We tracked down issue eight author Robert Karl Harding in Vietnam to find out where life has recently taken him.
I read that you travel to a lot of tea regions and blog about different types of teas. Can you tell us more about that passion?
I was travelling in India in the January of 2006. It was a juncture in life. I was out of step with the UK there. It occurred to me, rather belatedly, that Asia had a lot to offer beyond the usual tourist experience. China was already interesting me, and India produced most of the tea I had drunk since a child. So India was relaxed and grew tea. I was also ready to leave the UK for long periods to refresh myself. In fact, I was looking for a home without realising it. All the places I enjoyed staying—China, Vietnam, Indonesia—grew tea too.
The variety of teas in the world seem to be endless. Mostly I was finished with coffee and beer, and tea seemed to be only good for you. Right now I have twenty Vietnamese teas here in my apartment, and I grow tea on the patio. Tea-producing countries also tend to be tropical, and this suits me very well. In fact, in a matter of weeks, I am opening a small company selling fine teas from here in Vietnam.
At the same time, the UK was becoming a difficult place to write. Just from practical points of view of money and time. The struggle for money obliterated writing time. Southern Vietnam is a place where I can write almost without interruption. The people are Buddhist and no one judges how you spend your time. So here I can feel the good weather, drink tea, eat fresh food, and, most importantly, write.
Do the places you travel drive the writing you’re working on? Any pieces on your plate at the moment?
Yes and no. Travel generates excitement and passion that for me doesn’t translate into work directly reflecting a foreign culture. For me that comes after a longer period. That is to come I think. What travel does for me is reflect the possible worlds that are being lived in at the very moment we clock on at work in Canterbury or Reading. The energy for writing comes from the psychic interface between everyday life and exotic possibility.
Even when I began travelling at nineteen—Lake Como in Italy—I found myself writing at the same time. When I freed myself from my career in 2011 I had a number of stories and poems published in the UK. But it was time to travel more extensively. Recently I lived in south India for six months, and now I have been in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam for a year. At some point soon these will become a setting for writing of one kind or another.
Right now, I am clearing the decks for the editing of my second novel, Cape Wrath which is already written in first draft. The first novel, Made In England, was with a London agent for eighteen months. They asked me to edit the whole novel. I was travelling in Western China at the time. They wanted it in a month. Tough to respond in that time and context. And they didn’t go with it in the end. Writing is about disappointment as well as moments of joy. And you wonder why you subject yourself to its processes. But I constantly have ideas and short stories emerge regularly. It seems I have no choice.
It takes some time to get established in a new culture, but a novella, Bad Country, set in East London and Brighton awaits the second draft as do a number of short stories.
Your short story ‘He’s a Bull’ does a beautiful job of setting contrasting scenes and characters right up against one another—and to great effect. Do you think that ability in your writing has been inspired by your travels?
You are very kind.
The travels that informed ‘He’s a Bull’ are a different kind of travel. ‘He’s a Bull’ partially responded to the social travels that one can embark upon by changing careers and pushing without cease. I was an administrator then a schoolteacher, college lecturer, university lecturer, think tank guy, and research fellow. During that time I went from updating databases to advising a minister, albeit with a professor there to guide me. So I travelled, like a race horse, with blinkers on, hoping for something but not sure what, for fifteen years. You meet a lot of people doing that, and there is an unseen building of pressure on the psychic level. And that has to tell.
At one point I had met enough people who had climbed metaphorical towers. Some had fallen. That’s when ‘He’s a Bull’ emerged.
Travel does open up the big picture for me. And characters you meet abroad are often a little bit larger than life. Out of context they smash around making more noise or sometimes a lot less. They allow for a useful distillation of what an interesting character may be. Travel eases one into creating narratives and drawing vibrant, often oppositional, characters into each other’s spheres. Mine tend to be philosophers of one kind or another, and they have the potential to be explosive. That’s where the life is for me in drawing up a story.
And lastly, I have to ask [I’m from Wisconsin myself—Online Ed.] about the Schlitz beer reference that shows up in your story. I thought only people within a thirty-mile radius of Milwaukee knew about Schlitz. Do you have a Wisconsin connection?
Someone I know is an anesthetist, and for a while they worked in Milwaukee. They told me about the incredible winter cold. Schlitz is a beer I had once, as a student in Cambridge I think, but I like the associations the name carried… there was something cool about it. I have the unfortunate ability to almost photographically remember some things and absent-mindedly forget many other more useful and practical things. Schlitz was in the former category. I could remember the significance to me of a beer name but not the hideously morphing overdraft I had at the time. The name Schlitz had the ability to send me to the American Midwest and a world I had no experience of. The world of Raimi’s A Simple Plan was available through one simple name, Schlitz: a continental world of snow, banality, bleakness and entrapment. Also I’m sure that Wisconsin is a nice place too because The Fonz lived there.
For me Schlitz beer worked perfectly inside that privileged setting of a West London garden in ‘He’s A Bull’.
Thanks very much for asking me those questions.