In conversation with Colin Thubron


Laura McVeigh, PEN International’s Executive Director, in conversation with Colin Thubron April 2013.

In your view, what is a writer?

Writing is a compulsion, not a choice, and I think real writers are a bit obsessive. Writing is our consolation, our way of inscribing order – or at least expression – on chaos.

What role does the writer play in relation to freedom of expression? What do you think are the biggest challenges to freedom of expression today?

It’s said that no society really knows its own heart. The writer (to put it pompously) can help expose a culture to itself. Today words rampage everywhere – we are communication-mad – yet the greatest challenge to freedom in any community, besides sheer political oppression, is the corruption of awareness, and often automatic self-censorship.

How can writers make a difference to, as you put it, ‘humanizing the map’?

Travel writing, in particular, can give a voice to the ordinary – to things that often escape news reportage – and so help to populate the map less with cliché or fear than with human variety. This becomes crucial in the cultures that tend to alarm us: China, Russia, contemporary Islam.

Which writers inspire and engage you most? Why?

The writers who have inspired me are, conventionally, the giants of human consciousness, those who extend or express unexamined experience: Proust, Joyce. Dostoevsky, in another vein, has been important to me, wrestling with the still valid problems of faith. And William Golding.

What moved you to begin writing?

It was important to me from childhood. All children want to practice what they’re good at, and I was good at words (in a gaudy way). I loved the written word for itself, and wrote some dreadful juvenilia.

You’ve spoken of the lengthy research and often language learning process you go through in advance of travel to write – yet part of the magic of travel writing is often the inescapable sense of foreignness and enigma of place and people that comes across. How much does the research and immersion in the language shape your idea of the book to come?

No research can replace experience on the ground, or familiarize you emotionally with a foreign culture. There comes a moment in research when I feel that it’s time to start the journey, however ill-prepared, because I’m afraid of being conditioned by others’ views. But inevitably in research there are places in a country that seem especially eloquent of it, that arouse your curiosity; so a projected itinerary emerges that is satisfying as a narrative. In this sense the journey becomes book-shaped.
But on the road, of course, everything may change.

Any memorable moments of misunderstanding when trying out new language skills?

All too many. I’ve struggled with Russian and Mandarin for years, and remain feeble in both. Mandarin, in particular, being a tonal language, can land you in endless trouble. In conversation, I’ve mistaken mothers for horses (and vice versa), and a mosquito for a kiss.

When you write fiction how does your writing process differ from travel writing in which you are relying on notebooks and longhand accounts to help create the final book? Do you gather your thoughts in the same way?

The genres feel psychologically very different to me. When travelling, my notes are impressionistic but very full, so the book is already there in rough. The task later is to rewrite the journey lucidly. In fiction, of course, there is rarely such experience to fall back on. It is a totally imaginative enterprise, which enjoys greater freedom, but also a challenging unrootedness.

To what extent is fiction shaped by fact?

Not in the same way that travel writing is. Fiction imaginatively coerces or deploys facts for its own purposes. Travel encounters them haphazardly. In my travel writing I try to be scrupulous about factual accuracy; I rarely move into imaginative stretches, and when I do I signal them to the reader. But in my novels the truths I am after emerge from invented persons and situations, of course, and I don’t think there is ever exact autobiographical correspondence.

What has being a writer given you?

Amongst much else, it has stimulated travel. When travelling in order to write, I find myself more sensitive, more alert (and more apt to take risks). I risk things for a book that I would never usually do. I think this has given me a deeper focus on certain countries than I would have normally exerted.

If you couldn’t write, what would you do?

I’d publish the writing of others.

What difference can an organization like PEN make?

I think PEN’s championing of endangered writers is unique. Even when PEN’s impact on oppressive regimes is unknown, its very existence must be a deterrent to persecution.