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Predicting Cracks and Ruin
by Erling Friis-Baastad

Simon Winchester interviewed by Erling Friis-Baastad

My first encounter with Simon Winchester was a clipping of "In the Eye of the Whirlpool" from Smithsonian magazine. The person who sent me the article knew of my fascination with the effects of physical geography on human behaviour-the challenges and opportunities the land and sea throw at people and by which individuals and civilisations are moulded. I became fascinated by oceanic whirlpools, and even more so by the lucid correspondent who reported on them. I began to seek out his books.
The first one I read was The Fracture Zone, an on-the-ground report on the horrors that overtook the Balkans in the 1990s. There it was again, that appreciation of the role of geography, this time in some of humanity's most wicked activities. "Places that have a more crazed geology . . . quite possibly tend to attract, or maybe even produce, peoples who are of a (let us say) more robust character," he wrote. As I read on through the Zone I came to understand something about those suffering people and their places. Winchester's words soared above the cacophony that most reporting on the Balkan wars had degenerated into.
As it turned out, a great many other North Americans were discovering Winchester at the same time I was. His newer books, The Professor and the Madman, The Map That Changed the World, and Krakatoa, registered on bestseller lists and Winchester, in his 50s, finally enjoyed international recognition. His earlier books, The River at the Center of the World, Pacific Rising, The Sun Never Sets, and numerous others, should also be read; these too are illuminated by his years of working as a foreign correspondent.
Winchester is a productive writer; he has published 18 books so far. His publications contain hints of what we might expect from him in the future. Having just finished reading his wide-ranging account of the Great California Earthquake of 1906, A Crack in the Edge of the World, I set out discover how he goes about containing so much of this big, damaged planet within book covers, and what aspects of our sojourn here he might be tackling next. The interview was conducted by e-mail between my home in Whitehorse, Yukon, and Winchester's in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, shortly before Christmas.

Erling Friis-Baastad: Your most recent book, A Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906, like your 2003 bestseller Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded, and 2001's The Map That Changed the World, owes its existence in large part to your fascination with geology and physical geography. Even the title of that marvellous clarification of Balkan chaos, The Fracture Zone, almost makes it sound like a primer on the earth's crust. Your ability to recreate the lay of that tortured landscape does inform the narrative mightily. In fact, you earned a degree in geology at Oxford before you became a journalist. It's obvious how book content has been affected by your training. Can you think of ways in which training in scientific method has affected your approach to topics-the structure of the books, the development of the narrative, your approach to questions?

Simon Winchester: I believe my journalistic training informs my books rather more than my scientific background. I think this latter stimulates my curiosity, offers me insights and links between seemingly disconnected subjects; but my journalistic training allows me to spot a good story, to write it concisely (well, fairly concisely: I have no illusions about my fondness for long sentences and digressions), and submit it on time. So, in summary: the science provides the kernel of the idea, journalism the means with which to bring the idea to a literate readership.

EFB: There's a fascinating link between your publications; book topics appear to have emerged from earlier ones. As you write one work, are you being overwhelmed by ideas for future ones? For instance, while thinking of the possible effects of the Krakatoa explosion on Islam, did you come up with the California earthquake's effect on America's Pentecostals?

SW: One book does very much seem to generate ideas for future ones. For instance, when I wrote The River at the Center of the World, I discovered the China scholar Joseph Needham, and now I am planning a book about him. Smith led to Krakatoa, which in turn led to San Francisco. And yes, I was particularly interested in any religious reaction to the 1906 earthquake, and was very gratified to discover the Azusa Street revival and its consequences.

EFB: How do you decide when a subject is suitable for book-length treatment, as opposed to article-length, such as your Smithsonian magazine article, "In the Eye of the Whirlpool"? Do books often begin as article ideas?

SW: Once again, journalistic training. In my opinion there is only enough potential in the whirlpool story for a magazine article. Too often in recent years people have tried to parlay small subjects (such as whirlpools) into book-length treatments, and they don't often work.

EFB: It may be too early to discuss this yet, but did any future book ideas surface while writing A Crack in the Edge of the World?

SW: No, none for now. My next two books have nothing to do with geology, California, or any subject that popped up during the 1906 research.

EFB: Is there a possibility of a collection of your articles appearing in the near future?

SW: I have no plans for an anthology, though once I'm in my dotage, and broke, I may be compelled to see if a publisher would look at a collection. But for the time being, no.

EFB: At the heart of the Gaia Theory is the concept of the interconnectedness and interdependence of all things. You have taken that to heart. Increasingly you appear willing to cast a wider net in your books so that in the story of the California Earthquake we learn that Wapakoneta, Ohio, is struggling to maintain a level of middle-American prosperity its citizens may once have taken for granted; that there was no such thing as the US Army Camel Corps, and that a restaurant called the Raven in Haines Junction, Yukon, is a marvellous restaurant (and it is!) . . . What do you think lies behind your increasing ability and willingness, even eagerness, to expand your narrative so widely?

SW: I think I have a magpie mind-I pick things up, gleefully, and hope my enthusiasm for them is transmitted to the reader, and that he or she does not mind the digression such enthusiasm sometimes causes. From what I see in my correspondence, most readers seem to like it.

EFB: Recounting the sagas of Krakatoa, The Oxford English Dictionary, the Great California Earthquake, Balkan violence, the fate of the furthest-flung outposts of the British Empire, and so much else takes an unimaginable amount of research time. How do you rank research with writing-that is, are you one of those writers who is reluctant to declare the research phase over and start typing, or as you research are your fingers itching to get at the keyboard?

