William Dalrymple, the prize-winning author of travel and history books on India, met me to talk about his most recent work, The Last Mughal, as well as his travelling exploits – sometimes taken with his artist wife Olivia Fraser – his life in India, his children’s editorial suggestions and future projects.
Childhood and writing influences
Your travel writing career started at the very young age of 22 with In Xanadu, so had this been something you’d been longing to do, was a love for travelling instilled in you as a child?
We went nowhere as children, actually, which may well be where the love of this comes from. My parents lived in a very beautiful hut of the borders southeast of Edinburgh, near the beach, and they said to me nowhere was going to be more beautiful than this so we should stay at home – and we literally never went on a foreign holiday.
Did you travel much around Scotland then?
We had an Easter holiday each year, I don’t know why Easter because it’s a miserable time. And they would travel themselves – they were always off to Senegal or some place.
But you never went with them?
They never took us with them…
But surely your first trip wasn’t for In Xanadu?
Not quite as bad as that. I remember at prep school pressuring my mum to take me to Paris because I was the only kid in my class who had never been abroad. I always remember as a child being regarded as un-travelled and was aware there was a problem and I used to read lots so it always made it… I was always very keen to travel.
So as well as being keen to travel, did you have the desire to write when you were young?
I used to be very keen on Anglo-Saxon and regal history at school. I used to go round on my bicycle looking at churches and before that I was into barrows and megaliths as a kid – and digging from the age of about twelve as an archaeologist. I remember in my primary school the ‘What do you want to do when you grow up?’ question and I wanted to be an author and an archaeologist. Tutankhamun and all that stuff I was heavily into as a small kid. And before I ever went to India I tried to get a job to dig near Nineveh in Iraq, so rather than going to India I would have ended up in Iraq…
Imagine that! When you went out to do the In Xanadu trip was that something you had planned from the start to write a book for?
Yes. It was very consciously a literary thing.
How long did it take you to make that decision?
So you had some travel experience beforehand which you didn’t write up on?
Exactly. I went on a mini-trip in a year off backpacking round India and then did this trip following the route of the crusades and kept a diary with a view to writing a book for that trip and it was a disaster. I’d just read Robert Byron and it was pure bleach pastiche of Robert Byron with a bit of Leigh Fermor over the top of it, thrown in. It taught me in a sense how not to do it and suddenly when I did the In Xanadu diary it was a far better diary and far more usable [as notes and research].
So, now you teach with Travellers’ Tales, what tips do you have for budding travel writers?
A simple one is the notes, the key to writing a decent piece of travel writing is keeping very, very, full notes, full of everything, and I think it’s extremely important.
Living in Delhi
So when you’re living out in Delhi, are you part of community or viewed as an outsider?
I’ve been there so long. I think I’m in a similar situation to a lot of Indian writers living here in that I have been there forever now, about twenty years, and know the place very well and have very, very, old friends – and half my friends are there – but you can never be too… and whenever a book comes out there’s always some reviews that say how amazing that a foreigner, an outsider, can…
Do you get those reviews a lot?
Over and over and over and have done for twenty years and at some level. I don’t think you can ever be completely regarded as something other than English, it’s the same for VS Naipaul whose been living here for ten years but he’s always going to be an Indian writer, however long he has lived in Wiltshire.
Travelling with family
And when you’re taking these long trips for your books are you able to bring your wife and family?
Yes, quite often. Not, obviously, when it’s tricky stuff like war zones and so on. For From the Holy Mountain Olive was pregnant and came to the safer bits like Istanbul, Beirut, ha ha… she was heavily pregnant and got tear gassed in Bethlehem which is never a wise thing to do, but my son is quite normal despite it! And then she had a sushi craving in Beirut and we had to go all round, we did actually find a sushi restaurant in Beirut, this was just after the civil war when there weren’t many fancy restaurants around. Another thing that happened, she had this kind of mammary problem and there was nowhere in Jerusalem that had a bra big enough, so we tried a shop for Russian immigrants until we found one big enough to take the Fraser cup!
Have your children shown an interest in following you two down an artistic or writing route?
The children are too small really to wonder about that, the oldest one is eleven. They do write and my daughter speaks very good Hindi and writes a really very, very, nice Hindi Devanagari script and learns Hindi and enjoys Hindi music…
And is a fan of your wife’s books I would imagine?
Olive’s books are aimed at younger children than they are, really. But she was the editor-in-chief, my eleven year old, of The Last Mughal and was amazingly good at saying when I was blagging on too long. There are very few things in the arts that can’t be put clearly, that even an 11-year-old understands and if you’re saying it unclearly and an 11-year-old can’t understand it, then try and say it a bit more clearly. I once asked a writer who produces these gorgeous short sentences, incredibly clear and beautiful, who the most beautiful writer in history was and I expected him to say Hemingway or someone like that and he said Beatrix Potter and I know what he means, there is a beautiful clarity in that kind of writing.
Moving back to the The Last Mughal, why do you think the Brits are so interested in India so long after the Raj?
I’ve never written about the Raj proper, the Raj proper begins in 1858 which is when The Last Mughal left and my kind of interest in British India ends there. What I’m interested in is the period when the British had this much more intimate relationship with India in the 18th and early 19th century. And how that ends and why that ends, why one moves from the world of white mughals to the hatred and racialism and lack of interest in India evident during the High Raj. And I think it’s very interesting why and how that happened.
And are you drawing parallels to the current events now?
Yeah, very clearly. I was interested in this before the parallels became apparent.
Have you travelled away from Asia, at all? To Africa or the Americas? And if not, do you have plans to?
No I haven’t. What I’m discovering at the moment, which is exciting, is south-east Asia… a long trip to Angkor and Cambodia, Burma…
What is that grabbed you about Asia and India?
It’s where I went first. If I ended up in Africa first time round, who knows, I could have written six books about it…
But you just kept going until you discovered more and more about that area?
For a long time I thought Cairo to Calcutta was my sort of ballpark and recently, it actually says I got very excited by Bali, Cambodia and Burma but I haven’t worked out a way to write it yet.
Have you got copious notes then?
So far I’ve been very much on holiday rather than my other work. If you go on holiday you leave your note book. Cambodia is full of amazing things. On the other hand the core area of Central Asia is so hot as a subject compared to 20 years ago.
Do you now have a lot of competition coming your way?
You have many people now writing about the Middle East who clearly know absolutely bugger all about it. People who have probably never ever been to any of these places and know nothing about these countries sell terrible books with Islamaphobic sentiments and many of them are taken very seriously. Yet this country is full of people who have experiences and understand the culture and it’s tragic that we’ve been guided by a group of people who know nothing of belief.
Has anybody ever asked your advice?
David Cameron has. I wrote one of his speeches when he came to India.
And finally, what will be the next Dalrymple work stocked by bookshops?
A little compilation called The Blind Man and the Elephant which are essays on Islam, Hinduism, Christianity… so Holy Mountain territory and other stuff all together.