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Tue, 09 Dec 2008 11:38
Christopher Robbins is the author of five non-fiction books, including the award-winning The Empress of Ireland, which was acclaimed by Simon Callow as "magnificent" and William Boyd as "a complete delight", and was a Book of the Year in The Guardian, Times, Daily Telegraph, Sunday Telegraph, Daily Express, Observer and Sunday Times. He became intrigued by Kazakhstan sitting on an aeroplane next to an American from Arkansas on his way there to collect an Internet bride.
Mark Thwaite: What gave you the idea for In Search of Kazakhstan?
Christopher Robbins:The subjects of my books always come to me obliquely, from stage left – so to speak - disguised as something else. In this case it was my near total ignorance of Kazakhstan that was the hook. I sat beside a man from Arkansas on a flight to Moscow who was on his way to marry an Internet bride. It struck me that the only things I knew about the place were that it has a lot of steppe, nomads, and was on the Silk Route… and that was it! As my travelling companion left for his connecting flight, he said, "Apples are from Kazakhstan!" The phrase stuck with me… and somehow captured my imagination. And I ended up writing a book about the place.
The focus was the question - How did a country the size of Western Europe disappear out of sight and mind of the West for 150 years? And I discovered the quick answer is that the Tsars closed it to European travellers in the 19th century, as they ruthlessly pushed their empire south, and then the Soviets sealed it tight, so they could send up their sputniks, test their nuclear weapons, and built their Gulag. So Kazakhstan had a whole secret, untold history, which was fascinating. Pay dirt for a writer.
MT: Aren't the other four 'stans (Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan) as interesting!?
CR: Kazakhstan always seemed to get lumped in with all those confusing and troublesome Stans south of its border. Even the Economist and New York Times take this view – not to mention the Foreign Office and State Department. It’s considered just another Central Asian country. But it isn’t any more – it’s unique and in a league of its own. I wanted to flag that – draw attention to its difference and importance. All those other Stans are run by third-rate despots ruthlessly controlling old rust-bucket Soviet command systems that are falling apart.
Kazakhstan is run by a highly-intelligent and pragmatic president who has brought the country into the 21st century, and attracted the sort of western investment necessary to exploit its vast oil and mineral reserves. President Nazarbayev enjoys excellent relations with Russia, China, the dodgy southern Stans – and the United States and Iran, for heaven’s sake! He is in charge of an enormously rich, moderate Muslim country that actively promotes religious tolerance. You’d think we’d cosy up to him a little. By our standards Nazarbayev’s style is paternalistic and authoritarian, but he’s moving the country in the right direction. As they have only had a democracy for less than 20 years – and we have had one for a thousand – they are doing rather well. The Stans to the south are decidedly not moving in the right direction!
MT: How long did it take you to write In Search of Kazakhstan?
CR: Too long! So much of the story of Kazakhstan had been suppressed that it took ages to research the background. And I wanted to be there in every season, and travel all over the place – so that took time and many trips. I followed in the footsteps of the Russian geneticist who discovered it as the birthplace of the apple – a brilliant, innocent man destroyed by Stalin! And of Leon Trotsky, sent into exile to Almaty – and who spent a very pleasant year shooting ducks on the Ili River and writing. And Solzhenitsyn, who served eight hard years in the Gulag which gave him the material for his novel, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. And Dostoyevsky, who was exiled to a fort in the north, and suffered through a tortured love affair. I wanted to weave these moving stories into my own narrative, while keeping the book light and entertaining. I adored the travel, but it was hell to write!
MT: How do you write Chris? Longhand or directly onto a computer, straight off or with lots and lots of editing?
CR: I use a Mont Blanc fountain pen. A surprising number of writers, I have discovered, still do this - which is, I suppose, what you might expect from a dinosaur profession. The reason, I think, is that a fountain pen allows a writer to doodle in the margins and draw funny faces when the muse is far, far away. I then type my appalling scrawl – which I am often unable to read myself so that posterity is robbed of endless beautiful and original phrases – into a computer. And edit, edit, edit.
MT: What do you do when not writing?
MT: Did you have an idea in your mind of your "ideal" reader?
CR: A young woman with deep blue eyes who understands the profound nature of my genius. I know she’s out there somewhere.
Actually, I’m very happy that readers come in all shapes and sizes and remain in the unknown out there". It is one of the small pleasure of writing – or perhaps the great pleasure of writing – that readers live with your book not just for a hour or so, but days or weeks. You become a small part of their life. It’s a very rewarding thought. That you can privately make someone laugh or move them. It’s a unique contract, this deal between writer and reader… very delicate, very intimate.
Of course, people might grow to hate an author in the course of reading a book. But I try not to think about them.
MT: What are you working on now Chris?
CR: I am adapting my last book, The Empress of Ireland, into a play. This will either take the world by storm next year, or be put on in the back room of a pub by a group of mates. I had several offers to buy the rights for a film but have so far resisted. Film kills books. It takes away their souls. And so far the money offered for Empress has not been enough to overcome my high principles. They made a film of my book, Air America, and it was one of the stupidest movies ever! A tragic story of the secret war in Laos, albeit with the derring-do of American mercenary pilots, was turned into a daft comedy with Mel Gibson. The greatest humiliation is to be congratulated on it by strange people who genuinely seemed to enjoy it.
The next book is on Russia – or rather three extraordinary journeys I took there with three extraordinary men. The first journey was down the Volga with a charming and witty KGB man who was kicked out of Britain as a spy in the ‘sixties, and then ran the anti-British desk in Moscow. The second is with the onetime head of the Chechen mafia, who I travelled with in very hairy circumstances in Chechnya and Dagestan. He was rather noble and I liked him. And the third is a great Russian visionary I travelled with in the frozen north of Russia to see a rocket launched that he had bought to say Happy Birthday America. The book will be funny and moving. A corker!
MT: Who is your favourite writer? What is/are your favourite book(s)?
CR: Call me old-fashioned, but Dickens. I first devoured him from the age of nine. I read the books not as classics, but with the muddy view that they were written by a boy about two years older than me who understood everything. And Balzac – his Lost Illusions says it all about writerly ambition and the dangers thereof. And I like the Russians, particularly Turgenev. Saul Bellow is my favourite American – The Adventures of Augie March is an extraordinary book that made me want to be American and Jewish and from Chicago when I first read it as a young man. Cormac McCarthy is a great talent, but so very gloomy! Makes you want to read Celine to cheer up. I need a long breather after a McCarthy. When I’m depressed I read P.G. Wodehouse, whose invented world becomes more and more appealing as the shadows lengthen over the real world. When I’m really depressed I watch Bugs Bunny cartoons. Bugs is unusual for an American in that he is a cynic, although of course he is a rabbit. Anyone who repeats the inaccurate cliché that Americans don’t have a sense of irony have clearly never been exposed to Bugs’ oeuvre.
MT: Do you have any tips for aspiring writers?
CR: Committed writers have my sympathy. Particularly young writers as yet unpublished. I think of the endless work and slog that goes into even the lousiest book and am overcome with compassion. As for aspiring writers – I would advise them to aspire to some other profession before it’s too late, preferably something well paid with long holidays.
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