My history hero: Jules Verne (1828–1905)

Rock star Rick Wakeman explains why he admires a 19th-century novelist

French writer and futurist Jules Verne. (Photo by Time Life Pictures/Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the May 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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Jules Verne (1828–1905) was a prolific French novelist best known for his adventure stories such as Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Around the World in Eighty Days and Journey to the Centre of the Earth. He wrote more than 70 novels, most notably the 60 or so comprising the Voyages Extraordinaires series. One of the most translated authors of all time, his books have also been adapted for the big screen. He vies with Britain’s HG Wells for the honour of the title ‘Father of Science Fiction’.

When did you first hear about Jules Verne?

I was 10, and I found a copy of his novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea in a bookcase at my junior school. It was a great read, but at the time I found it a bit hard going in places because it was so incredibly detailed. Then a couple of years later, at grammar school, I discovered more of his Voyages Extraordinaires books, such as Around the World in Eighty Days, and I’ve been hooked on Verne and science fiction ever since.

What kind of person was he?

Growing up in Nantes, a port city, and seeing all the maritime comings and goings as a boy, sowed a lifelong love of travel and adventure, which he later poured out in his books. He was intensely curious about the world around him and the scientific advances of the day, which is also reflected in his work. He was quite stubborn too. His father, a well-to-do lawyer, wanted him to follow in his footsteps, but despite passing his law exams, Verne was determined to pursue a career as a writer, much to his father’s disappointment. Verne didn’t always enjoy the best of health, often suffering from stomach cramps, and as a young man seems to have been rather unlucky in love.

What made him a hero?

He didn’t really find literary success until the publication of the first of his Voyages Extraordinaires novels, Five Weeks in a Balloon (1863), by which time he was in his thirties – and that’s part of his appeal for me. I love someone who sticks at what they believe in, regardless of what everyone else says. Indeed my favourite saying is ‘Success is buried in the garden of failure’ – and Verne just dug and dug and dug until he eventually found it, and that for me is the measure of a true artist. He also boasted the most amazing imagination, and it’s that which, first and foremost, makes his many stories so successful. Lastly, he was something of a visionary and was writing about deep sea submarines and space travel way before anyone thought them remotely possible.

What was Verne’s finest hour?

My favourite novel of his has to be Journey to the Centre of the Earth – and not just because it inspired my hit concept album! I first read it as a 13-year-old and the unbelievably detailed descriptions he goes into totally transported me to this imaginary world of his mind with its sea monsters, underground rivers and seas. It’s an extraordinary creative work and even though it wasn’t entirely accurate, who was going to argue about what was down there in the Earth’s core? No one knew!

Is there anything you don’t particularly admire about him?

Well, no one’s perfect, but I’ve always looked for the best in people, and from what I’ve read about Verne he was just a one-off: a creative powerhouse and incredibly driven – hence his many, many books.

Can you see any parallels between his life and yours?

Like him I pay great attention to detail, be it on the literary or musical front, and I too am totally dedicated to my art.

If you could meet Verne what would you ask him?

I’d love to ask him to collaborate on a concept album based on another one of his books. I’d very much like to think he has his own celestial seat at my concerts too!

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Rick Wakeman was talking to York MemberyRick Wakeman is a keyboard player and songwriter who has enjoyed success both as a solo artist and with the prog rock band Yes. His Journey to the Centre of the Earth 40th Anniversary Tour started on 24 April. Visit kililive.com to find out more