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Interview for Vilnius Book Fair in Lithuania

vilnius book fairAs I mentioned before, I’ll be in Lithuania next week for the Vilnius Book Fair. I just did a short written interview with the main Lithuanian newspaper, which I’m sharing below for you:

1. Gabriel Garcia Marquez has written nonfiction book, Living to Tell the Tale. Do you share his thought, that a man has to live in such way, that he would have tales to tell? Personally for you what is more important – to hear or to tell stories?

Stories are a life-blood that runs in all our veins. Most of the time we forgot that they are there – rather like the air we breathe. We forget that we’re breathing but of course we have to in order to live. And I think stories work in the same kind of way. When we dream we dream in little stories, sometimes they’re no more than fragments, and all through the days we get little flashes of stories – something that happened, or an idea of whatever. Look at yourself through a typical day interacting with people – you can’t help but use elements of storytelling in recounting information and ideas. Storytelling is a sixth sense to us all. As for hearing and telling stories, they are two parts of the same thing: Yin and Yang. They’re both so important and they are a bedrock to which human life is firmly nailed.

2. You once said that as a child you were told stories from morning to night. Do you have a story, which you could call the first one you remember? If no – tell us one story which is the most important, the most dear to you?

The story that stuck in my mind from my earliest childhood is called the “Tale of the Sands”. It’s very simple but it has a profound effect on a child’s thinking, or an adult’s thinking for that matter:

A stream wants to cross a desert which it has arrived at one day. He starts flowing forward into the desert, but realises that he’s going to be absorbed, as his precious waters are sucked up by the sand. The stream is very unhappy and begins to weep. Then he hears a voice. It’s the desert, which is saying, ‘Hello stream, if you want to pass across me and get to the ocean, you will have to change your form.’ The stream doesn’t understand. He starts flowing into the desert again because that’s how he’s been programmed to be. But he gets dried up in the sand a second time. Again, the desert speaks to him. It says, ‘Change your form as your ancestors have done, and you will be able to cross me.’ The stream thinks very very hard and remembers that his mother stream had said that in ancient times streams changed their form when there was no choice. And so, the stream allowed himself to turn into mist and to drift gently over the desert, where he condensed and became a stream again. And that’s the story called “Tale of the Sands” – my very favourite.

3. Anyway somebody can say: “Oh, he was unhappy child! He only listened to stories and didn’t have time to play with friends! He lived in a fantasy world!” How do you remember yourself as a child? Have you dreamed to become a writer in the future?

I was in my ‘own world’ as a child. I’ve never told anyone this but I had a secret world that I would imagine myself going to to escape. All sorts of amazing things happened there, and I always imagined that you reached it by climbing through a mirror, the mirror in my bathroom. It was so powerful to me because it was a realm which had no boundaries, a realm in which I was alive in a way that no human is ever alive on earth. And it was that feeling – the one that we get when we hear the words “Once upon a time” – that I have long for. I have always searched for that bathroom mirror in my adult life – for ways to climb into the real world of my imagination, itself a kind of default setting of us all.

4. Are your children Ariane and Timur told stories from morning to night too? Or maybe they are reading your books? Do they like them? Do they plan to be writers too?

They love stories, and I make sure they get a lot of stories coming to them in all sorts of ways. They read like crazy, and they like TV and new medias as well. I tell them to always remember to look for the stories in life, and to work out when the story has something of value to give you. Often we are blind to the nugget of wisdom in something very simple, and I see it as our responsibility to draw our wisdom from the things around us.

5. Now you are famous writer. Some people are calling you the classic of travel literature here in Lithuania. How do you feel when you are put in one row, in one line with Joseph Rudyard Kipling and other great travel authors of the past?

I encourage everyone I meet to tell stories and to share what they have learned. I am actually writing this from India, because I am here covering the Kumbh Mela festival (100 million people!). A few minutes ago I was chatting to a man who had come to bring me a bottle of water. I asked him about his life and whether he knew stories that had changed the way he sees the world. He told me that as a child his mother would tell him a story each week, a special magical epic story. And he kept the stories in a box. I asked if they were written down. ‘No, no,’ he said quickly, ‘they were magical stories and so you couldn’t ever write them on paper, but you could imagine them in your mind.’ The man said, ‘to most people the box looked very empty and it certainly didn’t feel full and heavy, but to me, I knew it was full… and only I could see the stories in there – the pirates and the genies, the magical islands and the monsters.’ And he’s so eight because the magic of stories is the way they hook on to us and become our own – something we can share but never fully explain.

