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  • Cecelia Ahern

    Wed, 10 Dec 2008 04:59

    Before embarking on her writing career, Cecelia Ahern completed a degree in journalism and media studies. Her first novel, PS I Love You, was one of the biggest-selling debut novels of 2004 and a number one bestseller. Her successive bestselling novels are Where Rainbows End, If You Could See Me Now, A Place Called Here and Thanks for the Memories. PS I Love You, starring Hilary Swank, is now a major motion picture. Cecelia has also co-created the hit American television comedy series Samantha Who? which stars Christina Applegate. Cecelia’s new Christmas novel, The Gift, is out now. Cecelia lives in County Dublin.

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

    Cecilia Ahern: I came up with the idea for The Gift in December O8 in New York. PS I Love You the film has just been released and I was on a manic junket tour around the US. The book had also be relaunched and so I was working two schedules at the same time. While it was one of the most exciting times of my life, it was also the most hectic! One night when I was about to give an interview in the Waldorf Astoria, I was asked to be somewhere else at the same time. I immediately came up with the idea for The Gift. The idea of bilocation came to me first and then the character grew from it but almost instantly I knew that the character would be Lou Suffern and that he would have three lessons to learn at Christmas about the value of time. I was heavily inspired by the rhythm of my life and the rhythm of New York at Christmas. So my busiest most tiring moment became very exciting as I instantly knew what my next novel would be.

    MT: Like so many of us, Lou Suffern, the central character of The Gift, never seems to have enough time. Do you think "time poverty" is a particularly important problem to address?

    CA: I think that the issue of time is very appropriate for now. The world has sped up so much due to new media technologies -- people are always accessible through Blackberrys, moblie phones, email. We are accessing information on the internet at such speed, we are moving at a different pace than we ever used to before and with this fast pace of life, people are becoming stressed, under pressure to be at work and at home, to spend time with family and with friends. The Gift is about slowing down, it's about stepping back and taking stock of life.

    I think Christmas is a great time of year to tell this story because this is when people reflect on their lives, they think about the year they've had, the good, the bad and they look forward to the new year, to making changes and learn from mistakes. People are being pulled in all sorts of directions, there are great demands on people's time but the message in The Gift is that time is the one thing that we can spend and can never ever get back. We must see how precious it is, and we must spend it wisely.

    MT: This is your sixth novel -- do they get easier or harder to write!?

    CA: Of course, just like the character in my book Time is my only problem. Thankfully my ideas flow as easily and as naturally as they did for PS I Love You but the difficult thing now is finding the time to write. I can't complain because I'm in a great position to be able to travel and promote my books in as many countries as I do. I appreciate being invited and I love to share my stories with as many people as possible but time is precious and without it, there will be no other book! But thankfully my problem is not with ideas or with passion – those two elements are stronger than ever.

    MT: How long did it take you to write The Gift? Is this the normal kind of timeframe for you?

    CA: Not since PS I Love You had I written a book so quickly. PS I Love You took three months to write which was extremely fast, but I had no other obligations and so could dedicate all of my time to writing that. The Gift took me six months to write. I came up with the idea in December 2008, I started writing it in January and finished in June – it was published in October. The fastest published book yet!

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

    CA: I love to write longhand.

    For me, physically writing is an important part of writing a novel. I love the feeling of the ink going on to the paper, for me it's a very natural and organic process, whereas the computer feels very mechanical. When I write longhand, I can visualise the entire scene, I'm in the world I'm writing about and I merely report on what I see. When I'm typing, I just concentrate on the words and not so much on the world and so I feel it's less creative. I write a chapter longhand, then I type a chapter and as I'm typing, I edit as I go along.

    MT: Your bestselling debut novel PS, I Love You has been made into a film -- did you have much involvement in the film-making process Cecelia?

