The Confession Book: Colin Thubron

Noah Charney interviews great writers who discuss writing and what inspires them, revealing some secrets along the way

/ by Noah Charney

Where did you grow up?

In Sussex, southern England. In a Tudor house with a beautiful garden. It is the garden, nurtured by my mother, that I best remember.


That world map on your bedroom wall as a child. Was there one location on it that most intrigued you, before you’d had the chance to travel? A place name or concept?

The map was spread over the classroom of my first boarding school, where it distracted me during math lessons. It was based on Mercator’s projection, which made countries like Canada and the Soviet Union (which scared me) even huger than they are. But the land that most appealed to me was China (colored yellow, of course) with its unimaginable cluster of Pacific Ocean cities and people quite unknown to me. Even then it was Asia, with its ancient civilizations, that most aroused my curiosity.


What was the first exotic place to which you traveled that planted your love for travel and adventure?

The love of travel came in early childhood. My father worked as a military diplomat in the United States and Canada soon after World War Two, but I was sent to boarding school in England from the age of seven. I regularly crossed the Atlantic on cumbersome airliners to spend holidays in North America. For a small boy out of drab, post-war England to find himself among the great lakes of Canada or in a neon-lit Times Square was magic. I quickly acquired the idea that abroad was exciting and England dull. But the first truly exotic place I encountered was Damascus, where I settled to write my first book. Its memory still sadly entrances me.


Where and what did you study?

I went to Eton, but never continued to university, preferring to enter publishing in London at the age of nineteen.


Where do you live and why?

I live in London. Like many others, I love its multi-ethnicity and vibrant culture.


Of which of your books or projects are you most proud?

It is hard to be purely proud of any. Whenever a book is completed, I’m irked by a sense of its shortcomings. But in 2006 I finished a travel book, Shadow of the Silk Road, describing my nine-month journey from China to the Mediterranean. It comes closest to being a summation of my obsession with Asia, spanning the breadth of the continent. Similarly, as a novelist, I’ve just published Night of Fire, which is more expansive than any other of my novels.


What is your standard equipment when embarking on a journey beyond the confines of “easy” travel? Are there certain tools that are guaranteed to accompany you?

Almost none. I travel as light as possible. I carry speech manuals for the language of the country I’m in. Language learning is inexhaustible.


Are you able to write while traveling, in the field, and how do you do so?

Only rarely. I recently astonished myself by writing for nine hours nonstop in the hubbub of Addis Ababa airport. But this is rare. Usually I make voluminous notes during a journey, but writing the finished book has to wait for the quietude of home.


Describe your morning routine on a day you would be writing.

I wake late, perhaps 8am, and a cup of coffee energizes me for (probably) returning to correct what I wrote the day before. This can be depressing, since I write until late at night, when I feel I’m doing good work. The morning often brings disillusion.


What is a distinctive habit or affectation of yours?

My wife says I sleep with my hands curled on my chest. She gives me a (private) nickname for this.


What is your favorite item of clothing?

Very old slippers.


Please recommend three books (not your own) to your readers.

Here are three fine books by travel writers: Robert Byron’s The Road to Oxiana; Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts; Freya Stark’s Traveller’s Prelude. All are distinguished by beautiful prose and the arresting personalities of their authors.


Do you have a writer friend who helps and inspires you?

None. But my wife, a Shakespeare scholar, is a laser-sharp critic.


What is a place that inspires you?

The Black Mountains in south Wales (where I’ve sometimes been lent a cottage) have been a fine place for writing: good walking country, rather austere.


Describe your routine when conceiving of a book and its plot, before the writing begins.

There is no routine. Only, for a novel, a gathering intensity around some obsession or area of unease. This usually starts to resolve into a plot during long walks alone. For a travel book, I’m happiest if the next journey occurs to me naturally, rather than by my anxiously scouring the globe.


Describe your writing routine, including any unusual rituals associated with the writing process, if you have them.

I write obsessively, all day: occasionally a 14-hour day. With novels, I sometimes need to fix the appearance of a character in order to solidify their traits, so I may tear out of magazines some approximation to them: then I soon abandon it.


Is there anything distinctive or unusual about your work space? Besides the obvious, what do you keep on your desk? What is the view from your favorite work space?

My desk is big and largely empty. The view from my London study is a few yards of enclosed garden. When writing, I prefer no view, unless it is of something unchanging. The important views are in my head. I can understand how Somerset Maugham, whose home occupied one of the most beautiful sites on the Riviera, chose to write facing a blank wall.


What do you do when you are stuck or have temporary writer’s block?

I walk.


Describe your ideal day.

A day of fruitful manuscript correction (probably in the morning) and of mounting enthusiasm during the afternoon and into the late evening. I’m aware that the enthusiasm may be illusory, but it’s foolishly pleasurable.


Describe your evening routine.

Supper at 9pm, then probably back to work.


What is guaranteed to make you laugh?

My wife is always surprising me.


What is guaranteed to make you cry?

Nothing for sure. Tears come unexpected.


Do you have any superstitions?

I own a battered teddy bear.


What is something you always carry with you?

On my travels, a compass. I have a strong sense of direction, but it is usually wrong. An abject admission for a travel writer.


If you could bring back to life one deceased person, who would it be and why?

This is too painful to answer.


What is the story behind the publication of your first book?

I submitted its typescript to a prestigious but friendly publisher, who said he didn’t publish travel books but would give me advice. He then published it.


Was there a specific moment when you felt you had “made it” as an author?

When I won the Poetry Cup at my prep school, aged eleven. (But there were only three contenders.)


What do you need to have produced/completed in order to feel that you’ve had a productive writing day?

I suppose about 200 words. But of course it depends on the difficulty of the passage.


Tell us a funny story related to a book tour or book event.

After talking at a literary festival about my then current novel, set in a mental hospital, an old lady emerged from the audience and accused me of being normal.


What would you do for work, if you were not a writer?

I’d be an envious and irritable publisher of the work of others.


What advice would you give to an aspiring author?

If he/she were a prospective travel writer, I’d say: learn the language. I’ve done this myself only belatedly and imperfectly. I wrote three travel books on the Arab world with merely a tourist’s grasp of Arabic, and still feel ashamed.


What would you like carved onto your tombstone?



Tell us something about yourself that is largely unknown and perhaps surprising.

I write my books in a miniscule longhand that nobody can read, so I have eventually to type them out myself. The whole process is intensely laborious, but it generates multiple correcting.


What is your next project?

A book on the Amur River. It’s the tenth longest river in the world – the border between Russia and China in the Far East - but almost unknown.

Noah Charney

is a professor of art history and best-selling author of, most recently, The Art of Forgery. You can learn more about his work at or by joining him on Facebook.