The Books Interview: Jeremy Seal, Fangs for the memory

Jeremy Seal travelled to confront his worst fear - but snakes still terrify him.
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The Independent Culture
Jeremy Seal, A Biography

Jeremy Seal, 37, grew up in Devon and Somerset, the son of a naval officer. He taught English as a Foreign Language in Turkey before working as publicist and editorial assistant for Chatto & Windus. After 1989, when the company's enthusiasts for books were replaced by "American marketing men", he says that he "knew it was time to get out". He is now a full- time writer. His first book, A Fez of The Heart (about Turkey), was published in 1995 and shortlisted for the Thomas Cook Award. The Snakebite Survivors' Club is his second title and he also writes travel articles for national newspapers. Jeremy Seal lives in Gloucestershire with his wife and daughter.

Jeremy Seal is not the kind to travel hopefully. Indeed, for a travel writer, he shows a marked mistrust of the open road: "Tearing around a country and picking up on whatever strikes you as interesting smacks of desperation to me. The classic travel-writing model is driven by having to move on all the time, the implication being that otherwise you run out of things to say, and I'm very suspicious of that. If you stay in one place and dig deeper, there is always more to write about."

Seal's first book, A Fez of The Heart, performed a kind of archaeology on the soul of modern Turkey, meticulousy exposing layer after layer of cultural and political sediment. Bottomless curiosity, lightly worn scholarship and a ready stock of jokes drew comparisons between Bruce Chatwin and Seal as luminaries of New Travel Writing.

His second book, The Snakebite Survivors' Club (Picador, pounds 16.99), strays even farther from the classic travelogue in so much as it is less about a physical journey than an emotional odyssey. The subtitle, "travels among serpents", suggests the cane-swishing derring-do of 19th-century explorers, a tradition the writer comprehensively subverts. Seal, you see, is scared of snakes.

"I've always had this thing about snakes; they exercise a particular kind of horror, that sense of being simultaneously fascinated and repulsed. And I'm particularly scared of them when I'm in snakey places."

Four snakey places - Africa, India, Australia and the rattlesnake belt of the American South - provide the settings for Seal's herpetological explorations, but the places are not the point. "The snakes are more important than the destinations I go to," acknowledges Seal. "I chose a multiplicity of settings because I wanted to show the universality of the hold snakes have on our imagination. Nobody is neutral about snakes; wherever you go in the world they have this mythological aura and they are used in so many different ways to define different attitudes to life."

The snakebite survivors Seal homes in on amply prove his point. There is the Alabama sect which handles rattlesnakes as a test of their fundamentalist Christian faith; then there are the white settlers in Kenya, pitching their colonial sang-froid against a culture in which snakes are "sent" by witch doctors to avenge evil; white Australians, who take the relatively uncomplicated view that snakes are pesky buggers to be knocked on the head; and the snake cults of Southern India, for which serpents are both death-dealers and divinities.

"I had to be selective," says Seal. "Mexico has a fascinating snake culture and so has the Far East, but I felt I had to keep to areas where English is widely spoken. To try and get to the bottom of how people feel about snakes in a language I don't properly understand would have been foolhardy."

There is no question of where Seal's sympathies lie. "When I first started researching this book, I wrote to a lot of people in the herpetological community for advice and a fair number of them wrote back and said, `I'm really worried about what you're doing here, because I think you're going to demonise these beautiful creatures', and I thought, `Well, you're absolutely right. They are demons.'

"I can see how much more enlightened and subtle and holistic the Indian attitude is. I love the way the cobra is redeemed in that country, but emotionally, I just don't buy it. I was shocked on the other hand, at how readily I accepted the whole serpent-as-Satan idea in Alabama. When it comes to snakes, I'm with the nutters."

The Alabama chapters of the book are accordingly charged with a particular power. Seal imaginatively recreates the sensational trial in 1996 of a snake-handling zealot who tried to murder his wife by forcing her hand into a box of angry rattlesnakes. Seal's ear for dialogue and empathetic descriptions bring him bang up to the frontiers of fiction.

"I find myself pulled more and more in that direction," he says. "Every strand of my snake research revealed stories that were just crying out to be put in a novel. It was hard at times, to keep my focus."

"Focus" and "motive" are the watchwords of the New Travel Writing. A Fez of the Heart was a kind of forensic quest to find the last bona-fide fez-wearer in Turkey, and 300 years of Turkish history were illuminated as Seal charted the rise and fall of the brimless hat. (Brim = secularism in a country where you touch your forehead to the ground to pray.)

The snake, however is a less discrete metaphor; and marshalling a thousand and one references and resonances into a compelling yarn without once resorting to footnotes requires a particular, graceful talent. Fear is the driving engine, and Seal's appalled fascination never falters.

In the course of the book, we are exposed again and again to the particular horrors of the world's most venomous snakes like some kind of literary aversion therapy. We gradually acquire an uneasy expertise with the habits and temperaments of the taipan, mamba, rattlesnake and cobra. But the awful mystery of these snakes remains intact.

"Before I set out, I went on a phobia management course at London Zoo", Seal recalls, "where a herpetologist comes and tells you that your fear is irrational and silly and then you all get hypnotised and trot round to the reptile house to make friends with the snakes. I stopped short of being hypnotised, because I had a strong feeling that if I lost my fear it would take away the motive for the whole book."

The preoccupation with "motive", he argues, is a modern necessity for travel writers. "People have started talking about `quest travel writing' in the last few years, and it's a kind of pejorative title," says Seal. "It's as if the classic idea of travel writing is the venerable one and we are lazy young upstarts trying to cheat and find short-cuts. The old heroic mode of exploring foreign parts was about making a country your own, probably even giving parts of it your name. All travel writers had to do was turn up and keep a journal and they knew that people would be interested in what they said simply because it was new and exotic."

Apart from the best pair of snake boots money could buy (an accoutrement that provoked much ridicule in countries where everyone wears flip-flops) and an ash-wood talisman (hermetic against snakes), Seal travelled with the minimum of professional paraphernalia. Even a notebook, he feels, gets in the way of the story. "I don't take notes," he explains. "I just remember all the best bits and then dredge them up months later when I sit down to write. I think it helps to let your material salt down for a while. Patrick Leigh-Fermor didn't write about his journeys until years after the event and that is some of the freshest travel writing I have ever read."

Seal refuses to become sentimental about the fact that some of the world's most impressive snakes are now top attractions on the tourist trail. The snake parks of Kenya, where his African chapters are set, are entirely geared to the local tourist economy. "Even today there is a style of travel writer who is loath to admit that mass tourism has happened, who wants to give the impression they are somewhere no one has ever been, and I find that vaguely dishonourable. The entire point of modern travel writing is that the world is travelled."

Seal's theory will be tested by his next expedition, a mere two-hour jaunt down the line from Bath, where he lives with his wife and 15-month- old daughter, to the Cornish coast where he is researching an imaginative history of shipwrecks and their impact on the local psyche. The thought of having to machete his way through throngs of trippers to get to his subject does not depress him. Beyond the ice cream-and-chip line lies Seal's terra nova. "Just because people are there," he insists, "doesn't mean that it's discovered."