    CA: I didn't have any involvement in the writing or development process but I was invited to spend time on the set in both New York and Dublin. I met with the cast and watched it being filmed , which was an overwhelming experience, and I was involved in the press junkets around the world which was an honour and incredibly exciting. I knew from the beginning that I would have no creative involvement and I was happy with that because I had just received my first book deal at twenty one years old and I was trying to come to terms with my new career in the publishing industry, neve r mind having to leap into the film world too. I was looking forward to seeing somebody else's interpretation of my story, I think Richard LaGravenese who wrote and directed PS I Love You, did a wonderful job. He captured the heart of the story and the characters and for me, that was the most important thing. I am extremely proud of the film.

    MT: You co-created the hit American television comedy series Samantha Who? (which stars Christina Applegate) -- how did that come about?

    CA: The head of Comedy Development in ABC Network, Amy Hartwick, had read PS I Love You and really loved it. She contacted me and asked if I'd be interested in writing a TV show for them. I was so excited about this as it was something I had wanted to do for quite some time. I wanted to capture the essence of what my novels were about in the television show. My novels are about women who tragically face moments of darkness in their lives and then go on journeys of self-discovery in order to gain strength and move on. I immediately came up with the idea of Samantha Who?, the story about a woman called Samantha (played by Christina Applegate) who is the victim of a hit and run accident and wakes up in hospital with retrograde amnesia. She doesn't remember anything about her life, she doesn't remember her boyfriend, her parents, her best friends. She can't remember who she is, what she likes, and so every day is a new beginning for her. She discovers she was a horrible person previously and sees this as a good opportunity to change. Christina was nominated for both a Golden Globe and an Emmy Award for her role in the show and Jean Smart who plays her mother won an Emmy this year for Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy Role. I am so excited that my idea could have grown so much and gone to that level.

    MT: What do you do in your free time!?

    CA: I love to read, I love to walk along my local pier, I love watching television and films. I love spending time with my family and my 18 month old nephews who fill my life with such happiness. And I love to eat!

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

    CA: I don't believe that only one type of person should read a specific type of book. I like to read everything, commerical fiction, literary fiction, young adult fiction. I'm a very open person that likes to read a good story and so I believe that my novels are for everybody who likes to do the same. When I'm writing, I write for myself. I have to connect with my work, I have to connect with my characters. If I'm not emotionally moved by what I'm writing then there's something wrong. I don't just decide to write a topic that I think is “in” right now. I dig deep and search for what moves me and then I write about it. If I write something funny and I don't laugh, then there's something wrong, if I write a sad scene and I'm not crying, then I haven't written it well. I invest myself totally in my novels and I think only through doing that will readers be moved by my work. Writing for a specific audience is too contrived. It's not how creativity works.

    MT: What are you working on now?

    CA: I'm just about to begin my seventh book which I'm very excited about.

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

    CA: My favourite books are Golfing with God by Roland Merullo, The Time Traveller's Wife by Audrey Niffeneger, The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon and anything by Mitch Albom and Karin Slaughter.

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

    CA: I think that people who are trying to think about what to write should dig deep and question what is it that moves them, I believe that if you are emotionally invested in your characters and your story that you can pour yourself into your words, and it just flows. I think it's important to have readers who can encourage and motivate you as there are moments during writing when a few words of encouragement can mean the world and lift you out of that rut. I think it's important to note that everybody has a different opinion. What one person will love in a novel, another may hate. Always believe in yourself and while it's important to take constructive criticism, always go with what feels right. But most of all, enjoy it!

