BY TAHIR SHAH
As an author, I tend to find myself sucked down deep into a project, so much so that it becomes my world for months and even years. While I'm sucked in hard, I sometimes wonder if I can ever break free -- whether I can clamber up towards the shaft of light that is reality.
I have written more than a dozen books, but none of them has come to obsess me as TIMBUCTOO has done. And, I believe that a great impart of an obsession depends on how it came to you -- how it was revealed.
Twenty years ago, I was trawling through the underground shelves at the London Library, when I noticed a book propping up a water pipe. Disappointed that a volume would be used in such a way, I jerked it down... and I read it.
And my life changed.
The book was the true-life story of an illiterate American sailor, named Robert Adams, who was taken to the fabled city of Timbuctoo as a white slave, exactly two centuries ago.
The more that I tried to forget the story, the more it ate away at me. I researched the period of the time -- an era known as The Regency, because the Prince Regent was running the country. from the first moment, I was intoxicated by that time. I was mesmerised.
There have been numerous other novels set in this time (such as those by georgette Hayer), because it is without doubt the most decadent and, in many ways, the most depraved period in British history. The rich were jaw-dropping rich, and the poor were toe-cringingly poor.
And, it was a time when great inventions were being pioneered, and amazing discoveries were being made.
Jane Austin was at her height, as was the poet Lord Byron. It was the time when modern science was taking off, and in which Napoleon was vanquished at Waterloo. Britain was the lord of the seas, and the United States was hardly a twinkle in the future's eye.
It was at this time that all the major European powers were trying to get to Timbuctoo. Believing it to be an African El Dorado, they wanted to reach it, and then to plunder its treasure vaults for king and country. But they were all beaten to it by Robert Adams, an illiterate American sailor from Hudson, New York.
Writing TIMBUCTOO was a kind of therapy -- a therapy for obsession. I am an obsessive person, and I become intractably immersed in things. The tale of the race for Timbuctoo was an obsession that at times drove me to madness. I found myself dreaming both night and day of the Regency era. I would walk through the London streets in November 1815, the snow falling delicately on the cobbles, candlelight in the windows of the gentleman's clubs and beyond. And, I would have conversations with people who had been dead for a century and a half.
Being an author has it's highs and lows. The lows derive almost entirely from the uncertainty of pay cheques, and the fear of being turned down. And, the height -- well, for me, there's one which surpasses all the rest. It is the opportunity to close your eyes, and the let your imagination run wild.
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