For a young journalist, meeting someone like Simon Winchester is a goal often imagined yet rarely realized. A former foreign correspondent for many of the world’s top newspapers, including The Guardian, Winchester has made a seamless transition into becoming a New York Times best-selling author.
On Nov. 1, Winchester embarked on a tour in celebration of the paperback release of his best-selling book, Atlantic: Great Sea Battles, Heroic Discoveries, Titanic Storms, and a Vast Ocean of a Million Stories, with a stop in Charleston scheduled for Tues. Nov. 8 at the Charleston Library Society. The book is a biography of our Oceanic neighbor, exploring its great history, from its geological origins to the epic expeditions that crossed that vast space, through the World Wars and up to today.
Winchester and I found ourselves in the same place at the same time shortly before the tour began — New York City — so he invited me to stop by the Standard Hotel’s Highline Ballroom, where he was set to participate in a Council of Literary Magazine and Presses’ annual spelling bee, competing against the likes of disgraced memoirist James Frey.
“I grew up on the Atlantic. I went to school on the Atlantic,” he said, while the literary elite mingled around us. A native of London, Winchester was raised in Dorset on the southwest coast of England. “Before I discovered I was red-green colorblind, I wanted to go join the navy. But I couldn’t, so I’m sort of a frustrated sailor. And then I crossed the Atlantic when I was 18 years old, coming to this country to go hitchhiking around, and then I have flown over it hundreds of times since.”
The author of The Man Who Loved China: The Fantastic Story of the Eccentric Scientist Who Unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle Kingdom and The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary, Winchester was ready to start researching another book when he came across the idea of writing about his beloved ocean in a moment of pure inspiration. “It occurred to me one day while sitting on an airplane, looking at this great gray expanse rolling underneath, that it was actually more than the expanse of time. You know, we just wanted to get it over with to get to New York or wherever we were going,” he says. “The Atlantic’s a nuisance, and it was called the pond. Actually, it’s an incredibly romantic ocean that I remember from my childhood, and it’s an incredibly important ocean, so why not write a book about it?”
Winchester’s background as a geologist comes into play in the book, but he switched gears to become a journalist early on in his career.
“It’s a weird story,” he says. “It involved me living in Uganda, which is where I was a geologist, and reading a book called Coronation Everest by a man called James Morris. It was his account of going on the expedition of ’53, which got to the top.”
Winchester remembered hearing about the successful expedition as a child and found himself completely enthralled by the book. “I wrote to him and said, ‘Can I be you? I’m a geologist but not a very good one.’ He wrote back and said, ‘Yes. If I were you, the day you get this letter, resign, come back to Britain, and join a local newspaper.'”
Of course, Winchester followed Morris’ advice, beginning at a small paper in Newcastle before later becoming a correspondent for The Guardian, where he covered important events across the globe, from the Watergate scandal and subsequent resignation of Richard Nixon to the Bloody Sunday tragedy in Ireland. He says that his work as a geologist has played a key role in shaping his writing. “As a geologist you tend to look under things and want to see the structure.”
When Atlantic was originally released in hardback, it called for a stressful, three-month-long world tour with stops in New Zealand, the UK, and the U.S. “But paperback tours are very short,” he says, pointing out that this time around, he is only stopping by American maritime cities, including Boston, Chicago, and, of course, Charleston.
But it won’t be Winchester’s first visit to Charleston. He spent time in our fair city, researching a book he was working on about Adolphus Washington Greely, the American polar explorer who helped found the National Geographic Society. As Greely’s relatives resided in the Holy City, he was able to make a couple of trips to the Lowcountry. “I love it down there. It’s a wonderful, wonderful place, and of course it’s important in the slave trade and it’s important in the Revolutionary War,” he says. “It’s just one of those great cities.”
The Charleston Library Society hosts a book signing with Simon Winchester on Tues. Nov. 8 at 7 p.m. $15. 164 King St. (843) 723-9912