  • Lyn Smith

    Tue, 09 Dec 2008 11:38

    Lyn Smith has worked for over twenty years for the Imperial War Museum and has recorded a large proportion of their tapes of oral history. Lyn is also a lecturer in International Politics and International Affairs, and teaches at Regents College in London and at Webster University in St Louis, USA. She lives in Lewes, East Sussex. Her latest book is Young Voices: British Children Remember The Second World War. Mark Thwaite: What first gave you the idea for writing Young Voices Lyn? Lyn Smith: This came from the Imperial War Museum and Penguin. I had written earlier books based on original interviews, including one on the Holocaust in the Forgotten Voices (Ebury) series. I jumped at the chance, knowing the wealth of good interview material in the Sound Archive, as well as the Documents archive. MT: How long did it take you to write your book Lyn? Is this the usual frame for you? LS: About two years from start to publication. Yes, this is my usual time-frame. MT:How do you write? Longhand or directly onto a computer, straight off or with lots and lots of editing? LS: A book of this nature involves hours and hours of listening and transcribing recordings. I usually do this on a laptop, and print out far more than I actually use as one needs to have a good basis for selecting extracts that seem just right for giving the narrative. The selected pieces then go on the PC, within the relevant chapters, and are edited, re-edited until the narrative satisfies, giving the interest and the complexity of the story. I write the historical contexts initially by hand. Once on the PC, there is much editing. I maybe do five or six drafts, as they need be historically correct and useful to the reader, but very concise as the voices are the most important part. MT: How long did all the research for Young Voices take? LS: This was ongoing throughout the writing process as gaps would be revealed and attended to wherever possible from both the Sound and Document archives. Once the original selection is made, then the two – research and writing - tend to go in tandem. MT: Do you enjoy the research or are you itching to get to the actual writing? LS: Yes, listening to other interviewers recordings, and re-listening to the many recordings I have done for the museum, was interesting and often very moving – the whole gamut of experiences and emotions covered by them. I do, however, enjoy the process of fitting it all together to make an organic whole: discovering the narrative from the voices themselves and fitting this with the relevant historical context. MT: What was the most difficult aspect of writing your book Lyn? How did you overcome it? LS: This genre of book is extremely time-consuming – it was taking up my life! I always transcribe far too much, but can’t think of a short cut as one really does have to know many different accounts in order to make the best possible selection giving the complexity of wartime childhood for British children at home and overseas. But I did have other claims on my time, which gave opportunity for a break from the book and time for the old sub-conscious to work. MT: You’ve written an extraordinary history of WW11 as seen through a child’s eyes – as you yourself looked through those eyes what were you most surprised to learn? LS: Although I had done most of the interviews myself, I had not had chance to consider them as a story. Doing this made me aware of the sheer complexity of experiences, based on factors such as: age of children at the time, social class, the importance of chance and luck. Also the wisdom, maturity and tolerance of many impressed me, especially those who came under enemy occupation or were interned by the Japanese. MT: You work at the Imperial War Museum – tell us about your work there Lyn. LS: I’ve worked as a freelance interviewer now for thirty years. We interview those who have been, or are, involved in all aspects of conflict in the 20th and 21st centuries. I’ve dealt with most topics during this time and did the bulk of Holocaust interviews, still ongoing, for the Holocaust exhibition. MT: Do you read the critics? Have you been pleased with the responses to your book? Have you learned anything from them? LS: Actually I don’t get many papers, the Guardian now and then. I think the hardback was well received, but I’m waiting to hear about the paperback. The impression I gain is that few reviewers read the book thoroughly, and tend to pick on a particular aspect – in this case those older children who decided to be conscientious objectors when their call-up came as teenagers. Or else they pick on well-known names. MT: What do you do when you are not writing? LS: Interviewing for the IWM. I also lecture, part-time, for Webster University (USA) in International Politics, so have to keep abreast of current events. But I do find it easy to relax and enjoy reading, walking and music. MT: Did you have an idea in your mind of your ‘ideal’ reader? Do you write specifically for them? LS: I try to make my book accessible to the general public not a specific readership. But I did have those who would have been children in the Second World War very much in mind when writing this, trying to be as comprehensive as possible, to do justice to them all, and determined to go beyond the evacuation story – important though this was. MT: What are you working on now Lyn? LS: I am currently researching/writing a book on the anti-war movement from the First World War throughout the 20th century, until the present war with Afghanistan and Iraq. Again, it is based on interview material which has been gathered over the past thirty years, and ongoing, and it traces the continuity and changes in the movement alongside the evolving world situation. It’s extremely challenging but fascinating. MT: Who is your favourite writer? What is/are your favourite book(s)? LS: There are so many. Writers and books I have recently enjoyed would be: The Yacoubian Building by Alaa al Aswany; The Night in Question by Tobias Woolff; Persian Fire by Tom Holland; The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak; The Road by Cormac McCarthy. Anything by Justin Cartwright and many many more... MT: Do you have any tips for the aspiring writer? LS: Stick at it and don’t be disheartened by rejections. MT: Anything else you would like to say? LS: Just how satisfying it has been to receive so many supportive and appreciative letters from those who were children in the Second World War, with many saying how they had no idea of the breadth and complexity of that experience.

