William Dalrymple: British historian, writer and curator

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William DalrympleA co-founder and co-director of the annual Jaipur Literature Festival in India, William Dalrymple has an eye for history and an ability to make it come alive.

The British historian, writer and curator’s latest book, The Return of a King, The Battle for Afghanistan (2012) is testament to his talent for artfully recounting tales from humanity’s collective past, with Barnaby Rogerson of The Independent newspaper describing the book thus: “William Dalrymple is a master storyteller, who breathes such passion, vivacity and animation into the historical characters of the First Anglo-Afghan war of 1839-42 that at the end of this 567-page book you feel you have marched, fought, dined and plotted with them all…”

In our interview with Dalrymple we asked him about where his love of history originated, how he makes the dry old pages of history spring to life, and his advice for aspiring writers.

Click play to listen. Running time: 18.00

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Transcript

* Please note these transcripts have been edited for readability

Danielle:
Hi, I’m Danielle Williams from the Australian Writers’ Centre. I’m here at the Sydney Writers’ Festival and I’m about to chat with one of my favourite authors, William Dalrymple.

Thank you so much for speaking with us, William.

William:
Well, thank you.

Danielle:
First of all let’s talk about the latest book, Return of a King.

William:
Return of a King is a whopping great 600-page doorstopper about the greatest imperial disaster the British empire ever suffered. In 1839, 18,000 East India Company troops, 30,000 camels, 20,000 camp followers marched in Afghanistan, along with 300 camels who were carrying the regimental wine cellar, 30 carrying cheroots and cigars, one carrying eau du cologne, and they put back on the throne of Afghanistan the ruler who had been chopped out 30 years earlier, Shah Shujah.

Eighteen months later, the British rioted in a major insurgency, they surrender, they march back to India and of the 18,500 that leave Kabul, one man makes it back to Jalalabad – it’s a complete wipeout. And it’s the story of what the British think is imperial humiliation, but for the Afghans it’s their founding myth. You’ve got the Battle of Britain, what Trafalgar is to the Brits, what Michael Collins and Easter Rising is to the Irish, what Garibaldi and the risorgimento is to the Italians, or what Washington and Yorktown is to the Yanks. This is to the Afghans.

This is something they remember and it’s the most crucial moment in their history. And whenever other new imperial powers come and try and threaten their way through Afghanistan, they just remember this and smile.

Danielle:
We see a lot of Afghanistan in the news, it’s generally not positive. What do you hope readers will gain from reading this book about Afghanistan?

William:
This is not a political book about modern Afghanistan and it’s not meant to be a how-to guide for future imperialists or anything like that. It’s a history book about a period of history. And I’d hoped first of all, mostly they would get what they get from any good novel or any good work, which is an amazing cast of characters, an extraordinary story and hopefully written in a way that’s very accessible and interesting.

First and primary, this is a book that’s been written to be read, it’s not a one-stop panacea for Colonial cock-ups in Afghanistan. But I think obviously it does have contemporary resonance and that’s one of the reasons I wrote it, is that we’ve been there before and we’ve just never seen to learn the lessons of history – as Hegel famously said, ‘The one thing you learn from history is that no one learns from history.’

Danielle:
Yes, that’s true. As a historian, I mean you must find yourself shaking your head in dismay sometimes when you’re doing research and you realise that, you know, we’ve done all of this again –

William:
Yeah, I mean it’s astonishing to me, like to the point whereby the guy we put in last time, Shah Shujah, he was the head of the Popalzai tribe; the current head of the Popalzai tribe is Hamid Karzai. The tribe that brought down Shah Sujah – the Ghilzai, who today make up the foot soldiers of the Taliban – and the chief of the Hotak at Ghilzai, the leader of them all is Mirwais. So, it’s exactly the same tribal struggle 170 years later. And the British have made the same mistakes, as we make now, they would go into a country without any clear idea of how to get out, they outstay their welcome and they leave slightly with their tail through their legs, just like the Aussies, the Brits and the Americans are doing at the moment.

Danielle:
Just on the research, you’re no stranger to research, obviously, but this is a big book, as you said, it’s a doorstopper.

William:
It’s a monster. It’s an offensive weapon. I mean you get confronted by some strange man in the alley on your way home you can throw a copy of The Return of a King at them and live to tell the tale.

Danielle:
So when you research something like this how long does it take and when do you know when to stop? How do you know when to stop?

