It's no-holds-barred as Sara Wheeler talks George Best, fertile facts and the importance of placing a figure in a landscape
Sara Wheeler is perhaps best known for her books about the two Poles. Terra Incognita, where she lived in Antarctica as a 'Writer in Residence'. And The Magnetic North, where she journeyed around the opposite end of the globe. But today I'm talking Sara about her new book, Access All Areas, a selection of writings from 1990-2010.
'You'll have to be quick,' she says when I call. 'I'm off to Latin lessons at two.'
Dancing or language? She doesn't elaborate. That's the thing with Sara Wheeler. It could be either. Or both.
The new book has been published to coincide with your 50th birthday and has a very retrospective feel about it. So is this the end? Or a new beginning?
I think 50 is a bit of a rite of passage, especially for a woman. My publishers said, ‘Why don’t you look at what you’ve got in your bottom drawer – and stuff that’s been published over the past twenty years – and see if we can make something of it.'
When I looked there was much more than I thought. It was quite gripping reading through it all. Even if it wasn’t any good, there were some themes that emerged. So I chose the pieces around that, the themes that ran all the way through, that matured and developed.
So, I wouldn’t say it’s an end, and it’s a bit optimistic to say it’s a beginning. But I think it marks a certain point of my life, perhaps just where I’ve got up to now.
Which of your books is your favourite?
My favourite is always the last one, because I think you start realising how bad they are the further you get away from them. I’m obviously getting better as a writer, certainly developing and evolving.
In the book you talk about your heroes. Who had the greatest impact on you as a writer or a traveller?
As a writer, it would be Norman Lewis. In terms of writers who use travel as a vehicle he’s the one who’s got the nearest to the ideal of blending narrative with detail. The moving in and out of focus, from the long shot to the closeup – he does it so brilliantly. Some writers come in and out of fashion, like Bruce Chatwin, but Norman Lewis will become even more famous when this generation goes by.
As a person, it would be Martha Gellhorn. She always had the courage to do what she believed in and wasn’t put off by people saying ‘Girls can’t do that!’
Do you think you’ll become a source of inspiration for future generations?
I shouldn’t think so! (Laughs) Not for a minute!
What do you find more compelling – people or places?
I think it’s always got to be people. But what I like to do is set figures in landscape. That’s what appealed to me about biography really. I think the interaction between people and landscapes is very interesting. I’m deeply moved by landscapes but I think the reason I’m not a nature writer is that really, in the end, it’s people that I’m interested in.
What’s more important in non-fiction? The facts or the feel?
I don’t think you have to choose. The first thing you do is put the facts in position, kind of like scaffolding or a frame, and then you make them work for you to get the feeling. I don’t think you should ever sacrifice one for the other.
You can’t muck around with the facts but you can delete some. You select the fertile facts, which is the luxury narrative non-fiction writers have. It’s the opposite of having to write a report, where you’ve got to write everything down. The creative element is the selection of the fertile facts.
The great thing is leaving things out. You don’t have to tell the reader everything. That’s when it gets boring. You see these people who feel an obligation to put everything down because it happened. Or because it was interesting at the time. But that’s not what literature is. It’s the selection of fertile facts – that’s a phrase I hold on to: which of these facts is going to help me get my reader to where I want them to go?
What have your travels taught you?
How little I know!
You’re probably best known for your books about the Poles. Does it worry you that that is something you’re so closely associated with?
Well, I think one has to be grateful for being known for anything at all! It doesn’t mean I feel obliged to carry on ploughing that furrow. I’m glad there are only two Poles!
One of my favourite parts of the book is at the start, the story about meeting George Best in Moscow. For a number of reasons. One, it’s such a bizarre and random event...
Totally random and bizarre. There’s a picture in the end papers. He’s checking out my mum’s boobs!
It's 1971 and you’ve gone to Moscow for a family holiday.
Which was so incredibly unlikely and out of keeping and out-of-character and so bizarre in every possible way. For our family and for people of our background at that time. Even Torremolinos hadn’t got going then; it was the early days of the package tour.
So do you think that has had an influence on you? Did it make you more adventurous in your travels?
No, I don’t think we can put it down to that.
Really? Most kids are going to Cornwall and you’re off to Moscow looking at Lenin lying in state?
Maybe it was an inspiration. Maybe you’re right. I think it’s very difficult to identify influences.
I’m wondering if you’re having a similar influence on your kids.
I hope so. But they might become the opposite and never want to go anywhere. It’s a way of life for them. It never was for me.
How has having kids affected you and your writing?
Obviously it means I can’t go off for months on end but I was getting to a stage in my career where I wanted to do other things anyway. I think one just adapts and evolves. No one carries on doing the same thing in a creative field anyway. You have to change. So I think I would have changed anyway.
So the future is more biographies, rather than go off on a big adventure somewhere?
Oh no! I wouldn’t say that! There’ll be a time when the children aren’t here any more. They’re 14 and 9 this summer. I don’t think I’ll be doing straightforward biography – not a sort of cradle to grave. I think it’s some kind of hybrid that interests me now. Part travel, part this, part that.
Sara has long been a favourite here at Wanderlust. Chart her progress over the years with the various interviews listed below.