Here, journalist, travel writer and historian William Dalrymple describes his surroundings, routine, and the quiet, personal quirks that allow him to write. His new book, The Return of a King: The First Anglo-Afghan War and the Birth of the Great Game, will be published by Bloomsbury in December.
I have two desks—one inside and one outside. Journalism, letters, e-mails are written on the one inside. This is in my study, a book-lined bunker on the ground floor, with a fan overhead for summer, and fireplace for winter. It is a bit of a mess: books, bronze Shaivite heads, photos, CDs and small ivory miniatures are muddled up in an avalanche of unopened post. But no real writing—that is to say, no book-writing—ever takes place here.
For, whatever the weather, my books are written outside. The writing desk lies at the end of the garden, in a shed open on two sides to the summer heat or the winter’s cold. Working like this gives me clarity, and space. It is also outside the range of wi-fi, and the siren call of the internet. When I am actually putting pen to paper on a book—usually one year in three—I get up very early, at dawn, have a mug of strong coffee, then sit out on the terrace in the early morning light to correct the previous day’s work. That quiet of the first hour of the day is when I can really concentrate on my prose, and by reading it slowly out loud, identify and begin eradicating all the infelicities.
After finishing the corrections, I arrange everything on the writing desk very neatly. Here all the pencils sharpened and upended in a mug, all my books and card indexes are lined up as if on parade. Only when everything is in exactly the right place do I begin. I’ll break only to walk around my ‘thinking path’—a circuit at the back where I work out how to tackle a particular passage. Easy sections can sometimes be solved in a single loop; difficult ones take seven or eight circuits. If it goes well, especially towards the end of a book, I’ll keep tapping away until after dark, and only come in for supper when I’m spent and unable to write anymore. If I’ve really managed to concentrate, I’m usually too shattered to do anything afterwards, except watch a DVD: Bleak House saw me through The Last Mughal, and for my latest, Return of a King, its been The Killing. If I nod off mid-episode, it means it has been a good day’s work.
William Dalrymple curated the Asia Society show in New York: ‘Princes and Painters in Mughal Delhi, 1707-1857.