A special thank you to Simon Winchester who answered 5 questions from Science Book a Day, about our featured book The Man Who Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology.
#1 – You manage to write about such different stories in your books, what inspired you to write William Smith’s story?
My father used to grumble that I had what he called a ‘grasshopper mind’, and that I was too interested in too many things at the same time. The origins of the William Smith book rather confirm what he said.
It was 1999 and The Surgeon of Crowthorne (which in America, where I now live, was called The Professor and the Madman), had just been published, and with my editor we were trying to analyze just why, and to our total surprise and delight, it had become so successful (after all – a book on Victorian lexicography? Go figure, as they say here.). He suggested it was because the story mixed four elements: a hitherto unknown man, deeds that were of great benefit to the world, a life-trajectory with dramatic ups and downs; and the commission (since in the madman’s case, he cut off his own penis), of grotesque bodily mutilation.
Did I, the editor asked, known any other such people?
After the shock of such a ludicrous-sounding question, I did initially think of a story I knew, of an American soldier named Adolphus Washington Greely – a civil war hero, stranded for three years on an Arctic expedition in which many died, his reputation then unfairly demolished by accusations of cannibalism, his slow subsequent rehabilitation culminating in his ultimate recognition by the US President, and his death weeks later. I was sufficiently fascinated that I went on an expedition in Arctic Canada following in his footsteps – but then discovered to my dismay that an elderly man in Virginia had been working for twenty-five years to uncover and write Greely’s story – and so I decided it would be ungenerous to continue, and promptly abandoned the book.
It was then that my very persistent editor said – think of another such character: and weren’t you once a geologist?
I then remembered, from my Oxford days forty years before, a lecture on William Smith, ‘the father of English geology’. I looked up his rather brief entry in the Britannica (this was before Google and Wikipedia and one-stop knowledge-shopping). The six sentences below his name increasingly intrigued me: he created the first geological map; his map was plagiarized; he went bankrupt; he was sent to debtor’s prison; his wife went mad; she became a nymphomaniac. And I thought, well, nymphomania is at least vaguely connected with grotesqueries of one kind and another – so maybe I should write about Smith, and render this hitherto little-remembered champion of early geology into a more human figure, more human than the character written about in most geological textbooks. I don’t wish – nor did I wish at the time – to trivialize him or his scientific achievements, which were stellar – but I did want to, as it were, bring him down to earth.
#2 – It’s been over 10 years since the book has been written. What has the response been to the public at large? And has there been any response from geologists?
The public has been very kind and supportive, and the book continues to sell very well, all over the world – most especially in the USA and Australia (where it sells rather more robustly than in Britain, curiously). The map itself is as a result now visited by small legions of visitors to the Geological Society of London – indeed, the Society has recently removed it from behind its curtains on the main staircase, and has it mounted front and center in a new foyer accessible through the main door, right on Piccadilly. So it has become a tourist attraction, as it deserves to be (and was earlier this year loaned to the Tate gallery, becoming even more famous in the process – and this time to a very non-scientific new audience).
The geological community, naturally rather more guarded of its heroes, has been politely enthusiastic. One or two academics, experts in Victorian geology – rather wished they had stumbled on the story first, and initially were quite vocal in making their feelings known. But generally, the community seems delighted that a lay audience is now taking a keener-than-hitherto interest in geology. Some point to anecdotal evidence (such as a young English major at Stanford who read the book, switched to studying geology, and is now a senior scientist with the USGS at Palo Alto) that the book may actually have helped popularize the science, to some noticeable degree. And if that were true, no-one could be more thrilled than I.
#3 – Your stories are always wonderfully rich with details and carefully drawn characters. What would be your top tips to writers of narrative non-fiction?
Become passionately interested in your subject; be diligent in your research – and do it all yourself; don’t you dare hand it off to a ‘team’ – be catholic in your reading and be very disciplined in your approach to writing.
I realize this sounds rather smug and sanctimonious; but a friend of mine once said he wrote books whenever he sensed that his house needed new carpets – and while he did indeed turn in quite serviceable books (his specialty was writing about the lives of famous music composers), his evident lack of real interest in his topic; his distance from his subject; his evident lack of context that wider reading might have given him; and the sloppiness of his style – all of this led to the making of books that one knew would have a very limited shelf-life, and would be remaindered within the year. As turned out to be the case, book after book after book. I would never wish to write a book like that – not least because the fear of being remaindered too early (though the fate befalls us all, in time) is a lingering, haunting one. (My friend’s house in nicely carpeted, though.)
#4 – I think many of your stories could be taken up for feature films. Have you been approached with such an idea? Could Ian McKellen play the Professor from The Surgeon of Crowthorne? 🙂
Please don’t ask about feature films. It is just too painful. Rights to turning The Surgeon of Crowthorne into a film belong now to Mel Gibson. And so need I say more? Over the years we have fantasized endlessly about the possible actors – Liam Neeson, John Hurt, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ian McKellen; but in the end, Mel Gibson just doesn’t seem to want to do anything with the project, and I fear I’ll be six feet under before anyone is hired, and before anything filmic happens.
Meanwhile I am so content simply with the process of writing books (and, at least for now, happy with their fate as well – though I well realize that success can be an ephemeral pleasure) that if anyone writes to me suggesting making an offer for the film or TV rights for this book or that book I simply refer them to my agent and keep my eye firmly fixed on the page. Dreaming Hollywood dreams is just not a pastime for me, not any more.
#5 – You’re releasing The Men who united the States, do you have another project on the boil?
I have just signed up to write a book on the Pacific Ocean, in part because my last book was about the Atlantic, and there seems a proper symmetry. I am due to deliver the MS in April 2015, so it should appear at the beginning of 2016, towards the end of the second term for Barack Obama, America’s first properly Pacific (as in: Hawaii-born) president.
#6 – (just a cheeky extra question) – I’ve noticed you have a twitter account, but no tweets! Will you be tweeting soon?
I am pretty hopeless with Twitter – Facebook, not so bad. But by chance I am interviewing a young woman assistant tomorrow, someone who I am told will “Tweet for me”: I have never had an assistant before, so we’ll see what this entails, and if it works. Basically I hope to be just a little more visible on social media sites by the time The Men Who United the States comes out in October.
Thank you very much for your time 🙂
Thank you so much for inviting me.