BY: Stephanie Yap
One of the first things author Katie Hickman tells LifeStyle is that she tried searching for a satellite image of her old home in Singapore, using Google Maps, just the other day.
"I think I found it but that whole area is so different," she says, referring to Nassim Road, near the Botanic Gardens. "Nassim Road was then a tarmac road but it ended in a dirt track and there was a jungle beyond it."
The author, 48, whose father J.K. Hickman was the British Deputy High Commissioner in Singapore from 1969 to 1971, adds that one of her most vivid memories of Singapore is of Haw Par Villa.
"There was the cave with the scenes from hell. As an eight-year-old, I was terrified but completely thrilled as well."
To call Hickman, who has two younger brothers, a globetrotter would not be an exaggeration.
Born in New Zealand to British parents, she grew up in Spain, Singapore, Ecuador and Chile. After graduating from Oxford University with a degree in English, she travelled around Europe, Asia and Latin America.
"My first husband was a photographer and we would egg one another on when our parents told us to get proper jobs," she says with a laugh, referring to Mr Tom Owen Edmunds, now a diplomat in Sri Lanka, to whom she was married for 10 years and who remains a friend.
Her first book, Dreams Of The Peaceful Dragon (1987), was an account of a journey on horseback across Bhutan. This was followed by The Quetzal Summer (1992), a novel set in the Andes, for which she was shortlisted for The Sunday Times Young British Writer of the Year.
She published a second travel book, A Trip To The Light Fantastic (1993), later re-issued as Travels With A Circus. An account of a year she spent living and working with a Mexican circus, it was short-listed for the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award.
Today, with two children to take care of, the author leads a somewhat more sedentary life. She lives in London with her current husband, philosopher A.C. Grayling, with whom she has an eight-year-old daughter.
She has written two best-selling history books that required more trips to the library than trips abroad. The first, Daughters Of Britannia: The Lives And Times Of Diplomatic Wives (1999), was adapted into a 20-part series for BBC Radio 4 and has sold nearly 200,000 copies.
This was followed in 2003 by Courtesans: Money, Sex And Fame In The 19th Century, which has sold 90,000 copies.
However, the author hit the road again for her latest novel, The Aviary Gate (2008), set in late 16th-century Constantinople, now Istanbul, in the harem of the Turkish sultan. The aviary gate is a gateway separating the harem from the rest of the palace.
She got the idea for setting a novel in Istanbul almost 15 years ago and had visited it once with her ex-husband.
"The first time I went was in October 1994, just for a vacation but I kept a diary. Then in 2003, when I started working on this book, I decided I had to revisit the city," she says.
She adds that it is no coincidence that her past few books have focused on women in society. "People used to think women's experiences did not matter, no one cared what they thought or did. Doing research, I realised that you can read an account by a man on a diplomatic mission, with descriptions of the ambassador, trumpeters and merchants, all the people in the procession, but not one of his wife, who was right there with him. I wanted to reclaim the experiences of these women."
Three of her best works
Travels with a circus (1993, $13.74 at amazon.com)
The author spent a year with a Mexican travelling circus, initially as an outsider but soon as a performer. It's a childhood fantasy come true as she writes about riding elephants and acting as a clown, but she also delves into the psyche of modern Mexico.
Daughters of Britannia (1999, $12.11 at amazon.com)
Drawing on letters and diaries, the author destroys the perception that the wives of British ambassadors from the 17th century onwards have been nothing more than just bored tai-tais. In reality, they faced hardships and played important diplomatic roles.
Courtesans (2003, $27.25 with GST at Books Kinokuniya)
In this book, the author examines the lives of five of England's most famous courtesans, arguing that they were more than just glorified prostitutes or mistresses. She says they were strong women who made choices outside of societal convention to achieve a degree of independence and sexual freedom.
This article was first published in The Sunday Times on June 29, 2008.