Simon Winchester still remembers the phone number that ultimately led to his success. He had written twelve books, and was well into planning on his thirteenth (having already bought a tramp steamer with his publishers’ money to staff for a book on trade routes around the world) when by chance, he saw a book called Chasing the Sun, by Jonathon Green – about dictionaries. In it, while relaxing in the bath, he read about Dr W.C. Minor, who was a major contributor to the Oxford Dictionary, and was fascinated by this murderous lunatic. He called a lexicographer friend – she of the number – and what she told him led him to write what was titled The Surgeon of Crowthorne in the UK, and The Madman and the Professor in the USA.
Greg O’Brien chaired this event, and his questions were perfectly pitched between levity and a clear admiration for what Winchester has achieved. Winchester was told by a Korean fortune teller that he would write 38 books exactly: so far, he is at 30, so eight more to come then. He is a non-conformist scholar, and the most general you can get when speaking of his books is that he studies the human record of things, though his degree was in geology.
One of the great things about Winchester’s books, says O’Brien, is that he has stood in the places he is speaking about – he doesn’t just read it, he lives it. Asked whether he serves Literature or Journalism as a master, Winchester said, “To write something in 12,000 words is easy; to write something in 100,000 words is easy, it just takes longer. But once you pare it down, it becomes more difficult.” He hasn’t done journalism, except long-form journalism, for some time now; his books are not what he would call journalism.
He started his life as a geologist until he read a book by James Morris, and wondered if perhaps he could write books instead. At Morris’ suggestion, he dropped geology and became a journalist, ultimately becoming a war correspondent. His first book was about Northern Island, where he had been stationed during the uprisings. His second, American Heartbeat, has still only sold 13 copies. I couldn’t help thinking then that if he had been publishing in today’s environment, that would have been his final opportunity! As it was, he got to 12 books before The Surgeon of Crowthorne, which he wrote in his early 50’s, just as he was worried he was being ‘put out to grass’ as a war correspondent.
His US publisher didn’t like the idea of this new book (as opposed to that of the ‘tramp steamer’ above) so they cancelled his contract, as books about a single person at that time were just not as popular in the trade. Ultimately, once the book was published, his agent found a USA publisher for it, and the rest was history. At the time it exploded, he was researching another book in Canada, tramping across the icy wastelands of the north when he received a radio transmission to make it to the nearest phone. This phone call ended in his being flown out of Canada, to New York, then back again to rejoin his expedition, for an interview with Mel Gusso, which ended (three months later) in a 4,000-word feature about Winchester and The Professor and the Madman in the Arts pages of the New York Times.
While the success of The Surgeon of Crowthorne gave him security as an author, Winchester thought that now his publishers had decided he can only write sure-fire bestsellers. This is a feeling echoed by Cornelia Funke in The Kids are All Right – there is a level of obscurity that can be helpful to creative freedom, it seems!
Winchester always writes on big topics, says O’Brien, often beginning with one person but ultimately enclosing a much broader topic. More recently, of course, he has begun writing books about oceans. “I had written a previous book about the Pacific,” said Winchester, “But it was bad. I wanted to right the wrongs.”
As Winchester works across so many topics and writes in such broad strokes, O’Brien asked him whether he gets in trouble with scholars when he publishes his books. While it doesn’t often happen, said Winchester, when he wrote The Map that Changed the World, he did get in trouble with a biographer of William Smith who had given him help with his research while he was writing the book. The expert’s book deal was cancelled thanks to Winchester’s book, so he accused Winchester publicly of plagiarism – luckily, this accusation never saw the light of day as it didn’t check out.
This was a fascinating session, which took in many dog-legs, including a long story about a well-known surveyor who successfully led a double life, simultaneously as a white man and a black man. This only became known upon his deathbed.
Simon Winchester is now working on a book about precision, and how it took over the world. This book will be a homage to his father, who was a precision engineer.
If you weren’t in the 700-odd-strong audience at The Embassy on Thursday, I suggest your have a listen to the Radio NZ recording of this session here. In the meantime, check some of Winchester’s books out – I certainly intend to.
Attended and reviewed by Sarah Forster
Simon Winchester: Pacific Future
4.30pm, Thursday 10 March, Embassy Theatre
NZ Festival Writer’s Week
NB: This was actually the first event I attended at the Writer’s Festival, but the notes were trapped on my work computer until today. Apologies for the delay in reportage!