For an avid book-lover, the opportunity to have a conversation with the author of your new favorite book is something akin to a dream. I was lucky enough to have that chance. Robin Ratchford’s book From Souk to Souk may not be on this blog quite yet, but I’ve already uploaded my 5-star review on Goodreads.
As many of you know, travelogues are one of my particular favorites when it comes to genre. And although I’m usually not the biggest Middle East fan, From Souk to Souk checked all my boxes. A narrator who had no qualms talking about both the positive and negative aspects of the different locations, whether it be Beirut, Afghanistan, Yemen, or Dubai; check. Despite my preparation to read another book on the conflict that rages throughout the desert regions of the world, I was surprised to note that there was little when it came to the wars that have swept the region.
The mystical sense of ancient history mixed with the overwhelming forces of globalization was intoxicating – so without further ado I tell you to read this book (please do – it’s a keeper), and enjoy the interview below!
Born in the United Kingdom, Robin is currently based in Belgium. He has, however, lived in six different countries and visited more than hundred others and their territories on all seven continents. He counts learning and improving his knowledge of several European languages among his constant passions. He and his faithful companion Mortimer the Fox Terrier live in Brussels.
The people he meets and the cultures he has experienced are a constant inspiration for Robin’s writing. Like many writers, he blends personal experience and observation with imagination. Looking back, he thinks collecting colourful stamps from the age of six first sparked his interest in foreign countries and cultures all over the world. Travel, adventures, and discovery are central themes in his life.
Gabriella: What inspired you to bring together all of these different Middle Eastern experiences and combine them all into one book?
Ratchford: It was when I was on my third visit to Beirut that I was inspired to write about the city. I had been looking for an idea for a book and, suddenly, writing about the places I had been to in the Middle East seemed the obvious thing to do. There was so much I wanted to say about them.
G: Is there a message in your novel you want readers to grasp?
R: I have to begin my answer by saying that From Souk to Souk is not a novel; although I can appreciate it might sometimes read like one. The experiences I describe are based on real events. Sometimes I have changed details about people for reasons of privacy.
The book can be read on a number of levels. At its simplest, it can be enjoyed as an atmospheric and colourful description of travels through the Middle East and encounters with the people there. Look a little further, though, and you will see there is a commentary about the societies, the politics and the religions in the region. There is also a contemplation about how our societies in the ‘West’ are connected to those in the Middle East and how we are linked by a common heritage. The original subtitle of the book was going to be ‘Reflections on Life, Death and Immortality in the Middle East’. This more accurately conveys the ‘message’ as you describe it, but I chose not to you use it as I thought it might put some people off because it sounds a bit heavy. As I say, though, From Souk to Souk is a book that can be enjoyed on various levels.
G: Do you recall how your interest in the Middle East originated?
R: When I was a child we had a big book with stories from A Thousand and One Nights. It was beautifully illustrated and that, together with the stories themselves, fired my imagination. And then there were all those Sinbad films! As a small boy, it was hard not to be excited by such tales.
G: From Souk to Souk is one of the few current books about the Middle East that doesn’t entirely focus on conflict. As a reader, that was one of the most striking things about the book for me – Was there a reason in doing that?
R: When I started writing From Souk to Souk I wanted to describe my experiences. Those experiences have been overwhelmingly positive, but that doesn’t mean I’m unaware of the conflicts and tensions in and between the countries. What struck me during my travels was how different the places were in reality compared to the images in the media, which seem to focus almost entirely on the problems. There are some references to the political unrest and security situation, but these are mostly as background. If I may make a rough comparison, it’s rather like when people view someone who is ill only in terms of their medical condition. In fact, an ill person is not merely a diagnosis or a label. It’s similar with the Middle East: there’s so much more to the region – both historically and in the present – than the current conflicts. I hope I’ve been able to show that. Of course, the current situation in Syria is different from when I was there. It would, I think, be very difficult to write about visiting the country now without the civil war featuring large in one’s account.
G: Your chapters alternate between different times and different places, did you have a purpose in doing that?
R: Yes, absolutely! I didn’t want readers to simply float from one place to the other: I wanted to jolt them a bit with each new description, not least because the places I visited are so heterogeneous. That is also why I use a variety of tenses, sometimes mixing them, depending on the atmosphere in each situation and the sort of experience encountered
G: How did you begin writing? Did you intend to become an author?
R: I’ve always enjoyed writing. I also like learning languages. I think the two go together because if one enjoys words and language it’s difficult to resist wanting to use them to convey ideas and emotions creatively. Writing professionally is something many people dream of doing, but it takes a lot of time, effort and discipline. I think completing the first book is hardest, though.
G: Which authors do you like to read? What books have had a strong influence on your writing?
R: I have quite eclectic reading habits. I tend to read a lot of textbooks about places I am going to visit (or do so while I’m there – at airports etc.). I also like to buy books by local authors that one wouldn’t normally find at home or on mainstream internet sites. Browsing bookshops is something I love to do when I travel! Otherwise, I enjoy authors such as William Dalrymple and Peter Hopkirk. I particularly like the way Dalrymple weaves historical and cultural information in with his own experiences.
G: Ballpoint or fountain pen?
R: Both, but – for practical reasons – usually ballpoint when travelling.