James Calum Campbell – author of the Cameron-Strange series
Describe the most exciting or unusual experience to have happened to you.
I went to work in Auckland for 3 months – and stayed for 13 years. Here I conceived the notion of running the 48 volcanoes of Auckland in a single day. It was “A Big Ask”, as they say down there, for an average club runner, three and a half marathons back to back, seven water crossings (I used a sea kayak) and about 12,000 feet of ascent. I trained for about 2 years. I planned to do it between noon on Saturday February 27th, and noon on Sunday February 28th, 1993, as part of a fundraiser for the hospital emergency department. 48 of my colleagues, and a few more besides, joined me to do the run in relay. As far as I know I’m the only person ever to have done it solo, and I’m ridiculously proud of it.
One desert island: one book. Which one?
The desert island – Espiritu Santo in the Vanuatu group (though I doubt if Kirsty Young would allow it – not deserted enough.)
The book – Richard P Feynman’s 1963 Lectures on Physics, preferably in the handsome 3 volume hardback commemorative issue. It has 115 chapters. I started reading them in 2002 and am currently stuck on the Michelson-Morley experiment in chapter 15, so I reckon it will see me out.
Which author’s style do you aspire to write like?
I keep a copy of the first sonnet from Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophel and Stella on my fridge door.
It is an encouragement to the writer not to be self-conscious about style; just say what you have to say. Sir Philip puts it more eloquently:
Biting my trewand pen, beating myself for spite,
Foole, said my Muse to me, looke in thy heart and write.
I greatly admire Jane Austen, Walter Scott, Winston Churchill, Bertrand Russell, George Orwell, James Thurber, and Ian Fleming. I aspire to some qualities common to all these writers – vividness, vitality, and veracity – or at least verisimilitude.
What fictional character do you most identify with?
I thought of Philip Carey in Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage, then I thought of Joseph K in Kafka’s The Trial, but I’ve got to be honest: I most identify with Walter Mitty. When I first read his secret life, I was astonished to find I was not the only person in the universe to daydream. At school, teachers used to rouse me from my reverie: “Calum Campbell! What planet are you on?” The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is wonderfully funny, but it’s also a way in to Thurber’s great short masterpieces, like The Evening’s at Seven, and One is a Wanderer. I read them with a sharp sense of personal recognition.
Do you have any hints or tips for people who want to start writing?
I do! I would remind them of ten words of Dr Johnson which I first took to be a throwaway remark, but which I now realise to be profoundly true:
“No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.”
It may sound venal, even cynical, but at heart I don’t think it is. It is an exhortation to us writers not to hide away in a garret, but to get out and about in the real world, to chuck our hats into the ring, to be a part of human commerce in the widest sense, to write to a deadline, and for a public. Find a potential, realistic outlet for your tome, even before you start. Be prepared to take criticism; it means you are being read. Write to communicate; anything else is merely keeping a diary, and most diaries have a readership of one. And good luck!