Friday, 29 July 2011

In Conversation with: Robin Bayley

Sam Ruddock: First up, can you tell us a bit about The Mango Orchard?
Robin Bayley: It’s a book about my journey in the footsteps of my great grandfather around Latin America. It sounds like a travel book, and it is, but more importantly, it’s a book about storytelling and the importance of storytelling within families.

SR: The book was written ten years after your first trip to Mexico. Why such a delay? 
RB: When I first arrived back from Mexico, I started to write, but I wasn’t ready. Perhaps I was too young, or I needed the perspective which only comes with time. Then, before I knew it, I had been sucked back into the kind of life I had left behind. It took ten years for me to break free again.

SR: When did you first realise that you would write a book about your journey? Was it always part of the plan or was there a specific moment when the need to write it struck you?
RB: I always planned to write a book, but I guess if I hadn’t discovered anything, it wouldn’t have been very interesting.

SR: What were your subsequent fact-finding journeys to Mexico like? Did the knowledge that you were actively researching a book mean you saw things differently? 
RB: Yes, they were very different journeys. The first one was driven by intuition; I went where the wind blew me. On the research trips I went where I needed to go. Getting stuck into an investigation is a great way of seeing another side of the country though.

SR: One of the things I immediately connected with in The Mango Orchard was your appreciation of the power of stories to shape and transform our lives. Who wouldn’t have loved growing up with stories of bandits, wild jungle, journeys, hidden bags of silver and narrow escapes from bloody revolution? Yet I can’t imagine quitting my job to travel around the world in search of these. Why do you think these stories had such an effect on you and what was it that led you to set off on your Mexican adventure?
RB: This is the question I spend much of the book trying to answer, but ultimately, it’s one of those things that no one can know. My Mexican family couldn’t believe that I would have given up everything to travel to the other side of the world in pursuit of something I didn’t know was there. But some things you just have to do. I didn’t want to be a bitter old man, regretting not undertaking a journey I felt pre-programmed to make.

SR: One of the areas in which the stories differed from reality was in Arturo’s role in the Mexican revolution where he went from one lucky to escape before it started to one of the instigators of the factory strike that helped to trigger it all off. What did you make of this news?
RB: I think it’s a very interesting paradox. He was a Guardian-reading Liberal. He believed in fairness above all else, and, according to my grandmother, injustice was one of the few things that really riled him. Yet he found himself on the side of the government and the moneyed elite, whose policies were seen as grossly unfair and were the focus of uprising.

SR: How did your means of travel differ from that of your grandfather? What effect do you think that had on your experience of Mexico?
RB: I’ll give you just one example of how different our journeys were. When I travelled from Guadalajara to Tepic by bus, it took me a little over two hours. The same journey by horse and carriage took my great grandfather five days. He had to cope with being bounced up and down on an un-cushioned seat for all that time, and with the carriage filling with dust every time they stopped. I had to contend with loud screenings of Steven Seagal movies. I’m not sure which is worse.

SR: In the book, you adapt to the news that your grandfather had a second family remarkably quickly. Was it really so easy?
RB: It was a reality I had to adapt to very swiftly. Because everything happened so quickly, I didn’t have time to think and all my reactions were completely spontaneous.

SR: When you met them, your Mexican family welcomed you with open arms, even while trying to work out whether you were genuine or not. Do you think the same would have been true had they arrived in the UK with the news that your great grandfather had had another family?
RB: Mexicans are very hospitable and generous hosts. I would love to say that if one of my great grandfather’s Mexican great grandsons had come to England, he would have been treated with the same generosity, but I fear that might not have been the case.

SR: Does this say anything about the relative cultures of the UK and Mexico? Or is it a result of the fact that your Mexican relatives already knew Arturo had an English family?
RB: I think it’s both of those things

SR: Towards the end of the book you have a conversation with one of your newly found relatives in which you try to express your delight that not only have you found a family you didn’t know you had but that they are great people too. He doesn’t understand what you mean as, for him, you are family and that is all that matters. What do you think of this? Is blood thicker than water? Is family the most important thing to you?
RB: It was an important lesson.

SR: There’s also a great phrase: don’t worry about being a good father or husband or brother; concentrate on being a good ancestor. What does being a good ancestor mean to you?
RB: I try to imagine my descendants trying to make sense of what I have done. While I don’t mind confusing them every now and then, I try to avoid embarrassing them. Mind you, I don’t yet have any children, so I may as well be as embarrassing as I like.

SR: Have any of the family visited you in the UK?
RB: Yes, a few of them have been here. Javi, my godson, Tío Javier’s grandson, has been here three times now. He says he wants to come over for the Olympics – I think to help out, rather than compete.

SR: Have you stayed in touch with the other people you met on your way to Mexico?
RB: Of course with Facebook, email and Skype it’s so much easier than it used to be. I am in contact with just about everyone in the book, apart from Wilson, who drove me to Mexico City as if he were playing Grand Theft Auto

SR: How has your relationship with Juanita developed?
RB: It’s complicated.

SR: Have you always wanted to be a writer?
RB: Yes, which is strange as, being dyslexic, I find it very difficult

SR: Do you have a specific place in which you write? 
RB: The south-facing room has to be on a ley line, between 21.3 and 22.1ºC and the floor must be ankle deep in rose petals. Alright, not really. It does have to be quiet though, and the desk and chair comfortable – which is actually much more difficult than you would imagine.

SR: How do you structure your day as a writer? 
RB: Initially I’d write well into the night, but I found that if I did that I wasn’t very productive the next day. I have now adopted cricketing hours: two hours before lunch, two hours before tea and two hours after tea. And obviously if it’s raining, I take the day off.

SR: What do you write on/with?
RB: I usually start with pen and paper, then type up, then mark up and re-type. I did try and use a voice activated computer programme, but I found it tended to miswrite things, I would then use a number of swear words, which it would then miswrite, and I would then swear again…

SR: Are you working on another book at the moment? 
RB: I am in the early stages of a book about an extraordinary story based in Colombia. It involves a lot of other people, so I am trying to get it cleared at the moment

SR: Are there any other travel books about Latin America you would urge us to read?
RB: The Fruit Palace by Charles Nichol is a very exciting read. It was written in the 1980s, about the Great Cocaine Story. It’s hardly likely to be supported by the Colombian Tourist Board, but it’s great fun.
Tequila Oil is good one for Mexico

SR: Which writers do you admire? 
RB: Laurie Lee, Graham Greene, David Nicholls, Rose Tremain, Rory MacLean, Joseph O’Connor

SR: What are your five favourite books?
As I stepped out one Mid-Summer’s morning – Laurie Lee
Jupiter’s Travels – Ted Simon
Let the Great World Spin – Colum McCann
Our Man in Havana – Graham Greene
David Copperfield – Dickens – I know this might sound like a strange choice, but it’s such a good book, and I was reading it when I was in South America

SR: Finally, are there any questions we should have asked but didn’t? Is there anything more you would like to say but haven’t had a chance to? 
RB: You haven’t asked me what I’d like to drink.

SR: Robin Bayley, thank you very much. (though the drink may have to wait a while…)

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