Editing Chatwin: An interview with Susannah Clapp

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By Patrick Nixon

The year 2017 was the 40th anniversary of Bruce Chatwin’s seminal travel book In Patagonia. The book came about when Chatwin, while in the United States on assignment for the Sunday Times of London, on the spur of the moment decided to travel to Patagonia to pursue a long-held dream to write about the region. The result was an epic book about his encounters with locals in both Chile and Argentina that to this day remains the must-read book for travelers to this part of the world.
The task of editing the book fell to Susannah Clapp, who at the time was working for the publishing house Jonathan Cape in London. She instantly recognized Chatwin’s text as a unique piece of writing. Having worked at the Sotheby’s auction house, Chatwin had a special talent for seeing beauty in the most mundane things and summarizing it in a clipped, but beautiful Hemmingway-like style.
Editing the book was no easy task. Clapp says the manuscript was too long and it was mainly a collection of loosely related “vignettes.” She spent several months working with Chatwin, trying to decide what to leave out and how to give it a coherent form. Chatwin was nonetheless receptive to the editing process and the result has been acclaimed as a classic piece of literature that revitalized the travel writing genre.
Susannah Clapp wrote a book about the experience entitled simply “With Chatwin.”  Patagon Journal correspondent Patrick Nixon spoke to Clapp while researching his article about Chatwin in the current issue of Patagon Journal (“Bruce Chatwin: In Patagonia at 40”). Here are excerpts from their conversation about the importance of the book and its author.
Nixon: How did you come to work with Bruce Chatwin?
Clapp: Bruce submitted his book to the publishers Jonathan Cape where I was working as an editor. He had previously submitted a book on Nomads that hadn’t got published. I had written a report saying I recognized its quality but thought it needed some work. As a consequence I was given the book to edit.
What was Bruce Chatwin like as a person?
He never stopped talking. He had a lot of nicknames like Chattybox. The first time I met him he came into the room, characteristically, as if he was going to walk straight through it. He had a tremendous sense of energy. He was dashing. Everyone mentioned his good looks. That certainly influenced the way he was written about. He liked his specially made outfits, khaki shorts and matching top. He had a custom-made knapsack with little pockets where he said he kept half a bottle of champagne and a tin of sardines. I also remember a wonderful greenie blue suit he had.
He always had vivacity, high velocity delivery, generally about something he was writing about or obsessed by. For example, the color red. Was red the color of Garibaldi, or evolution with flames? It was a lush, exquisite and far-ranging speech that he made to many people and wanted me to write about at some point. It’s hard to remember the detail because one was often so caught up in Bruce’s excitement, you couldn’t take it in. Even people that were a bit skeptical about him were quite captivated by him. Martin Amis said that he had been skeptical beforehand (about Chatwin) but then when he heard him talking, he remembered how intense the pleasures of conversation could be.
What was it like working with him editing In Patagonia?
We reduced the book to about a quarter or a third. When the manuscript came in I found it very long but also tremendously interesting page by page and very original. However, you didn’t actually have a reason to go from one page to another. It needed some narrative propulsion.
So, we spent a summer going through the book, day after day. We both sat with a copy of the manuscript and Bruce read it out and I sat marking bits that I thought should be cut. Things that were cut were mostly done in the interest of getting this narrative propulsion, not because they were bad. Indeed, I look at some of the material that we did cut and I think now why that and not something else. It was just that it didn’t fit comfortably where it was.
The difficulty with him reading aloud was that he made everything sound tremendously interesting. He was very responsive to editing, which is atypical for authors. He enjoyed the sense of conversation. He was very often happy at cutting out whole chunks. The difficulty was more that he would often go home and come back the next day having added something else. It was a struggle to keep it down.
But in the end, I think we ended up with something that did work. The shortness of the book, matched the shortness of the chapters and the shortness of the phrases and sentences.
Do you think he changed travel writing?
His book was utterly distinctive and I think he changed what travel writing could be. A separate question perhaps is whether people followed and mimicked him. There are visionary qualities to his work. For instance, the imaginative qualities that Bruce brought to the book, and I don’t necessarily mean fiction, I mean he took it seriously as a piece of writing.
I think he made travel writing into a genre in which more things could be discussed more than they had been discussed before. Its memoir, its history, its obsessionalism, and its the sense of being abroad. Funnily enough, many Patagonians themselves in his book were not in their country of origin. I think he brought a ludic quality to the genre. The sense of paradox and the sense of obliqueness; I think it enabled him to capture some of the spirit of the place. What he wasn’t interested in doing was in capturing himself. And some people have seen that as an omission. Paul Theroux certainly saw it as an omission and wanted to hear more about the difficulties of travel and so on. I don’t think that Bruce was guarding his privacy, but it was rather an aesthetic objection.
What else do you think made Chatwin such an extraordinary writer?
For me, the most important thing he did was visual. It was no accident that he worked at Sotheby’s and had this great gift for seeing whether things were fake or not. I think his descriptions were special. If you look at the number of colors there are in Patagonia, half shades of red, ochre, etc, they are absolutely remarkable. He had a strong sense of landscape.
He also had a passion for simple things that most people often wouldn’t notice. For example, corrugated iron structures. He had a passion for different kinds of wood. And he liked things that weren’t necessarily designed to appear in art galleries. Bruce liked things that had a story, that were incidentally beautiful. That was very evident in his prose and very vivid photographs. At his home he had a wonderful tray where fishermen in Istanbul used to spread their catches out, which was very beautiful when you look at it, but it took Bruce to see it as a thing of beauty rather than something practical.
I think that anyone that came in contact with him, looked at things differently afterwards. The great gift he gave to me was the ability to appreciate plain, simple things.