Writing about dead people in foreign countries
Interview with Richard Askwith
Ask any British runner who has ever seriously tried to run up a hill whether they have read a book called Feet in the Clouds, and the answer will most likely be: “Of course. Everyone has.” Feet in the Clouds, published in 2004, was Richard Askwith’s first book. Fourteen years and several books later, Richard finds himself in the Czech Republic: he’s no stranger here, thanks to his 2016 biography of Emil Zátopek. This time, he’s interested in a sporting legend no less obscure than fell-running heroes must have seemed a decade and a half ago: Lata Brandisová, a Czech countess who in 1937 became the first and only female winner of Velká pardubická steeplechase. This interview was conducted in May 2018 in Prague, at the end of Richard’s final week of research for his new book.
Did you always want to write?
I don’t know if I always wanted to, but I always did. As a child I used to do my newspaper or magazines. Later, in my teens and twenties, I tried all sorts of different things, from poetry to plays to novels, none of which I was very good at. I just started lots of things, then I thought it wasn’t any good and gave up. When I started earning a living in a grown-up way, I was working in magazines and newspapers as a sub-editor and editor. Which was interesting, but I still wanted to be a writer, and I couldn’t get anyone to give me a job as a writer for quite a long time. Then, by the time I got to my late twenties, I was finally starting to get work as a writer; not as a proper newspaper reporter, I just did magazine features. Still, I was probably better at being an editor. So any attempt that I did at creative writing, I did in my spare time, without any success.
While that was going on, I got into running; and I found running very good as a way of taking control of my life. It gave me a sense of self-respect and other things I lacked. If you’re finding other areas of life frustrating and you can’t get the outcomes that you want, then the nice thing about running is that what you put in is what you get out.
Was it then thanks to running that you wrote your first book?
Yes – I got into fell-running in my thirties, and it wasn’t till I was in my late thirties or even early forties that someone said he wanted a book about fell-running and asked someone else if they knew a writer who knew about it. That’s how it came about.
So you didn’t pick the subject yourself?
No, I didn’t exactly. In thinking about what I could write about and how I could fulfil this urge to write, I knew that people say you should write about what you know and what means a lot to you. As with many runners, running played a big part in my life, especially the fell-running bit in the obsessive years when I tried to do the Bob Graham Round. I had probably thought that I could write about it before that, and I wrote a few pages about the Round, wondering if there’s enough to make a book that people would find interesting; but I thought they probably wouldn’t be. But then this person came along, suggesting me to write a book about fell-running; what he wanted was a book about great fell-running heroes, so I combined the two ideas and came up with a book which contained something that interested most people.
It has always seemed to me that your books are quite personal. Do you always choose a subject that means a lot to you, or does it happen sometimes that you become attached to what you write about?
Probably a bit of both. I feel much more comfortable writing about other people or a given subject and less comfortable writing about me. I think that’s the weird thing about writers in general: you don’t really know if you want to expose yourself or not. I think that if you don’t get a bit of yourself in a book, it becomes quite dry. What was good about Feet in the Clouds was that I was writing about other people, and that gave me the courage to write about myself as well. I wasn’t saying “I’m really interesting” but “Here’s Joss Naylor and Billy Bland, and meanwhile here’s a bit about me”.
Were some of the books you’ve written easier or more difficult to write than others?
Different books were difficult or easy in different ways. I wrote one book called The Lost Village, which was about vanishing traditions of English rural life. It did have good bits in it, but I think it was a flawed concept, and the publisher insisted that I finish it. I ended up doing the best I could – that was difficult and painful.
With my Zátopek book, I had to write against a very tight timetable, which was hard, and maybe it could have been a better book if I hadn’t. On the other hand I found it quite helpful just having to tell the story, to think, research and write in one go. And in some ways that made it a book that was nice to write.
What was it like to write Feet in the Clouds? Was it difficult to structure it?
