When writing an odyssey it helps to have travelled. To write an adventurous life you will need to have lived one.
Few have made it so far and experienced so much as award-winning and highly acclaimed author Justin Hill. Born in The Bahamas and raised in Yorkshire, he worked for many years in China and Africa and it was these countries which served as the background to his first books, The Drink and Dream Teahouse, Passing Under Heaven, and Ciao Asmara.
However, it was the extraordinary Shieldwall that first brought him to my attention. Beautifully written, atmospheric and absorbing, one was fully plunged into the world of Edmund Ironside and Godwin of Wessex to the point of breathlessness.
To say the least, Viking Fire was highly anticipated.
But of course Hill delivered! And in Harald Hardrada the author found the perfect protagonist for his saga across the Viking world, Hill’s travels to the empty frontier in Africa, his connection to the vastness of rural China, and appreciation of the meeting of east and west helping him to present a world in creation as Harald might have seen it. Harald’s was an extraordinary life. Hill’s telling in Viking Fire makes it wholly enthralling.
So what can some of literature’s most famous sons and daughters find out about Justin Hill? What will the words of Melville, Wilde and Stevenson encourage him to reveal? In this interview I provided Justin with a number of well-known quotes and asked him to reflect and discover where they might take him.
“Like Olympic medals and tennis trophies, all they signified was that the owner had done something of no benefit to anyone more capably than everyone else”
In 1999 I wrote my first novel, named The Drink and Dream Teahouse, about the changes on a small community, of the change in China from a communist to a capitalist society.
In 2001 it was published, amazingly, to international acclaim. In the same year we sold the Chinese language rights. The following year the censors banned the book. I swore, a lot.
In 2005 I got a job back in Hunan Province, and wondered if I would be let back over the border. I was, no problem, and the same year the Governor of Hunan presented me with the Friendship Award, at a big ceremony in Changsha, to thank me for my services to the province.
I don’t think he knew. It made the whole process just a little more exciting, wondering when he would find out.
“I would always rather be happy than dignified”
I could tell you that dignified is over-rated, but I am sure you know that already. People who treasure dignity over joy are sad people, about whom we should write books.
“You and I, it’s as though we have been taught to kiss in heaven and sent down to earth together, to see if we know what we were taught”
I found a woman to love, and had the courage and wisdom and foolishness to reach out and offer her a hand. She said yes; this day, and every other day for the last 15 years despite all that life has thrown at us. Love makes me the luckiest man in the world.
“Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!”
I remember my father telling me, as he dropped me off at a dodgy disco on the outskirts of York, never to mix my drinks. The car was dark and the lights were flashing across the car-park, and I was eager to open the car door and get out there, and he chose this moment to give my fourteen or fifteen year old self advice.
It was the one drinking rule he passed on to me, and I immediately went into the disco and ordered a snake-bite. The week later I filled a pint glass with a bit of everything my parents had in their drinks cabinet, drank it with a straw, and then stood on my head in my bedroom till the alcohol had its effect. I was hungry for experience when I was that age. I wanted life mixed, shaken, by the pint – and not much later, by the yard.
But now, at the experienced age of forty five – the same age he was when he gave me that advice, I do not mix anything but the colour of my wine from bubbles to white to red.
I’m going to tell my children not to do drugs, knowing that there’s a good chance they go straight out and find the nearest dealer. Does that make me culpable?
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”
I’m writing this the week that Donald Trump got elected as President of the United States of America. I’m left with two contradictory feelings: How could that happen, and, Some things never change.
“Finally, from so little sleeping and so much reading, his brain dried up and he went completely out of his mind”
I’ve never held with Writer’s Block. A lack of words is not a wall; it is a well that has run dry. Get out, go for a walk, read a book, ask a stranger a question: let the rain clouds rain.
“Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing”
I read second hand books, mostly.
“A rogue does not laugh in the same way that an honest man does; a hypocrite does not shed the tears of a man of good faith”
As a white man in China, you used to be plagued by the fear that the locals were ripping you off. It was partly the fault of Chinese friends, who claimed often (and falsely), that they could buy it cheaper, it was partly true and partly an exaggerated fear.
I used to love to be in the Muslim areas, which run along the old Silk Route through Shaanxi, Gansu, Xinjiang and Qinghai Provinces. The Han Muslims are named Hui, and you could tell them from their wispy grey beards and black skull caps, and the fact they did not eat pork.
But the Muslims never ripped you off. They treated you with a formal respect and honesty. You felt safe in Muslim areas (and I know there are women who will say that this is because I am a man, and I understand that) but that left me, from the age of 21, a positive impression of the Muslim faith that has been scribbled on many times in different coloured pens, but which has not been overwritten.
