Simon Winchester has always been fascinated with the sea. His childhood dream was to become a sailor, wearing crisp, white, tropical shorts, commanding a ship. Young Winchester followed his passion and took an exam for the British Royal Navy. He did a great job during the process, only to find out that he is colour-blind _ red and green elude him _ during a medical examination. The dream of the ocean eluded him, too. But not forever.
Winchester shared that first chapter of his life in his speech last week, delivered as a keynote speaker at the recently held SEA Write Award 2012 gala dinner at the Mandarin Oriental. The ceremony celebrated the Southeast Asian winners of the prestigious literary prize, and Winchester, journalist and author of over 20 non-fiction books including The Professor And The Madman, The Map That Changed The World and the seafaring quest Atlantic: A Vast Ocean Of A Million Stories, was up on the stand from which his warm, charming, radio-host voice and British humour touched and enthused the audience.
"I was devastated about the results, although I [still had] an affection for the idea of 'men in shorts'. I saw a picture of a man in khaki shorts with a hammer, who's travelling the world as a geologist. I thought, well, if I can't be on a ship, then I'd rather travel the world hitting rocks," he recalled.
Winchester was a 1966 geology graduate from St Catherine's College in Oxford. Shortly after, he travelled to work in Uganda for a Canadian mining company, hitting rocks and analysing the earth. It was at that time he discovered a book called Coronation Everest by the Welsh writer James Morris, and fell in love with the inspirational life of the author. The two first met in Wales after Winchester took Morris' advice and quit his job as a geologist and became a journalist at the The Journal in Newcastle Upon Tyne.
When he first met his hero, the eminent Morris had had a sex change and had become Jan Morris. She is now 85, and the two writers remain friends until today.
"Never lose the sense of wonder. You will, as a writer, meet all sorts of people. You'll see terrible things. You'll see wonderful things. Never become jaded. Never become weary," Winchester recounts advice from his mentor Morris.
"When anyone wrote to The Guardian when I was working there, saying, 'I want to be a reporter, how do I do it?', I would tell them, 'To become a reporter, first take a degree in geology and then make friends with a transsexual'," he concluded his speech and nearly brought the house down.
Prior to the dinner, Winchester told us more in an exclusive interview about his life in letters and journalism that has taken him to momentous and troubled places, recording the present and, later on, revisiting the past.
In 1969, at 25, Winchester joined The Guardian and two years later was a named Britain's Journalist of the Year. Throughout his journalistic life, Winchester has covered many major events, including Bloody Sunday in Londonderry and Belfast's "Hour of Terror" during Northern Ireland's darkest period, and the end of Richard Nixon's administration.
In 1982, while covering the Falklands War for The Sunday Times, he was suspected of being a spy infiltrating the Argentinean forces. That landed him in a prison in Tierra del Fuego for three months. After gaining back his freedom, he returned to England and became a freelance writer. In 1985, he travelled to Hong Kong and was offered the title of Asia-Pacific editor at Conde Nast Traveler magazine.
Throughout his 12 years in Hong Kong, Winchester also began to write non-fiction books. His first published work was called In Holy Terror in 1975, based on his first-hand experiences during the turmoil in Northern Ireland. Following that first book, Winchester continued to produce non-fiction, and many of his stories are based on in Asia. In 1995, Winchester released his first fiction work, Pacific Nightmare. It is the one and only fiction piece he has ever written.
''It is about a war between China and Japan. It came out about 1995. Basically, what happened was that an English publisher had a very successful book called The Third World War, in which what he did was ask a number of soldiers _ British senior soldiers _ to write a history book as if it was looking back on an event which never happened. How did it happen, if it had happened? That's what they told me to write a book about: What if it went wrong after the handover of Hong Kong to China in June 1997?'' he said. ''Writing fiction is easy. But writing good fiction is very, very difficult.''
But it was The Professor And The Madman, the famous book about the unusual history of The Oxford English Dictionary, that changed his life.
''This book came out in 1998, when I was 54. I was beginning to worry because none of my books were very successful, and my journalistic career was sort of winding down. There were younger people coming up. When there was a war to cover, editors will turn to 30-year-old reporters, rather than a 54-year-old reporter,'' said the now 68-year-old author.