    Posted by Mark Mark

    Categories: interviews, Lyn Smith

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  • Toby Barlow

    Tue, 09 Dec 2008 11:38

    Toby Barlow is a writer and a creative director living in downtown Detroit, Michigan. Toby was born in the year of the horse, his birthstone is amethyst, and he is an Aquarius, which is a water bearing sign. His house plants often spend their time wishing he would bear some water over in their general direction. But sometimes he forgets to. And so then they die. Sharp Teeth is his first book.

    Mark Thwaite: What first gave you the idea for writing Sharp Teeth?

    Toby Barlow: I was stuck in a Chicago hotel room for a long, long time, months actually. And I got pretty stir crazy and tired of watching Law & Order re-runs so I was just reading anything I could lay my hands on. I came across a great article in The Chicago Reader, a portrait of the day in the life of a dogcatcher. In it he described the dog pack's social organization. Basically, it's a single alpha dog, a single bitch, and a lot of male dogs surrounding her. That seemed like a very interesting social structure and, for some reason, I thought to myself "If that was a pack of werewolves, and if the bitch fell in love with that dogcatcher, well, that would be interesting."

    MT: How long did it take you to write your book Toby?

    TB: It took a couple of years. The day job got in the way a lot. Also, I liked to step away for a week or two every so often and just let the characters roam round in my head. They had to find their own way.

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

    TB: I write directly onto the computer, but I write down notes on anything as the ideas come to me and stuff them in my pockets as I go through the day. I edited and reworked things a lot as I went. Going back an working on earlier passages is a great way to use time when you don't feel up to pushing deeper into the book.

    MT: Sharp Teeth is a novel-in-verse with monsters -- was Beowulf in your mind somewhere!?

    TB: I like Beowulf and love John Gardner's Grendel, but neither was really on my mind when I was working on this. James Ellroy, Ross MacDonald, and Raymond Chandler were much more present. Also Anne Carson's Autobiography of Red was a huge influence.

    MT: You are an Executive Director at the advertising agency J. Walter Thompson, a novel-in-verse seems like it might be a hard sell: did the day-job skills help get it published!?

    TB: The day job skills didn't help in getting it published, that was just blind luck, but I put a lot of effort into promoting it. I did everything and anything I could think of, from printing business cards and postcards for it to making an intricate website (sharpteeththebook.com) I felt I had to make the extra effort because the book itself was sort of an anti-marketing effort in that I was creating something that was pretty far away from the mainstream. I'm not sure all the effort paid off, people are either willing to take the chance on something a little different or they're not. In the end, the reviews are probably the only thing that make any difference, luckily mine were solid.

    I've been sort of amused at the flack a few bloggers and reviewers have given me for working in advertising, some see it as an enormous strike against me. But if you look at all the writers who have come out of copywriting, Salman Rushdie, Don Delillo, Joseph Heller, even William Burroughs did a little time in the trenches, you find that it's been a good source for interesting literature. Maybe as only something to push off against. I also find working is a great source of food.

    MT: What did writing in verse offer you that you felt you couldn't achieve writing in prose?

