In Conversation with William Dalrymple
(Historian and Travel Writer)
William Dalrymple is a historian and a travel writer. Born on March 20, 1965 in Scotland, he was educated at Ampleforth College and Trinity College, Cambridge, where he was first a history exhibitioner and then senior history scholar. He has written plenty of books and series for both television and radio. Dalrymple has won several awards, namely the 1990 Yorkshire Post Best First Work Award; the 1994 Thomas Cook Travel Book Award; the Sunday Times Young British Writer of the Year Award; the Mungo Park Medal in 2002; the Grierson Award for Best Documentary Series at BAFTA in 2002; received an Honorary Doctorate of Letters, Honoris Causa, from the University of Lucknow; an Honorary Doctorate of Letters, Honoris Causa, from the University of Aberdeen and the 2007 Vodafone Crossword Book Award.
William Dalrymple was recently in Dhaka and gave a talk on his works at Independent University, Bangladesh. Razia Sultana Khan (RSK) took the opportunity to interview him.
RSK: Will, thank you for your brilliant talk this morning. Are you surprised at the popularity of your books in Dhaka?
WD: Well, they have all been number one best sellers in India. This book has done better than others; it sold more than 35,000 hardback copies in the first two weeks, and I thought this would be one of the harder books to get away with in that Indians tend to believe that there are three things Ferengis tend to write about: one is maharajas, another is slums and the third thing is gurus, ashrams and sadhus. This book falls into item number three. I thought it would be a hard sell for that. Not that it's textually difficult but that while Ferengis have prejudices about South Asians, South Asians have reverse prejudices as well. It panders to what many Indians believe westerners want to see in their country.
RSK: Another thing, with our own culture, I wonder if we look at it more casually since we are a part of it and you have gone into it quite deeply.
WD: The approach is a little bit different to what people are used to here. There is such a rich and strong tradition at the moment in South Asian fiction in English; less strong tradition of South Asian non-fiction. And the travel book is relatively unknown as a form here. There are one or two amazing works of travel such as Amitav Ghose's Antique Land and Vikram Seth's From Heaven's Lake but there is simply no comparison really in the strength of the fictional level and non-fictional level.
RSK: Why do you think that is so?
WD: Two things are at work. I think one is simply there is not much of a tradition. There is a long tradition of story telling but there's never really been a strong South Asian tradition of biography, the way it is in England. In England we're obsessed with travel writing. With us the great South Asian writer would be Babur's own Baburnama. These are few and far between, relative to the strength of the story telling tradition, and the novel tradition, and the epic tradition, and the mythological tradition.
RSK: You probably get asked this question a lot but can you tell me a little bit about how you started your writing career?
WD: I have a little piece of a paper somewhere written when I was five which said I wanted to be an author and an archaeologist. I suppose I am nearly on target because I am a writer and historian which is not so far from the original goal. But I did not really start writing until I was at Cambridge as a student journalist. When I went backpacking in India at the age of eighteen, I wrote very long letters and got into reading. The real tutor in writing is reading and I never sat in a creative writing class in my life. My lessons came through Byron, Bruce Chatwin, Wilfred Thesiger, Colin Thubron, Michael Palin and such. This rich tradition of travel writing was particularly a strong point when I was starting off in the late 80s.
RSK: And traveling as well…
WD: Yes. I was living in Delhi for the first time in 1984 as a student between school and university. Delhi, which seemed to have as rich a history as any city - you can't move under a flyover or pass through a municipal garden or golf course without bumping into a tomb or ruins of temples and masjids - there seemed to be really no good books in print at all.
RSK: You mentioned this morning about your relationship with Virginia Woolf and everybody's ears perked up. And then you gave us this morbidly hilarious story. Would you mind repeating that story for the benefit of the readers?
