Rita Lee Chapman   Author Interview

The original interview appears at  Rita Lee Chapman: Previous Guest Authors.
This week it is my pleasure to interview Thomas Scarborough. Would you please introduce yourself to my readers, Thomas, and share something about your life.  
Thank you, Rita, for your kind invitation.

My mother grew up under Axis powers, my father under Allied powers. Their early experience was therefore very far apart. In my own home, I was exposed to very different attitudes and ideas. I always felt that this gave me a great advantage where it came to critical thinking.

At four years of age, then, I was uprooted, and transplanted in an old world society—today the island republic of Kiribati—where my father served as the last Chief Missionary of the Central Pacific. He travelled from village to village, week by week—while I came under the care of a local guardian, Temeeti Teiaa. *He taught me how to hunt octopus (perhaps I still could), how to husk coconuts, and how to kill clams, among other things.

As young as I was, my return to the West came as a great shock to me. It was the collision of worlds. How did it all fit together? How did it all make sense? Above all, where was the joy and the energy of the islands? This, I think, was the real beginning of my thought.

We settled, then, in Africa, where for most of my life I have served as a minister, with thriving congregations. I am married to a woman of Xhosa descent, of the line of the great king Mpondo (1255–1331 AD).

When did you write your first book and how did it come about?

My real claim to fame was articles in popular magazines and journals. I was regularly published in Popular Mechanics, Practical Electronics, and other famous pages—and am published in six fields in peer-reviewed journals, in both the natural and the human sciences.

My major book, my magnum opus, published in June, was a life-long quest. A metaphysics, or panoramic philosophy, it is a large-format book *of nearly 400 pages—the first metaphysics to appear on the scene in a long time. I did not gradually form a vision for a book. Instead, it came to me suddenly, as a calling, out of the blue.

More than thirty years after I conceived of it, the editors of the philosophy weekly Pi invited me to write a metaphysics. I should give it go, they said, and see whether it worked. They set aside an online space for me, too. When I had completed seven chapters, they decided that it could work. It was a small metaphysics, and taxing on the mind. This was published by the Philosophical Society of England. The rest, as they say, is history.

Do you always write in the same genre or do you mix it up?

In the case of my articles, I mix things up enormously. Articles are often my testing ground—and through them, I have often received much needed feedback. Since metaphysics as I define it includes science and mathematics, my more scientific articles were absolutely relevant to my metaphysics, too.

To give some examples, this year I had a high-performance microphone published in Australia (it records ordinary conversation at the other side of a rugby pitch), I wrote on metaphysics for a UK journal (a survey and summary of my thought), and a proposal on optics, published in the USA (body image compensation for digital cameras).

In the case of a book, too, there is much to be said for a mix of elements within the same book: images, epigraphs, illustrations, examples—and so on. A book needs to glint, as it were, like many reflections of the sun on the same sea.

When you write, do you start with an idea and sit down and let it evolve, or do you make notes and collect ideas on paper beforehand?

Often my earliest thoughts on a subject are elusive—mere intuitions and feelings—so that I seek to put them down immediately before they are lost, then work on them later. I usually begin with a temporary structure for a book or chapter or article, and see where it leads me. As I examine it and work with it, it will often change.

For my latest book, I made thousands of preparatory notes, in fact over decades. Most of them were intuitive. Curiously, as I look back now, there is a cohesion in those notes which is plain to see. As I wrote them first, seemingly haphazardly, the connections were not yet clear.

I work in passes—one thing at a time—and I teach mentorees to do the same. First one works, say, on putting one’s intuitions to paper—only that. Then one works on the structure—only that. Then one works on hard content. Then style. Then illustrations, and so on, each one in turn—not necessarily in the same order every time.

And always, input. It is crucial that one receives enrichment and correction from as many people as possible who will happily provide it.

Would you like to give us a short excerpt from one of your books?

The following is an extract from the Introduction to my book,
Everything, Briefly: A Postmodern Philosophy:

Ideas matter. They matter a very great deal. They matter to everything we see around us. They shape the world in which we live. This means that ideas are not merely interesting. More than that, they are of critical importance.

However, it is not those ideas which we think to be important that always are. This is especially true of philosophy. Take, for instance, individualism, guanxi, democracy, laissez-faire, or the scientific method. We may call these high-level concepts. They are big ideas, which, in general, enable us to better grasp our situation and explore it. Yet their track record is fairly poor, when it comes to solving the problems of our time.

There are, on the other hand, ideas of another kind, which are more important by far. Call them low-level concepts, which are far more basic.

They infiltrate our thinking everywhere. They are present in all of our speech and writing. Even before we begin to shape our high-level concepts, they are there. They existed where thought began.

Who is your favourite character and why?

Dr. Henry Jekyll—the distinguished doctor who, at (almost) one and the same time, was a murderous criminal. This character, created by Robert Louis Stevenson, was apparently based on a true story—and is certainly, in an important sense, true to life.

People are not simple, but they are a mix of heroism and perfidy—present in the same person at the same time, or at different times, or in different aspects of their lives. And like Dr. Jekyll, they may not be in control of it.

I think of a White farmer who, in the time of apartheid, treated my wife’s African family inhumanely over years. Though they were hard-working people, and lovely, and of royal descent, he put them in a small corrugated iron shack, with a reed wall and dirt floor, without glass in the windows, or running water, or power.

