mahabis interviews // warwick cairns
In our recent series of posts, we've been championing mahabis ambassadors, and shedding some light on the stories they have got to tell. Amongst our customers, we came across British author Warwick Cairns, who we knew would have more than tale or two worth sharing.
Between growing up on Europe's biggest council-house estate, and travelling in Africa with the explorer Wilfred Thesiger, Cairns has had three impressive books published. Each sharing his straight-talking, witty and absorbing writing style, Cairns' novels cover commentaries on traditional and modern life: from pondering civilisation and human nature in Kenya, to deconstructing the perceived risks and fears of the 21st century.
We caught up with the man behind the books: an avid 54 year old skateboarder, living in Windsor, juggling writing, advertising, and dog-walks in his mahabis.
photo: How To Live Dangerously (PanMacmillan, 2008), About the Size of It (PanMacmilllan, 2007), and In Praise of Savagery (Harper Collins/ The Friday Project, 2010).
Talk us through a typical day as an author…
The funny thing about writing is that can be one of the easiest, most fun ways to earn a living - but it can also be one of the hardest. When you’re writing well it feels effortless and weightless and the words just flow. But when you’re not, well it doesn’t, and they don’t. So the trick of being a writer is to develop routines and systems and targets so that your writing works, whatever your mood, for day after day and week after week - and to keep on working until you end up, some months down the line, with 80,000 words that you actually like. And, more to the point, words that your agent likes, and your publisher, and all the people who you hope will pay their own hard-earned money to read what you’ve written.
So here’s my typical day. Other writers do it differently, but this is what works for me.
In the morning, I ease myself into writing something new by setting out not to write anything new. Instead, I sit down and look at what I wrote the day before. I’ll start by changing a word here and there. Then I might add or remove a sentence or two. I’ll listen to the sound of the sentences in my head and play with them until they sound just right. And while I’m doing this I find I start to get ideas for what I’m going to write next. I may even jot some of these ideas down. All of this will take no more than an hour or so. This is my warm-up. Then I put it all away and get on with other writing projects I have on. I have a ‘day job’ as a writer and strategist in the advertising industry, editing and ‘mentoring’ other people’s work.
While I’m doing that, though, wheels start turning somewhere in the back of my mind. Ideas start popping up throughout the day, and when they do I note them down. And then, by late afternoon or early evening, I have a pretty good idea of where my book is going that day - and that’s when I sit down to write it. I’ll typically sit down for anywhere between one and two hours and write anywhere between one and two thousand words.
Then when I’m done I put it aside, ready to pick up the next day.
And about 6 months later, I have a book.
We read that you’re a pretty avid skateboarder, how did you get into the sport?
I started skateboarding a very long time ago. It was somewhere in the mid-1970s, as I recall. I liked it so much that I never gave up. At 54, I still skate most days. I’ve been going to the Bay66 skatepark in Westbourne Park for so long that they have a special reduced ‘regular’s’ entry fee for me. I’ll also drive to the new(ish) park in Hemel Hempstead where they have a big concrete bowl, and to a skatepark in a converted church in Caterham where they have a huge 11ft-high ‘vert’ ramp.
When researching for your book ‘How to Live Dangerously’, did you come across any stories or statistics that surprised you?
So many! Here’s one: most adults, these days, were raised as ‘free range kids.’ By which I mean we were allowed to go out to play with our friends, without our parents necessarily knowing where we were or what we were getting up to.
But few of us give our own children the same freedoms that we enjoyed, because we imagine that the world is a more dangerous place nowadays, and if we let them out of our sight for a moment they will be run over or abducted, or both.So I decided to look at the statistics, to see if we’re right to worry. It turns out we’re not.
In terms of traffic risks, it turns out that Britain’s roads are becoming safer, not less safe. There are fewer deaths and fewer serious injuries, year after year. And when it comes to children being abducted by strangers - well, statistically speaking, it would take the average child, left outside, 186,000 years to be abducted. And when I researched the US version of the book I was stunned to discover that children are actually safer in the States. The statistics show that the average child there would have too wait half a million years to be abducted.
How important is downtime for you?
Downtime is massively important to me. It’s important in and of itself - and it’s important because I get some of my best ideas in my downtime.
