Knowing the words that are written beneath this, it is hard to write an introduction to this blog that will do them justice. I had the absolute honour of interviewing a writer and farmer that I greatly admire. So this blog is certainly less about what I have to say!
For those that don’t know, James Rebanks is a hill farmer from the East of the Lake District. His first book, The Shepherd’s Life, is a particularly special piece of literature for me as James writes about his life and experiences farming on the fells (and other things that I won’t spoil for you!) with such poignancy and honesty. Truthfully, and in my humble opinion, his writing style is only akin to works I’ve read in English Literature classes. The Shepherd’s Life was also the 3rd bestselling work of nonfiction in the UK in 2016, so there’s your proof! So I would thoroughly suggest purchasing James’ book (either of them!) or following him on Twitter, where he also seems to be reasonably popular with a meagre following of 89.1k…But honestly his photos of farming life on the fells offer welcome relief from day to day life. Anyway, enough chat, I’ll let James take over.
Did you ever hope/think you’d one day write a book, and did you ever have any doubt about your abilities?
I have known ever since I was about seventeen that I was meant to be a writer and a farmer.
For most of the past twenty years that seemed a quite unlikely combination of daydreams. At times I almost gave up.
But it has worked out in the end, because that is basically my life now.
As for doubting my abilities.
I am filled with insecurities and self-doubt. I’m not sure what anyone makes of my words until they read them and tell me. Most writers I know confess to feeling the same way. You never feel cocky, for the simple reason that half of a book is in the reader’s interpretation of your words. You can’t second guess that bit, so you are always full of doubt.
But, if this makes sense, as well as having lots of self-doubt, I have always deep down believed that I was probably capable of writing very well, and in my more confident moments I always thought that if I got a break I would be recognised as a writer of talent. Most writers daydream like that as well. That’s what being a writer is, half terror and half daydreams of being the next Hemingway.
I read vast amounts of books, and have done for twenty years, so I have had a hunch I was useful as a writer. I have written nice stuff for magazines for years. I just didn’t know how to get in to the Book Writing Club.
Do you think there is a link between people that are involved with nature and the countryside, and their ability to write?
I don’t know much about other people, but my love of nature is intrinsic to my writing. At its simplest, my love of nature is about seeing beauty and poetry in things around me, and recognising that they are beautiful or interesting. I don’t have to contrive that interest, it is who I am. I am genuinely cheered by seeing wild things each day. I was lucky to have people around me in my youth who drew my attention to such things and made such a way of seeing seem normal, and part of living a good life.
It is perhaps a short step from seeing beauty and poetry in natural things to writing those thoughts and sights in to words.
But most country people perhaps have a similar way of seeing, and most don’t write books. So clearly other things have to happen to turn someone who sees things in to a writer.
What’s your favourite poem, or a quote from your favourite piece of work, and why?
I think The Old Man and the Sea by Hemingway is the best book ever written. Flawless. Perfect. I read it about twice a year. I read it to see how far beneath perfect I am falling.
Do you struggle to balance the day to day running and responsibility of your farm with the time you dedicate to your writing, and how do you balance the two?
Yes. I struggle badly with that. Writing well is like an obsession, it takes over you like a kind of fever. But farming is obsessional as well. Farming tend to wins in daylight hours, and writing tends to win in the dark hours. In winter I focus on writing when I’ve done my day’s farm work. I wrote The Shepherd’s Life at nights, mostly between 9pm and 2am, in a room where I lived with my wife and two kids in our sheep shed, because our house was only half built. I’m not James Patterson or Stephen King turning out a book a year, and I have no intention of ever doing that, that requires your whole waking life (and I’m aiming for quality not quantity). My farming life is who I am, I don’t want to do less of it. So writing has to fit around it. Which perhaps is why I love writing poetry the most, as I can write a poem in the hour spare I get before sleep. Writing a book is a major undertaking. Exhausting. The hardest thing I have ever done. It requires sustained focus. I can write 1,000 words easily anytime. But writing 100,000 words that flow as a story that works. That’s really fucking hard. It is a year or more of determined focus.
