Cultural Crossroads: Q&A with Rory MacLean

2019-02-01T13:30:11+00:0028/01/2019|

Cultural Crossroads

During his lifetime Idries Shah promoted contacts and connections between different traditions around the world, believing this to be an important element in the advancement of human culture.

In this spirit, The Idries Shah Foundation has created ‘Cultural Crossroads’, a website forum where people from many walks of life are invited to talk about their own experiences crossing cultural boundaries, and the lessons that they have learned as a result.

You can find the full series here: https://idriesshahfoundation.org/cultural-crossroads/

Rory MacLean by Nick DanzigerAbout Rory MacLean

Rory MacLean is the author of more than a dozen books including the UK top tens Stalin’s Nose and Under the Dragon as well as Berlin: Imagine a City, a book of the year and ‘the most extraordinary work of history I’ve ever read’ according to the Washington Post. He has won awards from the Canada Council and the Arts Council of England as well as a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship, and was nominated for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary prize. He has written about the missing civilians of the Yugoslav Wars for the ICRC, on divided Cyprus for the UN’s Committee on Missing Persons and on North Korea for the British Council. His works – which have been translated into a dozen languages – are among those that ‘marvellously explain why literature still lives’ wrote the late John Fowles. A Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, he divides his time between the UK, Berlin and Toronto.

Photo credit: Nick Danziger

Website: www.rorymaclean.com

Twitter: http://twitter.com/wander2wonder 

Instagram: http://instagram.com/WriteInDorset

1.    You have openly admitted your method involves using real travel experiences and blending them imaginatively into a text — in what way does this give a ‘truer’ picture to the feel of your experiences?

I am a traveller and a story teller. On the road I — like all travel writers — meet people, make observations and collect stories. A parallel journey, equally real, is then made back home at the desk. There, experience and memories are drawn together and distilled in a process that is inevitably partial and impressionistic. The interplay of these parallel journeys – on the road and on the page — creates the opportunity to compose a narrative that combines facts and feelings, a true travel tale that’s shaped in part by an instinctive need to infuse the moment with meaning and value.

I don’t pretend to be an impartial observer. The journeys that I choose are intensely personal. All my books begin with a feeling, a memory, a quest or an obsession. I start each of them by digging into myself. My beginnings are intuitive rather than intellectual. I pair emotion with curiosity, the inner world with the outer world. Then I feel myself into other lives.

My objective is to evoke empathy. In my work I try to access the internal worlds of living people who I’ve met or the dead who I want to portray. I imagine myself into their lives so that the reader can experience – better understand – them and their time. I use stories to draw the reader into my subjects, to let him or her inhabit another place.

Yet as I tread the border between fact and fiction, I wonder if this method is really so very unusual? Aren’t I simply being frank about the process of writing non-fiction? We all know that every account of the past involves narration of one kind or another. Every history is eventually revealed to be a story, written for its time. Gaps in the historical record — between known facts, evidence and testimonies — have always needed to be filled in, at least since the days of Homer and Herodotus.

2.    In your best-selling Stalin’s Nose you have written about the former Soviet Union — any nostalgia for it?

No. In 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell, I travelled from Berlin to Moscow, exploring lands that were – for most of us in the West – part of the forgotten half of Europe. It was a time of remarkable optimism, of new beginnings. Half a century of totalitarianism – under Nazis and Soviets – had ended almost overnight. People opened their hearts and told me stories of lost years, state terror and secret policemen.

Now — 30 years on — I have retraced that original Stalin’s Nose journey, backwards. I’ve travelled from revanchist Russia through Ukraine’s bloodlands, to illiberal Poland, Hungary, Germany and Brexit Britain, across countries confronting old ghosts and new fears. Along the way I shouldered an AK 47 with Moscow’s “Chicken Tsar” and played video games with a St. Petersburg cyber-hacker who helped to crack the US Presidential election. I met the Warsaw doctor who tried to stop a march of 70,000 nationalists and in Hungary I heard migrants damned with Nazi-like slogans. As Europe sleepwalks into a perilous new age, opportunists – from Putin to Home Counties populists – are making a joke of truth, exploiting nostalgia, refugees and the dispossessed in their pursuit of power. Once again hatred is part of the fabric of our society.

I tell the story of this new journey in Pravda Ha Ha: True Travels to the End of Europe which will be published by Bloomsbury later this year, on the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Wall.

3.    You have worked with Nick Danziger on a few projects – what is the advantage for a writer to work closely with a photographer?

I’ve long admired Nick’s remarkable work. In his hands, cameras don’t only capture the visible surface of things but seem to see beyond the light, into the very heart of his subjects. We first worked together a few years ago on a book and exhibition for the International Committee of the Red Cross on the missing of Yugoslav War. Its success – documenting individual tragedies across ethnic and religious divides, bringing closure to many of the bereaved and helping to change the EU’s accession criteria — led us to collaborate on half-a-dozen further humanitarian projects: a book on the criminalised nowhereland Transnistria, writing and photography workshops in Myanmar and North Korea, another book and exhibition on the missing of the Cyprus conflict.

For me, it’s thrilling to work with Nick, and not simply because we share similar concerns and values. Together we’ve developed a special working method. In the course of a day-long interview, say, we’ll often consult each other, sharing our intention to focus on this aspect of the story or that part of the person’s character. We think on our feet. We dovetail our approaches. We then speak late into the night – usually by Skype messages – as I write up my notes and Nick processes his images. The result is that our individual perspectives – and respective crafts — create parallel narratives that add up to more than the sum of their parts.

I should add that my approach to humanitarian work is very different from my travel writing. I don’t interpret. I don’t use fictional devices. That said, in both genres I try to be invisible, to be a kind of conduit between the subject and the reader. I want the reader not to look at me, but rather to look with me at these people, places and issues that are larger and more interesting than me.

4.    Travel writing goes through fashion cycles – is there a kind of travel book you would like to see that isn’t currently being written?

I wasted ten years of my early life making bad movies: tame thrillers, busted blockbusters, inoffensive horrors. I snapped clapper boards in Times Square, operated second camera on Marlene Dietrich’s last film and sang a rock ‘n’ roll medley with David Bowie in a Berlin lavatory. In LA I met Milos Forman on the morning after he won an Oscar for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I drove a Mustang along Wilshire Boulevard. I forgot my lines alongside Omar Sharif and piloted a milk float over the Pennines. I was a runner, a clapper-loader, a wannabe director lost in never-never land, dreaming of My Big Break. I was going to win an Oscar, and I thought I’d do it by following fashion.

My brilliant idea was to write the perfect script — full of humour, pathos and poignancy — and offer it to a producer with me attached as director. But I chose stories that I thought were trendy, not because the subjects mattered to me. When none of them – or almost none of them – made it to the screen, I realised my mistake. I gave up trying to follow fashion. I tossed away my Raybans and went travelling.

Did I say that I wasted a decade? Of course my film background stays with me: in the ability to translate an idea from head to paper, in an awareness of the virtues of succinctness, in the realisation that character is action, even in the advice of the great filmmaker Billy Wilder who once said, ‘Any director who doesn’t believe in miracles isn’t a realist’.

In other words, failure taught me not to try to predict the next trend, but rather to write about subjects, people and places that touch me. So to answer the question, I want to read the travel book that isn’t yet written, the one that I – in common with my fellow literary travellers – would like to write next. For me, whatever the subject may be, it has to be at once true and full of wonder, both of its time and timeless, enabling readers to step over a border, to imagine another place or time, and so to draw together – on the page at least – our divided worlds. To that end, the travel book I would like next to read must above all engender empathy.