Q&A on Writing and Travel

TS101. The explorations and adventures in most of your work are set in exotic places that are shrouded in mystery and rich in history and tradition, and it seems as though you have traveled just about everywhere. Do you happen to have any connection with a small and relatively mainstream place like Belgium?

When I was a child, I was sent to stay with friends at Ypres. I was eleven years old, and I remember the visit vividly. Of course I have returned to Belgium time and again since then, but it was that winter journey that is so burned in my memory. My sisters and I were taken to the Great War cemeteries there. I can see the headstones now – all lined up perfectly, glinting white in the flat winter sun. I remember reading the names and ages of those men. They were so young – their lives having hardly begun. A day doesn’t go by on which I don’t think of them. And it is for them that I remind my children daily: Carpe diem! Seize the day!

2. I recently heard you tell a student group that they could and should be explorers. As far as I know, there are no significant mysteries here in Belgium, though there is a great deal of history. What sorts of explorations do you think have yet to be pursued here? What do you think is the best way for parents to make explorers of their children?

We live in a world that loves to champion the cult of celebrity. We huddle around pictures of famous actors and explorers on our televisions, amazed at how famous they are. But I’m someone who thinks that’s all nonsense. Celebrity is the most empty of causes, something that should fill us with horror, not glee.

The same goes for the idea of exploration for the sake of exploration’s sake. It’s a lost cause – something with little or no meaning. Yes, can certainly all be explorers, but more to the point is that there is worthy exploration to be done everywhere… Whether it be at the end of your garden, or in the backstreets of your village or town.

What’s important is to change the way you see things – look with fresh eyes, in the way that a visitor to a new country sees all he encounters. Look for the ordinary, because in it, the greatest wonders are waiting to be discovered.

3. You were born in the United Kingdom and currently live in Casablanca, Morocco – and you have been an ex-pat in many places in between. What are some of the rules for being a good ex-pat that are especially important to you?

There’s really only one rule, and it should be printed out and pinned up in every ex-pat home: respect the country you are living in – the values and the customs. We are living in a large house in a Moroccan shantytown and so perhaps I am reminded of this more than most. But I have had to learn to be incredibly ‘sensible’ as the French say, to the culture of Morocco. We don’t hold wild parties or ever try and stick out – the name of the game is blending in. It drives me CRAZY when, for instance, I see European women walking the street in tank-tops in Ramadan. It’s wrong, because that’s a time of religious understatement. As visitors in another country we must be sensitive, and we must behave, and we must fit in. It may sound like a cliché but, believe me, it isn’t. It’s what’s right, and if we don’t like it we can always leave.

4. Most of us have a story to tell, but struggle with knowing how to transcribe it; getting started seems to be the most difficult part. Do you have a particular formula for transforming your own adventures into books? Do you begin with a planned outline, or do you allow the story to evolve on its own as you write it?

Yes, I plan. I plan and I plan, and I plan and I plan. But more than that, I turn ideas around in my mind. There’s nothing like considering an idea as you drive down a bumpy road, or walk by the ocean, or lie back in a bath of warm water. Thinking about an idea – even only half-thinking about it – is a good thing. An even better thing is describing it to someone who will listen – because by doing so you’re forced to fill in the blanks and to elaborate. As for writing, I follow a rigid schedule. I write between 3,000 and 3,500 words a day, every day, until the book is complete. I never have a day off because, as you say, getting warmed up again is the hardest thing about the writer’s craft.

5. Your latest novel, Eye Spy, is available as an e-book on Amazon Kindle. E-books are certainly practical for those of us living in places with limited book offerings in English, but a Kindle is not quite the same as holding that bound mass of paper. What do you think will be the future of the bound book, and does it worry you as a writer?

I have seen the future. And it’s simple. Beautiful books – nicely bound and printed on good paper – will survive. They will even thrive. Rubbish paperbacks, which fall to pieces in your hands, will vanish. They’ll be pretty much extinct within a decade. And thank god for that. I love beautiful books. But I also love books that are clear to read. I dislike lousy paperbacks that leave ink on your fingers. I’m thrilled that they’re on their way out, because they are a shameful slur in a world capable of producing wondrous printed books.

Yes, I decided that I would only bring EYE SPY out as an eBook, at least for the moment. I wanted to bring it out quite fast and to make it available at a low price (well under €2)… and the only way I could achieve this was to go the eBook route. We have to remember something here… that until a few hundred years ago people would copy books out by hand. And, before that, people had scrolls that were not really books at all. Things change. And, as human culture develops and grows, we advance. I am a fan of eBooks, although I, too, prefer printed books, beautiful printed books more than almost anything in the world.

6. As I read The Caliph’s House, I could not help thinking that the vivid images were perfect for a film version of the book. How do you feel about the idea of some of your works being adapted by the folks in Hollywood?

Most successful published authors have been approached by Hollywood, and I am certainly no exception. A number of my works have been optioned by Tinsel Town but, as of today, none has actually been made. Sometimes it’s irritating, but I don’t really mind. Besides, what I adore about the book writing process is that what I write is exactly what the reader reads. With film-making it’s very much a group effort. And, as a result, you quite often get a lowest common denominator situation – where no one’s really totally happy, but the screenplay is passed because it ticks all the boxes just enough.

7. Explorers and writers have active imaginations and wheels that are always spinning. What are some of the explorations or projects that are still on your to do list?

My to-do list is a long one, and it gets longer all the time. I love to go to new places and to see things for the very first time. But, more than that, I adore going back to the same places and seeing them again and again – as they age and as I grow older, too. For instance, I love going to Calcutta (now called Kolkata) and standing on Park Street, and watching the mayhem of life swish by. Each time I go there, I feel that I am blessed, that the world is too good to be true. But there are plenty of journeys I long to make – long journeys. I am desperate to travel from Cairo to the Cape (ie. Africa north to south), to watch as the great deserts give way to savannah, and as the savannah becomes the lakes of the Rift Valley, before turning to desert once again. I long to travel through the jungles of Borneo, and across the Australian Outback, and to explore the backstreets of Bokara and Samarkand. But, most of all, I dream of taking an old wooden chair and making the time, sitting outside our home, and watching – really watching – the world go by. Some dreams are easily within a man’s grasp.

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