Rory MacLean is one of Britain's most expressive and adventurous non-fiction writers. His books – which have been translated into a dozen languages — include UK top tens Stalin's Nose and Under the Dragon as well as Berlin: Imagine a City, "the most extraordinary work of history I've ever read" according to the Washington Post which named it a Book of the Year. He has won awards from the Canada Council and the Arts Council of England and was nominated for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary prize.
In his humanitarian work, Rory has written about the missing civilians of the Yugoslav Wars for the International Committee of the Red Cross, on divided Cyprus for the UN's Committee on Missing Persons and on North Korea for the British Council. In addition, he has blogged a quarter of a million words for the Goethe Institut and made over 50 BBC radio programmes. He is Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and a former member of the Executive Committee of EnglishPEN.
"MacLean must surely be the outstanding, and most indefatigable, traveller-writer of our time," wrote John le Carré. According to late John Fowles, his work "marvellously explains why literature still lives".
How many ideas for potential works do you have in your head?
I take a deep breath. I tell myself, be calm. Don’t fret, just ‘let the phenomena occur’. In my head I juggle ideas and fancies, research and read, await inspiration. To settle on my next work, I need to pair emotion and curiosity with poignancy. Then I seize the skeleton of a plot, settle on the country and let the journey propel me. Story first. Or character. And history. Destination next. In that order. I travel in search of the story that I want to tell.
When working on a new project, how do you sift through competing ideas in order to move forward?
I go for long walks. I lie under my desk. I know that at any time the juggling balls will fall into line and the sweeping arc of a rainbow will appear above the green woods beyond my study window. Or it’ll be lunch time. I try to be patient. After my research trip, a parallel journey – equally real to me – is made back at home. At my desk, experience and memories are drawn together and distilled in a process that is inevitably partial and impressionistic. The interplay of these two realities – on the road and onto the page – creates the opportunity to compose a narrative that combines facts and feelings, a travel tale that's shaped in part by an instinctive need to infuse the moment with meaning and value.
What writing habit do you have that you feel is impossible to shift? (That could be a particular snack, writing hours, location, caffeine consumption etc.)
Travel, the lack of which has been so very difficult these last pandemic months. Time was that travel books were all about travelling. Travel writers embarked on valiant quests full of derring-do, paddling to the source of the Limpopo or climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in search of ‘original knowledge’. Then the world shrunk. Day-trippers trampled the wilderness, pausing to picnic in Newby’s Hindu Kush. Bruce Chatwin’s isolated Patagonia is now a holiday home for George Soros and the Benettons. According to the Financial Times, 20% of ‘wilderness’ holidaymakers check their e-mail during a week away. Hence today it is no longer enough to travel across a country, rather one must travel into it. Into its society. To understand and empathise with its people and their history. So the travel writer becomes less a geographer of place, more of the human heart. The ‘original knowledge’ that he or she brings home is a collection of subjective impressions. ‘Travel writing,’ wrote Colin Thubron, ‘is one culture reporting on another. Its history, more than most, betrays that objectivity is a chimera.’ He adds that uniquely in literature, outside autobiography, the travel writer acknowledges his subjectivity. I revel in that partiality. It gives me the freedom to imagine. Once I manage to stop worrying.
The international literature festival berlin (ilb) has become an essential part of the literary calendar of Berlin. What do you connect with the city?
I’ve known three Berlins: West Berlin where I made movies with David Bowie and Marlene Dietrich, East Berlin where I researched my first book ‘Stalin's Nose’, and now the unified capital. To me, Berlin is a city of fragments and ghosts. A metropolis which inspired countless artists and witnessed uncountable murders. A laboratory of ideas, the fount of both the brightest and darkest designs of history’s most bloody century. Today it has emerged reunited and reborn as one of the creative and tolerant centres of the world. The international literature festival berlin is a key part of Berlin’s reimagination of itself.