In Conversation with William Dalrymple || Research, Writing, and Other Experiences

Posted by on Feb 26, 2015 in General Reading, Interviews | 17 comments

William Dalrymple, Vibha Malhotra, Interview, Return of a King, Writer, Author, Non-fiction Writer, Historian, Travel Writer

By Nomu420 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

It was a Friday afternoon and I had an appointment with William Dalrymple at his farm in Mehrauli at 3pm. When I arrived he was having lunch with some visitors and I was led to an office that opened out to a beautiful terrace. Upon being asked whether I would like to conduct the interview inside or outside, I chose outside. As I sat there waiting, I tried to figure out the species of various birds that were chirping in the trees in the backyard and tried to relax my nerves in the cool breeze. Yes, I admit I was nervous. But then I was meeting an author I respect a lot, someone who is obviously brilliant, and who, in spite of being British, probably knows more about my city, my country than I do.

But as soon as Mr Dalrymple came sailing out to the terrace, greeting me cheerfully from a distance, I relaxed. He seemed like someone I could talk to for hours. He eased himself into the cane chair opposite me and leaned back, ready to answer whatever questions I had for him. And soon we were discussing everything from his writing process, his books, his life in India, his experience of running the Jaipur Literature Festival, and what he plans to do next.

I learnt that he has very recently lost his pet cockatoo. But apart from that, his two dogs, who were both at a point during the interview sitting with their heads in my lap, and his several hens and roosters practically own the place.

Transcription of this interview was another story altogether. At times during the recording, the panting of the dogs, the chirping of the birds, and the cawing of the crows was louder than both of our voices, and I found myself having to play these bits 10 times, 15 times in order to understand what was being said. But this was a part of the whole deal of meeting Mr William Dalrymple and getting a tiny little peak into his eclectic world.

After a brief round of introductions, we eased into the conversation and soon were engrossed in the interview.

Vibha Malhotra (VM): To start with a fun question, of all the books you have written so far, which one did you have the most fun writing?
William Dalrymple (WD): God, none of them were fun to write. Writing is work. It is hard work. It is like an exam. They were, however, all fun to research. Reserach is really the most enjoyable part. You are out travelling, seeing things, but writing is work, certainly.

VM: Talking of research, writing of your books involves looking through old manuscripts, diaries, and documents. Especially where the Government Agencies are involved, how difficult is it to gain access to these documents?
WD: Where the Government of India is concerned, there are several ropes that you have to jump over, but the process is really quite standard. To get to work in the National Archives, there are various stipulations. You have to have a degree. If you are a foreigner, you have to have a letter from the Embassy. If you are a desi, you have to have a letter from an academic institution or a publisher. And you have to provide an introduction, and the reasons you are doing it, and the plan. Then there’s an interview and if you get past that, you can use the archives. The government is really quite straightforward. It is like getting an accreditation for a newspaper or starting a business or getting a license for various government stipulations.

National Archives is always full of researchers. Most of them are from JNU and Delhi University, but you get a big range of international researchers too. In history books, the key, I think, is to get access to sources that are non-English. The English sources are usually quite well-known because there are copies of most of them in India Office in London or in other Archives. Like for White Mughals, getting access to Persian sources in Hyderabad from the Andhra Pradesh State Archives; for The Last Mughal, getting the mutiny papers at the National Archives; and for Return of a King, getting all the Afghan sources out of Afghanistan — those in the sense were the game changing moments, whereby you had something new to say. Because a subject like 1857 has been written about many times before. You can take a new angle and you can arguably write it better than someone else, but at the end of the day if you are just using the same sources that other people have used, there is nothing new for you to say. So half the battle with History books is getting the new sources that no one else has read, so you can get a whole new angle to the story from them.

