Interview: Jonathan Raban

Helen Gordon

This is a photograph of Jonathan Raban

In the latest issue of Granta Jonathan Raban investigates the de-landscaping of the American West. ‘Second Nature’ is an exploration of man’s attempts, through projects like the Grand Coulee Dam, to control raw nature, and a new breed of radical environmentalist who longs to return the land to a state of pristine wilderness.

Raban was born in Norfolk in 1942 and raised in a vicarage. In 1990 he moved to America and currently lives in Seattle. His books include Bad Land (1996) set in eastern Montana in the teens of the twentieth century and the 1990s; Passage to Juneau (1999), an account of his solo voyage from Seattle to Juneau; My Holy War (2006), a collection of mostly political essays; and, most recently, the novel Surveillance (2006).

On the day of our interview he was busy formulating plans to avoid the Seattle Independence Day celebrations that ‘turn the area around the lake into a total zoo of patriotic drunks’. He answered the telephone from the gentler surroundings of ‘a room lined by bookshelves’ complete with an ‘antique sextant gathering dust in an open box, and the remains of a chess game that my daughter and I abandoned about four years ago’.

HG: You’ve said that you come from a ‘long line of English clergymen, soldiers, professional people’. Have there also been writers in your family? Growing up in the vicarage, were books an important part of family life?

JR: Theological books for my father, but before her marriage my mother, when she was nineteen, twenty, made a living by writing romantic short stories for a women’s magazine. Her mother supplied the plots and she wrote the stories. She did well at it — bought her own car on the proceeds, a black Austin 7 with red leather seats, registration number AUP 595, shortly before the war. My earliest travelling memories go back to that car, bowling, rather slowly, through the Norfolk lanes on strictly rationed petrol. But her editor scarpered to South Africa, and my mother never wrote again, at least not for publication. Her letters to me when I was at boarding school were writerly ones, full of description and simile, so I guess something of that rubbed off on me.

In 1960 you went to Hull University. Philip Larkin would have been the librarian at that time.

Oh yes, that was the chief reason for applying to Hull. When I was there I turned myself into the Student’s Union library committee, which meant that I could go and beard Larkin in his sanctum, allegedly to discuss things like fines and extended opening hours but actually to talk about books. It’s awfully boring to say how good Larkin’s poems are but they’re still a touchstone for me. Quite aside from all the other virtues of his poetry, Larkin’s handling of landscape is exquisite, especially in works like the seaside poems, that train journey from Hull to London in ‘The Whitsun Weddings’… After Hull I taught English and American literature at the University College of Wales at Aberwystworth and at the University of East Anglia. Then in 1968 a commission for a television play, a regular slot as a reviewer for the New Statesman, a once-a-month date on a BBC radio book programme, produced by Russell Harty, and a few other gigs and assignments, took me to London and after that I wrote a mixture of things: reviews, essays, a lot of radio and a few TV plays, some short stories and autobiographical pieces for London Magazine under Alan Ross. The Bristol Old Vic put on a stage play of mine, which might just as well have jumped to its death from the Clifton bridge. Among my early books was one about contemporary poetry, The Society of the Poem, and, in 1973, a book called Soft City, which is coming out again in paperback next month.

You first appeared in this magazine in Granta 10 with ‘Sea-Room’, about taking possession of the boat that would figure in your book Coasting.

Yes, that would have been in 1984, when Bill Buford was still editing the magazine from Cambridge. I miss our long liquid lunches, first in Cambridge and then in Islington.

Hunting Mr Heartbreak, published in 1990, documented your move to America. In ‘Sea-Room’ you write about feeling like ‘a lonely visitor’ in your own home and country. Did moving to America, becoming an official ‘resident alien’, somehow legitimize the ‘outsider’ status that you seem always to have experienced?

I think that’s true. From the moment I went to boarding school aged eleven – and maybe before that – I felt myself tarred with the brush of outsiderdom. The outsider thing is a quite – natural component of most writers’ equipment and useful in all sorts of ways. I came closest to losing it when I was in, as we laughingly say, ‘literary London’ in the Seventies as part of the gang that hung out at the Pillars of Hercules in Soho, under the influence of Ian Hamilton, editor of The Review, then the bigger, glossier New Review. In some ways outsiderdom is personally uncomfortable but it perhaps also helps you to see the world with more clarity then you’d have if you were fully immersed in it and part of it. Anyway, I’ve since become incurably deracinated – not that all that many people now are ‘racinated’, are they?

In books like Bad Land and in ‘Second Nature’ you certainly cultivate a position as an outsider and ‘sympathetic traveller’. Does this stance ever disguise, or perhaps avoid, a more censorious engagement with subjects? I’m thinking particularly of the section in ‘Second Nature’ that deals with the radical environmentalists and the rural loggers.

