Friday, February 8, 2013

This is also the danger you have, the rich getting richer and the poor remaining poor: Andrew Lycett

Like he said answering my last question, he likes to look at things from distance, and this is what he observes of India. The conversation took place recently with this known biographer, writer and journalist from London.

“Do you have twitter here?”
“Do you know who Ian Fleming was?”
“Are biographies big in India?”
“What was that book? The controversial book by Indian guy...”

I was meeting Andrew Lycett, biographer to authors who gave birth to characters like James Bond and Sherlock Holmes. And, when you’re up for writing on films, you very often get to watch these characters on screen. Hence, I had to meet. I first saw him in the 1999 documentary ‘The James Bond story’ by Chris Hunt, celebrating the 39th Anniversary of Bond in cinema. Andrew was talking about Ian Fleming and his inspirations for Bond. When I met him in Chandigarh at the British Library, he looked a bit old and a bit different, definitely due the age. But, he was very gracious and humble. He patiently and collectively answered all the questions that were put forth. (BTW, that controversial book was ‘The White Tiger’ and the writer guy, obviously, Aravind Adiga.)

Andrew in British Library, Chandigarh. Photo: Jaswinder Singh
To know him more, he was born in Stamford, Lincolnshire and now lives in North London. He is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. Educated at Charterhouse and Christ Church, Oxford, he read Modern History, but, later on he became a Journalist. His earliest articles appeared in ‘The Illustrated Weekly’ of India and ‘Rising Nepal.’ Then he worked for a development agency in newly independent Bangladesh. In the mid-1970s he returned to Africa, where he had lived until he was eight. In Middle East he worked as a foreign correspondent for newspapers such as ‘The Times’ and ‘Sunday Times.’

 He wrote his first book ‘Qaddafi and the Libyan Revolution’ with his Sunday Times colleague, the late David Blundy. The book was published in Britain in 1987. Since the mid-1990s, he has concentrated on non-fiction books, mainly biographies. His ‘Ian Fleming’, published in 1995, is the definitive life of James Bond's creator. ‘Rudyard Kipling’ published in 1999, which was followed by ‘Dylan Thomas – A New Life’ in 2003. Dylan was a Welsh poet. Next ‘Conan Doyle – The Man Who Created Sherlock Holmes,’ was published in 2007. Two years back, he wrote an anthology of Rudyard Kipling’s travel writing ‘Kipling Abroad.’ His latest offering is a book on Wilkie Collins, the Victorian writer.

Which was the most difficult biography that you wrote?
Funny enough, the one I’ve been doing, on Wilkie Collins. And, the reason is that it was much further back than I am used to. So I had to read much more. Fleming was quite easy. He didn’t write that much and there were people who knew him. To try and put myself back into the minds of people living 150, almost 200 years ago, was quite an effort. It was also to try, understand and portray what it was like to be living there, the intellectual climate of the time. As far as Wilkie Collins is concerned, it was a period Britain was developing. It was a period when the old religious certainties were beginning to disappear. Scientific attitudes were beginning to make impressions. And actually, that is the theme that interested me because that is the aspect of Arthur Conan Doyle. Trained as a doctor, part of his process was that he wanted to find out about the world and he put that into Sherlock Holmes. The famous thing is that Conon Doyle based Sherlock Holmes on a professor that he had at Edinburgh University called Joseph Bell. Bell could look into a patient and say exactly what this person had been doing and his diagnosis. That is the process that Sherlock Holmes adopted.

Literary content or research what comes to you first?
I was trained as a historian and I’m interested in the life as it was lived. And, I find that the literature can inform me about that. On the other hand, you have to be quite careful because often people like to think that something that somebody writes is autobiographical, it’s not necessarily so.
What attracted you most to the lives of Kipling and Fleming?
I used to be a journalist and Kipling, for example, was a journalist. He used to work for a newspaper in Lahore, ‘The Civil and Military Gazette’. That was very interesting to me. Ian Fleming was a journalist for Sunday Times in London. Also, I like variety. I did a book about Dylan Thomas, a Welsh poet. I’ve recently done a book about Victorian writer Wilkie Collins who wrote ‘The Moonstone’ and ‘The Women in White.’

Is it this journalist connect you have or the mystery-drama genre?
Yes, that was also a reason. When I wrote a book about Conan Doyle, I got very interested in crime-fiction. Hence I decided that It’d be interesting to go back in time and see. People say that Wilkie Collins wrote the first crime novel ‘The Moonstone’, whereas there were other ones, he was one of the firsts. Other than this, it’s interesting to see how this genre developed, now it’s universal. It started in the early 19th century. Not just in England, there was American author also.

From all of your work Muammar al-Gaddafi is the completely different kind. Why?
It was built as a biography but it is a work of journalism, I did it with another man. It’s a journalistic account of Gaddafi and his early years and his life. That was almost 35 years ago. Long time, but, that was a phase when I was a journalist. And, then I started writing the Ian Fleming book, in early 1990. Then I stopped journalism and worked pretty exclusively as a biographer, as a writer.

