Former Hong Kong resident Victoria Finlay loves a bit of adventure while in pursuit of a good story, even when the plot thickens, writes Sue Green
LIKE MOST CHILDREN who curled up under the covers with Enid Blyton's Famous Five and Secret Seven, Victoria Finlay craved adventure. Unlike most, she found it.
It was this longing for adventure that fuelled Finlay's childhood dream of becoming a writer. 'The dream was to do a book,' she says. 'When I was eight, I had the idea that I would be a writer and I wrote the first chapter of an extremely derivative version of The Jungle Book.
'I thought I could create worlds and explore worlds and write about them. I thought I would spend my days writing books about adventures - well, I have.'
More than three decades on, Finlay, 41, has done just that, with a best-seller, Colour: Travels Through the Paintbox, published in 2002, and her newly released Buried Treasure: Travels Through the Jewel Box to her name. Each is the result of three years of meticulous research, combined with Finlay's tales of her exploration of some exotic, even dangerous, corners of the world in pursuit of her story.
'I think I was greedy for adventure,' she says of her motivation. She was also driven by a passion for her subjects and a questioning mind that drove her to embark on long journeys far away from her comfortable home in a village near Bath, in England, if libraries couldn't provide what she needed to know. 'I only went when I found I had a question about somewhere,' she says.
Finlay's first book, begun while working as South China Morning Post arts editor, arose from a long-standing fascination with colour that had led her for many years to collect stories about its origins - Australian ochre, ultramarine from Afghanistan.
She recalls standing in a Hong Kong gallery asking a curator how she knew about an old painting's role in Buddhism. 'She said because of the painting's colour, because of the availability of the paint.'
On a trip to the Australian capital Canberra, a visit to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission's library in a spare hour led to the discovery of a wealth of stories about the origins of ochre - stories that would later prompt a journey to the heart of the Australian desert. 'I realised there was a whole mythology about it and I thought, 'That could make a chapter'.'
So Finlay had an idea. What she didn't have was a publisher, an agent or even a book proposal. 'I had this project and didn't know quite what to do with it,' she says. 'I suppose I was a bit of a coward and thought I could be a freelance writer and the book would metamorphose.'
Then, by chance, a YWCA leaflet offering a three-night course in writing a book proposal dropped into her Hong Kong letterbox. She went with a friend and within a year Finlay had a British agent, and her friend had a contract to write a cookbook.
Although it had been her dream to be published, Finlay never intended Colour to be her first and only book. But she refused to consider a two-book contract. 'I couldn't do that because I was only passionate about one book at a time and couldn't be forced into anything I didn't want to do, even if it meant more money.'
In 2001, while still living in Hong Kong and putting the finishing touches to Colour as a freelance writer, the idea for the second book struck. It came in the form of a marriage proposal.
Her now-fiance Martin Palmer, head of British charity Arc, whom she met at a Hong Kong dinner party while he was visiting, presented her with an engagement ring. The most precious thing he owned but of no carat value, it comprised three large glass pieces, each about 1cm square, one light green, one dark bottle green, and one ruby red. Eight hundred years old, they had once been part of a mosaic in the wall of Istanbul's Hagia Sophia, once a church, later a mosque, now a museum - which Finlay would later visit in search of the exact spot from where her stones had been prised.
This was a ring of stories, not gems. And with it on her finger Finlay set off to find the tales behind other stones.
The Buried Treasure of her title is about the stories and jewels - amber in a far-flung corner of Russia, rubies in Myanmese mines - and 'the cultural layers of meaning and fascination that can always be found wrapped around them'.
Finlay constantly toys with her vast ring - 'a reminder to me of how the most precious thing about stones in a jewellery box is not always their rarity, their size or perfection. It's their stories,' she writes.
She is, inevitably, asked by interviewers to show the ring, even to hand it over for closer inspection.
'Someone asked, 'Do you mind?', and I thought, 'Oh, do I?' But engagement is about letting everybody know.'