The origin of The Professor And The Madman was a result of his idea of writing a different story. Winchester said he first convinced his editor to buy his idea that he wanted to buy ships and put crews on them _ all friends of his _ and sail around the world for two years. He would write about the experience in a book.
''One day I was at her office and I picked up a book. It was called Chasing The Sun, by Jonathon Green,'' he said.
''I was reading this book in the bath at about 7.15am and I came across a line that said, 'Readers of this book will of course be familiar with the story of W.C. Minor, the deranged American lunatic murderer who was a contributor to The Oxford English Dictionary'.
''I had never heard this story before. I sat up in a bath and said, 'What? A murderer involved in the making of a dictionary?'. By great fortune, I had a telephone behind the bath. And I knew one woman who is a lexicographer in Oxford, England. So I dialled her. She didn't answer until I was just about to hang up.''
Luckily, Winchester's friend once read a paper on American surgeon Minor's contribution to the dictionary. The writer was recommended to visit Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum, where Minor was incarcerated, and he retrieved the medical files of the man who would become a real-life character of his book that later propelled Winchester's name onto best-seller lists. The Professor And The Madman, which gives an unusual insight to the world's most popular dictionary, has sold millions of copies around the world. It has been translated into several languages; the Thai version was released in 2002.
Hearing about the translation pricked the author's interest. Here's a man who's written about words, meaning, and lexicography, and Winchester expressed his wish to read more works from Southeast Asia, especially by the laureates at the SEA Write Awards. He believes there are plenty of talented writers in this part of the world, and translation is the key to allow these gems to shine more brightly.
''It's has been the other way for a long time. For example, a book like mine, being translated into Thai... I cannot honestly say I know any Thai writer who has translated into English. But, this is my hope _ that this traffic, which is going one way, to Asia, will start going the other way, from Asia,'' he said.
But, most importantly, he noted, a good translation is a required.
''One of the books I wrote about China five years ago was translated into Chinese. It was translated so badly that, mercifully, a Chinese friend of mine told me, 'This is bad. You do not want to publish this'. He told me to have it translated again. And then it did very well. It's sold millions of copies in China. To get a good translation, that is the problem,'' he said.
With the rapid growth of technology, Winchester is, like other writers today, keeping up with the way literature is changing along with the rest of the world. And he has learned an interesting lesson about the online advent: everything is possible, yet unexpected.
''I released a book called Skull, which was initially made as an app on iTunes. I saw this collection of skulls and I thought it would make wonderful app. We did it _ [it was] terribly expensive to produce. But, it didn't sell very well, so we decided to turn it into a book,'' he said. However, Winchester also has a digital literature experience to counter the Skull venture.
''There was a book I wrote in the 1980s about British aristocracy and it has been out of print for years. Someone said to me there is now a popular television show in the US called Downton Abbey. All of the sudden, America is now interested in dukes and earls and the subjects in my book.
''I decided to republish my book as an e-book and link it to Downton Abbey and rename it Their Noble Lordships: How To Tell A Duke From An Earl... And Other Mysteries Solved.''
Winchester explained that it only cost him about US$200 (6,100 baht) to produce the online version of the book, but since March he has received a cheque of several hundred dollars each month _ the 20-year-old book has had a surprising second life.
''It doesn't make a fortune, but surprisingly it is making some money. It has a new life,'' he said.
''From a writer's point of view, I don't care if it's a book or an e-book _ as long as they read the book I wrote, I'm perfectly happy.''
Last year, Winchester was granted American citizenship. He now resides in New York with his wife, while his son resides in Cambodia, working at The Phnom Penh Post.
''I have a farm in New York. My study is a building 100 yards away from my house. When I'm writing, the routine is always the same: I get up at half past five. I make a cup of tea and go to my study. I look at what I wrote the day before and try to polish it until eight o'clock. Then I come back to the house and have breakfast with my wife and read the newspaper until nine o'clock. I'll go back and write until four o'clock,'' he says.
''After that I exercise, then have a shower and get changed. I'll go to the study again and prepare material for the next day of writing until seven o'clock, come back to the house, and forget about the book.''
From the failed navy exam to the farm in New York, the life of a writer can sometimes be so unpredictable _ and yet so simple.
About the author
- Writer: Yanapon Musiket
Position: Life Writer