The Rural We: Simon Winchester
Simon Winchester is the best-selling author of “The Professor and the Madman” and many other nonfiction titles, including his latest, “Pacific,” which is coming out in paperback in October. But more important for our purposes, the British writer, journalist and broadcaster, who was awarded an Order of the British Empire (OBE) for his services to journalism and literature, lives in Sandisfield, Mass. with his wife, former NPR producer Setsuko Sato. Winchester spends much of his time traveling around the world to do research for his books, but we were lucky enough to catch him at his farm to chat. He will be speaking at the West Stockbridge, Mass. Town Hall on Friday, Sept. 9 at 6 p.m.
When I sign a contract, I spend a year to year-and-a-half researching it, then settle down to deliver a book six months later. I’ll be here continuously from mid-March to the end of September working on my next book. It’s about the history of precision. This invisible thing called exactitude was invented as a concept in 1775 and picked up by Thomas Jefferson in Paris. Everything we use has to be precisely made, but the question is, where is it all going? Do we need it? And are we forgetting the importance of craftsmanship? It was a reader in Florida who suggested that I consider writing about this topic. My father was a precision engineer, and I’m thrilled to bring it all full circle.
It looks like the film version of The Professor and the Madman is going to happen. The director called me this afternoon from Dublin. He said there’s a 90 percent chance of it being made. Mel Gibson and Sean Penn are signed up, they’ve booked filming dates and want to finish it by Thanksgiving.
I came to this area after I left Hong Kong in 1997. My best friend there was Larry Zuckerman from the New York Times bureau in Hong Kong, who said I should come to America and suggested Cornwall Bridge, where he had a place. I could just about afford to buy a little cottage in Wassaic, New York and from there I came to Sandisfield, which is even more delightful.
I like isolated communities, and Sandisfield is real country. I can do country activities; I keep bees, chickens, grow apples, make cider and honey. I do not want the Berkshires to be turned into the Hamptons, and hope it stays slightly eccentric and a bit bohemian. I love the cultural resources, particularly The Mount. Susan Wissler [the executive director] has done an amazing job with it. It’s everything that’s good about the Berkshires.
I have the most wonderful writing barn. It was a broken down barn in upstate New York. I bought the posts and beams and re-erected it. Now it’s filled with books and so much sunlight that in the winter I have to take a break from writing for a while. My view is a line of pine trees, a meadow and newly planted apple trees. And there’s an owl that often comes in the evening.