Tuesday 30 January 2018

Interview: Patrick Rogers

patrick-rogers, travel

This morning, I'm pleased to be welcoming intrepid traveller turned writer, Patrick Rogers, to The Writing Greyhound! I managed to squeeze in some time with him in between his travels - read on for the full interview.

Firstly, tell me a little about yourself and your background.
I’m from the state of Delaware (which is most famous for its chemicals, bank headquarters, and chickens). I’ve been visiting India over much of the last decade, and have worked on and off for university study abroad programs, and as a trip leader and travel planner. In that capacity, I’ve focused on the most obscure part of India, the Northeast (if you look at a map of the country, that’s the weird bit that’s kind of hanging out to the east, over Bangladesh, and towards Myanmar). It’s a fascinating, endlessly complex part of the world that I’ve found has only gotten more interesting each time I’ve gone there.
the-green-unknown, patrick-rogers, book

Tell me about The Green Unknown.
The Green Unknown is about travelling on foot across the canyons and jungles of a part of the Indo-Bangladesh border region known as the Khasi Hills, searching for undocumented examples of what are known as Living Root Bridges. These are fully functional pieces of infrastructure which, rather than being built, are grown by local tribal people out of the roots of a variety of fig tree, a process which can take generations, but also result in a living bridge which can last centuries. Very little is known about these structures, but at the same time, due to a combination of factors, they are disappearing, and so my book kind of grew out of an initiative I’ve been working on to dig up information about them. Given that there’s very little academic writing about the root bridges, the only way to learn about them is to travel to the places where they’re grown, which are mostly tiny, remote villages, populated by people known as the War-Khasis and War-Jaintias. So, the book is not only about the living bridges, but also about the people who make them.
What’s the best thing about travel writing?
What I like about it most is that it’s really the only way, as I see it, to share an experience with someone who wasn’t actually there. People often say that “a picture is worth a thousand words.” Well…maybe a few are, but most aren’t. And I love photography, I’ve included pictures I took in the book. But photography has its limits. You can’t smell or hear, or touch, what’s in a picture. But with writing, you can at least explain through words what its like to physically be in another place. So, in a way, what’s great about (good!) travel writing is the same thing that’s great about a good work of fiction: It transports the reader.
patrick-rogers, travel

Why did you decide to write about your travels?
Frankly, it just seemed that the experiences I was having were fairly unique and that people might like to hear about them. Also, it struck me that there has been very little accessible writing about the Khasi Hills. There are a handful of academic texts, though many of these are out of date. But as for travel literature meant for the average reading public, to my knowledge, this is the first example to deal with the Khasi Hills.
Did you undertake a lot of research prior to travelling?
Not really…I would have if I could have, but most of the places I was travelling too were so obscure that there just wasn’t much to research. To add to that, much of the information online was incorrect (for example, Google Earth puts the locations of many of the villages I would walk to in the wrong place, making planning my route in advance impossible). During many of the experiences I write about in the book, I didn’t have a clear notion of what was coming next. You could say that the travelling was research in its own right.
patrick-rogers, travel

What draws you to this part of the world?
While all of India is culturally diverse, Northeast India is more diverse than any other part of the country. For example, just in terms of linguistic diversity, there is no place on earth, with the exception of Papua New Guinea, which has such a density of different languages. Likewise, packed into this tiny corner of the globe are hundreds of different cultural groups. This certainly makes it difficult to travel here, but also endlessly fascinating. There’s always something to learn. In the area the book is about, the Khasi and Jaintia Hills, each village will have its own dialect and its own cultural practices. So, just being in the region is an adventure.
What was your writing process like?
It was kind of eccentric: I had a notebook where I did a day by day diary of the time I spent visiting villages in the region. I wound up with several hundred pages of notes, not counting a whole other set of notes dealing specifically with Living Root Bridges, and several thousand pictures. In order to make all that material into something that would be comprehensible to a reader who probably would not have even heard of this part of the world, I picked just a few specific topics, people, and particular incidents, and focused in on those.
What’s the hardest thing about writing?
For me, and for this particular project, what was really hard was choosing what not to write about…I had a fairly tight word limit from my publisher, so that meant that I had to make some very hard choices as to what subjects I would go into detail about in the book, and what I would leave out. I had vastly more material in my notes than could have been included in the finished product. For example, I love landscapes, which are a huge part of day to day life in the Khasi Hills. I could go on and on describing every valley and rock and river canyon in the region I travelled through. And, in order to write about the area effectively, much of the book needed to deal with the beauty and harshness of the land itself. Yet, I had to resist the temptation of spending five-hundred words on a rock, or thousand words describing a river valley.
patrick-rogers, travel

Which authors inspire you?
That’s a tough one. Many of the authors I like aren’t travel writers. But, frequently, good fantasy has an element of travelogue in it. To give an obvious example, one criticism people will sometimes have of The Lord of The Rings is that it’s just people walking around and Tolkien describing the landscape. Well, Tolkien was really good at that, and that’s one of the reasons his books have such lasting appeal. But, when it comes to this particular book, it was kind of modelled after Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire. Now, I think Abbey was a needlessly cantankerous, hypocritical old git. That said, he was a hell of a writer when it came down to the nuts and bolts of communicating what was truly beautiful about a place. If my book’s a tenth as good at doing that for Northeast India as Abbey’s was for Utah, I’d consider that a huge success….Also, H.P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith inspire me…I’m not sure how exactly…but they do…
What is one stand-out memory from your travels?
It’s hard to choose just one! But, there was a time (and I write about it in much more detail in the book), when some local friends and I were caught in a small hut during the most intense thunderstorm I’ve ever witnessed. Lightning was landing all around. The village I was in was on the top of a plateau, so the lightning strikes were happening literally a few metres away. We all thought our hut could get hit at any moment…The stuff of nightmares….it was fun to write about though!
What makes your book stand out?
I think what makes it stand out is that it’s a book about a place that’s barely ever been written about. My hope is that a person reading the book will get introduced to a part of the world that they had no idea existed.
patrick-rogers, author

What are you currently working on?
Right now, I’m trying to get another trip to Northeast India off the ground. I’m hoping to go to a state called Nagaland, which is in the Hills on the Indo-Myanmar border. There used to be head hunting there up until the 1960s by a group called the Konyak Nagas. They also seem to have made living root bridges, so I’m hoping to travel there and write a book about it, tentatively called Root Bridges made by Head Hunters. Of course, I can’t say exactly what’ll be in the book, because I haven’t done the travelling!
What are you reading at the moment?
David Copperfield. I also just finished The Stand by Stephen King, and a book called The Illusion about Soviet collaborators in the German Military during World War II.
Do you have any more travel plans for the immediate future?
Yes. I hope to be back in India next year.

Do you enjoy travel writing? Let me know in the comments below!

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