VM: Do you think that getting access to these sources here in India is at the same time easy and difficult when compared to, say, london?
WD: It is interesting comparing this to the India Office in London. The primary repository of Indian material in London is the old India Office Archives, which is now a part of the British Library. The India Office in London is totally state of the art. It is kept in state of the art condition, but it doesn’t open till 10. If you don’t come back for the resource for 2-3 days, it goes back into the archives, from where it has to be retrieved again. And the office closes at 5, so you have to start giving back materials at 4:30. If you have an hour’s lunch break between 1 and 2, you actually have only four hours to get your work done there. The Delhi Archives, which is less state of the art, the materials are kept without air-conditioning in most cases, often stuff goes missing, the reading room itself is swarming with mosquitoes, very hot in summer, and sometimes very cold in winter, horrible urinal, and that kind of stuff, nonetheless, is open at 9 o’clock and stays open till 8 o’clock in the evening, and you can do twice as much work in Delhi Archives than you can in London. I race along much quicker in Delhi Archives. Also you can keep the material practically indefinitely on reserve. So if you are working through a large volume of material, you can come in next day at 9 o’clock and get back to work at it.Certainly, technically the Western Archives are more state of the art but often they are more restrictive — they won’t let you touch the material, or you have to hold it at a distance. So it can be very difficult to use in case of rare material. And India in its own chaotic ways is in a sense quite user-friendly. In general, in that Indian way it is charming, chaotic, helpful, and friendly.

VM: What about the atmosphere. Do you feel welcome there?
WD: In the Delhi Archives? Yes, sure. I mean it is a government institution and it is like visiting any other government institution. You have to do your time drinking chai with the babus, make friends, and if you don’t do that, they can make life difficult for you. [Laughs] So you are always in the position of the petitioner in front of the government agencies. But that’s fine and in the end of the day, I would probably prefer working here to London simply because you get twice as much done. Also the London one is always full of friends and I find myself chatting away to people.

VM: So the productivity goes down?
WD: The productivity goes way down. You get there, you chat, you have a lunch break and then then suddenly it is 5 o’ clock.

VM: I read somewhere that when you feel that you have peaked in a particular form of writing, you like to leave it at that and start with something different.
WD: Yes, that is true. That is definitely true. I felt that From the Holy Mountain was as good as I could do with a narrative travel book, and I have not done any straightforward long journey books since then. At the moment I am trying to find a new way to do an art history book and that is what I am battling with. It is oddly difficult to write about art. It is an aesthetic experience and is often quite difficult to put into words. So I am trying to reinvent myself again.

VM: So does that mean that you are done with the history books and you will probably never come back to them again?
WD: History books are slightly different. Each history book is about a different subject, so is unique. But travel books can often be very alike if you don’t watch out. And it is particularly the travel books that I try to keep finding new ways of doing. Nine Lives is a completely different sort of book when compared to From the Holy Mountain or City of Djinns. Actually all of them are quite different to each other.

VM: Your latest history book Return of a King has been really well received.
WD: Return of a King is the most successful of my three history books internationally. Less so in India. Because I think Indians really want to read about India. [Laughs] My most successful book in India is Nine Lives.

VM: In context of Return of a King, the striking parallels between the way the British re-established Shah Shuja ul-Mulk on the throne of Afghanistan in the 19th century and the way Hamid Karzai was established as the President of Afghanistan and what followed in both the cases have been discussed a lot. Is there any other aspect of the book that you wish had been discussed more?
WD: Well, I think the contemporary parallels spoke for themselves. It did not require a huge amount of amplification. But I don’t think anyone realized that Shah Shuja and Karzai were both chiefs of the same tribe, the Popalzai tribe, and that both were brought down by their rival tribe that were the Ghilzai. I don’t think this basic fact made it into the media before the book came out. That said, the parallels are obvious. A Western force goes into Afghanistan, wins an initial victory and then there is a slow attrition because of which they lose more and more control of the country until eventually they pull out. The parallels are obvious and you don’t need to push too hard to establish them.

