Best-selling writer Simon Winchester needs little introduction to most travelers. Whether exploring the Yangtze River from source to sea,the Oxford dictionary from A to Z, foreign lands from Korea to Krakatoa or oceans from Atlantic to Pacific, his writing is, well…terrific, and it introduces us to worlds beyond our own. Winchester discusses the passion for travel and storytelling that has fueled his prolific writing career and spawned his latest book The Pacific.
Longitude. The Pacific is such a vast ocean and such an enormous subject to cover in one book. You manage it by exploring ten themes in ten chapters. How did you choose your topics?
Winchester. I looked through newspapers, magazines, academic journals, and collected about 300 events between 1950 and 2014 that seemed to me important, in terms of developments in and around the Pacific. I then winnowed them down, to 100, to fifty, to twenty—and then cut them to the 10 events that seemed most emblematic and interesting. Those that didn't make the cut—the Native American seizure of Alcatraz, the Maori demonstrations in Auckland and others—weigh on me still. But the book had to be of manageable size, and so I had to make some tough decisions. Whether or not I was right in my choices—that'll be for the critics to say, and by and large they have been kind.
Longitude. Where did you travel while researching this book—and which place was the most memorable?
Winchester. I based myself in Hawaii, and ranged out to a variety of places. Scenically and geologically the most memorable was Kamchatka; in terms of awfulness, the tiny crowded island of Ebeye in the Kwajalein atoll of the Marshall Islands, a vast and overpopulated tropical slum no-one knows exists.
Longitude. Window seat or aisle?
Winchester. Always window.
Longitude. One of the most shocking anecdotes in your book describes the cavalier way that Korea was divided in half—a motion that took seconds but has had long-lasting ramifications. What surprised you most in your research?
Winchester. About Korea? The realization that if Col. Bonesteel had not drawn his line and Korea had fallen to the Soviets, it would have been an impoverished Communist state, sure, but that communism would have faded away as it has in most places, and the peninsula that is Korea would never have been divided, there would have been no war, no Kim dynasty no need for 25,000 resident American troops....
Longitude. You say that the Pacific is the ocean of the future, for several reasons. What do you predict will happen in the region in the coming decades?
Winchester. The primacy of China's will prompt a major rebalancing-act in the region, politically, militarily, culturally. And the important thing will be how the US will react to this shift—with hostility or accepting equanimity. If the latter, if Washington can bring itself to accept that the world changes and evolves, then there would be peace and harmony; if not, then then Pacific will become the cockpit for much unpleasantness.
Longitude. Rising sea levels are endangering many South Pacific islands. What efforts are being made to save vulnerable places like the Marshall Islands in the face of climate change?
Winchester. Kiribati is the country most likely to produce climate-change refugees, and in very short order, too. They are starting to flood right now, and people are worrying. Building sea-walls and such is behaving like King Canute—pointless and fruitless. The only thing to do—short of changing humankind's behavior globally —is to evacuate; and countries like Fiji, blessed by geology to rise high out of the ocean, will be offering sanctuary to inhabitants of their low-lying neighbor-nations, which is as it should be.
Longitude. What books, other than your own, would you recommend for readers traveling to the Pacific?
Winchester. Alan Moorehead's The Fatal Impact.
Longitude. You’ve written about an impressive variety of topics—from the Oxford Dictionary and the founder of modern geology to China’s Yangtze River. What’s next for you?
Winchester. The History of Precision.