William:
Some might say I didn’t know when to stop. These sort of books, big narratives of history, are major projects. You only go into them if you have three or four years, maybe five or six years to spare, and are sure that somebody wants to read it at the end of it. So, in a sense it’s quite a gamble, it’s like sort of starting a business and investing all of your resources into it.

Luckily, because Afghanistan is in the news I was fairly hopeful that they would have the market at the end of it, that this is something that people would want to read all over the world. There are 60 nations with troops in Afghanistan. These are the kinds of decisions you make, you know, you really do. When you’re starting something like this you don’t do it lightly.

I do travel books as well, and they take a lot less work. They’re often more difficult in their writing, in terms of shared resources and so on.

So, no, I have a very old-fashioned system. I use card indexes, I use a dateline on my laptop, and over a period of four or five years will gather material, easily gatherable stuff in Delhi, in Pakistan. Or more difficult in gathering stuff from Kandahar, Herat, Kabul, Jalalabad. And you slightly take your life in your hands when you go to something in Kandahar – I mean the Kabul’s fine – Jalalabad and Kandahar are not two places I’m going to be rushing back to anytime soon, I think.

Danielle:
No, and having been to those places you – I mean that must have impacted the way you wrote about these places in this book.

William:
Well, I don’t think you can write about a place or country without going there. I mean quite clearly – I mean if you were to write the history of Sydney it would help if you visited Sydney.

Danielle:
Sydney is relatively safe to visit, so I guess –

William:
Oh, I don’t know… on a Friday night…

No, you have to – clearly you have to visit, and I would never trust a book by anyone who wrote about a place without visiting it, that’s clearly a recipe for disaster.

Some of it’s much easier. Going to Kabul is kind of like a French finishing school, there’s lots of gorgeous French girls there, who sort of work. It’s fine, really, I mean the occasional something goes wrong. But, Kandahar is the assassination capital of Afghanistan, and the year I was there, the governor, the deputy governor, the police chief, and the mayor all got shot dead. So I got a bullet in the back of my car as we drove out the airport perimeter, we had a slug – a bullet – in the back of the thing, luckily it was an armored vehicle, but…

Danielle:
Did you ever reconsider?

William:
Well, I was off to the next place, but I got some research done in the meeting.

Danielle:
Did that ever make you think twice about finishing the book?

William:
No, I mean I think once you start a project like this you – I mean you don’t knowingly ever put yourself – I certainly don’t go knowingly into shooting wars. I wasn’t off embedding in Helmand, or going looking for the Taliban, I was unlucky in Kandahar. I think that was the one place I went which was really – I was out of my depth. But, I mean most of – I mean Herat was fine, Mazar-i-Sharif was fine, Kabul was fine, you do a lot of the stuff…

I mean, in a sense, the greater challenge is organizing this stuff. You produce – I got 10 major Afghan sources. My 19th century diary is not good enough to rely on, so I worked with a friend who worked with me on two previously books, Bruce Wannell, he came and lived with me and we worked through the diary sources.

And, then you have to file it all, I have file indexes by personality, by name, name indexes, by topics, by place, by… and so on. Now you have something that’s as easy as Chinese cooking, you spend hours chopping this stuff up and preparing it, but the actual cooking process, if you’ve got all of that ready and it’s all nicely prepared, and you’ve got your spring onions in one little pile, and your coriander in another, and your oils already in the frying pan it should be a very quick cooking process.

What I do is I close down, I lock down – it’s like doing finals or doing an exam or something, you just block off nine months and you don’t go out to lunch ever, you only go out to dinner a couple of times a week, max. You get up very early, you’re disciplined, you get fit, and you really go for it and you write a monster like this in nine months.

Danielle:
Because that was actually going to be my next question, and you make it sound relatively easy –

William:
Well, I think my system is really quite simple, after I’ve got this all ready and the date line has grown from four or five pages at the beginning to, by the time you’re really writing it, it’s about 400 pages long with all of the different events chronologically organised, with a little code that you make yourself – where you find it, whether it’s a book in your bookshelf, or a particular file in your filing cabinet, or whatever you’re doing. So the quotes, in a sense, are already diced, you’ve already cut them all up until they’re manageable bits you want to use. So, everything is processed.

Once that’s ready my system is simple, I print out the day’s work before I go to bed, have it by my bed when I wake up, hopefully get up about half-past five or six, it doesn’t always work out like that, but I mean early. And you sit outside and you correct the manuscript, you type it in, all of the corrections. With a bit of luck you have lunch, go for a jog, get some exercise or whatever. You should be ready to roll the new stuff by about half-past nine or 10 in the morning. And I work through until 2pm, and that’s my main bit of the working day.