It was very difficult to decide what to include. One of its merits probably came from a piece of advice that an editor gave me: “Don’t think of it as a book. Just think of it as individual chapters.” But there was still so much stuff that I wanted to include. It really bothered me, until quite late. I ended up with the structure of a month-by-month diary of a running year interspersing it. For some people, that’s the least interesting part of the book, but for me that released the blockage – I didn’t have to leave so much out, but at the same time people didn’t have to read endless chapters telling basically the same story. I also remember that I couldn’t think of a title and the book had virtually gone in the press without a title, and only in the last minute I came up with Feet in the Clouds, after endless agonizing.
How do you write? Do you have a routine or a method, do you tend to do all your research first?
It’s very chaotic. Sometimes writing comes and then I think it’s quite good to do it, and sometimes it doesn’t. I don’t think it’s a good idea to do all the research and start writing when you’re totally ready; you never get to a point where you’re ready, and you end up having to write too much too quickly. In practice, normally someone commissions me to write a book, and there’s a deadline. So you know you need to write a certain amount by a certain date. Since my Zátopek book, which was a real race against time, I’ve tried to think that I had to have six chapters done by this date, eight chapters by a certain time, etc., so I can’t get too far behind. But I still find it very hard. There are days when writing feels like getting blood out of a stone. But looking back at the books I’ve written, I found that the bits I struggled with the most tend to be the best bits.
You’re writing another book about a Czech sporting hero, not too long after your Zátopek book – what’s interesting about writing about people who lived a long time ago, in a foreign country? Why do you do this?
I don’t know. Maybe I’m a glutton for punishment. It really wasn’t my plan – I thought it was bad enough with Zátopek. I can’t think of any particular advantages of people being dead or living in a foreign country. I’ve been trying to learn Czech but it still takes me a very long time to read source texts or arrange meetings with people. If I were writing about an English subject, it would be much easier and less time-consuming. I think people now read books less than they used to, and if you ask them to hand over money for a book when they could read endless stuff for free on the internet, you need to be confident that you’ve got a good story. With Zátopek, I did feel throughout that this was an interesting, gripping, significant story. So the difficulties seemed worth it. But after that I had made up my mind – and promised my family – that I wouldn’t write any more books about dead people from foreign countries. But I did want to carry on learning Czech. I’d only managed to learn a bit while I was writing the Zátopek book, but I thought that if I kept going it might start to make a bit more sense. So I carried on trying to read Czech texts and listen to Czech podcasts and things like that. And at some point in late 2016 heard a short item in Český rozhlas Dvojka’s “Příběhy slavných” series about Lata Brandisová. I didn’t understand it all at first, but it sounded so interesting that I listened to it again and again. And then I started trying to find out more about her from other sources – partly to check that I’d understood properly. And the more I found out, the more fascinated I became by this extraordinary story, which is completely unknown in the West and seems to be largely forgotten even by Czechs. Initially I just thought I might write an article about Lata. But then I made contact with members of the family, and one thing led to another. Before I knew it, I was having to explain to my family that I was going to write another book involving a dead hero of Czech sport – the only difference being that Lata Brandisová’s prime was even longer ago than Emil Zátopek’s, and is much more forgotten.
Speaking of subjects who are alive: are you still in touch with some of the people you wrote about in Feet in the Clouds? I know you’re still in touch with Dana Zátopková …
Yes, I see them every now and then. Some of them are getting very old and some of them I haven’t seen for years, because I haven’t been to the Lake District much recently, and some of them have died. But I’ve tried to keep in touch if I can. That’s maybe something about the kind of books that I like to write: you get to know good people. I like to keep in touch with Joss Naylor, for example, because I think he’s a good person, and Dana is someone else who I now think of as a friend.
Going back to your Czech books – do you think that some people might in fact react better to a foreign journalist than they would to a Czech one? It sometimes seems that they feel safer and are likely to tell you more, because they know you won’t judge them.
