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“I chose pieces that would make a coherent narrative and give some variety,” Sara Wheeler says of her new book, “Access All Areas: Selected Writings 1990-2011” (North Point Press), assembled to celebrate her 50th birthday.
British author Wheeler has been writing for more than two decades, producing journalism and seven books that are about travel or are biographies, including “Travels in a Thin Country: A Journey Through Chile,” “The Magnetic North: Notes from the Arctic Circle” and “Too Close to the Sun: The Audacious Life and Times of Denys Finch Hatton.” The articles she includes in “Access All Areas” cover a wide variety of places, terrains and degree of luxury, and are infused with her offbeat sense of humor. She really has had all access, to seemingly every type of location in the world, including Malawi, a place so hot that toads there sometimes explode. There are tales about trips to locations such as Tierre del Fuego, Argentina, and Solovki, Russia, as well as descriptions of noted travellers and travel writers —Mary Kingsley, Robert Byron, Norman Lewis and Bruce Chatwin among them — along with a story about repopulating Colorado with lynx.
The introduction opens with what Wheeler calls the happiest moment of her life — when she is traversing the Antarctic and literally goes off the map — where she spent six month camping because “I found the continent a potent symbol of terra incognita.” The author feels that her strength is as a nonfiction writer, and, although the new book does contain one piece of short fiction, she plans to keep it that way, since she believes that the two forms are mutually exclusive, and that a writer is only good at one or the other. “Michael Holroyd is really the writer I’d like to be,” she says.
Her favorite writers of fiction include Carson McCullers, Eudora Welty, John Updike, Richard Ford, John Steinbeck and Erskine Caldwell. Although she never met him, from certain off-putting details and anecdotes associated with him, she is inclined to dislike Chatwin as a person, but she does like his work. One writer whom she admires — and writes about in “Access All Areas” — is Edmund Morris, whose Ronald Reagan biography, “Dutch,” received many negative reviews. “I think I’m the only person standing who thinks that the biography is good,” she says.
During a trip on the Q.E. II, Wheeler had fun with several of the passengers. One of them was Brian Hitchen, former editor of Britain’s tabloid Daily Star, who was known for his outrageous headlines. When he was editing the paper in 1989, Hirohito, the emperor of Japan, died, and, since many of the paper’s readers in the North of England had worked on the infamous Burma Railway, Hitchen called the obituary “Emperor Goes to Hell.” This headline precipitated an international incident, with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher telling the Japanese ambassador that Hitchen “could not be controlled.”
“Most of my writing involves books, not pieces,” Wheeler says. “That means being really committed for three years, so it’s a long time. It’s a big financial commitment, too; getting an advance; the husband [Peter Graham] believing in the story. I have to have a feeling that I can do it.”
Wheeler has already written her next book, her first about the United States: “O My America! Second Acts in a New World,” which will come out in the U.S. in August. In it, she traces the American travels of six middle-aged British women who came to the U.S. in the early 19th century to make their names. Among them are actress Fanny Kemble, who wrote the satiric “Domestic Manners of the Americans” and was appalled to observe plantation managers on Georgia’s Sea Islands who were, as Wheeler puts it, “having sex with a different slave every night,” and Catherine Hubback, Jane Austen’s niece, a novelist who travelled to San Francisco without her husband, who was in an insane asylum.
Another of the dramatis personae is Rebecca Burland, who was a homesteader. “I wanted to put a homesteader in there, because they’re the ones who made America,” Wheeler says.