Wednesday, June 30, 2010

AJ Mackinnon on his new book The Well at the World's End

AJ Mackinnon, author of the bestselling The Unlikely Voyage of Jack de Crow, has just released his second book The Well at the World's End.  We to talk to him about his new book.

The Well at the World’s End is about your travels from New Zealand to the Scottish island of Iona, what made you want to travel to Iona?

Ever since I first visited Iona as a 19 year old, the place has held a spell over me. In the book, I tell the story of bathing in the Well of Eternal Youth there, a little mountain spring with a long magical tradition, and how I mis-read the instructions in the old guide book and got it wrong. Ten years later, when I wanted to set off travelling from Australia and have adventures, it seemed a good goal to aim for - to go back and to the little enchanted island of Iona and visit the Well of Eternal Youth and do it properly this time. But even had there been no well, Iona is the sort of place that has a World's End feel to it. It is very reminiscent of all those old Celtic fairy tales where a traveller comes literally to the last shore, the place where a voyager sets out from in a magic coracle or barge, off to find the Land of Tir nan Og or the Blessed Realm. It is right on the border between mortal and fairy lands, the Uttermost West. It makes the perfect place to strive for.

You travel by land, sea, truck, train, horse and yacht – why didn’t you fly?

The answer to this goes back to something I've written in an earlier book, a bit about loving Doctor Dolittle as a child, and especially the fact that all his adventures seemed so simple, as he would set out in a little ship and just bump into places. I've always been convinced that flying has robbed travel of its true adventure. It is very convenient, very fast but very soulless as well... and terribly seductive. Once you buy into the air-route, it is very hard to get away from it again. Aeroplanes lead to airports which introduce you to more planes which deposit you at more airports... and even when these allow you to escape from the immediate loop, you find yourselves on shuttle buses to city hotels, lined with information counters and racks full of tour brochures... all of which offer a safe and easy return via shuttle bus back to the airport again. It is very easy to think that you are really seeing a country because all those airports and hotels have souvenir shops with Zulu woodcarvings or painted didgeridoos or Beefeater dolls... and before you know it, you have 'travelled' the world and never been more than 80 metres from a Tie Rack or a travelator.

Besides, the old guide book on Iona said, 'Pilgrims must come by land and by sea to find the Well of Eternal Youth,' and as I'd promised I'd do things properly this time, I forbade myself from flying.

You find yourself in some interesting situations on this trip, like the time you were chased by Komodo dragons. Were there moments on your travels when you found yourself in situations that made you wonder why you’d set out on this trip in the first place?

It was never the dangerous moments that made me question what I was doing. Those bits, even in the heat of the moment, invariably made me realise more than ever that this was exactly why I had done it this way. It is all to do with the power of story. I read the work of some scientist who said that the story-telling urge is so strong in human beings, and so important in having driven our evolution, that our scientific name really should be Pan Narrans - the story telling ape. (The idea is that making stories is really the process of trying to find cause and effect in random events, and this is the same process that drives our scientific minds and develops our brains. In stories, all the facts have to be relevant and contribute to the outcome - so too, any scientific theory as to what makes the thunder rumble or why a particle behaves as it does has to tie in with all the observable facts.) Anyway, if this is true, then I am pure ape with not much else in the mix. If something happens to me that can contribute to a good story to tell my friends later, then it is pure gold and worth all the danger or discomfort. It was only the long
periods of inactivity that made me question why I was doing things the hard way. In any travel, there are enormously long and tedious periods of sitting around waiting, or idle, discontented evenings of loneliness in city hotel rooms... and this trip was no exception. But for starters, these things don't make good telling so don't really make it into the book, and secondly, going back to the point about not flying, it is far nicer to spend three hours waiting on a sunny dockside in the Bay of Islands for a late yacht, or sitting under a flap of a tent in the Sahara Desert for a horse to be caught and broken in, than to sit in yet another airport lounge mishearing annoying announcements and wondering whether a fourth cup of Gloria Jeans coffee might be warranted.

Who is the most memorable character that you met on this trip?

