I was recently interviewed by the writer, Vujica Ognjenović, for a magazine in Montenegro and thought I would share his insightful questions.
1. Your parents are Scots. You were born, raised and finished your studies in Scotland, so I will ask you, at the beginning of this conversation: are Scots really too stingy, or are they just reasonable savers? I hope you are not angry that I am asking you this because in many countries of the world, there are anecdotes about Scots as misers?
Ha! I won’t take offence at the question but I have no idea how Scots got such an unfair label. My family come from the Highlands and Islands of Scotland and the Gaelic-Celtic culture of that region is famed for its hospitality and generosity. The Highland code demanded that strangers and travellers – even from rival clans – must be given shelter and food. Stories of clan feasting were legendary! I can only assume the prejudice against Scots grew from the fact that in bygone days Scotland was a relatively poor country and so had to be careful with its resources. But close-knit communities would look after each other and help each other out in the bad times. There is an old Scottish saying, ‘mean as a key’. This meant that no one should lock their doors and that all were welcome into each other’s homes.
2. At the age of 18, you traveled to the “end of the world”, to the wonderful land of Nepal. Why? What did you expect from that trip?
My overland trip was inspired by my maternal grandparents who had lived and worked in India from the 1920s until retirement back to Scotland in the 1950s. My mother had lived there as a girl and I was brought up on stories about tigers and trekking in the Himalayas. I wanted to travel East before I went to university and see some of the amazing countries on the way. But I also wanted to experience some of the places in India (and now Pakistan) where my family had lived. When they were there, it was very difficult to get into Nepal but with my grandfather being a forester, they did some very remote treks into the Himalayas as far as Tibet. My mother as a baby was taken on these treks and carried in her pram on poles!
I have always had a fascination for other cultures, and I hoped to learn more about the countries and people along the overland route. I was also inspired by a book that I’d studied at school: Passage to India by E.M. Forster. It made me think about the diversity of cultures within India itself. When I returned from my trip, I went to Edinburgh University to study Social Anthropology.
3. Kathmandu, the capital of that distant land, located at the confluence of the Baghmati River and the Bishanmati River, is a famous cultural and Buddhist pilgrimage center. How did you experience that city where many traditional rituals are preserved?
You have to remember that this was the 1970s and, in those days, Kathamandu was the end of the hippy trail! It was a fascinating place, full of beautiful temples and stupas – with monkeys running across their rooftops – and medieval buildings with intricately carved windows and doors, and narrow streets which we explored by bicycle. But it was also a haven for overland travellers from the West, living cheaply in backpacker hostels, enjoying the food and the laid-back lifestyle. To cater for the European travellers, there were small cafes selling pancakes, apple pies and huge delicious cakes!
Our bus arrived there at Christmas time and so most of the group stayed together for the celebrations, even though it was the end of the trip. On Christmas Day, I remember vividly, going out at dusk in the crisp mountain air, when all the lights were coming on in the open-fronted wayside stalls, the moon and evening star were rising and mist was settling on the hills around. Then suddenly, in the crowded street, a small band went past playing drums, pipes and bells. They looked like shepherds in their homespun blankets and they disappeared into the half-dark and their lovely rhythmic music faded away. I felt as if I’d seen the Biblical shepherds from the Christmas story!
4. How inspiring was that city for you? Was your mysterious novel, “Vanishing of Ruth” the result of that journey?
I adored Kathmandu and the surrounding countryside. It may be a cliché to say how friendly people were, but it’s true. It was the people as well as the fascinating city and the breath-taking mountain views that made it so special. It saddens me that so much of it has apparently been destroyed by earthquakes in more recent times.
‘The Vanishing of Ruth’ was definitely inspired by my journey overland, though it was over thirty years later when I finally decided how I would turn it into fiction. I thought that the themes of travel, escape and self-discovery lent themselves to a mystery novel. So the novel has flashbacks to the same year (1976) that I travelled overland and much of the background is true to my own journey – though no one disappeared on my bus as they do in the novel! Kathmandu features in the novel too, and some of the pivotal scenes take place in Nepal.
I was also lucky enough to travel through your beautiful country of Montenegro during my bus trip. We camped by the Kotor Fjord and swam under the stars, visited Kotor, drove up the hairpin bends and through some spectacular wooded gorges. In those days, the towns we passed through were called Titograd and Ivangrad.
5. In the book “In the Far Pashmina Mountains” you told an epic tale of a woman’s bravery and endurance in nineteenth century British tropical India, and remote Afghanistan. What was the reason for writing this interesting and very unusual story?
Again, there is a family story at the heart of why I looked at this early stage of Britain’s connections with India! One of my MacLeod ancestors signed up as a soldier of the East India Company army in the 18th century, because of the lack of opportunities for young men in the Scottish Highlands. Life was tough and brutal but fortunes could be made. Donald, my ancestor, was wounded in battle and put on a ship home but he died before reaching Scotland again. ‘In the Far Pashmina Mountains’ (although set a few years later) depicts this crucial time in British and Indian history when the commercial interests of the British East India Company were turning into the political ambitions of Empire.
There was also a growing rivalry with Russia and so the independent country of Afghanistan became a political ‘football’ between the two imperial powers. There were those who thought that the Afghans should be treated as allies and friends and the more aggressive imperialists who wanted to invade the country and extend British power. What interested me was the women and civilians who were caught up in the struggle and how they coped in what became a notorious retreat from Kabul. That is why I wrote about a brave, independent woman as my central character.
6. Is there any particular reason why you have placed the plot of this book, for the most part, in the steep mountains of Far Pashmina?
My hero, John Sinclair, is a Scottish Highlander and adapts well to the rigours of life in the Himalayas and mountains of Afghanistan where a lot of the book is set. I wanted to draw parallels between his life in Scotland and that of the Afghans and their warrior culture – the common hardships, prowess in battle, generous hospitality and pride in their clans. This is set against the arrogance of imperialism which seeks to dominate rather than understand people. I was also interested in portraying civilian life in the early Indian hill resort of Simla in the foothills of the Himalayas. It began as a place for the British soldiers to recuperate from the heat and disease of the plains in summer and grew into the most desirable hill town where government departments would go for the summer months and the Europeans enjoyed riding, sports, picnics and entertainment. In the 1920s my grandfather was stationed there as a forester and it was from Simla that he and my grandmother would set out for treks into the mountains and go ‘into’ camp for months at a time, to organise planting and harvesting of the trees. I visited Simla (now called Shimla) a few years ago and discovered one of the boarding houses where my grandparents and my mother had stayed – a thrilling moment as it still looked much the same as it would have in the 1920s. After that, I researched Simla’s history and that led to it being a part of the novel, ‘In The Far Pashmina Mountains’.
This is part one of the interview – I’ll post the second half later this week.