Any literary figure you’d love to do a biography on?
Well, I wanted to do the one on Ernest Hemingway, but, that couldn’t develop. I just thought that he had an interesting life and also he’d worked as a journalist. He spent some time in Africa, I was interested in Africa. As a child I’d spent some time in Africa. So I was interested in his writings about Africa. I went to visit his family. But, maybe now I’ll do something different. May be my next book will be a more general work of history.

Being a biographer must be a huge responsibility?
Interesting question, it is in some ways. But, it is not something that weighs heavily on me. On the other hand, I think it is part and parcel of the way that I approach it. I do it seriously. I’m not just out for headlines. I want to explain how people lived. I want to explain their lives. I want to look at the documents. I want to find out about them if there are some people who knew them. I want to interview them. But, it is hard work, let me tell you that.

And, how tough it was to be a full time writer back then?
Yeah, it was tough, really tough. We now have the publishing industry that’s in a state of flux because of the technology, electronic, development and e-books etc. So it’s really changing the market quite considerably. Some people are so geared up to it and you know, I’m not too bad. I have yet to go on twitter (laughs).

Does India figure anywhere in your future writing plans?
I don’t think I’m going to be writing about India as such. I’m not going to write a definitive book about India, modern India for example. But, I’ve always been interested in the history of India. Obviously there are many links with Britain which is where I come from. There is always area for exploration there. I’m not quite sure, but, it could well do. It is a very interesting country at the moment. Since I was here in 1970, it’s very-very different from that.

How has the perception of India changed back there?
It’s definitely true to say, it has. I’ve always been interested in India and I follow it quite closely. India is very much on the rise and things are happening here. I’m not sure that the structures are necessarily in place yet, but, they appear to be coming. Certainly there seems to be a lot of wealth being created, if that can percolate down. But, that’s the difficulty and this is also the danger you have, the rich getting richer and the poor remaining poor. That’s the danger.

Is there a readership for biographies?
Well, obviously. I’ve managed to keep living. So there is readership. To get a bestseller there are certain things you have to do. The best selling of my books is on Ian Fleming.

Do you think that history can be written objectively? Can you get maximum objectivity out of it when you’re writing?
I like to think that mine is a very fair approach to anything that I write about. At the same time I think that it is an impossible goal to get that absolute objectivity. There are different approaches. There will be, if you go away from this meeting, a different account of what had actually happened. It’s a difficult thing. But, it’s very nice to be able to look at people’s letters and things like that. One of the things that I hope to do is to go to The National Archives in Delhi. I’ll be able to find something that’s interesting.

Why do you think that both Sherlock Holmes and James Bond are flawed and fascinating at the same time?
Well, that shows particularly in the case of Sherlock Holmes that people like to identify with somebody who is not a perfect person, who has flaw in his character. Certainly, Sherlock Holmes is fascinating in his different approaches, different characteristics. He’s a neurotic. If Sherlock Holmes, being around for over 100 years, was just a perfect person, we wouldn’t really be interested in him. Because he has got quirks in his characters that make him more of an enduring character, more of somebody who people are prepared to go back to and also it leads to different interpretations. Because if you’ve got somebody with different aspects of that character, then some people may be interested in some characteristics and others may be in other characteristics. This allows different interpretations in film for example. You have very different interpretations of Sherlock Holmes in films. James Bond is slightly different because the films there, they’re all made by the same company. It’s been going for about 50 years. Bond is not quite like Holmes.

The latest offering in the Bond movies ‘Skyfall,’ do you think it is the most relevant and reasonable Bond movie till date?
It is a very good movie. It’s got nothing to do with Ian Fleming, apart from the features in the character Ian created. It has some of his storyline, rest a very clever concoction that the filmmakers have managed to pull together. It’s got elements of history, elements of the Bond back story and elements of modern action movies. That could make a very bad movie but they happened to make it in a good way because they get very good directors.

You were seen in ‘The James Bond Story’ (1999) and ‘The Shackles of Sherlock Holmes’ (2007) with many other documentaries, discussing the characters and their making. In the former, Roger Moore (starting with Live and Let Die (1973), he played James Bond seven times) says, “The violence in Bond was rather comic, strip violence when I started, and, towards the end I think it became too violent.” Do you agree with him?
He is a fantasy figure. He’s not really meant to be realistic. They are supposed to be a depiction of various things that go on. What I mean to say is that in these kinds of stories or characters I don’t search realism. They are up for fun and not to bore us.

That’s all. Doyle, Kipling and Fleming, their works have been converted into visual mediums. How natural and basic do you find them in their new forms?
There is two different media. When somebody comes along and tries to interpret the work, inevitably it becomes something different. And, I don’t think you should be looking for exact purity. People choose to make films of certain characters because it gives them license to roll over their work and do different things with different characters.

Do stories leave good or bad impression on society?
I think a storyteller and basically both Ian Fleming and Conan Doyle were excellent storytellers. The obvious exercise is to interest people. The crime against their profession is to bore people. As long as they keep the reader turning the pages, it’s fine.

Why do we all line up to read controversial books?
Perhaps, we want to find out interesting things. Other people have read it so we think that it’s readable. And also, one has to bear in mind that a certain amount of marketing goes into this. The books industry is a big industry and when they letch on something, they promote it as the big thing. India is considered to be a significant market for books whereas with electronics mediums there is the danger that market for books may be decreasing, but in India there is a great surge in reading.

