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  • Henry Hitchings

    Thu, 02 Apr 2009 04:57

    Henry Hitchings is an author, reviewer and critic, specializing in books on language and cultural history. His book The Secret Life of Words: How English Became English won the 2008 John Llewellyn Rhys Prize. He is also the author of Dr. Johnson's Dictionary: The Extraordinary Story of the Book That Defined the World and How to Really Talk About Books You Haven't Read.

    Mark Thwaite: What first gave you the idea for writing The Secret Life of Words: How English Became English?

    Henry Hitchings: If there was one episode that triggered my embarking on the book, I suppose it was a conversation I had with a friend about Arabic, when he simply refused to believe that the word "alcohol" was Arabic in origin. Eventually I convinced him, and I thought, "I could expand on this." But I've always been a bit of a word junkie, and for years I found myself discussing word origins with all sorts of people - not just friends, but people I met in other contexts (cab drivers, for instance, and shopkeepers and the guy who cuts my hair) -- and it was inevitable, I think, that I chose to explore the matter more deeply. There are lots of books that contain stuff about etymology, but they tend to present it in lists and little boxes. There are also good books covering the history of the English language, but they often -- for understandable reasons -- dwell on matters other than vocabulary, whereas it's really vocabulary that interests me. What I wanted to do, then, was create a seamless history of the acquisitiveness of English, its assimilation of words from other tongues. I hope that's what I've managed to do.

    Mark Thwaite: I'm presuming that The Secret Life of Words grew out of the research and writing of your earlier Dr. Johnson's Dictionary: The Extraordinary Story of the Book That Defined the World, is that right?

    Henry Hitchings: Yes. Dr Johnson was resistant to a lot of the French imports that were fashionable in his day. For instance, he said that "finesse" was "an unnecessary word which is creeping into the language". That sort of thing intrigued me, and it got me thinking about the attitudes we have to words acquired from other cultures. As it turns out, there's a very long history of hostility to adopting words from French -- which is, of course, the language that English has borrowed from most copiously.

    Mark Thwaite: What was the most fascinating thing you learned about Dr Johnson and his dictionary during your research?

    Henry Hitchings: I was rather smitten with the information that he used to like visiting his printer, William Strahan, in part because there was a lime tree outside Strahan's house that it was apparently very satisfying to hug.

    Mark Thwaite: When did you first get interested in the secret history of language?

    Henry Hitchings: Probably when I started learning languages other than English. That would make me eight at the time! It became something I focused on more closely and rigorously when I was writing my PhD thesis, a large part of which was to do with vocabulary.

    Mark Thwaite: How long did it take you to research? Do you enjoy the research, or do you find yourself impatient to get down to the actual writing?

    Henry Hitchings: The research and the writing aren't two separate activities for me. I make notes, but I like as I go to turn the notes into joined-up sentences and paragraphs (and more). The entire process of researching and writing The Secret Life of Words took about eighteen months, but parts of it had been fermenting for a long time before that.

    Mark Thwaite: How long did it take you actually to write your book Henry? How do you write? Longhand or directly onto a computer, straight off or with lots and lots of editing?

    Henry Hitchings: I write on my computer. I use a piece of software called Scrivener, which I find useful for manipulating the architecture of a book. I edit myself as I go; for instance, I'll often start the day by tinkering with what I wrote the day before or perhaps a week ago.

    Mark Thwaite: What was the most difficult aspect of writing your book? How did you overcome it?

    Henry Hitchings: This may seem a bit banal, but it's a strong memory and it's what comes to mind first: while I was writing the book I found myself working most Saturdays, to the frustration of my girlfriend, and so when I'd go home afterwards I always made sure I took red wine and flowers (or, better still apparently, fancy cupcakes), which proved sufficient recompense and made the whole process quite smooth, to the point where I think it actually made her look forward to my slinking off to the library on a Saturday morning.

    Mark Thwaite: Do you read the critics? Have you been pleased with the responses to your book? Have you learned anything from them?

    Henry Hitchings: Yes, I do read the critics, and I don't believe people who say they don't look at their reviews. I'm intrigued to know what people think and want to know as soon as possible. Additionally, a really good review can have a positive impact on sales, and when you've a new book out that's something you're sensitive to. The responses to The Secret Life of Words have been favourable, but it's the little cavils that stick in the mind. I particularly remember that an American reviewer of my first book commented that I used too many adverbs. My reaction was to say "Really?" -- and then catch myself laughing. He had a point.

    Mark Thwaite: You've also written How to Really Talk About Books You Haven't Read... well, how do you talk about books you haven't read? And have you read Pierre Bayard!?

    Henry Hitchings: I certainly have read Pierre Bayard; his book is very different from mine, but I liked it. I can't possibly tell you how to talk about books you haven't read, because that would be giving away my secrets! Actually, my book's as much about why writers such as Dante and James Joyce really are worth reading. It's a defence of reading at least as much as it's a bluffer's guide. The title is a tease.

    Mark Thwaite: What do you do when you are not writing?

    Henry Hitchings: I've got a huge repertoire of displacement activities. Favourites include checking the day's tennis scores (I am a tennis nut), going for aimless walks, eating pistachio nuts and making iTunes playlists.

    Mark Thwaite: Did you have an idea in your mind of your "ideal" reader? Did you write specifically for them?