Clearly your farm work inspires a vast majority of your writing, however are there any other major influences in your creative process (your degree, other interests etc.)
My writing is largely linked to the things I have experienced, and seen, smelt and heard. Yes. But it is also heavily influenced by what I have read. I’ve read thousands of books over the years, and I could show you in my writing the different influences that went in to my having my voice on the page.
I also did a history degree at Oxford, and that had an influence as well, because I studied ‘peasant history’ in Europe and realised how important and great that subject can be. In the UK academics didn’t traditionally take rural people’s culture seriously, but since WW2 on the continent lots of amazing historians led by people like Fernand Braudel focused on what ordinary people did, and how it shaped history. I am also fascinated by economics and my writing often relates to economic themes, and changes. I try to ask questions, through stories, about whether we are heading in the right direction to a better future, or just floating along on a slow boat to hell.
What would be your go-to piece of advice for any young person hoping they might get the opportunity to write as you have?
Read. Read. Read.
Then. Write. Write. Write.
Then read lots more.
Write by imitating the writers you admire.
Then try and find your unique voice. And your subject.
Eventually you’ll either discover you are lousy, or boring, and no one is interested, or that you have something you can use.
Finally, writing without readers isn’t really writing – it is just something you can tell people about at dinner parties. So show what you write to other people, and learn how your words affect them for better or worse. The more readers the better, I think so anyway.
Find someone you trust to give you feedback, and if they are right, listen and make changes.
But live your life. Writers are always better when they’ve got something to write about. Failure makes good stories, so go out and try lots of things. Nothing is wasted.
They say everyone has a book in them, but it’s such bullshit. Most people can’t tell a story for toffee. Most people are lousy writers, even some that get to publish books.
Why do you think people that live in urban areas, even different countries, are so drawn to your writing?
Good honest writing from a person who lives a traditional working rural life is actually very rare. People are curious about me and my life. But actually lots of it isn’t about me at all, they are curious about their own relatives and ancestors who lived lives that resemble mine in some way. When I do book talks I get queues of people telling me that their grandparents where shepherds in Italy, or fruit farmers in Kent, or grew vegetables in Thailand – everyone has a farming or land based story, or roots. So to hear a story from the land done well relates to their own history.
But the interest is also about the world we live in. The whole modern world is based on the idea that we gave up the dirty brutish existence of being peasants and small farmers. Progress was meant to be leaving the land. Life on the land was rubbish wasn’t it? Who knows? Maybe this shepherd guy who writes…
I hope my writing intrigues people because it might be a voice from the other side of that deal, saying ‘Hey guys, you lost a lot in that deal, as well as making some gains’. Modern life disconnects people from nature, gives them crumby places to live, work that is often boring, deskilled and low value, and offers leisure activities that can seem after a while facile and consumerist. A lot of people are wondering ‘what is this all about?’. Our society is increasingly unequal, increasingly unfair, and increasingly unsustainable. People are wondering how we got in to this mess and whether our grandparents might have had a better life in some ways. My book fell in to a moment in time where people were thinking about these things. People bring their own meaning to books.
Throughout your life, you have challenged the norms that both the farming and educational community had previously set, how did you get people to understand that you were serious about achieving your ambitions?
I’m not sure anyone except my wife took my ambitions seriously. Maybe my dad on my farming aspirations. No one else. So you have to have a lot of internal focus and determination. I can be a machine at times, utterly ruthless about anything peripheral – but that doesn’t necessarily make you a great friend or brother, or human being.
People tend to laugh at you if you vocalise your creative aspirations, or expect you to fail entirely. The odds aren’t good of success so they are often right. My life changed when I found one person who believed in me entirely, 100%, without any hesitation. And you only actually need one person like that. Everyone else is irrelevant. You can prove the crowd wrong later on when you’ve done the legwork and things start happening. And even if you don’t then screw them for their cynicism anyway, and just ignore them. Better to try and fail than be a cheap cynic.
I’d like to express my sincere thanks to James for taking time out of his farming and writing to answer my questions.
All rights reserved by the author – James Rebanks. No part of this can be republished without his permission.