WD: Virginia Woolf is my great, great aunt. And our mutual forbearer was a terrible crook called James Pattle. And Pattle was known as the most wicked man in India for a variety of very good reasons, which is probably best not to go into as this is for the newspaper. According to Virginia Woolf, as she puts it in her memoir, he was so wicked that the devil would never let him leave India. And when he died, he left instructions in his will that he was to be shipped back to England. The night before he was due to be shipped his corpse was lying in his wife's room, pickled in rum which was apparently the tradition in those days if you wanted to take the body home. Anyways, the boat was delayed, something went wrong, and because of the heat of the Calcutta summer, he sat up in his coffin, whereupon his wife dropped dead because of the shock, thinking he had risen from the dead. So the following morning, when the boat arrived, two bodies had to be placed in the hold of the ship. Because of the exposure the coffins smelt strongly of rum. And the lascars guessed what had happened. And they bored a hole in the side of the coffins to drink the rum. They got drunk, ran into the sandbank of the Hooghly, the paraffin lamp hit the rum on the floor, the whole thing went up in flames and Pattle and his wife were cremated in the middle of the Hooghly. That's why when you go to St John's cathedral in Calcutta you see a plaque on the wall instead of their graves.
RSK: Is that really true?
WD: It's family legend. It comes from the extremely unreliable witness of my great, great aunt.
RSK: As a creative writer myself I am interested to know if you have any writing rituals? Anything you do before you start, like sharpening a dozen pencils, or washing all the dishes…
WD: I think every writer has elaborate ways of putting off writing, ritualized forms of time wasting. I do have a slightly evolved one. My modus operandi as a writer is to be extremely punctilious about my research and to spend as much time as I need to on that. The big history books are both four year campaigns. But, whatever type of book, I actually have a strict routine when it comes to actually writing the book. I have to write it very intensely and shut down all life. Rather like doing exams. I go on a diet, I cut down on my drinks, I get up very early at 6:00 in the morning, a sort of brahmacharya approach. For this current book I had to pull a very neat thing. I keep myself away from my Blackberry and I write in a little house at the end of the farm where I live, a little pool hut. I sit under the fan and go out and reward myself with swims, once I have done a chunk of work, a chapter or a couple of pages. In an ideal world I get something substantial done in the morning, printed out and corrected before going back to work. I type in the corrections, get back to work and continue till quite late in the evening, till 7:30 or 8:00. And then collapse in front of a video or DVD or anything that isn't to do with India, something as far away as possible from Tantrics, Mughals, Delhi, Eastern Christianity or whatever I am writing about. There was a wonderful BBC DVD I was watching when I was writing The Last Mughal, Bleak House. The most crucial thing of all, before I go to bed, arranging all the books and everything for the morning, printing out the day's work and having it next to my bed, with a pencil sharpened and all ready and the first thing in the morning is to go out on the terrace, in the first clear light of the morning, before doing anything else, to have the first corrections very carefully done before breakfast. And my last books, both The Last Mughal and Nine Lives were written in only four to five months. Although the project as a whole took a lot of time. The Last Mughal was a five year project.
RSK: So do you set deadlines or do your agents set them?
WD: Well, I am very bad at deadlines in general. The optimum time to publish a book in the West is in the autumn because in that way you hit the shops for Christmas. And so if you can get your book done by the end of June there are substantial benefits. If you delay it and you miss Christmas you miss a third of your sales. The key thing is if you can avoid going out, get to bed early, get up early in the morning, you are half way there. And if you get the first revision done by breakfast that's the key, printing it out and if that can be typed in then you can be working on new material soon after breakfast then you are half way done.
RSK: One last question. Do you have any tips for our budding travel writers?
WD: Just go. Just go there and take notes! With travel writing there is a tension between knowledge and vision. When you arrive in a place for the first time, you are very alert. You are open to new sights and sounds and impressions. For example when I arrived in Dhaka I would have seen far more than you would have seen because you have been living here for far longer. When I am in London I don't notice the pillar boxes and the double-decker buses as they have been a part of my life. I tend to lose that vision after a while. If you stay long enough in a place it begins to be wallpaper in your life. The longer you are in a place you get knowledge of a culture and you are less likely to be misled the first time. So that “insider” and “outsider” are at war for the travel writer. You see things but you don't know how to interpret it when you arrive. Later you know how to interpret it but you can't see. What is ideal for a travel writer is to be both “insider” and “outsider”.
RSK: Thank you so much, Will, for your time and I hope you take back pleasant memories of your time in Dhaka.
Razia Sultana Khan is the Head of the English Department and the Department of Modern Languages, Independent University, Bangladesh.
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