Avoidance? Maybe, but on that particular issue I think my being in two minds is heartfelt. I want to see the very things that the radical environmentalists are campaigning for: the survival of the salmon, the preservation of old-growth forest, all those things. But at the same time there’s a streak of fierce, authoritarian puritanism in the rhetoric of the hardline enviros – they’re the Cotton and Increase Mathers of our age. I’m not that kind of fundamentalist, and I instinctively dislike fundamentalism in all its forms, its inherent intoleration of the differentness of other people. Too many of the enviros simply want to wipe the land clean of the farmers and logging and mining communities for whom the land is home. A little more human imagination would come in handy, it seems to me. As I said in that piece, the creation of the national parks that embody the American notion of wilderness has led to the development of some of the most desolate forms of human society on their outskirts – the so-called gateway towns whose only function is to service tourists. It seems to me that these places, the work they provide, the strip malls and motels, are demeaning both to the people who live there and to the visitors. It’s a lose-lose situation.

You mentioned an American notion of wilderness as if you have a different definition?

It always seems to me odd to call a place a wilderness when every wilderness area in the US bristles with rules and regulations as to how you can behave, what you’re allowed to do, and is patrolled by armed rangers enforcing the small print. They’re parks, of course, not wildernesses at all. A wilderness that’s truly wild is beyond human rule, which is something I’ve always loved about the idea of the wilderness of the sea, at least before we fucked it up and made it wild no more, just one more critically endangered habitat. One of my favourite stories is that of the Mignonette, a yacht lost in the south Atlantic in 1844. The crew took to the dinghy, and, by the custom of the sea, drew straws to decide who was going to be eaten. The cabin boy drew the short straw, as cabin boys usually did. The defence put up the argument that because the ocean was a wilderness, and because the act of cannibalism took place not in a registered British ship – a small, detached chunk of England, sailing under the Red Ensign – but in an unregistered dinghy with no flag, the law of the land couldn’t possibly apply. What happened in the dinghy was beyond the reach of the courts, and subject only to maritime custom – the unwritten code of the wild. The defence lost but it was a good line to produce. Byron said much the same thing: ‘Man marks the earth with ruin – his control/ Stops with the shore…’ Now we’ve marked the ocean with ruin, I guess we in a sense control it, so that’s our last true wilderness gone. Hello to the world of Wall-E

In non-fiction books such as Old Glory (1981) you blend a tale of personal adventure with a strong sense of literary artifice. There are hints of, among other things, the medieval or renaissance quest narrative…

Oh yes, I had The Faerie Queene, for instance, open on the floor under my desk when I was writing Old Glory and was busy smuggling bits of Spenser into my book. All those encounters with mythical creatures, trials by water, trials by fire, and so on… As you say, there’s more artifice in it than the book lets on, and I hope the undercurrents of literary allusion and patterning work on the reader’s subconscious without calling undue attention to their existence. I wanted the book – as a hap and hazard first-person journey – to have an air of natural artlessness about it, but that, or so I hoped, was its best claim to artfulness.

How would you describe the non-fiction you write? You’re often shelved under travel writing, which doesn’t seem quite right…

Well, I’m glad you think so. Travel writing seems to me a too-big umbrella, full of holes to let the rain in. Anyone commissioned by a newspaper to write up meals and hotels in foreign holiday resorts is a travel writer. Anyone who does a guidebook is a travel writer. Then there’s what Chatwin did… Naipaul, Thubron, Theroux, O’Hanlon, Dalrymple… I feel some affinity with all those people. ‘Travel writing’ seems an insufficient term to describe what happens in their work. I admired Chatwin’s insistence that The Song Lines was a ‘novel’, and his withdrawal of it from the shortlist for the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award. Ditto WG Sebald and The Rings of Saturn – a great book, with much personal travelling around East Anglia in it, which he published as a work of fiction, which it sort of both is and isn’t. Chatwin and Sebald knew that ‘travel book’ and ‘travel writing’ were terms of literary abuse, and did their best to rescue their books from the category. I know that feeling.

Non-fiction, even literary non-fiction, tends to be promoted or sold more by subject than by author. In a bookshop George Orwell’s fiction, for example, will be collected in one place but his non-fiction is scattered between history, politics, sociology.

That’s always been my beef… I’d adore it if bookstores would simply go over to alphabetical listings so that sociologists would rub shoulders with novelists, historians with poets, etcetera. It was in the twentieth century that the profession of authorship became suddenly specialized. The division of labour in the Industrial Revolution somehow entailed a corresponding division of academic and literary labour as well. People became short-story writers or novelists or playwrights (or ‘radio playwrights’ or ‘television playwrights’) with as hard a line between these increasingly narrow and artificial genres as that between, say, ear-nose-and-throat men and heart or bowel specialists. To my own detriment I’ve spent most of my writing life stepping out of line: one idea would obviously be a magazine piece, another a play, another was clearly demanding to be a journey, another a novel and so on… You know John Gross’s The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters? The term ‘man of letters’ now seems hopelessly archaic, but I’d like to think there’s still life left in the notion of the writer who’s just a writer, someone who shifts from form to form, unselfconsciously, as so many of the Victorians did, without the critical police telling them they were trespassing across professional boundaries. Soon poets who write sonnets will be told they have to stick to sonnets and not write villanelles.

