Interview: Robert Macfarlane

Georgia Wagstaff talks to the acclaimed author of The Old Ways about landscapes, language and literary prizes....

As the recently appointed Man Booker Prize Chair of Judges 2013, why do you believe literary prizes are important?

These prizes draw readers (by the million) to the novel as a cultural form of peculiar and distinctive abilities. They provoke worldwide interest, conversation and controversy concerning the subject of books and their value: this is all, in the end, good for literature and the literary - causes I believe in.

You write extensively on journeying, and place. Do you have a particular place that inspires you, or that inspired you when you were younger?

It would be the Cairngorms, the mountain massif in the north-west of Scotland. Britain's Arctic in terms of its northerliness, remoteness and extremes of weather, I have walked, skied, climbed, camped on and explored the Cairngorms over many years, and have written about them in every book of mine.

The influence of poetry on your writing is apparent in the influences you cite and the cadence of your prose. Even the chapter breaks in The Old Ways read like pieces of poetry; are you tempted to write poetry yourself?

For good or ill I am close to obsessive about my prose rhythms. I did write poetry, when I was an undergraduate, and indeed - to my enduring regret -published a slim volume along with three other poets (or rather, they were poets, I was the doggerel merchant of the gang). Fortunately, I realised soon after (though how I wish I'd realised soon before!) that I was not due to be a poet, and that working with metaphor, image and pattern at the larger scale of narrative form was what I did better. The guiding spirit of The Old Ways, though, is Edward Thomas, who spent most of his working life as a prose writer, but became - astonishingly - a poet late in his life.  In the course of two years leading up to his death on the Western Front, he wrote 140 or so poems that together changed the course of English poetry

You have spoken about the idea of a ‘pre-used language' influencing the way we think about landscape: where do you find yourself most aware of this?

We are surrounded by it: the commercial-pastoral that is used to sell housing developments, holidays and lifestyle experiences; the codified lexis of certain kinds of natural history documentary; the inherited and exhausted landscape responses of Romanticism. Often, when we think we are seeing or responding to a place, we are in fact stuck and struggling within this aggregated aspic of cliché; not always a bad thing, but it can be hard to see and harder still to escape.

In writing your books, could you isolate an experience to have changed you more than any other?

No. One of the intellectual wagers of the books is that we are shaped over time by the places through which we pass and the landscapes we experience, and that these shapings are best understood (and represented in writing) as kinds of pattern or rhythm, and in terms of duration rather than of suddenness. The incidents within those books are - I hope - always set within larger structures of repetition and echo.

In ‘The Old Ways', you write that 'much of its thinking was only possible on foot'. Where will you be taken next by your wondering and wandering?

Underground - I'm writing a book called Underland, about the cultures of subterranea: from paleolithic cave art to contemporary urban exploration.

Finally, any words of wisdom for budding student writers?

Read avidly and widely, because every hour spent reading is an hour spent learning to write. Parody (in the sense of imitate-in-homage, rather than send-up) the writers you admire, because parody is a brilliant form of self-tuition. Keep notebooks and fill them with words, images and cadences as you find them. And be obsessive about the rhythm of your sentences.

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