“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past”
I am twelve, in a canoe, on a school trip to the Cairngorms – my small, York, 1980s life is opening up as I grow. My best friend then – a friendship we’re about to outgrow – is in the canoe behind me, and the afternoon is wearing on, and the head wind has slowed us down, and we start to fear that we’re going to be caught by the gathering night.
Like Sam Gamgee, or a child in the dark, I sing to lift our spirits, and drive the boat forward in time with the rhythm of the song, and over us the sky pales to dark, and the setting sunlight is light and dark on the rippling water.
“Some years ago — never mind how long precisely — having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world”
I’ve never read Moby Dick, though I really ought to at some point. A very beautiful girl I knew at university talked incessantly about it, and I found her enthusiasm a little off-putting. It was like someone describing their trip on a drug, and I’ve always been a little cynical about the wonder of drugs. That’s one of many reasons (including, but not limited to: I’ve seen the film, it’s a little long for my available time, and I have a feeling it’s a little existentialist) for not reading it. But I’m aware they’re silly reasons, as much procrastination as justified objections.
I’ve never read Ulysses, either, though I’ve dipped into it a few times – largely in my 20s, to reinforce my prejudices about that particular book – largely inspired by people who carry it about and enthuse irritatingly about it. But I have read the Lord of the Rings, many times, and as Tom Shippey notes, it does almost all the post-modernist tricks of Ulysses, but remains both readable and popular.
I can add a load of other books and writers I’ve never got round to, and probably never will. Not as long, but more important are the writers I have read and loved. First and fundamentally, Tolkien, who changed my life – turning me from a dyslexic ten year old in the rudimentary reading class – to a reader. David Gemmel, Robert E. Howard, Terry Brooks, Henry Treece: my early teens were full of these fantasy authors. But as my teens went on, I reached out to Mary Renault, Thomas Hardy, then further, through my twenties to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jorge Louis Borges, the Chinese Classics and Tang Poets, and, as I was learning to write myself, Bruce Chatwin – who taught me much.
Now my reading reflects my worlds: that range from China to Yorkshire, mythical Greece, to the year 40,000. I should probably find some room for the story of a white whale in there. I’m looking forward to it.
“We were the people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of print. It gave us more freedom. We lived in the gaps between the stories”
I read a book recently, about someone who grew up three miles from where I live, and who now lives in London. She described this part of the world - my part of the world - as the ‘middle of nowhere’. Which, when viewed from London might be true.
I certainly felt so at 21, when I left my home and went to China. I didn’t go to Beijing or Shanghai, but to a place called Yuncheng, which was even more remote than the place I’d grown up. Nothing about it was familiar, except, perhaps the feeling of being nowhere again.
I’ve repeated this instinctive response a number of times and nowhere has been rural China, rural Africa (teaching English to people who would end up becoming refugees – trying to do the opposite thing to me, trying to get somewhere - anywhere else), and a wet and windy valley on the remote West Coast of Ireland.
I’ve tried the bright lights of the capital and find it a little bit dull: too expensive for a writer, too full of people easily dazzled by bright lights. I seem to have spent my life leaving nowhere, going nowhere. I like being in the blank spaces. The blank spaces about me are quiet, green and rugged. Most importantly, they’re mine- and I can colour them in the way that I choose.
“It sounds plausible enough tonight, but wait until tomorrow. Wait for the common sense of the morning”
What is better than conversation, with friends, and a bottle or two of fine wine? Not much, I think, though balance is needed, as if you were talking a tight-rope, or along a mountain ridge, with long falls opening up to either side.
I’ve slipped and fallen many times, and in the morning my head has hurt. Sometimes I have unexplained scuffs and bruises too. And the headaches have gotten worse as I grow older. But my sense of balance is pretty well developed now.
I can picture the times when I have been working on a novel, and have been stuck, or lacking inspiration, or perhaps I’ve just been stuck in a room, on my own, too long – and the pop of a cork coming out of a green glass bottle-top – is like the opening of my mind. I shut down the computer, turn off the lights, and put the world that I have been creating away. And then we sit across a table, the wine bottle and glasses between us, like a game of chess, and we pour, and drink and laugh.
And those evenings, when I forget about it, the story comes to me. The inspiration flashes – and the muscles in my neck ease a little. I lie deeper in the mattress. I sleep well.
Ruadh: Cheers Justin, cracking interview! The best of success for Viking Fire - please don't make us wait too long for the next installment!