Colin Thubron: ‘Life is in the detail’

It is 14 years since Colin Thubron’s last novel but, he explains, there was research to do, which meant a lot of travelling…

Colin Thubron has been acclaimed as a travel writer for nearly five decades. Volumes such as In Siberia, Shadow of the Silk Road and To a Mountain in Tibet are praised as classics of the genre. But he is also highly regarded as a novelist. A Cruel Madness, published in 1984, was the winner of the PEN/Macmillan Silver Pen Award, and his most recent novel, To the Last City, was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2002. Night of Fire, his new book, weaves together the stories of the inhabitants of a fine old house, long broken up into flats, as a fire breaks out.

Your last novel was published 14 years ago. Why have we had to wait so long for Night of Fire?
It is quite a long time since I’ve written fiction. Shadow of the Silk Road was very time-consuming – there were two long journeys from the Pacific to the Mediterranean, a lot of difficult cultures; there was trying to get back some of my Russian. Then my mother became very ill and that takes up psychological time, your head’s too full to be clear for fiction. I thought I’d write a novel after that, but instead my impulse was to go to Tibet. To a Mountain in Tibet was, in a way, a response to my mother’s death. And then this novel got bigger and bigger in my head, and started to run away from the usual novellas that I write. In addition it needed a lot of different research. I travelled to Malawi for the refugee camp where the priest ends up; I went to Mount Athos; I went on a trip to Normandy to watch butterflies for the naturalist; I learned about neurosurgery. For the traveller I went back to India, to Varanasi and Shimla. All these things took time. And in each part of the book you are dropping off different parts of one’s self, of course.

Not every novelist would feel he had to actually go to all of these places. Is that the travel writer in you?
I’m not saying it’s necessary – I wouldn’t lay down laws for anyone! But I need it. I need the sensual information and the detail, as I do for my travel writing. Life is in the detail. For instance, when I went to a religious service in a camp in Malawi, there was a mass of detail there which I couldn’t possibly have guessed at, nor would even have got from a video, if such a thing existed. You only get that precise feeling from being there.

How different is it writing about those journeys for fiction, instead of nonfiction?
You always have to be true to the places as you remember them, as they exist on the ground. So, my man goes to Shimla, or wanders round Iran – those are journeys I remember from long ago. But when you travel for fiction, you’re putting yourself into the mind of someone who’s not you; that character has a certain history or expectation of a country that’s not mine. For a travel book, you yourself are not in the narrative to the degree you are in fiction. You can’t escape your own sensibilities, of course, but you’re not writing as a person who’s prey to the environment in the way that characters in fiction are. You are there to observe.

Do you worry that you get pigeonholed either as a travel writer or a novelist?
It’s always been that way – I was docketed as a travel writer, so when I first started writing novels, that was an absolutely different audience. People who liked the novels were indifferent to the travel books, and the people who love the travel books don’t even know I’m a novelist. It think it’s always been a bit of a pendulum for me, going back and forth between the two. Whichever one I’m doing at the time is always the hardest. But when I’m talking at a literary festival about my fiction, the first question will always be: where are you travelling to next?

So… where are you travelling to next?
You’ll look blank at this, I expect. I want to travel along the Amur river. [I do indeed look blank.] Everybody does! It’s the ninth longest river in the world, and nobody’s ever heard of it. It arises in Mongolia and flows east toward the Pacific; it’s the long border between Siberia in the north and China, Manchuria, in the south, and it’s a very important border because it’s where China and Russia meet over many hundreds of miles. I don’t know how easy it will be to travel there. It will certainly be difficult politically – but I’d love to try.

Night of Fire is published by Chatto & Windus on 4 August (£16.99 ). Click here to buy it for £13.93


Erica Wagner

The GuardianTramp

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