The Next Chapter

Ronald Wright answers the Proust questionnaire

The author of A Short History of Progress talks about his favourite writers, his greatest extravagance and more.
Ronald Wright is the award-winning author of nine books and gave the CBC Massey Lectures in 2004.
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Ronald Wright has a background in anthropology and archeology. His books, both fiction and nonfiction, explore societies under siege and the relationship between past and present. He has spent many years living in Mexico and South America, and those places have featured in his books. He's the author of Stolen Continents: Conquest and Resistance in the Americas and A Short History of Progress. He's also the author of three novels, including his most recent, The Gold Eaters, which is set in the 16th century during the Spanish invasion of Peru.

Name your favourite writers.

Herman Melville. Shirley Hazzard. I wish I had written J.M. Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians. And William Golding, he wrote those three great novels in the 1950s.

Your favourite painter?

Albrecht Dürer, the 16th-century engraver, painter and goldsmith. He was a person who understood his own time and brought it to life. His self portraits are almost uncannily realistic. I also like Dürer because being a goldsmith, and being an artist, he was able to see the first golden treasure brought back from Mexico by the Spanish conquerors. He said he had seen something more beautiful to him than miracles and he marveled at the artistry of these people from a new land.

What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?

Loss of freedom. Being in another's power and unable to walk out the door, run my own life. I guess I've had a horror of being in others' power since I was a small boy and was sent away to boarding schools. I hated that part of my childhood and I can hardly imagine how much worse it was for the Aboriginal people in Canada, who were put in much worse boarding schools. My parents thought it was a good thing to do, in 1950s Britain. But to do that to people from another culture, to take away their language?

Tell me about your heroes in real life.

I'd pick my father as my hero in real life, and it's because I wish when I was young I had understood what he went through. He'd grown up in Kelowna, B.C. He'd lost his father when he was 10. He lost his only sibling when he was 19. Then he had to go and fight in the Second World War. He was decorated for his deeds in that war, but he would never talk about it. As a child, I didn't fully understand the extraordinary pain and extraordinary experiences that shaped him, and I wish I had.

What is your greatest extravagance?

One of my greatest extravagances was when one of my books was made into a film and I had some extra money I wasn't expecting to have and I bought an Italian motorcycle that I am very fond of. But I also paid down the mortgage.

What is your greatest achievement?

That the work I have done has been to try and understand other times and other places, particularly to learn and tell the story of the underdogs in history. I think my achievement is doing that in a way that other people are willing to read and willing to consider my take, whether they agree with it or not, on the human story.

Ronald Wright's comments have been edited and condensed.