Maybe. They also know I’m not likely to be on the other side, whatever the other side was. I think it must be very hard for Czechs either to write or to ask about some things because people reacted in different ways to the impossible choices they faced, and most people seem to disapprove of people who made different choices to them. It would be very hard to do that without making any sort of judgement, in both directions. But I’m sort of free of that. Also, there’s one thing I like about working in a foreign country, whether it’s Czech Republic or France or anywhere else: the fact is that England is still such a class- and regional-based society. Someone once said that an Englishman only has to open his mouth for another Englishman to start despising him. People make various judgements about one another based on how they sound or how they look, whereas in the Czech Republic I’m just a person. And I usually have an interpreter.
You’ve spent a lot of time in the Czech Republic by now, and you’re likely to know more about the country’s history than many Czechs. Does it still feel like a foreign country?
It feels a lot less foreign than it did, in some ways. Sometimes I feel so at home here, and then I realise I don’t actually speak the language. The very first time I set foot in the country, it was so strange it was almost frightening. I couldn’t say anything apart from “Do you speak English?”. I remember the first time I met Dana Zátopková, I couldn’t find the place where we were supposed to meet and I was trying to ask directions and there were people trying to help me, but I couldn’t understand what they were saying, and I ended up having a strange three-way telephone conversation with someone’s friend who spoke French. But the more I get to know about Czech culture, history and people, the more I realise that we’re not that different.
And another good thing is that you can always pretend not to understand what people say.
Do you do that?
Is there anything that irritates you about the Czech Republic or Czechs?
Not much – perhaps the road junctions, and the cycle lanes seem completely bonkers. Generally, I think Czechs are always complaining about their country and they don’t realise how lucky they are. But what struck me about some of the older Czechs – although that’s not irritating at all, just rather intriguing – is a certain lack of trust. When you ask people who lived in a surveillance society for a long time about their past and they don’t know you, they tell you a version of it, which is probably true but isn’t the full version, and then maybe they get to trust you a bit more and they tell you more, and you then have several layers. And they may not tell the full version to anyone. Maybe it’s a general thing, but it struck me as a contrast to British people. Czechs tend to be more generous and hospitable and immediately open; but once a British person starts to open up, they probably tell you most things. Whereas I’ve interviewed some Czech people, and I thought: “Well, this person is holding something back, but they have been interrogated before and I’m not going to outwit them.”
It often seems that people tend to have a version of their life that they tell …
That’s also what writers do, I think: make a version of themselves, and try to refine it, and present a better version of themselves; I hope I didn’t do that with Feet in the Clouds, though. I suppose the reason I was able to write it, unlike a lot of fell-runners, was that, if anything, I presented a worse version of myself. It wasn’t exactly that I exaggerated the pain but I made the most of the fact that I was bad enough as a runner to feel lots of pain. I think a lot of top fell-runners just run up forty-two mountains and just say: “Oh, that’s all right,” which doesn’t really give you a book. What’s quite interesting when it comes to writing about running, which I noticed when I wrote Running Free; in a sense, running is often about the opposite of mindfulness – you run those 26 miles without thinking about the pain or boredom. And yet, to write about what you’re experiencing during those miles you need to be as open as possible to what you’re feeling at every moment, which might make you a worse runner.
Have you ever read anything really good written by a really good athlete?
I think the best texts of real athletes are about them being out of their depth. I’ve read one book by a British athlete called Charlie Spedding, From Last to First. Most of the book is fine, though not very exciting, but the first chapter, which describes how he won his medal in Los Angeles in 1984, is the best running chapter I’ve read. It’s about him being a very inexperienced marathon runner who hadn’t expected to make it to the Games, and he’s in a mental state when he’s not able to do anything, and then he takes himself away and gives himself a talking-to, and somehow gets himself into a state of mind when he’s going to run the race of his life, and gets a bronze medal, which for him is way above expectations – whereas half the other athletes have, as he puts it, beaten themselves. It’s about him being out of his comfort zone, which is probably why it’s good – I think for top athletes, running fast is something you do in your comfort zone.