    Henry Hitchings: I don't. However, experience suggests that many of my readers are significantly older than I am. That's something I occasionally have to prod myself into remembering. There are assumptions I might make -- about what people know, about what they don't know -- that aren't safe, and thinking about my putative audience is an important corrective to that.

    Mark Thwaite: What are you working on now?

    Henry Hitchings: A book dealing with arguments about English usage. It's partly a history of disputes about English and partly a counterblast to some of the contemporary notions about English that seem to me completely misguided. To give a single example, it's commonly assumed that the spread of English is good for those of us who are native speakers. But I'm not sure that's the case, for reasons that are a bit too complicated to explain here. Suffice it to say that I think English's centre of gravity is moving; it's no longer in the UK, nor indeed even the US. The received wisdom is that English is all-conquering and that this is great news, but there's a dark side to linguistic imperialism, and even the people who look like they're the beneficiaries may turn out not to be so well-off after all. The book, incidentally, will be published in about two years' time by John Murray, who've published my three previous books.

    Mark Thwaite: Who is your favourite writer? What is/are your favourite book(s)?

    Henry Hitchings: I think this is one of the most difficult questions you can ask anyone who loves books. I could say that my favourite novelist is Jane Austen -- that's probably true -- but I don't think any of her novels is as good as Anna Karenina, although I wouldn't say Tolstoy is actually one of my favourite writers. Is that stupidly contrary? Right now I'm very keen on the American novelist Richard Ford and on the poet Adrienne Rich.

    Mark Thwaite: Do you have any tips for the aspiring writer!?

    Henry Hitchings: Don't assume you'll make any money out of writing. You may do, but it's sensible to have something else going on in your life that will pay the bills. Plus, read as much as possible: read adventurously, read critically, and don't confine yourself to literature written in English.

    Mark Thwaite: Anything else you would like to say?

    Henry Hitchings: For some reason a favourite quotation from Henry David Thoreau comes to mind: "The cost of a thing is the amount of what I call life which is required to be exchanged for it." The more I've thought about that, the more profound it seems.

  • Claire Harman

    Mon, 30 Mar 2009 03:14

    Claire Harman's first book, a biography of the novelist Sylvia Townsend Warner won the John Llewellyn Rhys prize. Her subsequent biography of the eighteenth-century novelist, Fanny Burney was shortlisted for the Whitbread Prize. Her last book, Robert Louis Stevenson: A Life was published to great critical acclaim in 2006.

    Mark Thwaite: What first gave you the idea for writing Jane's Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World?

    Claire Harman: I've always loved Austen and wanted to write a biography of her before I wrote my book on Fanny Burney, but there just seemed too many other lives on the market at that time. After I'd written about Burney, and then about Robert Louis Stevenson, I still hankered after Austen. I was talking to my friend Mark Bostridge about it and he suggested not a straight biography, but a book that would do for Austen what Lucasta Miller's The Bronte Myth did for the Brontes. That immediately seemed like a brilliant idea.

    Mark Thwaite: How long did it take you to research? Do you enjoy the research, or do you find yourself impatient to get down to the actual writing?

    Claire Harman: I love research. That's always my favourite part of a project. Looking at manuscripts, searching out sites; it beats sitting at a keyboard any day. It also goes on through the writing, so for this project took about three years.

    Mark Thwaite: What was the most fascinating thing you learned about Jane Austen during the course of writing your book?

    Claire Harman: It was really illuminating to re-read her letters, very slowly. I read them one at a time, as if I were receiving them personally, and looked up all the references. So many things emerged! I got particularly interested in the shadowy Edward Taylor, though he doesn't get into my book at all. She obviously had a far more serious crush on him than on Tom Lefroy, the heartthrob in the film Becoming Jane.

    Mark Thwaite: Obviously, people will need to read your book to get the full answer to this question, but just how did Jane conquer the world!?

    Claire Harman: By understanding exactly what readers want and giving it to them. Her books appeal very broadly, so have been easy to adapt into a sort of literary single currency in the mass-communications age.

    Mark Thwaite: How long did it take you to write your book Claire? How do you write? Longhand or directly onto a computer, straight off or with lots and lots of editing?

    Claire Harman: It took two and half years from contract to delivery, which is a record for me. I used to write longhand and came rather late to word-processing, but now I make lots of notes and then compose straight onto the computer. I do a lot of micro-tweaking, but the final text is not that dissimilar from the first draft.

    Mark Thwaite: What was the most difficult aspect of writing your book? How did you overcome it?

    Claire Harman: Balancing the early chapters, which had a lot of biographical content, with the later ones, which were more critical. There was a lot more that I would have liked to include in the early part that simply would have overtipped that balance. I had to be firm with myself and leave out lots of side issues.

    Mark Thwaite: Do you read the critics? Have you been pleased with the responses to this book and your previous work? Have you learned anything from them?

    Claire Harman: There haven't been many reviews of this book yet, but they've been extremely good so far, so yes, I'm pleased! It's very gratifying when people 'get' what you were trying to do, and of course it's always wonderful if they enjoy a book you've written.

    Mark Thwaite: You've also written about Fanny Burney (a writer of some importance to Austen, of course) and Robert Louis Stevenson. Once you've written a biography, is that person "done" for you or do you remain interested in your previous subjects?

