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John Wyatt Interview

John Wyatt Interview by Kathryn Seal

I met with John on a sunny afternoon at the Bognor campus of the University of Chichester.  It seemed apt that we were meeting at a crucial point in John’s career journey to talk about his book, The Use of Imaginary, Historical, and Actual Maps in Literature. 

From an interest in Archaeology and English, John set off down the road of Social Work, before going onto teaching and finally concluding his journey as Director at West Sussex Institute of Higher Education – now known as The University of Chichester.  Here he met Paul Foster, then Head of English, who steered John into a doctorate on Wordsworth and Geology. 

John’s book ‘maps’ his interest with literature and geography to explore the relationship between author, reader and map maker and how perceptions of reality are formed between maps and literature.  It engages the reader with its themes, but it also asks the reader to read, look, discover and question.

The popular genre of fantasy and folklore, which, with the release of The Hobbit film this December, is explored in several chapters of the book.  John suggests to me that Tolkien would not approve of the film adaption of the story.  In The Hobbit, Tolkien did not locate the setting, but merely produced a map of the action for the reader to imagine the intended settings.  The film version clearly states the action to be in a specific place… And here is the crux of John’s book and argument; maps from literature and used in literature are more about what they leave out than what they contain. 

John writes about the beginning of map making for travel writing in his first chapters.  These adventures of journeys into the unknown were written by ‘imaginative travellers into undiscovered territory.  In many ways the authors were like their readership, imaginative voyagers, reinterpreting the evidence of the strange and exotic.’  They faced the problem of how to make these tales seem ‘real’ to the reader, hence the introduction of a map was one way to solve this dilemma.  The questions of various perceptions of ‘reality’ are discussed in detail and with several examples in the book.

But does the inclusion of a map assist the reader with the plot?  Does it matter where the map is positioned – front cover, back, chapter maps?  Stories such as Alan Sillitoe’s The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner use maps to plot the novel and Swift based Gulliver’s Travels on real adventures, but added the fictional Lilliput to an actual map.

John argues that some maps are the protagonist in the story, for example in Stevenson’s Treasure Island and Robinson Crusoe, Defoe’s first publication, did not contain a map, but illustrated with an iconic representation of Crusoe.  However, in subsequent editions, and as Defoe added other adventures for Crusoe, he added real maps to support his fiction.  Six editions in four months showed different versions of the copy of Herman Moll’s world map, which included the continuing adventures of Crusoe.  Posthumously, this ‘characterisation’ of the map carried on even in imitations of Defoe’s story, such as Swiss Family Robinson.

Tolkien said ‘I wisely started with a map and made the story fit’, whilst other authors penned their maps afterward.  Part two and three of John’s book explores this theme, looking at maps specially made for literary contexts; authors as map makers; mapping the identity of Ireland and Urban space.

My chat with John ended by talking about the future of maps in literature.  John shows me some of his fantasy maps; ones with political and sociological elements, but all are representations of the world we live in today and the reality of the cartographer’s outlook.  So, the future: maps will either persist in the same way; be interactive on our social and technological platforms or maybe even be created by the reader themselves.  All we do know, and this is the crux of John’s argument, is that maps will be a selective discourse and the narrative collaboration of author, cartographer, publisher and reader.