Yet at the same time, he would stop at nothing for the education of the younger generation. He generously funded a farm school, and would drop everything if there was any problem there. This had an enormous impact on the younger people’s lives, for good. At his funeral, a great crowd of Black labourers paid their respects.

Which of your books gave you the most pleasure to write?

Pleasure is not really the word. It is sacrifice. Sacrifice, I hope, for others, too, through which both they and I may benefit. The benefit is understanding our world, and through such understanding, to find greater usefulness, balance, and peace.

At the same time, metaphysics is full of treasures. There seems to me to be great reward in finding them. My house was raided once. It was a scene of chaos and devastation. I was shocked—then amused. They hadn’t got my books, or my notebooks. Those were the most valuable things.

What is the best marketing tip you have received?

I’m not sure that I would recognise a marketing tip if I received one! Ministers are often taught precisely not to market themselves, or their ‘wares’.

Yet one’s approaches to agents or publishers are a form of marketing, too. Many, many tips feed into a successful book and a successful author. If I should single one out, it was a tip from the celebrated consultant Mark Malatesta in New York. He advised me basically to push the boundaries. No, no, he said, you are going by the book; you need to chance it. If I hadn’t done that, I might not have been published.

I have little idea what my publisher’s marketing team would think of it, but I seek to engage with others—and, in fact, not to make much, if any, promotion of my book. I don’t seek to induce others to buy it. There is another way of putting this, which appeared recently on your own website: ‘Talk about other authors’ work 80 percent of the time, and your own work 20 percent of the time’ (Michael Kelso).

How would you describe yourself?

With regard to my writing, I am never disheartened, never discouraged—at least, not for long, and not much. I don’t mind rejection. At worst, rejection may annoy me. ‘They made a mistake,’ I think. Alfred Lord Tennyson put it like this: ‘If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you / But make allowance for their doubting too …’ This is a recipe both for confidence and progress.

In public, I am often gregarious, outgoing, conversational, quick with repartee. But as for me as me, I am quiet, thoughtful, perhaps sometimes too serious. My mother said that, as a child, I was ‘sweet, docile, shy, and hardy’. This, I think, has not changed much, except in moments of duress!

Then, four years ago, I was seized by gunmen with semi-automatics. They said that they would kill me—yet I treated them with insouciance, and gave them a free counselling session, for which I am trained. They posted a guard, but I escaped. I joke that no one can be relied upon to do their work these days. Yet this affected me deeply. I have lost some of my chutzpah, and am shaken sometimes by situations which conjure up the event.

What do you do when you are not writing or reading?

I love to walk in nature—not for the walk’s sake, but for the stunning beauty and diversity there—the genius—of all I see. As I do, I often take photos. As a child, I collected colourful crab shells on island beaches. Later, for many years, I had the privilege of living on the edge of a World Heritage Site, with an endless diversity of flora and fauna. Today I live very close to a swamp and a river and the sea.

I love to talk with my wife—even to sit silently with her. I never tire of her. I love reading, and talking—and problem people. While it may sound odd, I do love problem people, and problem situations—if they are not part of my own problem!

When the spirit takes me, I like to do electronic design. I have sold well over 100 copyrights. The fun is dreaming them up—the chore is to convert the dream to reality.

If you could holiday anywhere in the world, where would you choose and why?

I have travelled extensively, having visited six continents—but I have never been to rural Laos.

I avoid tourist places, and Laos is still fairly much off the beaten track. The smell of the tropics, the beauty of the landscape, the spirit of the people, the faded splendour of colonial buildings … all would interest me very much.

f you have owned pets, do you have a funny story you would like to share with us?

It would seem to me that my parents sought to educate me and my little sister about animals: a dog, and cats, a pig, chickens, and hamsters, and then, homing pigeons. They were tumblers. Every day, I would open the coop behind our house, and let them go. Higher and higher they would fly—then tumble from the sky. I designed and built the coop myself.

Then we tried to sell them. At least, we did sell them, but they kept on coming back. I think they finally stayed in their new home on the third attempt. We impressed upon the new owners how important it was to keep them cooped up for a long time—if they hadn’t learnt that already by then.

What is the biggest factor for you when selecting a book to read?

Is it about a problem I am trying to solve? Then I am interested in the theme. A book’s age is also of some importance to me. One often finds lost ideas in older books—or new things which interpreters have overlooked. And always, I seek innovation. One can have a good book which is, however, dead for ideas.

‘What is the problem?’ That shows me my book.

Do you have your own website?

Yes, an author website.


Are you working on a new book at the moment?

I am working on working on it!

Around the New Year, a synopsis of a new metaphysics presented itself to me, all at once, in pictures. These were sufficiently clear for me not to need to write them down. I only did so several days later.

While this new metaphysics does not part with the fundamental ideas of the first, it is completely different in structure, style, and content. Above all, it would jettison all supports such as footnotes, glossary, bibliography, and indexes. I have supplied the proofs that there is reason to believe my current book. Now I can do without all that.

Do you have any events or book promotions coming up that you would like to tell us about?

One rises to the occasion. As my magnum opus gains traction—as it clearly is doing now—I shall be looking at events at which to share the ideas. A few challenges are presented by my location—being in Africa, and almost at antipodes to my publisher.

I shall share a secret, too. My book is big and fat and expensive—unless one buys it on Kindle. But if one subscribes to the publisher’s news bulletin—nothing more than that—one gets 40% off. As one scrolls down the page of
https://wipfandstock.com/ the offer pops up on the bottom of the screen.

[I have made minor adjusments to this interview, which are marked by asterisks *].