PW: Krakatoa is your 16th book. What effect has the publicity your books have been receiving had on your life and work schedule? How do you feel about the demands on your time?
Simon Winchester: Well, that's a very interesting question. As you probably know, I've had years and years of being completely unsuccessful and unnoticed, and then all of the sudden with The Professor and the Madman, this volcano, if I can use that metaphor, erupted. The kind of thing that has happened is people asking me for blurbs for books. At first, of course, I was tremendously flattered. I thought, "Someone wants me to comment on a book? This is new and marvelous." But then I decided, after I'd done four or five of them, that I could only do the ones that I really wanted to do; I just don't have the time to do them all. With the book tours, I get sort of physically weary because they go on and on. The tour for Krakatoa is long and very extensive. And of course I'm terribly happy to do it, but then I look back and I think, "I've just spent three months of my life talking about my work"—I mean, I get so tired of the sound of my own voice—and I've got other work to do; I've got other books to write. So it's a mixed blessing. Of course, I realize it's part and parcel of publishing nowadays, but I wonder if I'll ever reach the stage in my career where I can be rather grand and say, "Actually, I'm not moving."
PW: Would you discuss the transition from travel writing for magazines to writing books of historical nonfiction?
SW: With no disrespect to the magazine I was working for, Condé Nast Traveler, there came a moment about three years ago when I was on a ship, and I was going to Antarctica, Easter Island, Pitcairn and Bora Bora. Before I left New York, I said to my editor at the magazine, "Look, I'm going to these four places on a boat, and you obviously don't want me to write about all four, but which of those four would you like me to write about?" And they said, "There's no doubt about it. We want Bora Bora." And I said, "Why? I mean, that is the least interesting of the four places I'm going to." They said, "Yes, but much as you might be interested in the other places, our readers largely don't want to go there, so don't waste your time." And that made me think that all I was really doing at that stage in my career was planning people's holidays rather than having adventures myself. So I began to ease out. It was all terribly amicable, but I just decided that I wanted to travel and write books rather than travel and write for magazines.
PW: Have you changed publishers a lot in your career?
SW: Well, in the early days, yes. I make no secret about the fact that I was not at all successful, and so either publishers would say, "You're free to go; you're a free agent" or my agent would say, "Let's try Faber," or, "Let's try Henry Holt," or whoever. It just so happens that when I connected with this remarkable editor at HarperCollins, Larry Ashmead, who's actually just about to retire, there was no question that I would stay with him and with Viking in England. I've stayed with them for the last three books, and I've got contracts for three more.
PW: Your last two books played out over the lifetimes of very central protagonists. Was the experience of writing much different having a volcanic island as your main subject?
SW: That was really a conscious decision. I decided that I didn't want to get typecast. It had the possibility of never ending and would always be yet another funny old person from history whose life I would illuminate. I thought that as a publishing genre, it might not survive for a very long time, and if it went down, I would go down with it. And anyway, I wasn't only interested in dead white men, if you like. I was also interested in things and places, and the idea of doing, as it were, a biography of a forgotten but nonetheless terribly important physical event seemed to me to continue the tradition, but at the same time not to be typecast by it.