I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of a writer-in-residence. Artists-in-residence seem like a logical idea: you get your artist, sit them down and get them to paint what they see. Writers-in-residence at universities or other intellectual establishments seem logical too. It’s when I hear about writers-in-residence at the Savoy Hotel, London Heathrow airport and on a container ship that I begin to wonder.
The latter is Horatio Clare, who first came to my attention when I read his memoir Running for the Hills, a few years ago. Since then he’s written a follow-up memoir, several travel books and a dystopian novel based on an ancient Welsh myth. He’s an award-winning travel writer. When I found out that he’d been a writer-in-residence on board a container ship, I was intrigued, so I asked him about it.
GC: Tell me something about how you came to be a writer.
HC: I grew up without TV, from the age of six or so, and with hundreds of books, because my mother was a reviewer. I saw no distinction between the things you read, the games you played, the way you lived. So we were obviously living, on the farm, a grand adventure. Mum kept a diary. Even then I wanted to read the finished story. I was not surprised when I ended up writing it.
GC: How did you come to be a writer in residence on board a ship?
HC: I emailed Maersk (the world’s largest container carrier) asking if they would like a writer-in-residence. I pointed them to Alain De Boton‘s book about terminal 5 and inferred I could do something similar for them – a PR job, in fact, which I never intended to do. To the eternal credit of Michael Storgaard, head of PR for Maersk, he not only agreed immediately, and said I could go wherever I liked, but also refused to exercise any control of what I might write, saying that would invalidate it. What a man. And it is quite a company…
GC: How long were you on board? And what sort of things were you expected to write?
HC: Compared to a seafarer I have barely started, though I have been around the world on two ships, and spent about two and a half months at sea. They asked me to do articles for Maersk Post, the company magazine, and a blog, which they liked, and profiles of seafarers – a lot of the people who run the company have little or nothing to do with the men who run the ships, which is a change of culture and rather sad for a seafaring family firm, and they wanted me to draw portraits of crew men.
GC: What were the best and worst things about being a writer-in-residence?
HC: The best is that it is a dream come true, whole new worlds to learn and write about, free food, a great cabin – on one ship, on the other it was full of diesel fumes – and the privilege of watching real men do real men’s jobs, on a sort of shadow planet, invisible to ours, but which sustains it. The worst? I often wished I was the second officer… I might have made a decent seafarer….
GC: Is writing in residence something you’d like to do again?
HC: Definitely! Bring it on. It’s a huge boon to writers, a really unexpected dimension to the job. Look at my fine young friend Owen Sheers – poet in residence with the WRU, the Welsh Rugby Union, the lucky, lucky, lucky bastard! He’ll be brilliant at it, of course…
GC: What are you working on now?
HC: Finishing ships and homing in on the end of a comic novel about sex, love, relationships and the black market, called The Duke & Hughes Field Guide to Some of the Birds of Northern Europe.
GC: Finally, where can people find out more about you?
HC: You can Google me or even read my books! I have a website, HoratioClare.co.uk, if you look carefully there’s a free short story buried there about a policewoman on the river Seine. It was commissioned by BBC Radio and it’s called I Am River. My books are available in the US from Amazon and other booksellers.