VM: So you think what is happening now with the American troupes is similar to what happened to the British troupes in the 19th century in Afghanistan?
WD: It is. There hasn’t been a catastrophic moment like the 1841 retreat, the famous moment when only one man made it to Jalalabad, but almost as little has been gained. Already most of the rural areas in Afghanistan are under Taliban’s control. Huge amounts of money have been spent by the Americans, enormous amounts of money. You could have built a state of the art hospital and University in every town of Afghanistan, and given every Afghan a land cruiser for the cost of the weaponry that has been blown up in Afghanistan over the last 10 years. If you literally just wrote an open cheque to every Afghan for 20,000 dollars it would have been cheaper. Modern weaponry is incredibly expensive. A Daisy cutter costs as much as a hospital. Even a single shot from an M-16 rifle costs 10 dollars. These things are not cheap. Enormous amounts of money has been spent on weaponry in the very poorest country of the world.

VM: Isn’t this true for human beings everywhere in both big and small ways? We are spending most of our money where we shouldn’t?
WD: Yeah. There are many better things to be spending our money on. Exactly. That said, the Taliban were sheltering Al Qaeda, who were a very dangerous force. And clearly something needed to be done after 9/11. The tragedy is that there is so much that could have been done in Afghanistan, that wasn’t. The defeat of the Taliban was so total in 2001 that with different policies and more outreach, and if we hadn’t got involved in the whole Iraq debacle, much more could have been achieved than has been.

VM: Coming back to writing, I read in one of your interviews that you take quite a bit of time to write a book.
WD: Each book is a five year project, in which the writing bit is the last 18 months. Research is the first three years. It is like university. In my case, the first three years are about having fun; the fourth year is when the work starts, and you are like “Christ, I have exams next year!”, and you spend the whole of the final year studying in the library.

And it can be excruciating when it goes wrong. It is terrible agony to be half-way through the book and know that what you have written isn’t good enough yet. It is a mess. And it always is a mess. You have to start with something and then you refine it, refine it, refine it, until it is good. It is like chipping out a diamond out of a mine. You start out with something very rough, but end up with something that is glistening, with perfect structure. But it doesn’t start off like that. Sculpting is also the same. You start off with a block of marble and start knocking out the bad bits.

VM: After such a long slog, how does it feel when you are about to finish a book?
WD: When you start writing a book, it’s like riding up into the Himalayas. It is hard work and it gets more and more difficult. You are climbing up. And then at some point you reach the top. And then comes the final bit of the book, when you are into the book, you are living in it. You know where it is going. Also you reach a kind of mental fitness when you are finishing a book. It allows you to do 5,000 words a day or 4,000 words a day, while in the beginning you were only able to do 500. It’s like being an Olympic athlete. As you train harder for the Olympics, you can run farther, faster than possibly you were able to when you started training. And it is a huge pleasure when you put the final full stop into the book. Because it feels like your exams are over. Then you go out and party. Crack open a bottle of Champagne.

But the work is not yet done. Almost all of them then need heavy edits for 2-3 months after I complete writing. Then there is refining, and then some more refining. One thing I have learnt as a writer is that no writer, however brilliant, writes brilliantly. What happpens is they write and then they refine it. The best writers refine it further. It’s like starting with very crude sugar. You refine it and refine it until it becomes the perfect white sugar. It is from this refining and the willingness to carry on refining, keep re-writing, doing more and more drafts, that great writing comes from. It’s not that the writers one loves the most are great geniuses who take dictation from angels. There are exceptions like Leo Tolstoy and Shakespeare (who is a different story altogether). But otherwise the writers that write the best prose are the ones that rewrite the most.

VM: Considering this, which of your books did you find the most difficult to write?
WD: The best one, which is also the one that I am the most proud of — From the Holy Mountain. It was the book I had the most difficulty to begin with. It wouldn’t come in focus at all. It was a total mess to begin with. It took a full 18 months writing that book. But my readers often tell me that it is their favorite one. In Xanadu was very difficult because it was my first book. First books are always difficult. City of Djinns took a long time too. Age of Kali was a quickie. White Mughals took forever. I think probably in terms of writing, The Last Mughal might have been the easiest, because it is a very clear story. It is very clear how one thing followed another. And that clarity made it the easiest book to write.

