Q & A: James Rebanks
The Shepherd's Life is fascinating, evocative and beautifully written; it is perfect for any lover of words and language. Part memoir, part handbook, it tells the story of Rebanks, a modern day shepherd in a remote part of the Lake District, and a lifestyle that has remained virtually unchanged for thousands of years. In a culture that is obsessed with the new, this story is a revelation. Not least because of how connected Rebanks feels to his community, the land, and to our collective past.
Passionate and full of insight, Rebanks will inspire you to go out and appreciate the great outdoors.
Here, he introduces his book and explains a little about how he came to write it:
Have you always wanted to be a shepherd?
Yes, ever since I was about four years old. As a kid I just wanted to be like my dad and my grandfather. It was only when I went to secondary school that I realized that some people think that to choose to do something hard, old-fashioned and badly paid like shepherding means you are more or less an idiot!
Are there any other great books about sheep?
People who do physical work tend not to write books.
Historically a lot of people thought this was because they had nothing interesting to say – but that is daft, of course they do.
Most of the human experience is not really in books, yet.
When I was in my teens I discovered an amazing old book by W H Hudson called A Shepherd's Life. It told the story of an old shepherd in the South of England at the turn of the Twentieth century and I loved it because it felt like it was about my grandfather.
In the U.S. there are a handful of fine books about shepherding, including Gretel Ehlrich's The Solace of Open Spaces.
I’m not sure mine is really a book about sheep, it is really a book about growing up and trying to hold on to things you love in a world that makes that difficult.
How did you come to also be a writer?
I have always written things, like poems. So I feel like I have been a writer for a very long time, all that is new is having lots of readers.
For the last fifteen years I have written occasionally for magazines.
Then two years ago I wrote a piece for Atlantic Monthly - and Penguin picked me up and commissioned me to finish the book I had started years ago, which became The Shepherd's Life.
What is the best thing about being a shepherd?
I get to work in an amazing landscape, surrounded by the people I respect and admire. The work feels real and like it means something. I've done modern, better-paid, jobs and I nearly always felt empty. When I am shepherding I feel alive and part of the natural world. Today about a thousand fieldfares clacked in the trees around me as I rebuilt a dry-stone-wall on our land. They have just returned from Russia and are feasting on the red berries and yellowing crab apples in the hedgerows.
Don't you ever get bored of sheep?
Great sheep are cultural objects, and shepherds have their own culture, every bit as interesting as being in to Punk or Picasso.
I’ve been interested in shepherding for more than thirty years and I’m still only a beginner. I will be learning until my dying day. It is like being an artisan or master craftsman; there is more to learn about a landscape, and a flock, that you can learn in a lifetime.
Why did you write The Shepherd's Life?
I wanted to write a book to explain how it feels to live a life like mine, so other people with different lives could understand it.
When I was a teenager I left school with no qualifications and worked as a laborer on the farm for nine years for a lousy wage. One of the tough things I learnt was that I didn’t have a voice in the world. And our landscape seemed to be buried beneath other people’s words.
I dreamt then of having a voice to say the things I wanted to be heard, about the things I love.
It is a great privilege to have a voice through writing.
What books/writers do you admire?
I love Tolstoy, the older Tolstoy who fell out of love with his own novels and tried to write simpler stories that the peasants of Russia could read. I love his stories like ‘How Much Land Does a Man Need?’
And I believe passionately in trying to write simple clean prose, so inevitably I love the best of Hemingway and Orwell.
My favorite English writer is J A Baker The Peregrine and The Hill of Summer are the most perfectly crafted pieces of nature writing ever penned.
How do you juggle being a writer and a shepherd?
If you are a good shepherd there are always a dozen things on your mind that you should be doing or thinking about.
So I have to carve out the headspace to think properly about writing.
I wrote The Shepherd’s Life mostly through the nights.
Where do you write?
I write on a scruffy old arm chair in our living room after the kids have gone to bed, or in my sheep shed office.
What do your fellow shepherds think about the book’s success?
Some couldn’t care less. They have more pressing things to care about than books.
Others seem to be quietly proud of me for telling their story as much as my own. I have had some lovely feedback from old farmers, whom I respect and admire, saying I have said things they think should be said. Some of my friends find my ‘writer’ status very funny and tease me mercilessly. They know I tried to publish the book anonymously, and like a quiet life.
Was it hard to write such a personal story, including details about your family and friends?
My family are very modest and not ones for being in the spotlight. I was scared I would betray their trust in me. And my father was dying of cancer as I finished the book, so I felt honor-bound to portray him in a way that was fair and good.
I loved my dad and, despite, or perhaps because of, going through ups and downs with him, I was closer to him than any other man. I miss him so much.
My dad read the book before he died and told my sisters he liked it, and how he was portrayed. So I can breathe again.
Do you get fan mail?
Every day. Including really touching letters from people who have read my book to someone they loved when they were dying, and a few to say that a passage from my book has been read at a loved-one’s funeral.
You don’t expect that.
My book became a letter to my dying dad. So maybe it has something in it about what a modest life can mean that touches other people. A lot of people write and say it made them cry.
Do you have another book planned?
After people asking me often, I just published a book of my photographs, The Illustrated Herdwick Shepherd. But I couldn’t help myself, and wrote more stories about the community of shepherds in which I work.
I love writing, so hope I can write more books in the future.
Will you continue to be a shepherd?
As I said at the end of my book,
“This is my life, I want for no other”.
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