    Claire Harman: No, I remain intensely interested! No life is ever 'done' definitively, so it is always interesting to keep up with the new research and writing, and anyone you've spent years writing about is going to stay with you forever -- it's the biggest perk. There's been so much more work done on Sylvia Townsend Warner since my biography in 1989 that I'd of course like to re-write that book. I think about her a great deal.

    Mark Thwaite: You are a student of Professor Kathryn Sutherland, author of Jane Austen's Textual Lives, but you've recently had something of a scholarly falling out -- can we help you patch things up!?

    Claire Harman: That's a very kind offer, worthy of an Austen hero! I was Prof Sutherland's student, but a very long time ago, 1976, and I didn't study Austen with her. It's been a very one-sided "falling-out" so far, since the first I heard of it was when it was reported in The Observer. She has accused me of not adequately crediting her published work, but the real issue is that she wanted to write a follow-up volume to her 2005 specialist study of Austen's manuscripts and feels that my book (and many others, one presumes) somehow prevents her from doing that. She made dark hints in The Observer that I had "ended her hopes of a wider readership", but perhaps the publicity she solicited by her stunt has gone some way towards easing those frustrations.

    Mark Thwaite: What do you do when you are not writing?

    Claire Harman: I teach part-time at Columbia University in New York, I read a lot, I garden, though my current garden is so small, that doesn't provide much distraction. There are only so many times you can weed a planter.

    Mark Thwaite: Did you have an idea in your mind of your "ideal" reader? Did you write specifically for them?

    Claire Harman: For this book, I did have several friends in mind as the sort of readers I wanted to please. They are all people who care passionately about Austen and know her books backwards.

    Mark Thwaite: What are you working on now?

    Claire Harman: I've got several ideas I'm happily mulling over. Still thinking a lot about Austen and what to do with all the material I couldn't get into Jane's Fame, but I doubt I'll write another book on her.

    Mark Thwaite: Who is your favourite writer? What is/are your favourite book(s)?

    Claire Harman: I don't have one favourite! I love all the writers I've written about, and have a special corner in my heart reserved for Sylvia Townsend Warner, whose diaries and poems I've edited as well as writing her biography. Otherwise, any sort of 18th century history, anything to do with the fin-de-siecle, (almost) any sort of 20th century poetry. Nabokov's Speak, Memory is a perfect book. And I admire Alice Munro more than any other living writer: a great short story is the hardest thing to write.

    Mark Thwaite: Do you have any tips for the aspiring writer!?

    Claire Harman: Do something else as well.

    Mark Thwaite: Anything else you would like to say?

    Claire Harman: No thanks, that was fine!

  • Doug Johnstone

    Tue, 24 Mar 2009 05:37

    Doug Johnstone is a writer, journalist and musician based in Edinburgh. He's had two novels published, Tombstoning and The Ossians, which received acclaim from Ian Rankin, Irvine Welsh and Christopher Brookmyre. Doug's band, Northern Alliance, have released four albums, and he also released music as The Ossians to tie in with the novel.

    Mark Thwaite: What first gave you the idea for writing The Ossians?

    Doug Johnstone: A couple of things. Firstly, I had spent many years in crappy indie bands not making it, and that whole toilet-circuit subculture was one I found fascinating, and that I couldn't remember seeing represented in fiction pretty much anywhere. I had a vague idea about a band touring the Scottish Highlands, because I wanted to say something about the state of Scotland at the start of the new century, all that metaphorical guff. Anyway, then I went to an exhibition by artist Calum Colvin all about Ossian, a mythical Scottish warrior poet whose work was "discovered" by James MacPherson in the eighteenth century, then exposed as a partial hoax. That idea of myth v reality tied in with the rock 'n' roll myth story I'd been kicking around, and I left that exhibition with the name of the band and the start of a story.

    Mark Thwaite: How long did it take to write your novel Doug?

    Doug Johnstone: The Ossians was written in two stints, really, actually maybe more. I wrote a version of it before Tombstoning, which was my first published work. That original version of The Ossians was politely rejected by dozens of publishers and fifty plus agents, but a couple of editors were encouraging enough that I started writing Tombstoning. After that was published, I went back and completely re-wrote The Ossians, taking it to bits and putting it back together again.

    Aye, so, in answer to your question, I did a first draft of The Ossians in six months, spent another six months re-drafting it, then it got rejected. Tombstoning I planned for a couple of months, then wrote in seven months straight. Then I spent another four months re-writing The Ossians yet again. Who was it said writing is almost all re-writing? Too right.

    Mark Thwaite: This is your second novel (your first was Tombstoning), was this easier or more difficult to write than your debut?

    Doug Johnstone: See above for the complicated relationship between the two books and chronology. Anyway, I found Tombstoning relatively easy to write because it was a fairly straightforward thriller and it was my second stab at writing a novel. The Ossians took longer and I spent longer on it because by the end it was much more ambitious, trying to say a lot more about the world. With every book that gets published, I guess the process gets a little easier, just because once you've seen how a good editor works, it's possible to do some of that shit yourself. I've never been shy about self-editing, quite happy to lose big chunks of prose if they don't serve a purpose. I think maybe that's because I've been an arts journalist for almost ten years, you can't be precious about your words when they get chopped for a fucking car advert at the last minute!