Is there a form that seems more natural or easier for you?

No, they can all seem equally difficult when they’re not going well. Sometimes I find the book review just the hardest form in the world. Thankfully I gave up writing poetry as a student so at least I don’t have to worry about that.

And do you follow a particular method when you sit down to write?

I don’t really have a routine, though I often start things off in longhand upstairs before going to work in the study. I do wish that I could still use my electronic typewriter. I liked pulling the page out of the typewriter each morning and retyping the whole thing because something needed altering three quarters of the way down; that was when all the interesting changes got made – before I ever reached the obviously offending passage. On a computer screen, you tend to change what you immediately see needs changing without ever being forced to discover by laborious retyping that, on the third or fifth go-around, this doesn’t work, and that doesn’t either. But they stopped making cartridges for my Quietwriter. For a couple of years I was able to buy them on eBay. Then they got as rare as hen’s teeth, and I shifted reluctantly to working on a computer. I think the mechanics of the typewriter generally improved people’s prose styles, while the mechanics of word-processing tend to do the reverse – a dimly predictable opinion from someone of my age, a late-coming digital immigrant, unlike digital natives like my fifteen-year-old daughter.

So most of your writing takes place in your study?

Yes, and my study’s a pit: a disgraceful mess of papers and books and grime. It looks burgled, though it suits me. I’ve always had in mind as an ideal workspace Francis Bacon’s studio in South Kensington. It was just perfect chaos. The untidiest, least swept, most colourful, most disorganized room – though probably perfectly organised in his mind – just a wonderful space. It’s now in Dublin – Ireland, anyway – I think, in a museum.

Can I ask what you’re currently reading?

By my bed I have a copy of Evelyn Waugh’s collected journalism. For my money Waugh is just one of the best stylistic craftsmen in English in modern times but he could sure be sloppy when he was writing journalism. It’s funny, his letters and diaries have a sort of stylistic and witty consistency to them, but the journalism is just all over the place in a way that’s fun to read, with pages of brilliance succeeded by pages that read like they were phoned in against a deadline, and probably were. I like searching out the nuggets in it. I also recently re-read Put out the Flags. It’s one of Waugh’s pitch-perfect novels, funny and grave in equal parts, and way better, I think, than, say, Brideshead Revisited. Infuriatingly, he wrote it in about six weeks. God, how I wish…

How long did your last novel, Surveillance, take to write?

Around a year and a half. That’s about average for me.

‘Second Nature’ appears in Granta’s ‘New Nature Writing’ issue. Have you read much that you’d term ‘new nature writing’?

Most of the new American ‘nature writers’ are too good for me. All that moral uplift in the woods and mountains. A lot of it dates back to John Muir, the patron saint of the Sierra Club – the prayerful lyricism, the endless summoning of the ‘sublime’, and no laughs at all. I feel like a sinner in their church. I prefer books like Lawrence Kilham’s The Common Raven and the American Crow – close, fascinated, often comic observation, with no theology in it, rather in the line of Gilbert White’s The Natural History of Selborne. But I’m also a fan of books about, as it were, the intellectual history of nature, and how we’ve perceived and used it, like Landscape and Memory by the polymathic Simon Schama; a landmark book, I think, and brim-full of ideas that suggest further ideas – a book that makes one feel more intelligent the more one reads it. You put it down, and go on thinking, and then you get to writing…

Many of your books are concerned with notions of travel and movement, perhaps with escape. In the Granta piece you write that there is ‘an instinctive English sense that attachment to one’s place of birth and its known place and landscape is a moral right’ whereas in America ‘one’s local patch of soil is rarely an ancestral tenancy…but rather a perch from which one may at almost any moment flit.’

Living in America, I feel precious little need to up sticks and go somewhere else; I feel that I’m ‘somewhere else’ most of the time. Eighteen years, and I’m still a traveller, picking his way through a foreign land that starts at the front door. But then, that’s a rather American state of mind. Most of the people I know in Seattle have come from far elsewhere, some of them very recently. They’re such compulsive movers – flitting from north to south, east coast to west coast, up from California, down to California, trying their luck in Montana, or Colorado, then moving on. They’re migrants in their own country, and my mindset fits rather well with theirs. Perhaps I ought to call it feeling at home here. But here’s the thing, I seem to live in America by day and in England by night. It’s odd, but almost every dream I have, even though it has American people in it and is about the present not the past, seems to take place in a London flat or a low-beamed cottage in Essex or a stretch of open landscape in the Thames Valley, like between Maidenhead and Cookham. These days I seem to divide my time between the continents, commuting back and forth across the Atlantic every night. But maybe that’s an American thing too: I’d better quiz the former New Yorkers and Californians I know here, and ask them about the physical geography of their dreams – which may well turn out to be much like mine.



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