Last year, Guildford-born Finlay moved back to Britain to live with Palmer, at first in Derbyshire, now near Bath. She works part-time on communications for Arc and, as well as choosing between two ideas for her next book, is involved in projects that appeal to her love of adventure.
One is in South Africa, a World Bank-funded project to distribute cheap coffins made from trees such as eucalyptus, felled to protect the water table and help prevent drought. The other is researching faith-based medicine - research she will turn into a book when the project, expected to last two years, is complete. 'So I see myself as a part-time writer. I like doing the Arc work because that gets me out into the world at a completely different level.'
The projects involve a different kind of personal journey from that Finlay experienced in pursuit of her stories. 'I have learned a great deal about myself and what I can do and cannot do,' she says. 'Going to Afghanistan for the Colour book was quite nerve-wracking. It was confronting fear. For the Treasure book, I did do things that frightened me and made me nervous.'
She cites a trip to Kaliningrad, a small Russian state between Poland and Lithuania, in search of amber. 'That was putting myself out of my comfort zone,' she says. But Finlay, who worked in Ladakh refugee camps while a student at St Andrew's University and knows about hardship, is not talking about the living conditions.
She had read in a footnote that there had been a gulag in Kaliningrad and that prisoners had worked in an amber mine. Terrier-like, she was determined to pursue this, but in doing so, learned more than the answer to her question.
'I had a moment in [a camp guard's] house when I realised that it was a more complex question than I thought I was asking and that I had to pause for a moment and realise the awfulness of it.
'As a journalist, you can go into pursuit mode - it's almost the fun of the chase. I was just thinking, 'I have got to find the answer to this question', without thinking how awful the question was.'
Finlay confronted similar ethical dilemmas in Myanmar while in pursuit of rubies, paying a substantial entry fee to the army (her cagey reference to this in Buried Treasure interpreted as bribes by one reviewer), and in deciding whether she supported the international boycott of Myanmese gems - another question to which she found there was no simple answer.
But for all the personal risks and ethical dilemmas, nothing Finlay encountered during her research was as frightening or as physically damaging as being mugged by a group of youths in New York's Times Square in 1986. It's a mark of her refusal to be intimidated, her never-say-die attitude, that 10 years later on tour with the Asian Youth Orchestra, finding herself in a Times Square hotel, she made herself walk around the square for an hour after dark.
'I confronted my demons,' she says. 'I had to.'
Victoria Finlay speaks about her latest book, tomorrow, 7.30pm, Foreign Correspondents' Club, 2 Lower Albert Road, Central, $175 (members), $225. Inquiries: 2521 1511
Latest title Buried Treasure: Travels Through the Jewel Box
Born Guildford, England
Lives Near Bath, England
Family Engaged to Martin Palmer
Other works Colour: Travels Through the Paintbox
Other jobs Staff writer and arts editor, South China Morning Post; Reuters, London and Scandinavia
Next project Choosing between book projects; also working on an environmental coffin-building project in South Africa with British charity Arc
What the papers say 'Her curiosity is inexhaustible, her reading wide, and her writing style a delight.'
- The Sunday Telegraph
The Eagle of the Ninth
by Rosemary Sutcliff
'This is a children's book about Roman Britain and started off my fascination with history and lost things because it's about the Ninth Legion [also known as the 'Lost Legion' because of the mystery surrounding its disappearance].'
Palgrave's Golden Treasury
edited by Francis Turner Palgrave and John Press
'This is an old-fashioned and unfashionable collection of poetry.'
The Periodic Table by Primo Levy
'It's about the astonishing life of a chemist in Auschwitz.'
Diving Bell and the Butterfly: A Memoir of Life in Death
by Jean-Dominique Bauby
'A beautiful, moving book about a French journalist who, at 40, had a stroke and suddenly couldn't do anything but move one eyelid - and that's how he wrote the book.'
His Dark Materials (Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass) by Philip Pullman
'I missed a plane because of this. It's really thoughtful. It's a fantasy, sort of for children, but adults will like it.'