    Mark Thwaite: You're a singer, songwriter and instrumentalist in a band. How much of your experience in Northern Alliance is written into The Ossians? How much of you is there in Connor?

    Doug Johnstone: Ha, there is hopefully none of me in Connor -- he's a complete arsehole! Some of the issues he's concerned with about Scottish national identity etc are things that I'm interested in, but I deliberately made him a complete basketcase to make the book more interesting. I did use some of my experiences in Northern Alliance and previous bands for the backdrop of The Ossians, though. I've played some of those venues, met some of those promoters etc. Like I said earlier, it's a fascinating and weird world, a world where all the famous rock bands sprout from, but that not many people know about. I've never accidentally massacred hundreds of seagulls, I'd like to make that absolutely clear. At least not that I can remember. I have fallen off a stage due to drunkenness, though.

    Mark Thwaite: What was the most difficult aspect of writing your book? How did you overcome it?

    Doug Johnstone: The most difficult thing is just sticking in there and getting it finished, I think. It's a war of attrition, getting a novel written, and it's incredibly tempting to take the easy way out and just stop doing it. The triumph for any writer is getting to the end of the process and having something that you're not totally ashamed to see in print. These days I have two small kids in the house, still make music, earn money doing journalism, so it remains hard to find the time to write fiction, but it's become something of a compulsion, so I don't see myself stopping anytime soon. I've already written a third novel, and am a third of the way through a fourth one, so I've clearly got the bug good and proper.

    Mark Thwaite: How do you write? Longhand or directly onto a computer, straight off or with lots and lots of editing? Where do you write?

    Doug Johnstone: Always on a computer, and I tend to work in short bursts of an hour or two, partly out of necessity, but also I find that the energy of the writing tends to drop after about two hours, and what you're putting on the page begins to read pretty tired. I try not to worry too much about editing in the beginning, I think it was Raymond Carver who said you had to write in the white heat of the moment, then afterwards put the opposite hat on and become the pernickety nit-picking editor of your own work. That's pretty much how I do it. There is loads of editing, but always after the initial splurge of words.

    I now have an office in the loft of our house. I keep getting moved by the arrival of babies! In our last flat I had an office, then that became my son's bedroom and I was shunted to an alcove. Then we moved to a house and I had an office again, only to get bumped by the arrival of our daughter. So it's up the ladder to the freezing loft for me. Actually it's great, I can shut the trap door and can't hear the baby crying!

    Mark Thwaite: Did you know how The Ossians would progress when you began writing it, or was writing a voyage of discovery for you?

    Doug Johnstone:All novels are a journey of discovery in some sense, I guess. But for me, I do quite a lot of planning before each novel. I tend to do far too much research, just to get inside the characters, the plot and the setting, and then most of it, maybe as much as 80%, doesn't get used. I have a loose structure before I start, I tend to have the beginning mapped out in my head, and the ending as well, but often there's a hazy area in the middle where I allow my characters room to work out how to get from one to the other.

    Mark Thwaite: You have a PhD in experimental nuclear physics and spent four years designing radar and missile guidance systems for planes and helicopters. Has that informed your writing at all? Do you miss nuclear physics!?

    Doug Johnstone: I have to say that my science background has had very little influence on my fiction writing. I have been toying with the idea of using some of it in future, but haven't yet worked out exactly how. Other writers do that brilliantly, someone like Andrew Crumey springs to mind, but for me, I wanted to get right away from all that crap after having studied physics for seven years then done a sh*t-boring job for four more. I do not miss nuclear physics, although I remain a fan of popular science books, and actually review quite a lot of them for newspapers.

    Mark Thwaite: What do you do when you are not writing?

    Doug Johnstone: When I'm not writing fiction I'm writing journalism, when I'm not doing that I'm making music, when I'm not doing that I'm looking after a baby and a toddler, being a house husband, cooking, cleaning, doing the nursery run etc, etc. When I'm not doing any of that I'm either drinking whisky or sleeping. In that order.

    Mark Thwaite: Did you have an idea in your mind of your "ideal" reader? Did you write specifically for them?

    Doug Johnstone: I don't think many authors have that ideal reader thing in their heads, I certainly don't. However I wanted to write books about people and places that I knew, and that I felt weren't well represented in modern fiction. So much modern fiction remains in the realm of the well-off, well-educated upper middle classes of London, which doesn't address the vast majority of the country. In the end, surely all authors write the books they'd want to read, so you have to assume that you are your own perfect reader.

    Mark Thwaite: What are you working on now?

    Doug Johnstone: I recently finished a third novel, which was a change of direction for me, a big family saga thing set partly in Edinburgh and partly in Iceland. It took about 18 months and is my attempt at being more mainstream. Whether others will see it as that, who knows? Anyway, as a reaction to that, I've not long started a fourth novel, which is a short, sharp punch to the face in comparison, about four friends on a disastrous trip to the whisky distilleries of Islay. I'm also veeeeery tentatively dipping my toe in the icy cold waters of screenwriting.

    Mark Thwaite: Who is your favourite writer? What is/are your favourite book(s)?

