Will Buckingham studied Fine Arts before running away to Indonesia to study sculpture in the Spice Islands. While in Indonesia he spent time in the Tanimbar Islands, where he suffered malarial fevers, witchcraft, exorcism and idiosyncratic forms of folk medicine. He returned to the UK to study anthropology and then philosophy, with phenomenology and ancient atomism among his interests. He now lives in Birmingham. Tindal Street published his debut novel, Cargo Fever, in March 2007.
Please tell us something about your background and how you started writing.
I first decided that I should write books when I was a student up in Newcastle, studying fine arts. Fine arts students generally have a lot of time on their hands, or at least we did, so I made good use of this time by reading. It was a 4-year course, there were almost no lectures to attend, only minimal supervision, and we were largely left to our own devices. I quickly settled into a routine of lounging around in paint-smeared overalls, drinking coffee and reading. The course did not do much for my skills as a painter, although it probably was the most intensive period of reading in my life.
It wasn’t until I had left Newcastle that I started writing. I was out in Indonesia studying wood-carving in the Tanimbar Islands – see my website on this for more details. As I was speaking Indonesian all the time, I started to miss using English, and so I borrowed a typewriter and began to write stories. From that moment on, I was hooked.
Can you describe a typical day?
There isn’t really a typical day. I spend my time juggling writing fiction with writing philosophy and teaching both of these things. I also write a blog, Think Buddha and run Birmingham Words, the literary website. This means that life is fairly busy, and not having one single job, my days tend to differ. Inevitably, most days I spend an hour, sometimes several, travelling by public transport. It gives me some good, solid reading time. How do car drivers find the time to read?
When I write, it tends to be in bursts of feverish activity: I’m not the kind of writer who sits down at a tidy desk every day at 9am, and steadily puts down 500 or 1000 words until one o’ clock. Instead, I let things brew for days or weeks, then I lock myself away and write intensively.
If you didn’t write what else would you like to do? What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
If I didn’t write, I’d probably be somewhere other than Birmingham. I’ve always had a love of travel, and writing gives me a way of indulging my love of exploring other worlds without actually having to go anywhere. After my return from Indonesia, I went to Durham and trained in anthropology; and had the writing not taken over my life, I might well still be an anthropologist in some mountain hut somewhere.
Which experiences have most influenced your writing?
Certainly my travels have had a strong influence: whilst Kenukecil, where Cargo Fever is set, is purely imaginary, the novel draws very closely on the time I spent in Tanimbar.
Most of the fiction I write is a reflection of my fascination with other places and I find it very hard to write about the place in which I actually live. There simply isn’t sufficient distance for the imagination to take hold. So I find it almost impossible to write about Birmingham. Perhaps I could write The Great Birmingham Novel were I to move to Ulan Bator for a couple of years.
My interest in philosophy also has a strong influence. I don’t like ponderously ‘philosophical’ novels, or novels with some kind of lumbering moral or philosophical message; but on the other hand I see philosophy and fiction as different ways of approaching the same kind of questions and perplexities. The philosopher Michel Serres says somewhere that stories go deeper than philosophy, but only philosophy goes deep enough to point this out.
Which writer has been an inspiration for you – as a person or as an artist?
Calvino is perhaps the greatest inspiration. His Invisible Cities is the one book I would keep if everything else went up in smoke. Michel Serres is a philosopher who writes beautifully and whose writings at times seem close to that rare quality of wisdom. His philosophy books actually put you in a good mood, and there are not many philosophers you can say that about. Finally I should mention Tove Jansson’s Moomin books. These melancholic little fables of friendship, solitude and disasters of Biblical proportions (floods, comets etc.) kept me spellbound as a child, and they still do.
Who are the authors whose new books you always keep an eye out for?
In terms of contemporary fiction, José Saramago is among my heroes. I don’t know what he is like in the original Portuguese, but in translation he is wonderful. Paul Auster is always worth reading. And I enjoy Russell Hoban as well — he manages to do things with language and with ideas that really shouldn’t be possible, but that somehow are.
Do you feel your writing reflects your reading?
It must do, but usually I have no idea how. Sometimes when I am writing, I can feel the influence of the novel I am currently reading, and usually I try to resist this direct interference. I always think that what you read can influence you most usefully once you have forgotten all about it.
What is the most challenging aspect of your writer’s life?
As opposed to my life in general? I think one of the hardest things about writing is building a world that is coherent and that doesn’t have any logical holes in it. This takes a lot of work. I swear by spreadsheets, time-lines and maps. And I despair at blockbuster movies where millions are spent upon special effects, but where the world in which the film is set is doesn’t hang together, where there are basic logical inconsistencies and blunders. However many breathtaking set-piece explosions there are, if the plot has these kinds of weaknesses, then I find my interest waning.
What other forms of expression most appeal to you? And why?
I’m a classical guitarist, and although I don’t play as much as I used to, I have a huge love of the instrument. I also play exceedingly bad jazz and blues piano. So music is important to me. The protagonist of my next novel is a 19th-century guitarist, and I am looking forward to writing about music. There is something in music that goes beyond technical skill — the raw life that runs through it — and no amount of technical skill can compensate for this when it is not there. Sometimes, technical skill gets in the way.