My adventures in the golden realm.
Interview by Phil Treagus with George Monbiot, published by The Reading Lists, 21st October 2017
When someone asks you ‘what do you do for a living?’ – How do you respond?
I find that question hard to answer, as I’ve sought to work in as many ways as possible. I spend half my time writing for the Guardian, as a contracted freelance, and the rest pursuing a series of wild and sometimes quixotic projects. I’ve just published another non-fiction book, but my project before that was an album, that I wrote with the musician Ewan McLennan. My next one is a graphic novel, followed by a novel.
What are you reading at the moment?
A remarkable book – perhaps the most profound and far-reaching I’ve ever read – called The Patterning Instinct, by Jeremy Lent. It’s about humanity’s search for meaning, and the way in which culture shapes the cognitive pathways in our minds and pushes us to think and behave in particular patterns. I see it as the 21st Century version of JG Frazer’s The Golden Bough: a vast intellectual adventure, sweeping through thousands of years of human history.
When you think about your childhood, what book comes to mind?
As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, by Laurie Lee. It stirred my longing for adventure and for escape from my own troubled circumstances. I read it again and again. I think I still have it somewhere, the cover, frayed and bent, showing the ragged boy walking away down a sun-bleached road.
Can you remember the first non-fiction book you loved?
Thor Heyerdahl’s The Kon-Tiki Expedition. The combination of the thrill of floating away from it all and his wonderful descriptions of the creatures of the sea he encountered stay with me to this day. I think it might be what engendered my love of sea kayaking.
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
I’m still working it out. I knew it would have something to do with wildlife, and something to do with writing, as these were my great loves. But the specifics varied from year to year. They still do.
What do you think your school aged self would think of the present day you?
I hope he would be pleased that I had found my own way through life, and that, as far as I am able, I’m living according to my beliefs.
If you could wrap up a single book and gift it to yourself as you left education – which book would it be?
It would be a book that helped to make sense of my life. Perhaps Why Love Matters, by Sue Gerhardt, or The Compassionate Mind, by Paul Gilbert.
Does your reading have routine? Is there a particular time or place that you like to read?
Not any more – young children have put paid to that. Now it’s a matter of snatching whatever time I can, mostly in the evenings, just before going to sleep or on train journeys.
Can you talk us through your research process when preparing for a new book?
A: Until I wrote Feral, it was an ordered and almost mechanical process. I would start by structuring the enquiry and drawing up a list of topics to research. Then, typically, I would go into the library and search the academic journals, piling up a great stack of material, then begin the quest for relevant books, as well as working out where I had to go and who I should meet. The first tranche of research would lead me to the next questions, and so on.
But Feral is about rewilding, which, when applied to ecosystems, means to the greatest extent possible allowing them to find their own way. So it seemed wrong to apply that rigid structure to my investigation of the topic. I sought to rewild my own writing, allowing the topic to evolve organically, rather than forcing the pace. Of course, as well as the time exploring the issue outdoors, a great deal of reading was required, but the topics appeared and unfolded as I went along, rather than being apparent at the beginning.
I feel this approach has set me up well for the novel I’m writing. I have tried to write fiction before, and found that I was forcing it. In this case however, the tables seem to have been turned: now it is the book that’s driving me, and taking me to unexpected places. It is as if it has a mind of its own, and I just go where it tells me.
Which book has had the biggest impact on your career so far? How did it impact it?
I think it might be Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. I see it as the most important environmental book ever written. It is a thought experiment that takes us to ground zero: imagining a world without a biosphere. It certainly concentrates the mind when I’m thinking about environmental issues.
What two pieces of advice would you give a young aspiring writer?
First, avoid writers block by ceasing to worry about the first sentence. Just throw down a few words that have something vaguely to do with the idea or image with which you wish to begin the passage you’re writing, then carry on, as sketchily as necessary, and sort it all out later. You’ll often find that the words unexpectedly start to flow, once you have begun.
Second, be aware that very little you write is likely to enjoy great success. The UK, astonishingly, publishes 180,000 books a year. Of these, perhaps 100 will do extremely well, and perhaps 1000 will do moderately well. Writing a book, even an utterly brilliant book, is a wild gamble. Everyone writes in the hope or even expectation of great success, and that hope will nearly always be dashed. The disappointment can be crushing – I have seen people’s lives ruined by it. Don’t let that happen to you. By the time one book is published, you should be working on another, and burying yourself in it, so you have something with which to distract yourself if the first one is scarcely recognised. You will need to devise strategies for coping with disappointment, as you are almost certain to encounter it.
Do you have any books that you strongly associate with someone important in your life?
No. I try to remember that life and literature are not the same thing.
What book have you recommended the most to friends and family?
Probably Adam Thorpe’s Ulverton, a novel of great beauty and delicacy.
Do you prefer fiction or non-fiction?
Do you think reading is important?
I think it is invaluable. And by reading, I don’t mean only blogs and articles. I feel I obtain a far deeper understanding of an issue when I read a book about it.
What’s the best book you’ve read in the last 6 months?
That’s hard to answer, as I have read so many good ones. I would say it’s a toss up between Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics, Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger, Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch and Adam Roberts’s The Thing Itself.
Do you prefer real books or digital books?
Real. I spend far too much time staring at a screen as it is.
Name a book that you feel everyone would benefit from reading and explain why.
Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century. While its prescriptions are weak, its analysis of how we got into our mess is excellent.
What is the book that you feel has had the single biggest impact on your life? What impact did it have?
Perhaps the Romany series by G Bramwell Evans, that I read avidly when I was very young. I would probably find all sorts of things wrong with it today, but it was a major influence in cementing my love of the natural world and my fascination with our relationship to it.
Are there any books you haven’t mentioned that you feel would make your reading list?
Far too many. Middlemarch, Riddley Walker, Cloud Atlas, Things Fall Apart, Madame Bovary, Dead Souls, Fathers and Sons, Half of a Yellow Sun, Tristram Shandy, A Suitable Boy, Jane Eyre, An Insular Possession, The War of the End of the World, The Remains of the Day, Moby Dick, The Border Trilogy, A Dance to the Music of Time – I could probably go on all day…
What books or subject matter do you plan on reading in the next year?
What I tend to do is to go into the bookshop and ask the assistant for advice. For example, I might ask for recommendations for novels of ideas, or something from Eastern Europe, or an under-recognised British novel. I find this always leads me to more interesting books than either the review pages (which tend to be horribly slanted towards established authors: I see a lot of what passes for literary commentary – especially the obsession with biography – as just a highfalutin form of celebrity culture) or random recommendations. Some of the people who work in bookshops are fantastically knowledgeable, and their learning and wisdom is often undervalued.
If you were to write an autobiography – what would it be called?
Another Fine Mess.