How do you choose to unwind?
I’ve talked about sports already. Skateboarding’s my number one sport by a long way, but I have a couple more. I also used to do a lot of snowboarding. I actually made my first snowboard back in 1983, which was before you could buy commercially-produced boards in the UK, and before European ski resorts allowed boarders on ski lifts. It was pretty rubbish, technically speaking - I made it out of plywood, with metal fins and windsurfer footstraps, and I rode it in canvas skate shoes that froze my feet after about 10 minutes. I’m also a mountain biker. I have a downhill bike that I ride in my local woods, and take up to Scotland every now and then to used on the lift-accessed tracks in the Nevis Range.
I also love spending time with my family and my dogs - or dog, I should say. We lost our older dog, Alfie, a few weeks ago, and at the moment we have just the one. Our current dog, Pilot, is a 5-year-old Working Cocker. However, a friend of a friend is having a litter of spaniels in a few weeks’ time, and we’ve put our name down for a puppy, who’s going to be called Keeper. There’s a bit of a Bronte theme in the names, thanks to my daughters, Alice and Lucy, who are both Jane Eyre fans. Pilot was the name of Mr. Rochester’s dog, and Keeper was Emily Bronte’s dog.
When and where do you wear your mahabis?
I wear my mahabis around the house every day. I also wear them with the extra soles on when I pop to the corner shop or out into the garden. I also sometimes wear them in the car if I’m going to be taking the dog(s) somewhere wet and want to avoid wearing muddy boots.
Warwick's mahabis of choice: larvik dark grey x skien black
If you could spend your downtime with one fictional character, who would it be?
I’m a big fan of Lee Child’s Jack reacher books, but ex-military cop Reacher is a man of very few words indeed. A man of two-and three-word sentences. One-word-sentences, even. Probably not the most entertaining company, unless disassembling and reassembling guns is your idea of entertainment.
So I’d probably go for someone more garrulous - someone like George MacDonald Fraser’s arch-cad Flashman. He’d be endlessly entertaining - but you’d just have to be careful not to turn your back in him for any length of time, and not to leave your wallet unguarded on the table.
Three random picks from your bookshelf. Go.
The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan. The original modern thriller - and still one of the best.
Kim by Rudyard Kipling. The story of an orphaned Irish boy living by his wits in the bazaar life - and political intrigues - of British India.
On Writing by Stephen King. How one of the most prolific and skilful popular writers does his stuff.
What are you currently working on?
I’m adding the finishing touches to Master Thief, a thriller set in the City of London in the dying years of the reign of the ageing Queen Elizabeth I. It’s about a reformed criminal by the name of William Hartford who returns to London after an absence of twenty years, thinking he has left his past behind him - until he tangles, inadvertently, with a corrupt official. As a result of this he gets caught up in a whole series of events that force him, against his will, to return to his old ways to save himself, and to protect those he has become close to.
If you’re ever struck by writer’s block, where do you look to for inspiration?
I refuse to be struck by writers’ block! When I set out to write a book, I’ll set myself a target of, say, 1,000 words a day, every day, and that’s what I’ll do, however inspired or uninspired I feel. The thing is, if you write 1,000 words on a bad day they may all be crap, but at least you have something to improve on the next day. Whereas if you don’t write anything, where do you go from there? My favourite quote about writers’ block comes from the late Terry Pratchett: “There's no such thing as writer's block,” he said, “That was invented by people in California who couldn't write.”
Name one city/place you’d never tire of visiting, and tell us why.
I love the mountains and coasts of the Western Highlands and islands of Scotland. My wife and I have spent our Summer holidays there every year for more than thirty years, and my two girls have known no other kind of Summer holiday.
This year we’ve booked a cottage by a little secluded beach near Arisaig. The big skies, the mountains, the heather, the silhouettes of the islands of Eigg and Muck and Rum on the horizon. It’s wonderful. We’re taking our mahabis with us this year to wear in the evenings by the peat-brick fire.
If you had an extra hour in the day, how would you spend it?
I’d skate more. In fact, if I could keep on skating every day for the rest of may life (or for as long as I’m still able to walk), I wouldn’t complain.
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