March 1, 2001
Vol. 20 No. 11

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    Simon Winchester, first writer-in-residence in the College, speaks about his career, teaching

    Arthur Fournier
    News Office

    Simon Winchester, author, journalist and broadcaster, is the first writer-in-residence at the University under a new program initiated by alumnus Robert Vare (A.B. ’67, A.M. ’70) to bring notable non-fiction authors to campus. Although he now lives in New York, Winchester spent the early years of his career as a foreign correspondent for The Guardian and The Sunday Times. He has been a freelance writer for more than a decade, contributing to The New York Times, Harper’s, Smithsonian and National Geographic. In addition to his best-selling The Professor and the Madman, A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary (HarperCollins Publishers, 1998), Winchester’s other books include The River at the Center of the World: A Journey Up the Yangtze, Back in Chinese Time (Henry Holt, 1997) and most recently, The Fracture Zone: A Return to the Balkans (HarperCollins, 1999). During his quarter-long residency at the University, Winchester has lectured on campus and teaches The Art and Craft of Storytelling.

    Author Simon Winchester recently gave a public lecture at the Franke Institute for the Humanities about the making of his book The Professor and the Madman, A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary.

    Tell me something about how one teaches narrative non-fiction writing. Is there a set of techniques or principles that you try to pass on to your students or is the process more open-ended?

    This is all really brand new to me. During the first session I explained to them that I had never taught before. I don’t really have a particular theory to bestow upon them, which I’m sure other professors and lecturers have in heaps. I explained that all I could offer them was the opportunity, for what it’s worth, of looking over my shoulder. I told them that I would show them how I’ve organized my life, and if they felt they could get some benefit from listening to tales of how I write a particular type of story, they were welcome to stay on.

    As a first assignment, I had them write a proposal. Young writers have to learn some of the practical aspects of what they’re doing. I asked them to make me––a cantankerous editor with a very small budget––decide that ‘yes, this ought to be done and you’re the person to do it.’ Once the students had done that and we’d critiqued their pitches the following week, I spent each class discussing a different type of writing and tried to get them to write either in that style or about that type of writing. During the section on travel writing I had them write about Union Station in Chicago, which they all did in marvelously quite different ways. I also encouraged them all to try their hand at writing gossip columns, some of which were successful, some less so, but the successful ones were really quite good. The point is that I’ve given them a lot of practice, and I like to think that some of the benefits are starting to accrue.

    Walking into your classroom today at the end of your lecture, it seemed to me that your students are a devoted group, hanging on to your every word.

    As I said at the beginning, I’ve never taught before, but I’m so thrilled by this––I’ve loved it. The students here are so bright, they’re so engaged. When I leave here, I know I’m really going to miss them. I’m very fond of them individually, and I really do want to help them succeed as writers. It’s not an idle thing about passing on a few telephone numbers. Some of them, if properly directed, will be tremendously successful. It’s a wonderful thought to imagine that in 10 years I’ll be looking at some of their bylines and know that in some tiny way I was involved in starting them on that path. It’s a good feeling.

    Was writing a deliberate career path you decided to take or was it something that you sort of found your way into?

    Really it was the latter. In 1966, when I was working as a geologist in Africa, I happened to read Coronation Everest (available in paperback from Burford Books, 1999), a book by a chap called James Morris. It was his account of having been a reporter for The London Times, covering the successful expedition of Mt. Everest in 1953. It was like Paul on the road to Damascus. After I had read the book, I knew immediately that this was what I wanted to do. I wrote to James and he wrote this wonderful letter back, advising me that if I was really serious about it, I should come back from Uganda and try to get a job working for one of the papers in England. I did as he suggested, and we kept in touch over the years. Eventually I joined The Guardian, and went to Northern Ireland as a correspondent and later traveled to Washington, D.C. Awhile later, I found myself in North Wales where James lived. The woman I was traveling with convinced me that I ought to ring him up to thank him for all of the tremendous advice and guidance he had offered me. We went to see him and found to our great surprise that James Morris had made himself over into a woman. In the meantime, James had become Jan Morris. She and I are now the best of buddies, and we speak about once every week, actually.

    How did your early career experiences as a journalist for The Guardian influence your later writing?

    Well, to the extent that a reporter is a teller of stories, it’s what I still am, really. I like nothing more than the thought of approaching a group of people around a campfire and saying, ‘just listen to this, I’ve come across this wonderful tale.’ I think you can do the same thing with different audiences, whether your readers subscribe to a newspaper or have purchased your book. When you’ve got a story to tell and you know how to tell it, you enter into a tradition as old as the hills, and in my opinion, a very noble one. What I know is that I love hearing stories, I love reading stories and I like telling them. But I think of myself still very much as a reporter, I report things.

    How do you balance the sense of obligation you might have to report the facts accurately with the desire to present your readers with a compelling story? Are those two ever in conflict?

    It’s not something that I’ve ever felt can really be resolved. On this same topic, I’ve asked the students to read Bruce Chatwin (Doubleday, 2000), the biography by Nicholas Shakespeare. Bruce is one of the consummate storytellers of the last 30 or 40 years, and yet it turns out that an awful lot of what he wrote about was fanciful, or changed, anyway, to be made more beautiful. So perhaps what he left behind was a great body of literature, and not a great body of reporting. I agree with Jan Morris on this point: If you can come away from a country, a people or a situation and write something that, while not in every line literally true, is a fair evocation of the place, then you’ve done your job. On the other hand, you see a lot of writing, by people who’ve been taught by theoreticians, that is technically accurate. It can be passed by the fact checker and proved to be spot-on in every way, yet it’s lost something vital. Compare that with the experience of reading a piece by Jan or by Bruce that will last in your memory for years. It just has the quiddity, the essence of the thing impeccably, and it’s fair. It’s what I try to do in my own writing. To be clear, this is not an admission that we tell lies. I believe that if you tell lies willfully it just betrays the craft. But if, by whatever means, your work produces a fair evocation, then I think you’ve something to be proud of.