The second part of an interview with Tim Ecott, author of bestselling scuba diving book Neutral Buoyancy
It took exactly one year. Seven months of research and travel for interviews and five months of writing. Once I had done the research then it was relatively straightforward to make a chapter plan, but obviously things change as you write and some areas expanded, while others contracted. But clearly, a lot of my personal experiences and dives were things that happened outside of that one year time frame – it’s a bit like asking an artist how long it takes to paint a picture – they might say ‘about thirty years’!
How does praise (and criticism) filter back to you?
People sometimes write to Penguin. People in the diving world pass on comments they have heard from other divers, and sometimes when I visit a diving resort I will meet people who will tell me they have read Neutral Buoyancy.
Have there been any notable reactions from the public or elsewhere?
I’ve had quite a few very nice letters and emails and I was very fortunate to get some kind reviews in the national press in the UK as well as several foreign papers and magazines. It’s weird -some people think there is too much history, other readers wanted more. Some readers (especially in the USA) seemed to think that the personal and descriptive sections of Neutral Buoyancy weren’t ‘adventurous enough’ – they seem to equate adventure with near-death. But fortunately, so many people have told me they have loved the book, and recommended it to others both divers and non-divers. Many people have told me it has made them want to try diving, while others say they were always scared of diving, and now having read the book they are sure they don’t want to do it. But they say they now understand why so many people become obsessed with going underwater.
Have sales of the book exceeded your expectations?
That’s hard to say. In the UK it’s sold about 50,000 copies, but it’s also been translated into Dutch, German, Danish and Italian. It is also published in the USA. I had no way of predicting how well it would sell – most non-fiction books sell well at first and then taper off quite dramatically (as do fiction books unless they become absolutely massive best-sellers). What is great is that word of mouth is keeping sales going – slowly but surely. Of course I want every diver to read it, but in a way it’s good when I meet divers who have never heard of Neutral Buoyancy – it means there’s a vast untapped market out there….
Neutral Buoyancy does a great job of explaining how important the oceans are to the health of the planet in general. Do you feel pessimistic or optimistic about the ongoing attempts to conserve our seas?
I change like the tide. In some areas I feel optimistic. I believe very firmly that divers are vital to the future of the oceans. By going underwater and falling in love with fish and sharks and dolphins and coral and nudibranchs and sponges they become ambassadors for the sea and they tell their friends and relatives why they love it. Let’s face it – most people never go underwater and there is still a tendency to regard the sea as a vast rubbish bin into which we can dump anything we choose, and it will somehow just cope. Without divers even fewer people would know what is happening. On the other hand I rather side with Hans Hasse, who told me “there are already too many people in the world. Why do we keep on believing the world will somehow make room for more.”
I would like to think that the human species is clever enough to understand the problems we have inflicted on the planet, and that we will turn our great brains to the task of protecting our natural resources before it gets much later.
The fascinating chapter on Hans and Lotte Hasse highlights their huge impact on the public both in terms of revealing the mysteries of the oceans and raising the profile of scuba diving in general. There doesn’t seem to be anyone around these days who has such a grip on the public imagination – what do you think?
I agree. But it is much harder to do now – TV audiences think they have seen it all before, and there is no shortage of tv presenters with personality. unfortunately most of them are not divers!
Your next book is a history of the spice vanilla. That’s quite a leap from diving. What inspired you to write about it?
Well, it is a leap – but vanilla thrives about 20 degrees north and south of the Equator – the same tropical band where most of the world’s reefs are found. It is also a slightly ‘obscure’ subject (like diving) which has a fascinating history, a rich cast of characters and is something I know quite a lot about – because vanilla is grown in the Indian Ocean islands. The plant originally came from Mexico and I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to visit that amazing country more than once to do the research. However, vanilla is (like diving) something that people may not think they are interested in until they hear a bit more about it, and then the are hooked. The book is called Vanilla: Travels in Search of the Luscious Substance (out in June 2004).
Vanilla is considered the essence (d’oh) of plain flavouring – is its history full of blood and guts that belies its bland reputation?
Absolutely – and there’s nothing plain about it. It is a very complex flavouring – with more than 400 chemical components. It can make sweet things sweeter, it can disguise unpleasant tastes and smells and it is the most versatile food ingredient known to man. Vanilla is a tropical Mexican vine, the only orchid that has a commercial value (other than as a house plant) and right now it is more valuable than at any time in history. It’s also traded by a very small band of men who are very secretive about what’s involved. It can be an aphrodisiac, help you lose weight, cure jellyfish stings, has been used as a hair restorer and let’s face it – where would we all be without vanilla ice cream….
What are you working on next?
I have an idea, but it’s not fully formed yet. It is a personal story with a cast of unbelievable characters…
Where will you be going diving in 2004?
I have no certain plans yet. I’d like to visit the Dutch Caribbean, and I would very much like to try north-western Madagascar. I still haven’t dived Cocos Island, and I’ve been asked to go and try diving during the sardine run in South Africa. I’ll be happy just to get underwater a few times.