VM: And after all this hard work when your book receives even one harsh criticism…
WD: I received a couple of harsh critiques for the first one, which was also incidentally an immediate success. In Xanadu was very much a young man’s book. It’s very brash, funny, silly book by a 21-year-old and like any first book it is very frilled. So it got one or two very wounding reviews. And I can remember them word for word to this day. They are scarred on my heart somewhere. [Laughs] After I die, they will probably find the two bad reviews for In Xanadu, the two killer reviews, branded on my heart. I had a friend who just brought out her first book and she has got wonderful reviews, except for one very cruel one in The Guardian. It is an important paper and it matters what kind of review it gives you. I told her that you will remember this 30 years later. Because you forget the good reviews, but you will remember that one horrible review for the rest of your life. We’ve all had them. They are branded on us forever.

VM: You have written a bit about the pre-Mughal period in India in the City of Djinns. Do you plan to write about it in more details?
WD: I am already doing so. I spent most of last year writing about Ajanta. I have done a lot of work on the early caves of Ajanta and I am very interested in the early Buddhist period. I am slightly Mughalled out at the moment and I have been writing a lot about the other periods of Indian history. I have just written an essay on the Gupta period and how culture radiated out of India to Afghanistan and Central Asia and South East Asia during that period. I’ll also be working on Alchi, one of the oldest Buddhist monastry in the Himalayas. Not with any overall plan but just out of interest. And I am longing to write a bit more about Ancient India.

VM: You have mentioned earlier that there are hardly any written records of that period. How do you intend to go about it in that case?
WD: What I will be writing is mainly art history and there is obviously a huge amount of art history. Ajanta is fantastic, and then there are Bagh Caves and Alchi Caves. There’s an awful lot of material, oddly enough, from 11th and 12th century Kashmir. Alchi, although it is a part of modern Ladakh, is actually a monument of Kashmiri Art. So I am particularly into art history at the moment. I have been writing a lot of it. It is difficult. It is very difficult because you know you fall in love with something aesthetically and it pleases you visually, but trying to express that in words is a different story altogether.

VM: I am talking from the point of view of someone who doesn’t have as deep an understanding of art. Do you think your art history books will still appeal to your regular readers. Or will these books be aimed for a different set of readers?
WD: I hope not. I don’t think so. So far I have managed to carry my readership with me and they tend to go from one book to another without too much difficulty. I definitely write for a general readership rather than for specialists. I have written for specialists as well but as a writer I survive on my general readers and if I don’t take them with me, I can’t pay for petrol or feed my kids, or educate them. Unlike an academic, who is paid for by a university or a publisher, I live or die, I am taking my readers with me. It is obviously very important that someone likes what I write.

VM: I would definitely look forward to these books, books about Ancient Indian Art that I can understand.
WD: I think in certain cases it does take a foreigner to show what’s wonderful about a country. The best books about Scottish history are written by a man from Canada called John Pebble. With an outsider’s eye, you sometimes notice things that people brought up in a country do not notice anymore, because its too ordinary for them, too everyday, and also may be not so interesting. If you are brought up with something, it has no exotic allure.

VM: Coming to Scotland. It is ethereally beautiful, it is surreal. So living there and then coming to and settling in the cacophony of Delhi…
WD: You see, I live in a different Delhi. [Laughs, and as if on cue, birds start chirping louder and a cool breeze starts blowing] India has some of the most beautiful landscapes in the world, in Kashmir, the Ghats, Goa, Kerala. These are beautiful places. I don’t feel I miss Scotland particularly. The weather in Scotland is terrible most of the year, and in India it’s nice. But I still go back. I have a house in London. My family lives in Scotland. And so I am in Scotland quite a lot in June, July, and August, and occasionally also during New Year. So I do get my Scottish fix. I get as much as I need, I think. But Delhi is really home now. This is where I have lived most of my adult life.

