Interview with Paul Brown

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The View From Here Interview:
Paul Brown

Paul Brown is the author of 9 factual books, primarily covering environmental subjects. He worked for The Guardian newspaper for 24 years, the last 16 as their environment correspondent. He has met with numerous eminent politicians and scientists, attended climate change conferences and travelled to some of the world’s most remote places, including Antarctica. Although he left The Guardian in 2005 he still writes a weekly column in between travelling the world educating other journalists and continuing his campaign to raise awareness of global warming. His 2006 book Global Warning The Last Chance for Change was a best seller in the United States. He is currently writing his first novel.

How long did it take you to put Global Warning together?
I was invited by Lucky Dissanayake of Dakini publishing to write Global Warning because I’d written so much for the Guardian and she felt this kind of treatment, with lots of pictures, would attract lots of people. She employed researchers who asked me who to contact and what to do and they did all the picture researching and we got about three and half thousand pictures. I went through hundreds and hundreds of pictures. But writing is second nature to me so it was no problem to write. I’ve been writing about climate change for 15 years or so and been to all the meetings and understood all the politics of it. The only section I had to do quite a bit of research on was the last few chapters when I looked at the latest technologies and looked at where they had got to; whether they were viable or not. I think if someone who knew nothing about climate change had to sit down and research a book and write it you’d be looking at 3 or 4 years because it would take you that long to master the science. But if you’ve been writing about it everyday and attending the meetings and you know a huge numbers of politicians from all over the world already then you are really are just organizing yourself to write it down.

I noticed that you are produced your book to be carbon neutral. Could you explain a little bit more about that?
Yes. We used sustainable paper which was expensive but it avoided cutting down rainforests and it avoided doing what most publisher do which is shipping the whole lot out to china and back again. This actually speeded up the process because we had it printed in Europe. And therefore there was not a time delay in shipping it backward and forwards in containers across the world. But it was carbon neutral in the sense that we invested in various green technologies which otherwise wouldn’t have been invested in.

Given the power of how much people read on the Internet, do you think ebooks are the way to go?

Well I actually don’t read on the Internet. I work on the Internet and write on computers and refer to stuff on the Internet all the time but I regard reading as a recreation and so if I read something on the Internet I regard that as work. I do most of my reading in a sitting in an easy chair or on a train, plane or somewhere like that where it would be very difficult to tune into the Internet. I’m still reading my parents books and I don’t think my generation find reading stuff on the Internet fun whereas reading a book is fun.

You’ve written all factual books. Have you thought about crossing over into fiction?
Yes. My next book is going to be fiction. I always wanted to do fiction and when I was younger I wrote plays and had a couple of them performed but they weren’t very good; what I really wanted to do was write a novel.

Fiction is not always a natural crossover from journalism though is it?
No, and I don’t have much confidence in my ability to do this but I want to try to see if I can do it and it will be great if I can. But its fun writing. I’ve got so much stuff though I don’t think I could write it in one novel!

Is your novel going to be based on climate change?
Yes and no. It’s actually about nuclear power. I’ve been writing about nuclear power as part of my environmental brief. In fact, I started writing about nuclear power before I started writing about the environment. One of the most extraordinary things about nuclear power is every time you think it’s been killed off by an accident or clearly it’s not economically viable or something else happens and makes you think nobody in their right mind is going to invest in nuclear power, it arises like a phoenix from the ashes and gets an extraordinary number of people to support it. And there’s absolutely no rhyme or reason for that apart from that the fact it has huge political back up and trade union support. Politicians are in favour of mega projects because the consequences of making a bad decision will not be in their term of office.

That seems to be a big factor which I noticed you mentioned in Global Warning; how there has been a lot of talk by politicians but very little action.
Well, what you need to combat climate change is hundreds and hundreds of small actions which in is not what politicians are good at and I just wanted to try and tell in a novel form how this could have been using fictitious characters. I wrote a paper on Nuclear power about a year ago explaining why nuclear industry was such a bad idea and going through the history of it. I spent four months at Wolfson College, Cambridge as a visiting press fellow researching it and then writing it. In a way it was doing that which made me realise what a great novel it would make because so many of the decisions are completely unexplainable by logic.