Are biographies an important branch of literature?
I think they are or can be. It incorporates aspects of personal life, so, in a way you could equate it as a crossover between a novel and a history. Because, you get the developments of somebody’s life and consciousness, at the same time, it is set against the historical background. It is that juxtaposition of two things that really interests me actually. It is something that has developed in Britain in over 200 years or more. Initially biographies were a source of promotion of character. They just said good things about individuals and then gradually people began to think, that made them more interesting. Biography in Britain at the moment is at a bit of a critical juncture. There is so much competition from other media. Perhaps one should approach biography in a different manner. I like the chronological approach, but, now people like to take a slice from somebody’s life and develop a picture from that. Other people like to do group biography. These are the trends you have at the moment.

When writing, do you get to decide which part of their lives should be kept private?
Obviously you’re making editorial decisions at every stage. I’ve never had to really make any moral decisions. Ian Fleming had an interesting sex life. Dylan Thomas was a drunkard. So, you have to balance it, you don’t want to be carried away and make the whole story. It’s important to include these aspects if you find them. You certainly wouldn’t censor them. But I get annoyed when people who write about Dylan Thomas, write as if it’s all about him dying of drink. He was actually a poet. You’ve got to try and explain their writings as well. It’s an important aspect of their lives. While writing an interesting life I am integrating the writings, so that people understand that how the writing was related to the lives as it were. Like, the writer may have a child at this time and this would have affected the writing.

Do you have biographer friends?
I have so many, inevitably. There is a biographers club in London. I’m a member of that. It doesn’t have a premises or something, we just meet, sometimes in a restaurant or something.

The more the success of a writer or his characters, the more tragic his personal life. Why?
To be a writer you have to be a fairly grievant person. Going back to what you were saying, they are not necessarily the nicest person. They are egocentric. They do what you just said, ignore the important things in their lives, their families. I think if you’re an artist you are expressing a pain.

How much time do you give to your family?
When I’m writing I spend inordinate amount of time with the book. There is so much research goes into this. I can work from 9 in the morning to 8 or 9 in the evening. I used to work late but I don’t like to do it now. Ideally I write 1000 words a day. I like to stop at about 8, because of my age. In the meantime you have to have a very understanding family. Luckily, I’ve got an understanding long term partner. She has three children. Now I’ve finished the book on Wilkie Collins, so hopefully I’d be able to spend some time with my family.

Writers write about society but aren’t they themselves less social?
You put finger on a very interesting point there. I think that’s true. I’ve lived always on my own that way. That’s being a writer. I try to get not so isolated.

What other ways you’d suggest to not get isolated?
Obviously you’ve got to see your career. You’ve to make decisions that look appropriate. Don’t neglect your loved ones. Don’t neglect your outside life. We are talking about two things here. One is your relationship with your family and the other is your relationship with the outside world. There are some people who put their writing on the frontline and I think I like to step back a bit. I’m a biographer you know, I like to look at things from a distance. It suits me.

(एंड्रयू लाइसेट लंदन में रहते हैं। वह पहले जर्नलिस्ट हुआ करते थे। भारत, अफ्रीका और मिडिल ईस्ट में रहे। 1987 में उन्होंने संडे टाइम्स के अपने साथी डेविड ब्लंडी (दिवंगत) के साथ मिलकर लिबिया के शासक मुअम्मर गद्दाफी पर किताब लिखी। उनकी इस पहली किताब का नाम था ‘गद्दाफी एंड द लिबियन रिवोल्यूशन’। आने वाले वर्षों में उन्होंने अपने लेखन को बायोग्राफी यानी जीवनियों तक सीमित कर लिया। 1995 में उन्होंने मशहूर उपन्यास एवं फिल्म किरदार जेम्स बॉन्ड की रचना करने वाले इयान फ्लेमिंग की जीवनी लिखी। 1999 में उन्होंने ‘द जंगल बुक’ जैसी रचनाओं के लेखक रुडयार्ड किपलिंग की जीवनी की। वेल्श कवि डिलन थॉमस पर लिखी जीवनी ‘डिलन थॉमस – अ न्यू लाइफ’ 2003 में प्रकाशित हुई। इसी तरह मशहूर जासूसी किरदार शरलॉक होम्स को अपनी कल्पना से जन्म देने वाले उपन्यासकार सर आर्थर कॉनन डॉयल की जीवनी ‘कॉनन डॉयल – द मैन हू क्रिएटेड शरलॉक होम्स’ 2007 में लोगों के बीच आई। एंड्रयू ने रुडयार्ड किपलिंग के यात्रा वृतांत पर आधारित पुस्तक ‘किपलिंग अब्रॉड’ भी लिखी। अब वो विक्टोरियन वक्त के लेखक विल्की कॉलिन्स पर किताब लिखने का काम तकरीबन पूरा कर चुके हैं। हाल ही में उनके लघु चंडीगढ़ प्रवास के दौरान उनसे बातचीत हुई।)
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