VM: I read somewhere in one of your interviews that “a lot of your work is a chastening read if you are a Brit.” But what about you as a writer? Do you find it difficult to accept some of these facts that you write about. How difficult is it for you to look at it objectively?
WD: I grew up in Scotland, not England. And my nanny who was my primary carer when I was growing up was Irish and used to take me to the library to read about the potato famine, Culloden, and the wickedness of the Red Coats, while my father was obviously all about establishment… Sword of Honour…Sandhurst. So I grew up with an awareness that were different ways of seeing the world, and particularly colonial history. I think of the Culloden, the destruction of the Scottish Clans, the conquest of Scotland, the subjugation of Ireland, which is quite a good position to come to writing Imperial history from. So I have always been aware of the duality of history, of many different ways of looking at it, different accounts, different versions. And that there are good people and bad people on both the sides of any struggle. Just because someone wears a particular uniform or flies a particular flag doesn’t mean that he is a villain or a hero. Every individual has to be looked at individually. Every time one of my history books comes out, it works in both England and in India. It isn’t that Brits take a huge offence over what I write. Modern British also understand that there were many things about building the Empire that were horrific and involved massive abuse of human rights.

So I think it is just getting the balance right. Even I get irritated when I read the ultra-nationalist Indian History that said that every Brit who came here was a vile bastard who raped women and abused men. I mean give us a break. This is not historically accurate. And equally I get irritated when I read one of those imperial revisionists who talk about how British empire was wonderful, brought civilization to darkness, while I think it is the opposite. I mean look at the Mughals, look at the Guptas, look at Ajanta. What did we have that they didn’t? So I think my position both as an insider as well as an outsider here is very useful particularly when I am writing history.

VM: Taking this a little forward, when these books come out and you are a Brit who has written about Indian History, what kind of reactions do you get from Indian readers? Do you get some that aren’t too warm?
WD: With the books I have had very little trouble. They have mostly been very warmly received here and I have sold more copies here than I have sold in England. It wasn’t the case with Return of a King, but The Last Mughal and Nine Lives have both sold more copies in India than in Britain. Running the Jaipur Literature Festival, however, has been more challenging because suddenly you are in the position of authority. You are a white man running an Indian show and sometimes part of running the festival is turning some people down. You cannot have everyone on stage each year. So occassionally you do have to take decisions to promote one author over another. And then suddenly you are white guy deciding the fate of an Indian. And that sometimes rings Indian alarm bells, and understandably so, after 300 years of colonial history.

Many people understand that authors are independent, particularly once you have proven yourself with works which are balanced, which have a readership in both the countries. But occasionally people who haven’t read your work think that you are flying up the Union Jack and shouting “God Save the Queen.” But anyone who has read my books knows that they are not like that and in fact they are very, very different. So Jaipur Literature Festival has been more complicated and it is the only thing I have done that has generated a knee-jerk imperialist reaction, and I understand it. This was a country which was under colonialism for a long time and some people do take offence that a white guy should be running something. But again in the modern age, the East Anglia writing course is run by Amit Chaudhari, PEN New York was run by Salman Rushdie. I am one of the three people who run Jaipur Literature Festival and it seems to be working, so I don’t think too much about it. I have lived here. I have given my life to this country.

VM: I am sure a lot of people do appreciate that.
WD: They do. Most of them do. Anyone who’s been there does. But seen from the outside…One of the problems we have with Jaipur Literature Festival is that the press are often only interested in celebrities. And therefore people who do not go to the festival and just read about it in the newspapers assume we just invite Amitabh Bachchan and Aamir Khan and Rahul Dravid and therefore come to a conclusion that it is not such a serious literary affair. But anyone who goes there knows that the event is choc-a-block with Nobel Prize Winners, Booker Prize winners, the greatest Indian Poets and Thinkers of our times, and obviously it is now the biggest literary festival in the world, which is a measure of its success. But again I can understand someone who has never been there misunderstanding it from the press reports. The press reports are often very basic. Rahul Dravid gets huge crowd, and this time yet we had Sonam Kapoor.

