,’ as you put it, the lead idea?
CT: Yes, I think so. In looking back I realized whether it’s a product of the Silk Road or not, the book was all about interfusings and the rich impurities of cultures, that were seen as discrete, just as at the end of the book where I describe the borders as being so porous, some of the political borders were almost meaningless. Whereas other borders that meant more ethnically such as the division between Turkic and Persian peoples, were not on the map. That was exciting of course. That gave it a certain a bit of buoyancy that the book on Central Asia didn’t have.
Q: If we look at Lost Heart of Asia and then at Shadow of the Silk Road, I wonder why you retraced many of the steps made in the earlier book.
CT: I was keen on going back because I’d become fascinated with the Silk Road, because I had an urge to go back into what I’d felt was the heart of Asia and ...to revisit those cultures which had always fascinated me over forties years of travel. In other words China, Islam, Central Asia, the ex-Soviet Union, the Middle East, all these old fascinations for me, and something that was able to unite them which was the Silk Road.
Q: Does Shadow of the Silk Road summarize your previous work?
CT: It seems like that. Because it is based on so many of my interests that have been with me always since I started to travel, both Islam and the ogres of the Soviet Union that I wanted to visit and humanize. The subjects of my books are not often chosen from any very intellectual thought. It was a sort of gut desire to go back to these places and look for a unifying theme.
Q: When you’re out in the wild on one of your austere trips, what do you miss the most?
CT: Well, it’s irritating to those who are close to me, but I miss very little. I’m very inspirited by where I am. I’m very curious. There’s a constant tension of not understanding. All the time I’m traveling in o rder to write like this, I feel I’m not understanding, I’m not making enough contact. So there is a continuous strain, which is preoccupying you. So you’re forgetting--or trying to forget--your own culture, your own home, your own background... but I sort of leave it behind the moment I’ve taken off in the air. I find those things drop behind very fast. So I don’t on the whole miss people. When it comes to creature comforts, I find that I don’t mind the discomforts of travel or accommodation. You’re usually so exhausted you could sleep anywhere. Probably, if there’s a physical thing I miss, it’s the idea of a good rich Indian meal or something like that, but there’s not much I miss.
Q: Do you ever take trips purely for pleasure to tropical islands with blue skies and seas?
CT: Yes, but not quite the ordinary pleasure ones. I enjoy scuba diving, so I’ve been in places like Sulawesi, Jamaica, Mauritius. This has been pure holiday. I learned scuba a long time ago on Heron Island in Australia on the Barrier Reef.
Q: In one of your imaginary dialogues with the Sogdian trader (In Shadow of the Silk Road), there is a strong hint that you may quit traveling. He asks you, haven’t you ‘seen enough’ for one lifetime? So are you finished?
CT: These are dialogues between my cynical self, and my romantic self. But no, I have no intention of quitting...I don’t think I’ll stop writing travel books. I already have another one in my head. ... I want to make a short journey in Western Nepal over the Tibetan border to Mount Kailesh, the Buddhist and Hindu Holy mountain. This will be a very different journey from the last one. This will be short and focused, almost a pilgrimage. It’ll be more personal... I don’t know if this will work as a book. It may resolve into articles. But that’s my plan in September.
Q: Finally, what is it about the travel genre that attracts you?
CT: As for the form of travel writing, I think it's the sheer flexibility of the medium I find most attractive. A travel book is a very personal blending of the author's interests, so it can be a license, perhaps a dangerous one, to indulge in all sorts of passions and preferences - in my case the interaction of past and present, and the probing (in personal encounters) of people's beliefs and values, above all. The 'first person' narrative allows uniquely--outside autobiography--for the author to air his own feelings and thoughts, sometimes quite transient ones, and this gives a living texture to the work that appeals to me. But of course it's not only the form of the travel book that appeals to me, but the travel itself. The two are inseparable. Sometimes I even get a sense that it is the travel writing the book.
Q: Thank you, Colin Thubron, so much for your time.