How have you found writing characters and dialogue? Has it come naturally to you?

Well it’s very hard if you’ve been writing factual stuff - which comes second nature to me because I’ve been doing it for so long; I must have written millions of words. But when you come to write fiction it’s completely different. I mean, I can write sentences that make sense but whether it’s readable is altogether another matter. I think what I’m going to do is get my sternest critic, my wife, to read it and see what she thinks! But at the moment I think my biggest problem is making the characters come alive. I read an awful lot of novels but if a character doesn’t speak to me, if they’re a cardboard cut out, I lose interest in the thing. I have to identify with some of the main characters anyway or at least understand what makes them tick. I’ve just read one of the Dickens novels and part of it reduced me to tears and I thought "I’m going soft" but actually he’s a great novelist and you identify, you really care about those characters. What I’m trying to do at the moment is get the plot right, so that I can get the characters right. One of the things that happen in a newspaper office for example is that you have very short and pithy conversations - and I’m sure civil servants have very long and convoluted conversations. (Much laughter)

I suppose I’ve been rereading Dickens again to try and criticise the way he does it but also to see why he’s lasted so long and despite some of his failings people still like him and they’re are always on about his characters. The really best novels live with you - that’s why I think Dickens has survived and because he actually tells you about the morality of the age. He speaks of human nature and how it is and I think if you can approach that - then you’ve done well.

Is there someone you admire most, who you’ve taken inspiration from?
John Grisham. He has very original ways of starting books. You’re into the books straight away and there’s never a moment when there isn’t something happening; things are moving along at a great pace. I’ve read a lot of his books, although I began to think his characters were letting him down but I do like stories to move along. I like the idea of page turners.

So it’s not going to be like a Tom Clancy then – a nuclear industry techno thriller?
Oh no. It’s really about politics and partially the politics of newspapers because one of the things you must avoid in journalism, particularly as a specialist journalist, is getting a bee in your bonnet. I had to very careful not to get angry about nuclear power because it was seen as political and if you’re a journalist you can’t be political in that sense. You still have write in an objective fashion.

Do you think that was because you worked for The Guardian? If it was a paper like The Mail, who run campaigns, would it have been acceptable to be political?

In a way in that’s slightly more modern than it used to be. I think in the 80s and 90s campaigning on the newspapers was a lot less obvious. Now they sort of label it as a campaign. In those days you could write comment pieces so long as you were factually right but on the news pages you were supposed to tell it straight. If your anger showed through that was bad. But it was a very interesting discipline to be told you couldn’t do that and I think those kind of politics in newspapers are interesting and you can relate that to politics of government and how it all works with people warning each other off.

In Global Warning I couldn’t believe that 60+ companies had in effect taken backhanders to disparage climate change science; it was like something out of a Robin Cook novel.
But the truth is at least as strange as fiction, if not more so.

Is there any moment in your travels or your journalistic career that has particularly stood out?
I went to the Antarctic to somewhere where very few, if any, people had been before. I was with the crew of a Greenpeace ship and I thought I would go and sit in a penguin colony to see what it was like. I was on the edge of the colony and they had never seen human beings before and so they were a bit nervous of me. They probably thought I was a very large penguin! So I sat down on the ice, absolutely still. They came closer and closer to me and nudged me with their beaks to see if I would move and when I moved they all leapt back like children. Then I sat still again and then they crept forward to nudge me again and this went on for about half an hour or so. And they were just not frightened of me at all. You know, everywhere else you are on the planet things run away from you because human beings are bad for them but in the Antarctic things are just curious about you because are just another animal; you’re not a threat so they don’t run away. That was the most extraordinary experience. Finding out why animals run away from you is pretty salutary experience.

A second part to this interview where Paul discusses climate change can be found at The Witty Ways of a Wayward Wife.

1 comment:

Ian said...

He will know he's mastered the art of characterization when a minor character comes alive, starts to lead a life of his or her own and tries to change the plot.