VM: Do you think there’s a way around the kind of representation the festival gets in media?
WD: Not really. India has a very small group of really good literary journalists – Nilanjana Roy, Pankaj Mishra, Chandrahas Choudhury. In the first revision there are only about 10 top class critics that come to mind. And at the festival we have about 900 press personnel, which means that a lot of them are not going to be aware of who the latest Booker Prize Winner is or who the new big name in literary non-fiction is, and therefore will not be terribly excited when they get to know that Eleanor Catton, who won the Man Booker Prize 2013, is here, so it may not get reported. But they would have heard of Rahul Dravid.

VM: Now that the Jaipur Literature Festival is the biggest literary festival in the world, what are the next steps?
WD: Well, I don’t think any of us have any wish to grow it really. It is already too big for its premises and we don’t want to move, so we are very happy just carrying on. And the next steps are really to refine it. In particular, we had rain this year, which caused chaos one day, so my priority is to get some water-proofing sorted out. And just keeping up the quality of the programme, so each year making sure that we are getting the greatest writers in the world, the best new writers in the world, and are on the lookout for hot new talent, and finding out good writers who have been unjustly neglected. We are obviously doing something right. In eight years we have come from 14 people to over a quarter of a million people.

VM: Yes, for sure. And congratulations on that, and wish you the best with art history.
WD: Thank you.

And then it was time to leave. One hour had seemed really short. I guess this is what happens when you are in interesting company. With some people you wish they would go on talking so that you can absorb a fraction of the knowledge they have acquired through years of hard work. As I found my way out of his farmhouse, dodging the hens and the dogs, I was acutely aware that this has been an enlightening, educating, and slightly overwhelming experience for me. One that will stay with me for a long time to come, for sure.


  1. Great interview, Vibha! Thanks. Particularly liked William’s comment: “…no writer, however brilliant, writes brilliantly. What happpens is they write and then they refine it. The best writers refine it further.” So true!

  2. Very interesting interview. Thankyou for this. I shall share it with fellow writers.

    • Thanks Catherine! I am glad you enjoyed reading this. And thanks for sharing it.

  3. Enjoyed reading this interview.It was very informative, thanks for sharing.

  4. Hi Vibha,

    What a great insight into his process.His position as a white writer in India is an interesting one. As a white writer in South Africa – although having Hottentot ancestors – I could particularly understand where he’s coming from. Thank you for a wonderful article.


    • Thanks for your wonderful comment, Cari. I am glad you liked the interview.

  5. Really enjoyed reading this interview. Congratulation Vibha on the wonderful post.

  6. Wonderful interview! Mr D is truly a unique personality, a man full of enthusiasm who can tell a story. It comes through even in his conversation here. Having been to the festival I agree with everything he says here about it: the great discussions, the crowds, the press, their pre-occupation with celebrities and the problem of unexpected rains. It is wonderful to see that Mr. Dalrymple hasn’t lost his sense of humour dealing with it year after year. Now that is an achievement.

    • I agree with you Suman. He is an incredible human being. A true inspiration.

  7. Great interview, Vibha M.

    I got introduced to WD while I was in Edinburgh and met him a few years ago when my novel ‘Ghosts of Arasur’ was shortlisted for Crossword award; WD’s Last Mughal was shortlisted for that year’s non-ficion award and won it. I remember he mentioning about how he takes up writing a book as a project, always process-driven yet with a willingness to re-invent the process itself.

    You have captured it all in your writing. Thanks.

  8. Very nice interview, I liked it very much.

  9. Hi vibha it’s amazing to interview with him. Please do me a favour.I’m research scholar and my topic is”representation of indian history and culture in selected works of William dalrymple.” So plz tell me how could I find his address and email address.if u have give it to me on my email address.

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