An interview with Tim Severin, author of The Pope's Assassin
tim severin, explorer, author, film-maker and lecturer has retraced the storied journeys of saint brendan the navigator, sindbad the sailor, jason and the argonauts, ulysses, genghis khan and robinson crusoe. his books about these expeditions are classics of exploration and travel.
what made you first want to travel?
i was born and spent my first few years in north-west india where my family had spent their working lives as tea planters for three generations, so the entire family environment was one of living and travelling in far-flung, often exotic places. it seemed natural for me to continue with that same way of life.
where was the first place you explored?
my first expedition was as an undergraduate studying geography at oxford when, with two student companions, i set off to re-trace marco polo's route across asia... on motorbikes. we got as far as the chinese border, by which time all three of us were riding on one motorbike. but had been able to identify some of the caravan trails that marco polo would have used, and still existed.
what inspired you to write a series of books, in the case of the viking series, saxon and the adventures of hector lynch?
after so many years of 'fieldwork' – making long journey on replicas of ancient boats or on horseback to investigate whether there is any reality to the great travel legends – i decided to use that accumulated experience in reverse. i would place a fictional character in a proven historical setting that involved travel. the main character(s) in all my historical novels are journeyers.
do you find writing fiction very different to writing accounts of your own travels?
yes, it's the difference between painting in oils (non-fiction) or using watercolours (fiction). writing about my own travels requires me to be sharper, more precise, more defined, in order to recount what happened and stay with the narrative. by contrast, writing historical fiction is a looser, more evocative process that invokes the imagination and allows the storyline to take its own course.
what inspires you to follow the journeys of fictional and historical figures? how do you choose which ones to follow?
in the beginning i chose to investigate by the best known travellers of cultural history – st. brendan, sindbad, jason, ulysses, etc – because they had left such a powerful legacy and i wanted to test whether their 'fictional' voyages had an element of truth in them. mostly they did. later i chose to investigate the journeys of travellers that would take me to places on the globe that i had never visited: the pacific ocean, indonesia, central america.
what’s the scariest thing you’ve encountered when travelling?
days and nights of heavy weather in the far north atlantic off greenland, when at times my crew and i had to bale out the waves that crashed into our small open boat, threatening to swamp and sink her.
if you could visit any fictional time or place from your novels, where would you explore?
i think i would have enjoyed being at the court of charlemagne and being sent as one of his missi – his special agents – who were despatched around his vast empire to report on conditions in various outposts. there's a hint of that in the role i ascribe to sigwulf, the hero of my saxon series.
where do you write best? do you have a favourite place to write?
i do most of my writing at home in a quiet rural corner of west cork in south-west ireland... that is when i'm not travelling, when -– if needs must – i can write almost anywhere i can charge the battery in my laptop.
what advice would you give to budding explorers, writers and explorer-writers?
pick a subject or an area, then define and re-define it through research and more research until you've distilled what really interests you and you are confident that, by your efforts, you can make some sort of contribution by your writing or travelling.
where do you think everyone should visit, and why?
two places spring to mind:
1. the banda or 'nutmeg' islands of the moluccas in eastern indonesia, hopefully they are difficult enough to access for the visitor to sense what is an unspoiled, lush tropical paradise.
2. skellig michael the tiny rocky island rising from the atlantic off the coast of county kerry which was home for centuries to an early irish monastic community. it is a place where one can feel that one is on the very edge of the world.
the pope's assassin, the third book in tim severin's thrilling historical adventure series set in saxon times, is out now.