    Doug Johnstone: I just did a list of my top ten books, and there was definitely a trend there -- full of psychos, drugs, booze, mania, torture, violence and some very dark humour. I tend to like leftfield American and Scottish authors. Irvine Welsh is a big influence, as is Iain Banks. Across the pond, Chuck Palahniuk, Bret Easton Ellis and Jay McInerney spring to mind, along with a fantastic unknown writer called Stona Fitch. If I was to pick one book, though, it would be Preston Falls by an American called David Gates. It has simply the most wonderful narrative voice I think I've ever read, as we accompany ad executive Doug Willis on his mid-life crisis and watch as he shambolically tries to do up a house in upstate New York. The unraveling of a life has never been so much fun. Seriously, I implore everyone to seek this book out.

    Mark Thwaite: Do you have any tips for the aspiring writer!?

    Doug Johnstone: Just to keep at it, really. It's a banal kind of answer, but it's important not to become discouraged. It's incredibly easy to give up. I was lucky in that I had some encouragement from people in the industry just when I was wavering, and that helped me keep going. Remember that if someone rejects your masterpiece, it's only one person's opinion. Sure, take all constructive criticism on board, but ultimately it's your vision of the world. Publishing is littered with stories of great writers and amazing novels rejected countless times before publication.

    As for tips in the actual writing of prose -- less is more, people! Strip out those adverbs!

    Mark Thwaite: Anything else you would like to say?

    Doug Johnstone: Yes, self-promotion time. In a typically hapless way my real band have put out an album as The Ossians, which you can buy from www.lowfideilty.com for only £5. You can listen first at www.myspace.com/theossians

  • Matthew Plampin

    Fri, 20 Mar 2009 03:08

    Matthew Plampin was born in 1975 and grew up in Essex. He read English and History of Art at the University of Birmingham and then completed a PhD at the Courtauld Institute of Art, London. He now lectures on nineteenth-century art and architecture. The Street Philosopher is his first novel.

    Mark Thwaite: What gave you the idea for The Street Philosopher?

    Matthew Plampin: I was working on my PhD thesis on Victorian cultural history at the Courtauld Institute, researching a chapter on the Manchester Art Treasures Exhibition of 1857. This was a vast temporary display mounted in an 'iron-and-glass' building -- the obvious precedent was the Great Exhibition of 1851. However, I soon discovered through reading contemporary newspapers and journals that the national mood in 1857 was very different to that of six years previously. There was a far more pronounced tension between the different social classes, and a marked bitterness towards the aristocracy in particular. The reason for this change, I realised, was the Crimean War of 1854-6. I started to read more about this conflict and quickly became fascinated. One fact that seemed especially significant was it having been the first war to feature 'embedded' civilian war reporters, writing on the war's successes and failures from the front line, which naturally had a profound effect on the wider perception of the campaign. It was reading the accounts published by these men -- often grisly and unflinching -- that first inspired me to write The Street Philosopher. For me, there seemed to be a strong connection between the Crimean campaign and this grand exhibition mounted the year after it ended, and from this came the basis of the book: war and its aftermath, and the traumas of both.

    Mark Thwaite: The Street Philosopher is your debut novel -- tell us a little about how you came to get published.

    Matthew Plampin: It happened through the usual mix of some perseverance and a lot of luck. I'd been circulating passages from The Street Philosopher among my friends for some time, several of whom had publishing contacts. The first half eventually found its way to my agent, who was fortunately looking for new clients. We worked on a fresh draft of the manuscript together, and he then managed to get me a two-book contract with HarperCollins.

    Mark Thwaite: Your novel is set at the time of the Crimean war -- did you have to do much research to make sure you were setting the scene correctly?

    Matthew Plampin: I try to research my settings thoroughly, in order to make them as convincing as possible -- although one of the definite tricks with historical fiction is not to let this overwhelm your story or your characters. The Crimean War was relatively easy to research due to the large amount that has been written about it, both by Victorians and modern scholars. Also, as I was just starting to think seriously about the book, the National Army Museum put on a 150th anniversary exhibition, so I was able to see uniforms, weapons and so on at first hand. Manchester proved more of a challenge -- I already knew a lot about the Art Treasures Exhibition due to my PhD, but specific information about the city itself in the summer of 1857 was elusive. Luckily, the mid-Victorian period was very much the age of the guidebook, and I managed to find some general guides to Manchester published to coincide with the Exhibition, filled with facts, descriptions, recommendations -- and warnings -- for those coming to town for the first time. Many details in The Street Philosopher were drawn from them.

    Mark Thwaite: Your hero Thomas Kitson hates the atrocities of war -- are you, through Thomas, obliquely commenting on today's wars?

    Matthew Plampin: It's true that the book was conceived and developed during the second Iraq war and its aftermath, and a couple of broad parallels with the Crimea did occur to me. Both, for instance, were poorly planned invasions that exacted a heavy price on all involved, and provoked a good deal of angry opposition back in Britain (although it's worth noting that the Crimean War did actually manage to bring down the government of the day). As mentioned above, my interest was focussed upon the figure of the civilian war correspondent, and the twenty-first century descendents of the Crimea's pioneering reporters were very visible in print and on television as I started to write. I wanted to explore the inherent difficulties and contradictions of this role, not least of which being the tension that can exist between those performing it and the army they are following. Being so visible and influential, the job has real power as well. I was interested in the effect that this sense of power could have on the war correspondent -- how it could lead, in certain cases, to recklessness, pride and self-aggrandisement.