SW: The contract date tends to determine when I think I am done with research. In an ideal, non-contractually-determined writing world, books such as mine might never get finished, as they'd be likely to follow a Borges-ian spiral of ever-deepening complexity. But mercifully-for me and, most significantly, for the readers-the simple fact of my having to turn in a script on a certain date compels me to keep the writing under control.

EFB: When do you decide to switch from research mode to writing mode?

SW: When I know I have a clear six months left to finish the book. And yet having said that, research continues while I am writing, and sometimes the best finds are made when actually putting material on the page.

EFB: You are famous for putting in long hours in your writing cottage. Writers often discipline themselves by a daily word count. How do you discipline yourself to put in the hours of research?

SW: If I become bored with a topic, then I have to assume the reader will too (or that the energy will ebb away from my writing, and it will seem leaden, and bore the reader that way). So as long as I am excited by what I am finding, I carry on.

EFB: Does the research phase ever feel overwhelmingly chaotic-all those notes, all that data piling up?

SW: You should see my study once I am in the throes of the research: the immense collection of papers and books looks and feels totally overwhelming.

EFB: Do you ever work on several writing projects simultaneously, say researching one while writing another, or do you need to concentrate on just one?

SW: I am just now writing a book on mathematics while researching a book on China. It is tricky, but fun.

EFB: The California Earthquake took place a century ago, yet your account of it is imbued with a sense of urgency and timeliness. It's not as anger-filled as The Fracture Zone but you do appear driven to make a case, to issue a warning about the fragility of the planet. What sort of response would you like to see to that warning?

SW: I would like to shake Californians out of their sense of denial, and have them confront the reality that they are in for big trouble, however tranquil life might seem right now.

EFB: You say at one point, "Great cities always recover. A city has an uncanny ability to shrug off catastrophe." That was bracing to read as Katrina ravaged the US Gulf States. Do you think New Orleans is sufficiently major to recover, to shrug the storm damage off?

SW: No. I don't think it is or ever was a great city; nor was it built in the right place. It will become a ruin, as in due course will Tucson, Phoenix, Las Vegas-and possibly some of the Northern Californian cities. Europe and Asia are littered with the ruins of cities-Pompeii, Petra, Ayutthaya-built where they should not have been. America is too young to have any ruins, but she will have, as her age increases.

EFB: How would you compare the response of authorities to the San Francisco debacle of 1906 with that of the authorities to Katrina in 2005?

SW: I have written about this extensively. In San Francisco of 1906 there was far, far better a response, on all levels, when compared to the debacle of 2005.

EFB: You are obviously not a travel writer, in that travel is a tool by which you inform your research rather than the topic of your books. You would appear to travel more deeply into the past than a journalist, yet your areas of interest are generally more numerous than an historian's or a so-called nature writer's, for that matter. You are a tale spinner; you tell stories within stories yet the reader trusts the objective facts of your writing. If a well-meaning stranger asks you what kind of writer you are, do you have a handy answer?

SW: I am quite simply a storyteller. I try to choose stories that have a fairly significant meaning.

EFB: I don't think I've ever known a writer who didn't master one genre without feeling a tug toward another. Poets and journalists often yearn for a novelist's credentials-not that one genre is more worthwhile or effective than any other. You are a masterful storyteller. Have you ever seriously considered stepping across the line into fiction?

SW: I don't think, in all candour, that I am clever enough, or brave enough. Yet. One day I'd like to try, but I am a very tough self-critic, and I can imagine working for years and then tossing the whole thing away because I didn't think it good enough.


EFB: Are there some novelists whom you especially admire? Any fiction writers who have strongly influenced the way you wield words?

SW: Borges, Kipling. And Georges Perec-above all. Life: A User's Manual remains the biggest single literary influence on my life.

EFB: Do you think you might have become a novelist if you'd been writing, oh, say back in 1906?
SW: Probably a pale shadow of Trollope. Or Dickens-exposing the iniquities of London life. But probably more like Henry Mayhew, who wasn't a novelist at all, but a storyteller who exposed the savageries of life of the poor in London.

EFB: While you do divide your time between New England and an island off Scotland, you have settled primarily in the US. What major effect has becoming a US resident had on your writing? Would there have been a major difference in subjects or preoccupations if you had remained in Britain full-time? Have you noticed changes in your word choices and sentence structures?

SW: I feel that, for all the shortcomings of America-such as the current administration-the intellectual climate for writers is very welcoming and energetic. The number of excellent magazines, for example, particularly those that run long pieces, is prodigious. I am not sure the mechanics of my writing would be significantly different, and I do try very hard (especially when making speeches) not to come off as a Stage Englishman, playing to the roles some audiences expect of one. But I do very much like the sense of literary freedom I have here; I miss the general appreciation for irony, of course (as all Britons do), but that seems a small price to pay.

EFB: Assuming you have time for recreation, especially with so many interviewers asking so many questions, what do you do to relax?

SW: Well, fifteen minutes ago I was cross-country skiing. I like hiking in remote places. I keep bees and make honey. I am dabbling, quite seriously, in organic farming. I do letterpress printing. And I collect stamps. I am, in short, a total nerd.

EFB: Finally, while speculating on the Earth as it looked before Pangaea-that is before 300 million years ago-you mention in A Crack in the Edge of the World that because of the pace of scientific research, new knowledge about that distant scene may become available by the time your book was to go to print. I'm curious. The book is just in print. Has there been a significant leap in such geological knowledge between the writing of the book and its publication?

SW: Yes there has. When Ted Nield of the Geological Society of London publishes his book SuperContinents next year, you will see just how the pre-Pangaea research has advanced.
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