Ronald Wright

How did you become a writer?

I'd wanted to write since my teens. But my twenties were busy with studies, working odd jobs, and backpacking around the world. Not until I was thirty, when I fell ill during a long journey through the Andes, did the writing urge return. Knocked flat in Peru for months, I read everything I could find or borrow. When I got home I began my first book, Cut Stones & Crossroads: A Journey in Peru, published three years later by Viking Penguin in New York. Around the same time I took up freelance journalism in print and broadcast media.

Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).

D.H. Lawrence was a strong influence during my schooldays (Sons and Lovers, Lady Chatterley, Mornings in Mexico) and I still go back to him, most often for his wonderful essays. I also took an interest in his poetry (plus Pound and Eliot) and in Middle English epics, especially the alliterative ones (Piers Plowman, Gawain and the Green Knight), whose form comes down from Beowulf. But my favourite writers back then were the great satirists in both prose and verse: from Dryden, Swift, and Pope to H.G. Wells (The Time Machine, War of the Worlds), Aldous Huxley (Brave New World), and George Orwell (Animal Farm, Nineteen Eighty-Four, and his essays, such as the essential "Politics and the English Language").

Much of this was on the Eng. Lit. curriculum, with Chaucer and Shakespeare of course. All very white and male, as things were in those days. Later I discovered Mary Shelley (The Last Man, Frankenstein), Amelia Edwards (A Thousand Miles up the Nile), Shirley Hazzard (Transit of Venus, The Great Fire), Harriet Doerr (Stones for Ibarra), and many other important women writers.

By then I could read Spanish, which took me into the literary world of Latin America, from its modern authors to early historical works by Indigenous and Spanish writers such as Inca Garcilaso (Royal Commentaries of the Incas), Felipe Waman Puma (The First New Chronicle and Good Government), and Cieza de León (Discovery and Conquest of Peru).

My fascination with Peru began at thirteen, when I happened to pick up a dusty Victorian adventure tale by W.H.G. Kingston, who had lived there himself. The book, called Manco, was set during the great Tupac Amaru revolt of the 1780s, as recent when Kingston wrote about it as World War II is now. The author was good at evoking sympathy for underdogs, in this case heroic Incas struggling to free themselves from Spanish rule. Manco awoke my interest in the ancient American civilizations and their modern descendants. Peru became the subject of my first book (Cut Stones & Crossroads), and my tenth, The Gold Eaters.

When and where do you write?

Mostly at home in the Gulf Islands near Vancouver. I find the writing goes best in the afternoons.

What are you working on now?

Not ready enough to talk about.  

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?

Every day, for about an hour or so.

What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?

Read. The rule of thumb is ten hours reading for every hour of writing. Of course not every day has to be like that. Nor does all the reading need to be related to your work. But I've found the overall ratio is about right. Almost any good book sends the mind to interesting and unforeseen places; these unlock creativity. Reading is a good remedy for writer's block.

What’s your advice to new writers?

See above. Also, for good writing of almost any kind you need to have gathered a fund of knowledge and experiences. This is the writer's raw material. Though I didn't know it then, I was doing that in my twenties when I was backpacking and driving trucks. Last, a word about revision. Successful writers do a lot of it, often 5 or 10 drafts before a book is ready to be seen. When I get really stuck and lose all hope and perspective, I put the draft away and do other things for at least two months. The fallow time must be long enough to "forget" what you've written so you can read with fresh eyes. When you do go back to the stalled work, imagine it was written by somebody else. It's always easier to see the flaws in others' work.

Novelist and historian Ronald Wright is the author of ten books published in 16 languages and more than 40 countries. Wright’s first novel, the dystopia A Scientific Romance, won Britain’s David Higham Prize for Fiction and was chosen a book of the year by the New York Times, the Globe & Mail, the Sunday Times, and others.

His Massey Lectures, A Short History of Progress, won the Libris Nonfiction Book of the Year award and inspired Martin Scorsese’s 2011 film Surviving Progress.

Born in England to British and Canadian parents, Wright took archaeology and anthropology at Cambridge, pursuing these interests with years of travel and study in the Americas and elsewhere.

His first three books--Cut Stones and Crossroads, Time Among the Maya, and Stolen Continents--were recently re-issued in the Penguin Modern Classics series. His latest novel, The Gold Eaters, is set during the Spanish invasion of Peru.