Ahead of his event at Stanfords Bristol this week, author Dan Richards discusses his new book Outpost – an exploration of far-flung shelters in mountains, tundra, forests, deserts and oceans – and answers few of our questions.
What books, authors or novels inspired you in writing Outpost? And what are you reading at the moment?
At the moment I’m reading Brian Dillon’s Essayism and Muriel Spark’s The Finishing School. I tend to read several books at once. Also The Pine Barrens by John McPhee; that’s on my bedside table — but Jan Morris, Joan Didion, Rebecca Solnit, and J.A. Baker have taken me on eye-popping journeys into strange lands. Richard Brautigan, Bob Dylan, George Simenon, Lavinia Greenlaw, Mark Doty, David Bowie, Cate Le Bon, T.S Eliot, Denis Johnson, Ted Hughes and Alice Oswald are a never-ending source of indelible images. I try to furnish my books with as much poetry, art, music and literature as possible and all those fed into Outpost.
When you first started researching the book, did you have a strong sense of the terrain you wanted to cover? How much was planned in advance and how much did it take shape as you wrote it?
The book began with a polar bear pelvis my father brought home from Spitsbergen so I knew I’d be Arctic-bound in some way and I’d always wanted to visit rock lighthouses so I had those in mind as well but generally, at least when I start a book, it’s a case of seeing where the stories lead — my trip to Desolation Peak came about that way. Fate, flailing and deadlines are good travel agents. Also what’s bad in life is generally good in a book has become something of a motto. Readers like a writer to suffer, I think. Get benighted on the side of mountain in a storm, get monstered at a gas station in the Utah desert, get so drenched tromping across the Cairngorms you start to grow gils, get spooked in an Icelandic sæluhús, have your boat bitten in half by a hippopotamus — people love that stuff.
Outpost explores our relationship with the natural world. Whilst travelling, how strongly did you feel that we as a society need to protect these spaces? Do you feel that the book is political with regards to environmental concerns?
I don’t think the book is controversial in its central messages of ‘do no harm’ and ‘leave no trace.’ I do think fact that man-made Climate Change is still questioned in some quarters is a disgrace and that fact that it’s regarded as political or divisive to discuss or act on is despicable and negligent to say the least.
I try to keep my carbon footprint to a minimum. I had to fly to a few of the places in the book but I tried take the train as much as possible — I took trains from Bath to Switzerland — and I don’t drive so but sometime I had to hitch lifts; I did that across America — but it’s not ideal and I admit that I am conflicted about the idea of so-say wilderness tourism. And it’s a strange thing to write an explorative travel book and then suggest people don’t follow in my footsteps but I think it’s valid to travel to particular wild places at risk and report back on what’s there and what’s gone. I think it’s in human being to explore but the methods by which they do so are of ever more import.
Can you give us an example?
Absolutely! A few days after my return from Pyramiden, an abandoned Russian mining outpost I’d visited on snowmobile, I took a trip with Astrid Dillner, a young Swede who teaches dog sledding on the outskirts of Longyearbyen.
At a box-park of square kennels built on stilts, each home to an Alaskan husky, I harnessed up a team of six beautiful, muscular, patient dogs; warm white fur against the cut snow’s blue. The sleds were wood, bound together with cord to create the necessary flexible frame. The driver stood at the stern, one foot resting on the rake of a brake, the other on one of the running skids. The passenger sat in front, swaddled in rugs, along with the bags and supplies. We ran up into the mountains in smooth snow channels. Sun glare. Shadow chill. The only sounds were harness jingle, the pants and padding of the team, the shush of the runners and occasional human call of encouragement. Otherwise it was silent. Just us, darting clean through the landscape. It felt ancient, balanced, peaceful. Wonderful. I was low in the sled so the world appeared to pass at a similar speed to that of a snowmobile but, crucially, it wasn’t — the world wasn’t blurred or hornet-loud. I was able to take in the landscape and feel immersed in a way that the cat-bikes hadn’t allowed. That was my favourite journey of the book, maybe — and set me thinking of slow travel. Outpost suggests that, if people go, they try to take it all in at an animal pace — by foot one way or another — and remember their place and duties of care.
Outpost describes some of the places that artists and writers have found refuge, such as Roald Dahl’s den-like shed. Where do you write? Do you have a particular routine as a writer?
Sadly, I don’t have a shed! Though I’m open to the idea of the shed. At the moment I write at my house in Bath at a gouged, scratched and tea-stained desk. It’s a little cock-pit; a similar idea to Dahl’s writing hut. But I think it’s important to try to make writing a 9-5 sometimes. For instance, I’ll often write in a city café – mostly because coffee is vital to the writing process and you have to be productive if you’re in public otherwise you look like a complete pillock! But I think that the reality is a writer needs to be able to write anywhere. I was in Svalbard with Horatio Clare — a writer I hugely admire and am lucky enough to have as a friend — and he was always making notes when we stopped our snowmobiles or dog sleds to rest or eat, and wrote the whole trip up as soon as we were back in Longyearbyen. I make notes and sketches and often take photos on my phone as aids to memory but you still need to sit down and write the thing and that can be a bit irksome after the thrill of adventures; but it’s got to be done and once you start you warm up, things fall into place and the task becomes fun. And editing and rewriting can be enjoyable too — they’re the bits when you fill in the details, polish things up and make the thing sing. If I waited for inspiration to strike me, I’d never write anything. You need to be able to write your way through a creative impasse; more than that, try and try again even when it’s not working; keep on keeping on.
Finally, you visit a lot of far-flung places in Outpost. Did you have a favourite?
I have to admit that I loved Phare de Cordouan, a unique beacon off the coast of France — the only operational offshore lighthouse in the world both manned and open to visitors; the first to be listed as a historic monument; the first French beacon to employ parabolic reflectors and the test bed for Fresnal’s rotating system of concentric lenses. You boat over from the coast above Bordeaux, land on a sandbank and enter the tower’s fort-quoit base through a stepped tunnel, pass through the several-inches-thick front door, then stand amazed at architect Louis de Foix’ ornate interior. The base dates from 1611. The atmosphere is church-like, the echoes rich and sonorous, corkscrewing stairs like a belfry. First floor, an apartment for the French king, of course. Second floor, a chapel to the Virgin Mary with a coffered dome ceiling akin to the Pantheon in Rome… an amazing building. Jack Kerouac’s fire-lookout belvedere atop Desolation Peak was amazing too, mind — do I really have to choose? Maybe I’ll cheat and have both.