I met a number of people who were memorable for the wrong reasons. Alec the psychotic skipper was unforgettable for his unpredictability and scariness, as were the Chinese policemen who arrested me and spent three days questioning me. But to balance these were some truly saintly people. Les McLeod, the long-suffering and infinitely patient skipper of a yacht that I lived on for five weeks in New Zealand not going anywhere, was one of the nicest people I have ever met. I was so incompetent in helping him with a paint job that he ended up repainting a section of the deck FIVE times to amend my botched work, and in all this never said anything but the warmest words of praise in his soft Yorkshire accent, commending me on my enthusiasm, my creativity, my flair, my doggedness... all the nicest euphemisms possible for my total bloody incompetence in getting the paint to go where it should and not all over the ropes, the portholes, my shoes, our washing and his sandwiches. Another favourite were the American yachting family, the Flying Dolphins, who took me into their hearts and lives as we sailed through the Indonesian archipelago. Still twenty years on, we still remain friends and I have visited them in the States on a number of occasions, most recently last year. The two children, Peter and Heath, are now grown up into lovely young adults, but I remember them still as beautiful children - adventurous, warm, avid for learning, wide-eyed when I told them a story or showed them some origami or taught them something extraordinary about mathematics or mazes. They were the best pupils I ever had, young Arthurs to my would-be Merlyn. But I am getting carried away...

What was your favourite part of the trip?

A hard question, but the highlights were probably the sailing through Indonesia and later my adventures up through Laos. This was back when very few western travellers made it into Laos and travel was very restricted. A lot of my travelling was done on foot along jungle roads through the mountains, and there were clouds of butterflies everywhere. The people of the villages I passed through were astonishingly gentle and kind, a little awed by seeing someone so different from themselves, and vying with each other to offer me hospitality for the night. This was the time I felt most like some 18th century traveller seeing the wonders of the world, especially when travelling up fierce rivers in tiny sampans and seeing great caverns carved into temples up remote gorges, lit by thousands of candles and with a glimpse of a golden Buddha deep in the recesses. I wonder if even today, travellers ever get to see these hidden treasures.

Do you have another adventure that you’re planning to set off on soon?

This is the commnest question that I get asked. I simply don't know. My past adventures have always been fairly spontaneous, with no great plans leading up to tem, so I imagine that if I do find myself off on another voyage, it will be a matter of being swept away again by the dwarves of adventure off to see Wilderland without even my hat or pocket handkerchief. However, next year I have arranged to take a year off work and live in my beautiful new house, just purchased, sitting right on a mountian trout river and with an acre of wonderful garden - plum trees, magnolias, candlebarks, apple trees, an oak, a corkscrew willow, and wide verandahs all around. The idea is to write another book but this time, a novel - something I've always wanted to do. I'm actually quite nervous about the prospect of doing this. True life travel books are one thing but a really good fictional story is another task altogether, and I'm not completely confident of being able to produce something worthwhile. This will also be a new experience for me in that it will be the first time of living settled in a house without my beloved students and a community of good colleagues at my doorstep, something I have always revelled in. Will I cope with the solitude and independence? But one thing that struck me the other day was this, and we have to go back yet again to Doctor Dolittle. Much as I loved the idea of Doctor Dolittle setting out on his travels, I also always loved the last paragraph of each book, his homecoming. After all the adventures, he always ended by coming up the lane and turning in at his own gate, unlocking the door with his own key and hanging his hat in the hall. In my past travels, this is something I've never had, as each voyage has been a stage to a new life abroad. But now, I love the thought of being able to go away on an adventure, knowing that I too have somewhere to come back to - a garden, a familiar stretch of river, a peaceful house, and my own desk waiting for me, to sit and write it all up for a new story to tell.

The Well at the World's End is available in all good bookstores.


  1. One of the greatest joys of reading is to meet a kindred soul in print, or if not, someone you feel a great affinity for. I read 'Jack de Crow' recently and am eagerly anticipating the new book. Sandy McKinnon is a treasure - one of those wonderful free spirits, imaginative, intelligent, well versed and slightly off-beat (loved the pith helmet). I wish there were more McKinnons in the world both writing and in life in general. Thanks and keep up the wonderful work. Kindest regards James G. (author "Tortured Tales of a Collingwood Tragic.")

  2. I loved the book. I felt like I was there with him the whole way to Iona. Beautifully written.
    " Exhilarating."

  3. A truly deft writing style, coming in somewhere between JRR Tolkein and Tim Moore, blurring the boundary of fantasy and foolhardiness with wit and self-deprecation. Great stuff!