Tim Butcher is an award-winning journalist, broadcaster and best-selling author. His first book, Blood River, was an international best-seller, translated into six languages and was shortlisted for a number of British awards. Since then he has written two other books.
I really enjoy Tim Butcher’s books. He tells a great tale, and writes clearly, concisely, logically, and very personally. He’s not afraid to reveal his own shortcomings and frailties, even his downright fear. The way he shares his experiences makes you feel you are there with him, experiencing the blind panic as well as the emotional highs. On his journeys he meets fascinating characters, converses with them openly, and gets to know their own stories. All three books are an excellent combination of fascinating history, personal experiences and investigative journalism.
This is the account of Butcher’s solo trek along the Congo River in the footsteps of Henry Morton Stanley. It’s one of the most dangerous routes in the world. What I appreciated about this book is how Butcher puts his trip into context, not only with Stanley but with the whole colonization of the Congo by Leopold, King of the Belgians. For more on this topic, read my review of Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost, while a full review of Blood River is here.
Chasing the Devil
This book describes Butcher’s epic trek through Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, following the footsteps of Graham Greene’s 1935 route. Throughout the book two themes reappear. One is the civil war which decimated the country. His account of two journalist friends of his who were ambushed and killed was particularly harrowing. The other is the presence of the devil, in the form of local witch doctors, and the strong and even murderous spell that they still have over the rural population. A full review of Chasing the Devil is here.
In Sarajevo on June 28th, 1914, an unknown Bosnian Serb called Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria. It was the catalyst that led to the outbreak of the First World War. Butcher traces the life of Princip from the village of his birth to his crime in Sarajevo. It’s a trek with many memories for the author: as a journalist he covered the Bosnian War in the early 1990s. Visiting Srebrenica, the scene of a massacre of 8,000 Bosnian Muslims, is just one reason why Butcher describes this journey as “the most emotional hike I have ever made”. Click here for a full review of The Trigger.
Interview with Tim Butcher
When you are travelling on foot, do you record your experiences and observations as you go along, or recall them later? Do you jot them down in a notebook? Record them digitally?
I am an old-fashioned newspaper journalist so I take notes. Endless notes; all in the same type of Moleskin A5 book. All are carefully copied and scanned as a back-up whenever possible. To lose the book would be to lose the details that make my work different from other travel writers. In the Congo in 2004 I lived in perpetual fear of losing my notebook. Internet opportunities to scan and back-up were limited in the Congo in 2004!
Do you always have a book agreement with a publisher before you set off on an expedition?
For my first trip, no. For subsequent trips, yes.
Have you planned and done trips that just haven’t worked out well – or not provided sufficient input for a book?
For my first three books, I was lucky: the trips delivered. They had enough adventure, enough heft and enough discovery to make the books work. For my current book, which is more loosely focussed, I am making a series of trips and not all of them are working.
You are honest about those episodes that leave you in “a nadir of despondency” to quote your Kisangani, Congo experience. Are you tempted to leave out those episodes that don’t show you in a particularly positive light? Or “big up” or fictionalize an experience to make it a more exciting read?
Tempted, yes. When I decided to leave the Congo river in 2004 and take a helicopter I was privately despondent. I was tempted to massage the book to cover it up. Bookshops are full of non-fiction works where the author has sexed up the actuality, so I would not have been alone. But as my wife would tell you, I am a hopeless liar. To be dishonest would have eaten at my soul. That might sound strange coming from a journalist – a British journalist at that; a group that does not enjoy a reputation for copper-bottomed honesty. But I hunt for verifiable truth. Not truth that does not realistically exist. But truth that can be confirmed, checked, proved or verified; that’s what drives me. To massage a narrative, even to massage by omission, well that is plain wrong.
In all three books you have ventured into dangerous territories and even put your life at risk. Has this been a constant theme throughout your life? As a young boy were you always an explorer?
I am a coward; a dyed in the wool coward. But I am also curious. And curiosity will always win over cowardice. This has always been the case, even as a child, so I would go searching, carefully and in such a way as to reduce risks, but I still went searching. In Blood River I talked about objective and subjective risk. I spent an age dealing with the latter but concede that occasionally one cannot deal with the former. In that case, you just have to leap – and hope you land safely.
You’ve followed in the footsteps of Henry Morton Stanley, Graham Greene and Gavrilo Princip. Whose footsteps are you following next?
I am pursuing a concept, which is the idea of the modern nation. Various people have fashioned and shaped that concept, none more so than Jan Smuts, the one-time South African freedom fighter who became a confidant of Winston Churchill and the de facto founder of The League of Nations.
I notice that you are very active on social media and Goodreads, where you engage a lot with your readers. I presume this is something you enjoy doing. How would you say you benefit?
It remains an honour to be read by third parties. For people in our modern busy world to give up around 15 hours of their time to share my journey, thoughts and ideas, well that is a terrific source of pride. I have no problem engaging with these readers. In this modern age it is considerably easier than it used to be: letters sent in the post to authors via the publishers used to be pretty much the only route for such contacts. Internet, online fora and social media, they are all infinitely faster.
I just hope by engaging readers I am not wasting their precious time!
Definitely not! Thanks for your time.
Tim Butcher’s books can be ordered by clicking the links below to either Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com
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