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Posts Tagged ‘writing’

When I began writing The Mango Orchard, one of the few texts I found that gave me some clues about how I should approach a book which combined an exploration into my family’s past with travel writing, was Ghost Train through the Andes by Michael Jacobs. Not only was he retracing an ancestor’s journey (his grandfather’s), it was also a journey that took him to Latin America (Chile and Bolivia).

Ghost Train Jacket

It was therefore a great thrill meet him at the launch of his latest excellent book, The Robber of Memories: A River Journey Through Colombia. Despite my own memory of the evening being blurred by Michael’s generous helpings of Colombian rum I managed to remember that he agreed to meet again so I could interview him for the magazine Ventana Latina

ROM Launch, Autumn, 2012 133

The interview gives a fascinating insight into the writing of the book and the meeting with Gabriel García Márquez that inspired it. Please click here to read the interview in ENGLISH or SPANISH.

I will also be “in conversation” with him at Belgravia Books on March 14th. I can’t promise Colombian rum, but there will be wine and nibbles… more details to follow

 

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I’ve had quite a response to my last post – I suppose any blog that has the word pornography in the title is always going to turn people’s heads. A few people wrote to complain about the photo I’d included. “That’s not an airport floor!” they said, “Are you sure that isn’t your personal stash?

Okay, so I’ll come clean, the photo, while closely resembling the pile of pornographic magazines that were thrown on to the airport floor, because I didn’t have a camera to hand, is actually the result of a search on the internet. But before I talk about that, to the people who complained, can I just say that you obviously studied the photo a great deal more closely than me.

About the blog photo, please allow me to pass on a piece of advice: never, never, never put the words “piles of pornographic magazines” into an internet search box. The search engine returned images I wish I had never seen. As well as pictures of pornography, piles of magazines, piles of pornographic magazines, it also offered up pornographic images featuring people with piles…

So to all those people who were upset not at the site of a pile of pornography, but the surface beneath it, I offer my sincere apologies and a picture of an airport floor.

An Airport Floor

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Poole Central Library, where I have been invited to give a talk about The Mango Orchard, is sandwiched between a KFC and a Primark store, and housed in a concrete shopping centre. Inside, I am pleased to see, it is light and airy. In addition to the regular librarians – including the charming Jenny Oliver who has organised the event – there is an army of green sash-wearing volunteers welcoming people and directing them towards the drinks and refreshments.

With Judy Butt before the talk

Two volunteers heave the books I have brought with me on to a table. I feel a bit like a travelling salesman arriving at an event with a boxful of books. It’s always difficult to know how many to bring. I once travelled six hours to an event in Halifax and sold not one. I have a good feeling about Poole, though.
I am given a very generous introduction by the former mayor, Judy Butt. She is now an executive counsellor with one of the best titles I have ever come across. She is (deep breath) Cabinet Portfolio Holder for Leisure, Sport & Recreation, Culture, Libraries & Community, Learning Public, Engagement and Participation for the Borough of Poole.

The talk goes well and the questions are intelligent and thoughtful. Among the people who put their hands up are a former priest who worked in Mexico, and asks his questions in Spanish, a couple whose daughter is planning her own Latin American adventure, and a woman whose Indonesian grandmother had killed her grandfather with black magic.


“We sold all the books,” the volunteers tell me sadly as they hand me a brown envelope stuffed with cash. “Shame you didn’t bring more.”

From Poole I head to Plymouth, approximately 100 miles away. It takes over five hours. I calculate (I have run out of reading material) that Robert Stephenson’s Rocket would have gone to Plymouth and be half way back by the time we get there. I am joined, between Yetminster and Dorchester, by a group of students. They look a thoughtful, intellectual bunch. They sit down in the seats next to mine. “You know?” says one, “I had a dream last night that I could only get drunk by licking Clarissa’s knees.” The others nod and plug in their iPods.

It’s another good night in Plymouth. This time I don’t have to bring any books and a nice lady from Waterstone’s does brisk business on my behalf. And it’s back to London.

Next stop, Chicago.

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I have always the Douglas Adams quote: “I love deadlines; I love the sound they make as they go whooshing by!” I can’t truthfully claim to be quite so cavalier about them, although admittedly, this article was due a couple of hours ago. But when I was working on The Mango Orchard, I had a very good reason to write as quickly as possible: one of the main characters in the book was very keen to see it finished, and she was ninety eight years old when I began…

To read on, please click here to go to the literary blog Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dave for which I have contributed this article

Robin and his grandmother discuss deadlines

Robin-writing-The-Mango-Orchard in Spain

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How factually accurate does a non-fiction story have to be? It’s a conundrum for every travel and non-fiction writer, and is hotly debated by readers and writers alike.

The latest Issue of Traveller magazine

I was not to worry, she said, someone had already written a sidebar with all the facts and figures of how to get there and what to see. From me she wanted a mood piece to accompany some beautiful photos she had of the city. “Something made hazy with the passing of time might work well.” She was also after a strong visual and sensory idea of place, with a clear narrative. So, I was to write a poetic vignette, hazy yet with a clear narrative… about a place I couldn’t really remember.

It was a tough brief. I tried to construct the piece around the few facts I could really remember, but it just didn’t work. It only started to come together when I allowed myself to remember the emotions I had felt when I was in Oaxaca.  Two days before I arrived there I had left Juanita behind in Guatemala. My heart was raw and I experienced everything through the sensation of loss.

Suddenly, the words came easily and the article was written. But how is it possible, you might ask, that my stay in Oaxaca – so ripe with emotional drama – didn’t appear in the book?

I had always intended on writing this scene in The Mango Orchard, but didn’t include it in the end because it didn’t make narrative sense. I cut it out to make the story read better.

This leads to a question I am often asked: is The Mango Orchard all true? Yes, it is. Everything really did happen; I just changed the order of some events. In real life, I left Juanita not once, but twice. To have included it exactly as it occurred in real life however, would have been confusing. It might have also made me look like a bit of an idiot.

If someone asks you about your day, you edit it down. If, for instance, during your day you bought a cheese and ham sandwich, paid a bill at the bank and then saw the Queen water skiing naked on the Thames, my guess is that you would probably neglect to mention the bank and the cheese and ham sandwich.

Bruce Chatwin

I know of non-fiction writers who create composite characters and invent key sequences to enable them to tell the story. Even a travel writing great like Bruce Chatwin was accused of fictionalising significant portions of In Patagonia. Some writers go to the other extreme and transcribe every word of every meeting, even to the extent of pretending to have diarrhoea so they can run to the bathroom every five minutes to jot down conversations verbatim.

For the record, my policy on writing non-fiction is this: events have to really have happened, characters need to exist. But if changing the order of events or highlighting a particular aspect of a character’s personality helps the story to flow better, I don’t hesitate. Also, while I quote people as accurately as possible, I don’t think the reader will complain if I edit out the ums, I don’t knows and non-sequiturs.

Finally, I have a confession to make. Amy, the editor of Traveller magazine didn’t ask me to write the article at the launch party. In reality, it was eight days later, after a phone call and an extended e-mail correspondence, following a conversation we started at the party. Would you really rather I had put that at the beginning of this blog?

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