Renowned author shares success stories with Utah school students

Friday , November 13, 2015 - 6:17 PM

Standard-Examiner staff

OGDEN — Best-selling author Simon Winchester advises young people who dream of writing for a living not to major in it at school. Instead, study something like science, geography, botany, history or philosophy.

“Then you’ve got something to write about,” he told students from Ben Lomond and Ogden high schools. “Write, by all means, and read — reading is hugely important — but study something completely unrelated to writing so you know something else.”

Winchester shared this advice, and more, during the Ogden School Foundation’s Fall Author event. He spoke first to a sell-out crowd at the Eccles Conference Center, on Thursday, Nov. 12, which was a fundraiser for the foundation. The following morning he spoke to students assembled at Ogden High School, at 2828 Harrison Blvd.

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The first students to meet Winchester were winners of an essay contest sponsored by the foundation. The topic, relating to Winchester's books “The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary” and “The Professor and the Madman,” was the power of words.

Winchester, who has homes in New York and Massachusetts, read the winning essays on his flight to Utah.

“I thought they were just astonishing,” he said. “Two of them were very touching, and all of them were highly imaginative.”

After giving the young writers advice about becoming professional authors, he allowed them to ask questions.

Autumn Townsend wanted to ask what made Winchester keep writing more books, even though his first books weren’t financially successful. That’s something she can relate to because she entered last year’s Fall Author writing competition, but didn't win.

“I was actually told I lost this year, but I tied for fifth place,” she said. “I’m just really happy I made it. .... I’m proud of myself.”

Her winning essay was about the power of words to inflict pain and leave scars.

“No matter how long it's been since they’ve been spoken, the scars never truly go away,” said the Ben Lomond student.

Winchester said that he also understands the pain words can inflict. Part of that knowledge came from receiving a particularly bad book review about 10 years ago.

“You never forget that,” he said.

In his speeches, Winchester said he didn't study English or journalism in college. Raised in the United Kingdom, he dreamed of becoming a sailor and commanding a ship in the navy.

“I passed all of the tests, until the final day,” he said.

That’s when he was discovered to be color blind, and being able to tell red from green is important when guiding a ship. Devastated, Winchester went to college to find another line of work, and saw a poster with the words “See the world — be a geologist.” He graduated with a degree, but said he wasn’t good enough to get a job in the UK. He wound up living in a tent in Uganda, where he borrowed a library book titled “Coronation Everest.”

“I was completely enthralled,” he said, speaking of the book written by news correspondent James Morris, who accompanied a British Expedition that was the first to scale Mount Everest.

“I couldn’t be a sailor, I wasn’t much good as a geologist, but I could perhaps be a journalist,” he thought. “All I needed was a pencil and notebook, and I could go around the world collecting stories.”

That night he wrote a letter to James Morris, basically asking “Can I be you.” Morris wrote back.

“If you think you can write, then on the day you receive this letter — not next week, not next month — the day you receive this letter, give up your job there as a geologist in Africa. Come back to England, get a job with a newspaper, and write to me again,” Winchester quoted the letter. “He was daring me to do this.”

He did.

When Winchester landed a job as a reporter, he wrote again to Morris. The author seemed surprised that his advice was taken, but did a very kind thing — he invited Winchester to send clippings of his articles to be critiqued.

Through hard work, and the helpful notes from Morris, Winchester became a successful journalist for an internationally read newspaper, the Guardian. As a correspondent, he covered everything from fighting in Northern Ireland and the Watergate scandal, down to Evel Knievel’s failed attempt to jump the Snake River on a motorcycle.

It was only then, years after starting on his journey, that Winchester met his mentor in person. He was surprised to find that James Morris was in the process of becoming a woman named Jan Morris, but they became friends and went on to write books together.

The high school students from Ben Lomond and Ogden high school were so taken by Winchester's adventures and storytelling that they listened with rapt attention, and asked more questions.

One question was why he moved to America.

“I had always been in love with America,” he said, and told of hitch-hiking across the country as a young man.

He traveled 38,000 miles, and it only cost him $18 because of all the nice people who were willing to share with him.

“It was just magical, so I fell in love,” he said.

Winchester became a U.S. citizen in 2012, and took his oath of allegiance on the deck of the U.S.S. Constitution.

Winchester said the kindness of strangers has been a theme in his life.

That kindness allowed him to sit on the white sand beach of Ascension Island, in the South Atlantic Ocean, and eat strawberries while watching sea turtles lay their eggs and observing both a lunar eclipse and the passing of a comet. Kind strangers rescued him when his car broke down in China, 200 miles from the nearest city. And, of course, the kindness of Morris changed his life.

“So now, if anyone ever writes to me and says ‘I’d like to be a writer,’ I would never dream of ignoring the letter,” he said. “I always respond.” 

You can reach reporter Becky Wright at or at 801-625-4274. Follow her on Twitter at @ReporterBWright or like her on Facebook.

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