Wednesday, May 1, 2013

On Races to Mongolia, an Interview with Helen J. Beal

A race from London to Mongolia. Across deserts and up mountains, where there are no roads. In ambulances, no less. It sounds very much like a work of fiction. It sounds like the book Rich in Small Things, by Helen J. Beal, which I just read and enjoyed.

The race portrayed in the book was fictional, but it was depicted so realistically, complete with overnight delays at border crossings, curious and hospitable natives, and mechanical failures of vehicles' prop shafts, that it had to be based on something very real.

I interviewed Helen about her book and about her part in a very real race to Mongolia.

Q: Your book centers around a London to Mongolia race called the Ulaanbaatar Cup. Where did you get the inspiration for this idea?

Helen: Well, this is a bit of a long story! In July 2008 I was working on my first novel and developing ideas about my second - predominantly around the ancient Silk Road. I was working on a plot mixing old and modern timelines when, on a corporate sailing regatta, our skipper told me about an adventure he was about to embark on - The Mongol Rally - where he would drive from the UK to Mongolia, taking in some of the countries on the Silk Road. It struck me that this would be a great modern thread to weave into the story.

Fast forward a couple of years to when I was taking a sabbatical from work to write the second novel and was scheduled on a three-week adventure from Uzbekistan, through Kyrgyzstan into China (research for the ancient threads of the story). The trip was cancelled due to a coup. I realized that I didn’t need to research The Mongol Rally anymore - I had the time and wherewithal to participate myself. And during one heart-stopping lunch hour I signed up. Without a teammate or any real plans. One of my oldest and best friends, Victoria, unexpectedly stepped up to the mark – so perfect. We set off from Goodwood to Ulaanbaatar that July. By then, the first half of the book and most of the characters were fully formed and we had the most incredible adventure. I ended up throwing away the idea of including the ancient Silk Road in the book and instead it became Rich in Small Things, a completely different novel from what I had initially envisaged.

Q: When driving an ambulance with another woman, didn't you fear for your safety as you crossed border after border? Were there no dangerous incidents en route

Helen: Victoria and I planned our trip extensively (in most respects!). Our choice of vehicle (an ambulance) was made in part because it gave us the security of being able to sleep in it, rather than camping in a flimsy and vulnerable tent. We had the vehicle fitted so that we could lock every door from the inside and we would immobilize it when we went to sleep. Victoria also organized some self-defense classes where we learned that running was the best policy, and also took the advice to wear fake wedding rings and carry whistles.

We also, in the first part of the rally, arranged to be part of a convoy, and thought very carefully about where we stopped and slept every night. One area we didn’t plan much was the route – but we did decide on a very simple route, with a limited amount of border crossings. And actually, the border crossings were probably some of the safest moments given the amount of people and bureaucracy in these areas. We didn’t have any dangerous incidents – after the event, we did feel like we had been very lucky, that we’d been in a sort of bubble, looked after by the angels as we adventured. But it may have been a consequence of our consciousness of the dangers we might face and the precautions that we took.

Q: There is a million pound prize offered to the winners of the Ulaanbaatar Cup. What was the prize offered in The Mongol Rally?

Helen: There are no prizes in The Mongol Rally – it’s entirely a charitable endeavor. Participants pay an entry fee, commit to raising a certain amount for The Adventurists’ chosen charity and then can make additional charitable contributions (such as an ambulance) as they see fit. We took part because we thought it sounded like an amazing adventure – to see parts of the world in a way we’d never considered. Neither of us really knew where Mongolia was when we signed up. What’s funny though, is neither of us ever thought we wouldn’t get to UB – until we were on the journey and things started to go wrong. It’s true the pair of us are eternal optimists and very determined people – but we were never in the rally to prove anything. It just seemed a wonderful opportunity to explore some of the world and meet some like-minded people. There are a lot of rallies out there, and some do offer prizes. Melissa, the main character in Rich in Small Things, wrote a blog post about a few that you can read on my website here.