After that you start doing emails, all of the bullocks of normal living, the shopping, do the washing up, all of the stuff you have to do, looking after your kids, you know, that kind of stuff. And then have another little go in the evening between, you know, sort of 5 and 7pm, or 5 and 8pm or something, preparing the next day, correcting what I’ve done in the morning, thinking how I’m going to organize the next bit.

And then, again, last thing at night – normally, if I’m writing a book I’m sort of – yeah, sitting, watching 24, or Breaking Bad, and falling asleep by about nine o’clock. Snoring in front of the telly, to the annoyance of my kids.

But, the last thing is you print out the day’s work and have it by your bed, so the first – and often I find that if it’s really working you’re even dreaming about it, it’s there. I mean writers are not easy to live with at the best of times, for a whole variety of good reasons, and I think they’re particularly difficult to live with when they’re mid-book because I think it’s a similar process whether it’s fiction or non-fiction. If you’re imaginatively embedded in that world, you’re not wholly present at meals. Occasionally, you have a good party and you do forget about your book after an hour or two, but I mean when I’m writing, I’m really living it in a quite major way.

One of the nice things about publishing a book and other people reading it, is that these guys that you’ve been living with – I mean it’s one thing to live with your family, your wife, your mates and your colleagues – you’ve also got this whole cast of people who are absolutely present in your life who died 170 years ago.

It’s quite difficult to interest people in them, in general, particularly when you haven’t written the book. But after the book is written, suddenly you have a whole lot of anxious readers who spend a week sort of wading through it. I’ve been longing to chat to you about all of the – Alexander Burnes or Shah Shujah or Dost Mohammad. And that’s a great treat when suddenly you can have conversations about your friends that you’ve been hanging out with.

Danielle:
So is this a system you honed over the years?

William:
Yeah. When I started writing – I mean I used to be a travel writer, and it’s a different type of process when you’re collecting interviews in notebooks. I find writing travel books, actually, far more difficult because you have less of a story to go on. This – if you have a really good backbone, narrative backbone – it should be a relatively easy thing to actually get the writing done, particularly if everything is cut up and ready to go.

But the process of writing a history book is a relatively simple one, and I talked to some other people like Amanda Foreman who wrote Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, and Stella Tillyard who did Aristocrats, and asked for their systems and what their – because you have to find a way that suits you, of holding huge masses of data in a format that you can immediately access and locate.

Whatever your system is, different things work for different people, whatever it is you’ve got to be able to instantly access that quote, that particular document, that thing you read four years earlier, possibly, you know? And know where it came from and get it into the text, and if it’s working well it should be a system whereby you can do two or three pages a day, or even three or four on a good day.

Danielle:
I would love to chat to you all night about everything to do with history and writing, but just one final question, what is your advice to writers who are interested in taking on a project like this?

William:
If you’re doing a big narrative history book it’s a big project, and you really need to find the subject that’s going to – you’ve got to find the resources to do it, and maybe an advance from a publisher or a grant from some – you don’t do it lightly. A novel or a travel book you can knock off in a couple of years. These things often, to do properly, a big biography, a big history book is three or four years work, minimum, it’s like doing a PhD really. And you’ve got to clear some space.

The other thing, the key advice to any young writer is, no one knows whether they can write a book until they’ve written one, and that’s just the way it is. And it’s a really difficult thing, even if you know you can do it. And so the process of self-doubt you go through in your first book is a desperate thing, however confident you are, and often people aren’t terribly confident.

The best bit of advice I can offer is just persevere and push on, and don’t be appalled how bad your writing is to begin with. Finished writing that you read in books comes at the end of many, many drafts and many, many people editing it and making it better.

And everyone writes only OK to begin with, that beautiful prose that you read in your favourite writer’s best passages comes from revision after revision, after revision and it’s like a sculpture, is the nearest analogy, where you’re continually removing the bad bits, or the bits you don’t want until you’re left with the perfect sculpture. And very, very few writers that I know write beautifully and brilliantly straight up. That perfection and polish comes from draft after draft, after draft, and honing it and polishing it, and honing it and polishing, and stopping and leaving it in the drawer, and coming back to it, and playing with it a bit more, you know? And that’s how it happens. Initially, however good you are, what you write is not going to be that good to begin with, and don’t be put off.

Danielle:
That’s excellent advice. Thank you so much, William.

I will eventually get through the book, I promise.

William:
Thank you.


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