So are runners more likely to write a good text about a bad race?
Does running help you in any way with writing? Do you get any good ideas, or does it clear your head?
One of the frustrating things about learning Czech is that I’ve been trying to do a 20-minute audio course every day. But if I do that while running, I learn my Czech but I miss out the head-clearing thing. And I think for writing it’s much better to have an empty head when you run and let your mind ramble. Quite often I’ll come up with an answer to some problem when I run, or I come up with something related to writing. The problem is to keep it in my head and not forget it. I know several writers who run and have the same problem and tried to carry a recorder, but then you just get gasping and not the words you want. Actually, I think trying to keep something in your head is quite good – if you forget it, maybe it means it wasn’t so good in the first place.
Are you going to write any more running books?
I don’t know.
Do you think there are too many?
I think there are too many books, full stop. My advice for anyone who asks advice about writing is always: never write a book unless you’ll be glad to have written it even if no one buys it. Personally, I’m glad I’ve written most of my books: they’re just there and my children can read them one day, and it’s something that’s done and can’t be unwritten. Publishers and magazines and newspapers are always asking me to write about running, and I find it a real struggle these days; I keep saying I can’t possibly write anything more about running. I think my experiences are just enough to sustain one book and I don’t think people wouldn’t be interested in anything more. When I wrote Feet in the Clouds, I wrote about the experiences of a youngish man: I described what I did in my thirties. Then, when I wrote Running Free, that was a perspective of someone in his fifties; it described running in a completely different part of my life, and a different approach to it. Some readers really liked that, and others didn’t. I can see that if you’re a young runner and you read Feet in the Clouds and you think you can really respond to that, and the next day you buy another book by me, and it’s set twenty years in the future, you might be disappointed by the change of perspective. Maybe one day I’ll write a book from the perspective of a 70-year-old runner.
What may have interested me about Lata Brandisová is that she was a woman – and also that she was not a runner – which brings a whole new perspective to the experience of being a sportsperson, although maybe it’s so different that I can’t understand it; I don’t know.
How different is it to write about a sport that you know very well, i.e. running, and one that you don't have much experience with, i.e. horseracing?
I’m not sure how different it will be: I suppose readers will judge that for themselves. At the moment, it doesn’t feel like a huge problem. Like most of the best sports stories, Lata’s story is mostly a human one, with only a relatively small part of the action involving sporting competition. Even so, I do worry that my lack of experience with horses might be a problem. I did feel that, with the many books written about Zátopek, you could tell which authors were runners and which weren’t. But steeplechase riding is a very specialised sport, and Velká pardubická riding is more specialised still. I could be a highly experienced horseman and yet still have no idea what it feels like to ride in the Velká pardubická. So I think the solution I’ve opted for – which is to give a sense of what the race is like through the words of people who actually have competed in it – would have been the best solution, even if I had had loads of riding experience myself.
Did your experience as an editor/journalist help you to write your books?
Yes, I think so. Non-fiction books aren’t really much good unless they have lots of true, real-life detail in them: not just the kind of facts you find in archives (although with subjects like Emil Zátopek or Lata Brandisová those are important too) but the kind of human stories that you only discover if you track down people who witnessed the events you want to describe and persuade them to share their experiences with you. So that’s very much like journalism in the sense of reporting and meeting people and writing stories. As for editing, yes, I think that helps too. The more experience you have of editing other people’s work, the better you get at seeing the strengths and weaknesses in your own work, and working out how to improve it. The drawback, of course, is that if you instinctively think like an editor, as I do, then it’s easy to spot so many faults in what you’ve written that you just want to give up altogether …
You often hear that traditional journalism is in crisis. Is it in any way more satisfactory to write books?
