Q & A with Tim Cope
Authors at the National Library
13 October 2016
Tim Cope, F.R.G.S., is an award winning adventurer, author, and filmmaker with a special interest in the history and culture of traditional nomadic society in Russia and Central Asia. Tim’s three year, 6,000 mile journey by horse from Mongolia to Hungary is the subject of his book On the Trail of Genghis Khan.
On Thursday 20 October, Tim will share his epic adventures, as he journeyed through the land of the nomads following in the footsteps of Genghis Khan's conquering armies.
We caught up with Tim ahead of his visit to ask him about life, writing and what he loves about libraries.
Why do you write?
Writing for me has always been a way to capture the textures and feelings of all the senses and weave them into a tapestry that both consolidates my experiences and makes sense of them. This has been particularly important during adventures when there is so much digest and one can go through a full spectrum of emotions in a day. As time has gone on writing has become a way for me to tell others about worlds and cultures which might be a long way from our doorstep but which matter. I spent four years writing On the Trail Of Genghis Khan in honour of the nomad societies that have been moving back and forth across the Eurasian steppe on horseback for five or six thousand years. I've also realised that the process of writing also allows me to express to others the prism through which I interpret life – and this in turn makes me feel better understood.
What are you reading right now?
I just finished 'The Dry’ by Jane Harper. I love reading Australian stories that delve deep into the character of our unforgiving landscapes and the rural communities that live under its spell….let alone such a gripping murder mystery as this book.
How would you describe your latest book?
I spent three and a half years riding horses from Mongolia to Hungary on the trail of nomads – remarkable societies who brought horses to the world, and who under Genghis Khan Created the largest land empire in history. The aim had been to travel with packhorses and a riding mount (and the occasional camel) across Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Russia, Crimea, Ukraine, and Hungary to the Danube River on a quest to discover the heart of the nomad soul. There was one glaring problem before I began though: I could not ride a horse.
The book details the many threads of my experience that at times felt like stepping into the pages of a folk tale. There was the day for instance that I was given a puppy called “Tigon”- to be my ‘friend; and to ‘protect me from the wolves.’ This skinny little hound didn’t appear well equipped to survive the winters, and yet within weeks of setting out across Central Kazakhstan we were inseparable. Despite the -50 frosts, thieves, bungled bureaucracy and the waterless deserts of western Kazakhstan, Tigon not only survived but thrived and was leading the pack come Hungary.
Perhaps the most important element of the experience, and therefore the book, was the sense of hospitality- people who no matter their circumstances let me into their homes with open arms. Kazakhs say that first time as a guest you are a friend, second time you are part of the family, third time you can stay for life – I had the privilege of staying with around 90 families and this is truly the way I felt I was treated. Not only did these people offer food and shelter (for man and animal) but they also shared the stories of their lives and their culture. Most of the steppe had been under Russian colonial rule, then the Soviet Union, before independent nation states like Kazakhstan came into existence in the 1990s. The people I met had in many cases lost traditional knowledge of the land, yet also watched as the Soviet system that had replaced it had dissolved.
The reason my book took four years to write generally is that it was a laboursome art to research, draft, and then weave together the story’s many threads from the over arching history of the Mongols and ancient nomad society, to the current turbulent events in post Soviet states (including the fractious state of Crimea and Ukraine), to my personal journey as an apprentice nomad, and the story of my animals. I hope that for those after an adventure tale you will find it a more informative read than you bargained for, and for history buffs my aim was to give a real life eyewitness account of contemporary steppe life.
What was the hardest part of writing your latest book?
Getting started. It began with tragedy when some of my diaries were stolen from my car in Melbourne.
What was the best part of writing your latest book?
Feeling things coming into focus in the last 2-3 drafts and realising that by digesting everything, it not only allowed me to grow as writer and a person, but to do justice to the many individuals and communities that had told me their stories with open hearts.
What's the strangest piece of advice you've been given as a writer?
One of the best pieces of advice but also odd in a way was something that came for me as very reassuring.
“You would never start a book if you knew what it would be.”
What are you working on now?
Im working on a children’s picture story book about the adventures of my dog Tigon which will be illustrated by Alison Lester. I am also writing a young adults version of On the Trail Of Genghis Khan for 10-14 year olds.
What do you love about libraries?
In a world of Twitter and internet which often feels like the art of distraction, libraries offer sanctuaries of deep thought and uninterrupted voyaging of the mind.