    Mark Thwaite: How long did it take you to write your book?

    Matthew Plampin: I started considering it properly in early 2004, and wrote about five drafts over the next three years. The published version is number six, roughly speaking. So quite a long time -- mostly rewriting and refining, done around other jobs.

    Mark Thwaite: What was the most difficult aspect of writing The Street Philosopher? How did you overcome it?

    Matthew Plampin: The basic structural device of the book -- the two interweaving chronological strands -- posed some significant challenges. I needed to ensure that the pace did not slacken off when switching strands; that the two 'versions' of certain characters didn't contradict or undermine one another; and that both strands arrived at different but equally dramatic and satisfying conclusions. As with most problems in writing, the only solution was hard work -- constant revision and rewriting.

    Mark Thwaite: How do you write? Longhand or directly onto a computer, straight off or with lots and lots of editing?

    Matthew Plampin: I make copious notes in longhand, and am devoted to the large-scale chart as a means of ironing out plot problems. All actual writing, however, is done directly onto a laptop. I can't actually imagine doing it any other way -- my writing style has evolved around the ability to cut and paste; to work up sentences gradually, tinkering and rearranging at will; and to edit and rewrite constantly.

    Mark Thwaite: Did you know how your book would end before you began, or was writing a journey of discovery for you?

    Matthew Plampin: I had a clear sense of how the two strands would slowly converge, and a few of the key events were with me from the start. Quite a lot of it came to me during the writing, though; my broad approach was to develop my characters, familiarise myself thoroughly with the sequence of historical events (battles in the Crimea, grand ceremonies in Manchester) and take it from there.

    Mark Thwaite: You lecture on nineteenth-century art and architecture -- tell us something about your average day Matthew!

    Matthew Plampin: Well, I'm currently taking a break from lecturing in order to work on my second novel, but the majority of my teaching is done in central London, with students from American universities like the University of Chicago and Skidmore College in upstate New York. I cover art and architecture over the 'long' nineteenth century -- meaning from about 1780 to World War One, and make as much use of London and its galleries as I can. There isn't really an average day -- we might be in the National Gallery looking at Constable and Turner, or before the Albert Memorial in Kensington Gardens discussing Neo-Gothic architecture, or in the Imperial War Museum viewing the nightmarish WW1 landscapes of Paul Nash (a quotation from whom I used as The Street Philosopher's epigraph). It's certainly rewarding to introduce US students to artists, architects and movements they've usually never even heard of before -- and to use the actual paintings and buildings to do it.

    Mark Thwaite: Did you have an idea in your mind of your "ideal" reader? Did you write specifically for them?

    Matthew Plampin: Not really, although I suppose I wanted to write a book that would interest those who might not necessarily describe themselves as fans of historical fiction -- that had relevance and resonance beyond the period in which it was set.

    Mark Thwaite: What are you working on now Matthew?

    Matthew Plampin: A novel set around the short-lived weapons factory established in London in 1853 by the legendary American gun-maker Colonel Samuel Colt, self-proclaimed inventor of the revolver. It's a sort of loose companion piece to The Street Philosopher, with an entirely new setting and cast of characters; the main story concerns Colt's strenuous efforts to win the patronage of the British Government in the build-up to the Crimean War, and involves political corruption at the highest levels, the (a)morality of arms dealing, and intricate, back-stabbing conspiracies -- culminating in gun-fighting on the streets of Westminster.

    Mark Thwaite: Who is your favourite writer? What is/are your favourite book(s)?

    Matthew Plampin: A very difficult question! If forced, I would probably say Charles Dickens -- I try to reread a couple of his novels every year and always find new things in them. Regarding living writers, I'm a great admirer of Peter Carey, and think that Sarah Waters and Kate Grenville are both first rate historical novelists. A list of my favourite books would have to include Moby Dick by Herman Melville, True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey, The Secret River by Kate Grenville, Our Mutual Friend by Dickens (or maybe Bleak House or Little Dorrit), Fingersmith by Sarah Waters, Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, Romola by George Eliot, Herzog by Saul Bellow, Wise Children by Angela Carter... I could go on.

    Mark Thwaite: Do you have any tips for the aspiring writer!?

    Matthew Plampin: Redraft repeatedly -- there is nothing that can't be improved. Take all tips and advice from other writers with a tiny pinch of salt -- what works for someone else might not be right for you, and guidelines they swear by could just end up burdening you with unhelpful strictures.

    Mark Thwaite: Anything else you would like to say?

    Matthew Plampin: Thank you very much for your interest in my work, and I hope you enjoy the novel.

  • Samia Serageldin

    Thu, 12 Mar 2009 05:14

    Samia Serageldin was born in Egypt, educated in Europe, and emigrated to the United States in 1980. She is the author of an autobiographical novel, The Cairo House, tracing political developments in Egypt over the past three decades. She has also written papers on topics including Arab American writing and gender and Islam in Egypt. Since September 11 she has been active as a speaker in various public forums on Islam and on international events. Samia's latest book is The Naqib's Daughter.

    Mark Thwaite: What gave you the idea for The Naqib's Daughter?