6. Can you imagine your life, if you hadn’t launch on an adventure to go from London apartment to the Caliph’s House in Casablanca in 2003? Can you call this adventure the most exciting moment in your life?

Sometimes in life it’s very important to cut yourself away from the ‘comfort zone’… you have to get out and walk a new path. It’s daunting but imperative to do it. The most important thing at times like that is not to think too much but to follow your heart. And never ever ever listen to anyone who is trying to hold you back.

7. Can you describe in five sentences what is Casablanca to you now, despite of that we have read many things in your books The Caliph’s House and In Arabian Nights?

Casablanca is the doorway to a twilight zone where reality and fiction join. It’s a place in which fact and fantasy come together as a kind of hybrid, one that leads to the most extraordinary possibilities. I like to think that our likes in Morocco are touched daily by layers of culture and society that are at the foundation of human society. I am totally fascinated at living in places that stand at a crossroads upon ancient cultural landscapes, and Morocco is certainly one. Afghanistan, where my ancestors came from is another, and India is a third. It’s very important, I believe, to get yourself in a mental state at which you can absorb currents of culture that may remain invisible to others. Open your mind, and the most magical world slips effortlessly in.

8. For some Lithuanians, who have never been in Morocco, Casablanca is associated with Michael Curtiz film. What do you think about this film?

I love Casablanca, although of course it’s got very little on the surface to do with the city of the same name. As a piece of storytelling there’s a little bit of it all – love, danger, intrigue, honour, duty etc. I have just finished written a novel which in a small way is a hymn to that film. It’s called CASABLANCA BLUES and is about young American guy who travels to Casablanca in a mid-life crisis and falls in live with a girl there. He soon realises that in Casablanca nothing is what it seems.

9. After having published a number of books with traditional publishers, you made the move to self publishing in 2011 with your print-on-demand book Travels With Myself, which was published using Lulu.com. You later took your self publishing efforts a step further in 2012 with the release of Timbuctoo, a limited edition hardcover that was designed by your wife Rachana. Why you decided to make the move to self publishing?

Publishing is changing and I am a hugely vocal proponent of the new model – a model that is only now emerging. I have loathed the way that publishers have controlled the body of work that authors create, have taken the funds they make, and have tried to shape material. I have a very strong idea of how I want my books to be and how I want my entire body of work to be. I don’t want some publisher in New York or London telling me how to do what I can do better than any of them. They can’t write books, and they can’t even sell them most of the time. The great thing is that now with the world of ePublishing we don’t need them. I’m so thrilled by that! Beyond that, I want to create beautiful printed books again, the kind that were done through history until the number-crunching accountants refused to allow fine publishing. The future will be different, but one in which readers and writers are kings.

10. How would you introduce your book Timbuctoo to Lithuanian readers, who are going to buy it – published recently – in Vilnius book fair?

TIMBUCTOO is a labour of love from me, and is the case of a story that I heard which stuck in my mind. It became an obsession (ask my poor wife) and it revolved around my mind for years. Most of all i felt a hugely powerful responsibility to pass it on. And I did this in the most elaborate way I could think of –after all I felt a big sense of duty to Robert Adams, the main character, that I would do justice to his tale.

11. You are not only prolific writer, but journalist, author of documentaries too. Do you have any mission as a journalist? Can you tell the most fearful and the most exciting stories from your career as a journalist?

I have covered a lot of strange journalistic stories, many are detailed in TRAVELS WITH MYSELF. They have been important because they have shown me the various interwoven layers of life in all sorts of lands and cultures. For example, I once spent time on women’s Death Row in the US state of Alabama. I got to know the women there, the main one I spent time with was later electrocuted. And I have written extensively about India – including my experience of swallowing a live fish to cure my asthma. I think journalism is the only way to craft one’s style as a writer. There is nothing like it.

12. Are you expecting to collect some stories for your books here in Lithuania?

I have been longing to come to Lithuania for more than 20 years and so my dream is coming true. When I was young my aunt, the great storyteller Amina Shah, told me a Lithuanian story about the dream of the Duke of Gedinimas. I’ve always remembered it. And I am hoping that I will hear stories from Lithuanian society that are in the hearts of all Lithuanians, both young and old.

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