Q: The native people along the route described in the book are very hospitable to their visitors. Did you also find this to be the case while you journeyed to Mongolia? Were there any specific encounters that you recall?

Helen: Julia, the character Melissa travels with in the UB Cup, is a bit of a hippie and is not Victoria, but Victoria coined the phrase ‘the angels are with us’. There were so many instances of support and assistance we were given throughout the entire journey that were beyond the call of duty. I remember having a conversation about how the roads were in an appalling state compared to what we were used to in the UK – but that we could never imagine getting the help we received in all of the countries (probably post Poland) at home. As we went through the journey languages and alphabets changed. We only had some very basic maps and our navigation was basically from city to city so we were often in city centers where the road systems were complex and we had no idea what direction to head and couldn’t read the signs. It’s amazing what you can achieve rolling down a window, shouting the name of a town with a perplexed look on your face. There are a lot of people with a lot of heart out there.

Q: What happened when you actually arrived in Mongolia? Did you have a chance to tour that country?

Helen: The night before we arrived at the border to Mongolia it snowed there (in August). We dropped down to Tsagaannuur from the very beautiful Altai mountains in Russia and it took us nearly ten days to get to UB, driving from town to town where there were NO roads – camping out in the Gobi desert. Mongolia is a phenomenally stunning country – they call it the land of the blue skies and it is a wide, open space. I work in the City of London a lot at the moment and I really miss the sense of nothingness. There’s a scene in the book, at the top of a mountain, where I describe how we can’t see anything manmade – no buildings, roads, pylons, planes… It was exhilarating, humbling, and very calming.

Q: The main character of the book is a very independent woman, yet the story concerns an adventurous race across international borders. Do you think the book will appeal more to men or to women?

Helen: I’ve written all my books with both genders in mind. I write literary fiction – that is, I’m not writing to any particular genre. It’s not a recommended approach if you want to become a bestselling author, but that’s not what I’m about. I’m into writing what I think are really great, new and unique stories. All of my books have strong women leading them and a plethora of interesting male characters too. I hope I have some balance in that respect and certainly reader responses would indicate that is the case. I didn’t realize that I am a feminist until quite recently – I’ve just been busy carving out my place in the world with little attention to the genders of the other players around me - doing what I want to do in the way that I want to do it. But more recently, I’ve learned that the very fact that I can live like this is as a result of what other women have fought for before me. And I’ve started to notice gender discrepancies and biases that I was blind to.

Q: You have written three other books. What are they, and were they also based on personal experiences?

Helen: Rich in Small Things has more personal experiences in it than any of my other three books – one is a short story collection (Half a Dozen Star Jumps), one is a contemporary retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth (Thirty Seconds Before Midnight) set in a menagerie in a dilapidated estate in the English countryside and features a giant land tortoise, Herbert, as a narrator, and the most recent is a character-driven story of a super yacht hijacked by Somali pirates (Riding a Tiger). I’ve never been a tortoise or set foot on super yacht but the imagination is a marvelous thing. One of my favorite quotes is from Albert Einstein who said “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” I wholeheartedly agree with him and am always wowed by the fact that these words came from the mouth of a scientist. In my short story collection, one of the tales is narrated by a sculpture (Rodin’s The Thinker), another by a woodpecker (a sculptor himself). Some people preach the ‘write what you know’ philosophy to writing, but I definitely lean towards more fiction than fact. One of my favorite books of all time is Life of Pi which is an astounding feat of imagination – the story of an Indian boy marooned on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger.

Q: What's next? Another trip to Mongolia, or another novel?

Helen: Two more novels – one’s another character-driven story, this time on the themes of overpopulation and conservation (which will possibly require a trip to Costa Rica to volunteer with turtles and already demanded a trip to the Serengeti). The other is a dark psychological thriller – new ground for me and inspired by a disturbing recurring dream that I have. My nose is to the grindstone.

All pictures provided courtesy of Helen J. Beal.

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