Meet the author: Sophy Roberts

The ever-adventurous writer behind The Lost Pianos of Siberia opens up about her incredible writing life, from heeding Doctor Dolittle’s advice to hearing Bach on the Mongolian Steppe.

A photo of Sophy Roberts, author of The Lost Pianos of Siberia, with a rail station in the background.

It wasn’t until she was 46 that Sophy Roberts published her first book, The Lost Pianos of Siberia, an account of her three-year search for a historic instrument in a region covering an eleventh of the world’s land surface. But Roberts has long had an eye for the absurd, a love of adventure, and a keen sense of place: her first travel story was written, she says, when she was eight, “about riding a pig on a misadventure through rural southwest France”. In her early teens, she penned a longer story based on her Scottish childhood, featuring a surly West Highland Terrier called Jock MacTavish.

Today, Sophy still likes nothing more than to disappear into a place to look for the stories which are largely ‘ungoogleable’. It is an approach she has refined in her working life as a journalist, reporting from Chad to Tajikistan. Over the last 20 years, her articles on travel and conservation have been widely published in the Financial Times and Wall Street Journal, among others. Sophy has also worked as a travel editor for the Economist 1843 magazine, and as a special correspondent for Condé Nast Traveller.

We got in touch with Sophy to ask her about her writing life, the adventures of which have found her reading Tolstoy on the train in India, writing letters back to porn readers, and hearing Bach played from a piano on the Mongolian Steppe.

Which writer do you most admire and why?

I’m always excited when I discover a writer who wears their scholarship lightly. Jonathan Bate – author of Radical Wordsworth ­– transformed a dry Victorian poet I was forced to read at school into a page-turning revolutionary. Simon Schama’s masterpiece, Landscape and Memory, had the same effect: it’s brilliantly erudite but easily readable. But if I were forced to pick one writer, then it would be Joseph Conrad (a man, as it happens, with a little-known family history entangled with the story of exile in Siberia).

Reading Conrad now comes with all sorts of issues, given his books depict some of the worst years of British Empire-building. But ultimately, he showed compassion and courage in the way he exposed the cruelties of imperialism. He spun characters and events into unforgettable yarns that still resonate, the stories unspooling from 19th-century Africa into contemporary Hollywood.

What’s the strangest job you’ve had outside being an author?

I did some work for a publisher of porn magazines in New York. I was in the office replying to reader letters and assisting on photoshoots. When I got my first proper job with Condé Nast Traveller just as it was launching in the UK, the editor of the sex mags – a brilliant woman called Dian Hanson who now heads up the erotica division of TASCHEN – told me I was well prepared. Porn, travel: it’s all the same thing, she said; it gives readers their version of escapism.

Tell us about a book you’ve reread many times.

I reread poetry. I find it invigorating when I’m tired. T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets is about as close as I’ve gotten to knowing any work by heart.

What the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever been given?

It’s from Doctor Dolittle. He tells the parrot, Polynesia, that it’s important to be “a good noticer of things”. The parrot then repeats this mantra to Thomas Stubbins, the Doctor’s secretary, when Stubbins ventures to the Moon: only a good noticer, says the parrot, will make the account of his voyage interesting to the public.

The contemporary literary critic James Wood expands on the same idea in his 2008 classic, How Fiction Works: “Literature differs from life in that life is amorphously full of detail, and rarely directs us toward it, whereas literature teaches us to notice. Literature makes us better noticers of life.” Before I write, I only feel strong if I have heaps of notes with all the little details I caught on the road.

What makes you most happy?

Empty winter landscapes – which are in generous supply in Siberia – and a pared-down travelling experience. I find it creatively stimulating. Perhaps it’s because I notice more when an experience is stripped back to a blank white canvas, when the landscape falls quiet and I can feel the pulse of silence.  I begin to value the simplest things that make me human – fire, food, shelter – that I usually take for granted. In truly empty places, I become aware of my own fragility. I’m drawn to the risk; it creates its own unique kind of euphoria.

What’s your biggest regret?

That I spent so long distracting myself with day-to-day journalism, which drew me away from the attention book-writing demands. It’s all I want to do now: write more books. My other regret was that my time was cut short working for Jessica Mitford. Before she died in 1996, I spent about eight months assisting with research for her revised 1963 bestseller, The American Way of Death.

She was incredible: her patience, endurance, and passion for risks worth taking. She acted according to her personal conviction, not any prevailing stereotype. Jessica taught me that eccentricity – by which I mean working outside a circle of expectations – can be profoundly liberating.

What’s your ideal writing scenario?

Getting early to bed, because I need to be at my desk by 5am to write before I’m unleashed into school-runs and telephone calls. I can’t write a word if there’s a risk I will be disturbed. 

...and your ideal reading one?

On a train, watching the trees moving past. When I was working in Siberia, I spent countless hours on the Trans-Siberian. Sometimes it felt as though I was using it not to get from A to B, but just to give myself space and time to read. It was an extreme pleasure which harked back to when I was 18, travelling in India. That was the year I read all of Tolstoy’s works. It was a weird mix of cultures, to be reading about the Russian steppe on an Indian train network, but the two experiences will always be bound together in my mind.

What’s your favourite book you’ve read this year?

Italo Calvino’s The Baron in the Trees, about a boy who escapes into the canopy of the garden, into the orchard next door, and then wanders far and wide, never, ever coming down. It’s pure escapism – fabulous in the truest sense of the word. It also makes me a think of a better world, before we destroyed our forests.

What inspired you to write your book?

Listening to a brilliant young pianist play Bach on the Mongolian steppe. It was on her behalf that I undertook the slightly mad hunt across Siberia in search of an historic instrument worthy of her talent. The book is a mix of history, travel and adventure, covering Russia from east of the Urals all the way to the furthest reaches of Kamchatka, the Kurils and the Commander Islands.

Along the way, I met the most amazing characters, from indigenous Nenets, reindeer herders and tiger conservationists, to sea captains and a survivor of the Siege of Leningrad. Ultimately, my book is about the human story in a much-maligned corner of the world. What inspired it also draws the narrative together: beautiful piano music, in circumstances you least expect to hear it.

The Lost Pianos of Siberia by Sophy Roberts is out now in hardback and later this month in paperback.

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