In some ways it’s less satisfactory, because you earn even less money. But I do feel that, if you write a book, you can make your own decisions about standards and things like that, and also about the kind of thing you want to end up with. For example, with both my books about Czech subjects, it has been really important to me that everything should be as truthful as possible. Many publishers – especially publishers of journalism – don’t consider that important any more. But as an author, you end up putting so much effort and emotion into a book that you really don’t want to bring into the world a book that you don’t feel reasonably proud of, or that readers don’t think they can trust. Ultimately, when you write a book, the buck stops with you.
When we spoke about your new book, you mentioned to me that when thinking about its mood, you had in mind The Leopard by Tomasi di Lampedusa. Are you often inspired by other literary works when you write or do you generally have specific ideas about what your books should be like?
As a non-fiction writer you always hope that your book will be as readable and compelling as fiction. It’s only an aspiration, because in practice you’re constrained by the facts that you’re able to find out, and it’s rare to find an honest work of non-fiction that really reads like a novel. Even so, it’s a good aspiration to start with, and I think it provides useful focus if, when researching a non-fiction book, you start off with some sense of what kind of novel you’d like your book to resemble. If you know what kind of narrative episodes you want to end up with, then you know what raw material you need, and that tells you what questions to ask and where to ask them. Otherwise, you’re trying to find your way without even knowing what destination you’re hoping to reach.
But I don’t always start off with a fictional model. With my running books, for example, Running Free was more of a meditation or extended essay than a narrative, while with Feet in the Clouds it was more a question of distilling a great mass of material I already had and then letting the residue determine its own structure – more like starting off with a big chunk of marble and asking yourself what kind of statue it seems to want you to release from it.
With Today We Die A Little I had a strong sense of what the narrative trajectory of the story would be. But that seemed to come from Emil Zátopek’s life itself rather than from any fictional role-model. I’ve always felt that Emil’s life resembled some kind of semi-mythical narrative archetype, with an improbable rise from lowly beginnings, leading to a phase of brilliant, legendary success and heroism; which in turn was followed, because of the inherent frailties of human nature (his and other people’s), by a tragic fall; after which came partial redemption and tragic self-awareness.
I don’t know if the book I wrote actually conveys any sense of this archetype. But I know that having it in mind was important to the way I planned the book, and to the way I prioritised my research, and to the way I tried to write it.
The book I’m working on now, about Lata Brandisová, has some similarities with Today We Die A Little. It’s about a Czech sporting hero whose compatriots first celebrated her, then turned on her and consigned her to a kind of internal exile. But whereas Emil’s story is all about the limits of human perfectibility, individual and collective, Lata feels more like a passive victim of unfeeling historical forces. She was good and kind and brave and never harmed anyone, yet she spent much of her life being punished, under a series of different regimes, because of the circumstances of her birth. I mentioned The Leopard because it’s the most perfect and poignant evocation of what political and social change feels like (even desirable and inevitable change) from the point of view of someone whose privileged world is swept away in the process. I’d love to evoke some of that feeling in my descriptions of Lata’s life. But I could just as easily have mentioned Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard as a mood model, and there are probably other examples too.
In other discussions I’ve mentioned different creative works in relation to other aspects of Lata’s story: for example, David Lean’s film, “Brief Encounter” (1945); or the first film Elizabeth Taylor starred in, “National Velvet” (1944). Those two probably won’t mean much to Czech readers, but they’re examples of the same aspect of my working method. They’re not models so much as short-hand symbols for complex emotional shades that I would like to capture, if I can. They’re helpful for discussing an unwritten work with other people who are involved in the process, and I think they’re also helpful to me when I’m writing. I know what I’m aiming at, even if the limits of my raw material and my talent prevent me from reaching that target. It’s a bit embarrassing discussing this because of course the examples I use all tend to be masterpieces – so it sounds as though I’m expecting my book to be a masterpiece too. Sadly, that’s fairly unlikely. But I’m hardly going to set out to emulate a mediocre work.