    Samia Serageldin: I originally started reading about the Napoleonic expedition to Egypt right after the Iraq war started, seeking the perspective that history lends to current events. In the course of my reading, I found passing references in French sources to the daughter of Shaykh Bakri, a Cairo notable, who pushes his daughter into the arms of the French in order to curry favor with Bonaparte. He is in fact appointed Naqib, or Syndic of the House of the Prophet. Napoleon, we are told, has several Circassian slaves presented to him, whom he finds too plump and perfumed for his taste; then Zeinab, daughter of Shaykh Bakri. The unsophisticated Zeinab does not please Bonaparte, who apparently keeps her around for only a few days.

    What happens to the Naqib's daughter after the French evacuate? That question intrigued me, and I set out to find the answer rather as one might follow the thread of a mystery. French sources lost interest after 1801, the year of the evacuation. So I turned to the Egyptian historian of the period, Jabarti, who kept a daily chronicle of his times, an indispensable primary source for all historians of the expedition. Jabarti speaks of the collaborationist Shaykh Bakri, who sought to curry favor with the occupation and whose daughter consorted with the French at his instigation. I finally tracked down the fate of Zeinab Bakri in an entry in 1807. Immediately after the evacuation of the French, she was brought to trial for consorting with the enemy; the real target was her father, whose collaboration had outraged his fellow citizens. I won't reveal what happens next, but the fascinating true story of the Naqib's daughter was the inspiration for the novel.

    Mark Thwaite: The Naqib's Daughter is based on historical characters, and set during Napoleon's campaign in Egypt. Did you have to do much research for your novel? Did you enjoy it!?

    Samia Serageldin: I did a great deal of research, in French, English and Arabic, all languages in which I am equally comfortable. I started with secondary sources and quickly moved on to primary, reading everything from English war office records to French/Ottoman diplomatic dispatches; from the four volumes of Jabarti in the original Arabic to issues of Gentleman's Magazine, an English society rag of the period. Reading a line or an entry in one book led me to another in an endless chain, and it took considerable self-discipline to draw the line and start writing my novel. But in the course of the novel, as well, I did more research: I am one of those writers who, if I write that one of my characters, the Mamluke Elfi Bey, bought a piano while he was in London, need to find out what kind of piano it was -- a harpsichord or a pianoforte -- and where he bought it: from Broadwood's. I need to know what kind of meal Zeinab would have prepared for the Frenchman Nicholas Conte at the height of the siege of Cairo: beans and olives and watermelon.

    I researched the fascinating history of the Mamlukes, the warrior-slave cavalry caste that ruled Egypt at the time of the French invasion, with as much enjoyment as reading about the savants, the French scientists and artists who accompanied Bonaparte's expedition. I enjoyed all the research immensely, but when it was time to put pen to paper, my aim was to weave all the material seamlessly into a tapestry-like background that the reader would not be consciously aware of, beyond a feeling of authenticity and depth. I hope I succeeded!

    Mark Thwaite: Do you think Napoleon's campaign in Egypt can shed any light on the West's relationship to the Middle East today?

    Samia Serageldin: Very much so. The French invasion of Egypt over two hundred years ago is the prototypical cultural clash between the West and the Islamic Middle East. The parallels with today's headlines are striking. Then as now, the geopolitical, strategic and imperialist rationales for the invasion are cloaked in idealist sentiment: to bring freedom from despotism and the lights of the Enlightenment, or Democracy, to the natives. There is also the expectation of being welcomed by the occupied people. When the French first arrive, they try to win hearts and minds, walking about the streets of Cairo without arms or hostility. Within months a series of cultural missteps and the fatal dynamics of an occupation turn the population against them and force the French to retrench behind the fortifications of the Ezbekiah, where they try to recreate Paris, just as Americans in Bagdad today recreate small town U.S.A. in the Green Zone.

    Now that the Obama election makes a drawdown and eventual evacuation all but inevitable, the French expedition has pertinent lessons to teach us about evacuation and its aftermath. Then as now, native interpreters and guides find themselves at risk of retaliation as collaborators. The French recognized their responsibility for the locals who served under them and hundreds of Egyptian collaborators and their families were evacuated on the ships sailing for France. The history of the French expedition also provides a cautionary tale for the potential scenarios in the vacuum created by the evacuation, particularly the jockeying for power of local militias and international powers.

    Mark Thwaite: Nafisa and fourteen year-old Zeinab are both wonderful characters -- do they both mean a lot to you?

    Samia Serageldin: To me they represent reverse sides of the coin of Egyptian women's roles during the French occupation. On the one hand, the Naqib's daughter is used as a pawn between occupier and occupied, an instrument of her father's ambition to curry favor with Bonaparte. On the other hand, Sitt Nafisa, already a wealthy and influential woman, is empowered still further in the absence of her husband and the other routed Mamluke leaders; she finds herself playing the role of intermediary, negotiating between the French and the Mamlukes in exile. It was fascinating to discover that Sitt Nafisa, even before the French expedition, had been well-known and respected by the French, and that Bonaparte, while still at the gates of Cairo, sent her his stepson, Eugene de Beauharnais, as emissary of good will. She was a remarkable woman in her own right, not only wife to two successive ruling Mamlukes, but also the only woman allowed the privilege of running the hugely profitable trading floor at Bab Zuweila, where the caravans from Mecca and the south unloaded their goods.

    Each in her own way, and quite unwittingly on my part, can be seen to represent Egypt. Nafisa represents the best of Mamluke-era Egypt. Zeinab's liaison with the Frenchman Nicholas Conte reflects the tension between fascination and repulsion in the unequal relationship between occupier and occupied.

    Mark Thwaite: How long did it take you to write your book? Is this the normal timeframe for you?

    Samia Serageldin: This book took about three years, one year spent reading and researching, one year spent writing, and one spent rewriting. I am fortunate in having an editor with very high standards. I'm not sure I have a normal timeframe; each book springs from its own sources and develops organically. My first novel was autobiographical, and required no research, for example. A second book, a collection of short stories, went through several rewrites to integrate as a novel before I reverted to the original short story format. My ambition is to write my next novel in a linear, efficient mode with the minimum of waste and rewriting!

    Mark Thwaite: What was the most difficult aspect of writing The Naqib's Daughter? How did you overcome it?

    Samia Serageldin: The most difficult aspect for me was knowing how much history was too much. It was hard for me not to try to cram all the fascinating historical background and pithy quotations into the text, but it would have overloaded the novel form and sunk it. My editor, with a Draconian hand, cut down my historical digressions, but I negotiated and argued for every excised letter and deleted quotation!

    Mark Thwaite: How do you write? Longhand or directly onto a computer, straight off or with lots and lots of editing?

    Samia Serageldin: I write on the computer, which makes it easier to do lots and lots of editing!

    Mark Thwaite: Do you know how your books will end before you begin, or is writing a journey of discovery for you?

    Samia Serageldin: I know how they will end, in the sense that I know what will happen to the characters, but it's still a journey of discovery in that I have to decide at what point the book ends. So in the case of The Naqib's Daughter, the ending could have been the end of the French occupation, or the end of Elfi's quest, or other possible end points, so it was a difficult decision for me to make. The historical notes at the end of the book gave me a little extra space to follow my characters a little further into their stories, and share that with the reader.

    Mark Thwaite:Do you read the critics? Have you been pleased with their responses to your books? Have you learned anything from them?

    Samia Serageldin: I enjoy the good reviews, naturally, but I have learned a thing or two from critiques as well. I wrote a bimonthly book review column for my local paper for many years, so I hope I have some insight into a reviewer's job, and I always feel I have something to learn from a constructive remark.

    Mark Thwaite: Edward Said: good guy or bad guy!?

    Samia Serageldin: Edward Said: provocative, insightful. He and I shared a great many reference points, give or take a generation apart. I also have childhood memories of being taken by a nanny to the Jardin des Poissons in Zamalek. Edward Said was the perennial outsider -- a Protestant Levantine in Egypt, an Arab in America -- and although I grew up an Egyptian Muslim in Muslim-majority Egypt, I stood out on account of my political class and background. Of course, I also share the experiences of expatriation and incomplete assimilation. Said's writings about memory and exile resonate deeply with me, on a personal level, but beyond that, his theorizing "Orientalism" made it impossible for me, and I suspect most writers of Middle Eastern heritage, to write unselfconsciously.

    Mark Thwaite: Did you have an idea in your mind of your "ideal" reader? Did you write specifically for them?

    Samia Serageldin: Always in the vague sense that I know my ideal reader is a Western reader, for instance, by virtue of the fact that I write in English. But sometimes I write with a very specific person in mind, not an "ideal" reader, but someone I know. Sometimes, when that feeling of addressing a particular person is very compelling, I write that particular chapter, or short story, addressing an unnamed "you."

    Mark Thwaite: What are you working on now Samia?

    Samia Serageldin: I am looking forward to the publication of a third book in summer, a collection of short stories called Love is Like Water, set in chronological order and with a common narrator, so that they read like a novel. The last three are set after 9/11, and address what it was like to be an Arab-American during those years.
    And I am currently researching another historical novel, but will say no more about that, as I firmly believe that talking about a project before it is in print jinxes it!

    Mark Thwaite:Who is your favourite writer? What is/are your favourite book(s)?

    Samia Serageldin: That's an impossible question for me to answer! I have very eclectic tastes, and was, and still am, an omnivorous reader. I am lucky that I grew up reading the 18th and 19th C classics, in both French and English; Stendhal remains a benchmark. Of today's writers, Ian McEwan is a master. The late John Updike was another. No one dissected in miniature like Francoise Sagan. And it's thrilling to note the crossover success of an Egyptian contemporary like Alaa Aswany.

    Mark Thwaite: Do you have any tips for the aspiring writer!?

    Samia Serageldin: Don't give up; you really can get published without insider contacts or "People" magazine name recognition. Do your homework: read up on publishing, find out who writes, who sells, who edits and publishes books like those you write or would like to write. And a piece of essential advice I was given by my editor, one that is hard for me to follow: be a professional writer. Realize that it is a full-time job that includes net-working and putting yourself forward. Very few writers have the luxury of scribbling away in solitude and privacy, and occasionally sending out a manuscript to an eagerly awaiting publisher and eagerly-awaiting public!

    Mark Thwaite: Anything else you would like to say?

    Samia Serageldin: That with the best intentions in the world of being a professional writer, I can only write when passion moves me for the story. I need to feel the lightning strike. When that happens, I am transported into that other world, and writing becomes a consuming compulsion.

    Thank you Mark very much for your great questions and for this opportunity to address the readers of Book Depository! Looking forward to reading the interview online.

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