    TB: I wanted to make something that felt very immediate. The verse, which isn't really poetry but is more like a graphic novel without pictures, was a way to do something dense and rich that didn't bog the reader down. The style also gave me a bit of extra dexterity, people are more forgiving with verse, they tend to think "Oh you were there and now you're way over here, okay" whereas in prose you've got to drag them there step by step. In a sense, it's a more liquid form of writing.

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

    TB: Writing your first novel and having it be a novel in verse is a pretty sketchy affair. I kept thinking I was simply mad. Nobody was going to publish the thing, so why the hell was I writing it? I had to convince myself it was worth the time I was putting into it. Luckily, everything on television pretty much blows, so hanging out with my characters felt like a reasonable way to pass the time.

    MT: Obama or McCain!?

    TB: Are you asking which one is a werewolf or which one I support? Democrats are better pack animals than Republicans, they work to the collective good in a more responsible manner. Republicans are a much darker kind of beast. I think Bush kind of proved that.

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

    TB: I do read the critics and the blogs and the reader comments on sites like goodreads. I'm pretty pathological in googling myself. I don't think I'm alone in that obsession, at least I hope I'm not. But overall I have been very pleased. I wish the book had gotten a little more attention, well that's an understatement, I wish that I had loads of adoring fans, absolute Beatlemania, but I'm pleased with what I got. I think my next book will probably get slagged a lot more than this one did, I can't help feeling the world was gentle on me because they knew it was my first time. As for learning anything, I don't know, I think most criticism has devolved into a roman thumbs up, thumbs down proposition. There's not much to learn from a world that simply says you're an A- or an "eight out of ten." I learn more from reading other writers. I just finished Hannah Tinti's "The Good Thief" which was marvelous and fun, I think I learned more in reading that than I did from any critics.

    MT: What do you do when you are not writing?

    TB: I ride my bike a lot. In cars you tend to miss the world, but on foot or on a bicycle you see everything.

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

    TB: The ideal reader to me is me. I have to be entertained and interested every step of the way or else it's not worth skipping a night out with my friends or an extra couple hours of sleep.

    MT: What are you working on now Toby?

    TB: I'm working on a prose novel. The second book is definitely more challenging, it's much easier to work when there are no expecations from the world, when you're an absolute nobody than when you're just only kind of a nobody, which is what I am now.

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

    TB: Terry Pratchett, David Foster Wallace, Barry Hannah are the three that come to mind first. DFW's A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again is a shining masterpiece of non-fiction and Barry Hannah's Bats Out of Hell is simply mindblowing.

    MT: Do you have any tips for the aspiring writer!

    TB: It's pretty simple. Just write something you would want to read, something you couldn't put down. Put your skin into it. Everything else is just bullshit.

    MT: Anything else you would like to say?

    TB: I think writers have to be very competitive. We have to remember what we're up against, not just centuries of great writing but also movies, televisions, XBox and porn. We are competing against more noble causes, the urge to get a good night's sleep or to go out and play football in the park. We're fighting for eyeballs. Writers have to create something very compelling to fight against all these forces, or else we're just talking to ourselves.

  • Mark Garnett

    Tue, 09 Dec 2008 11:38

    Mark Garnett is a lecturer in politics at Lancaster University, and his previous books include The A-Z Guide to Modern British History. From Anger to Apathy addresses a wide range of political, social and cultural issues covering the past 30 years of British history. He is also the co-author of Splendid! Splendid! The Authorised Biography of Willie Whitelaw.

    Mark Thwaite: What first gave you the idea for writing From Anger To Apathy: The Story of Politics, Society and Popular Culture in Britain since 1975?

    Mark Garnett: I've spent a lot of time writing about the Thatcher years, and I thought it was time to look at the period from a slightly different perspective. In general, I think academics are too timid – they come to blows over the distant past and try not to say anything about the present. I’ve always believed that part of our job is to help us understand the way we live now; and the book was intended to be my own contribution to this task. The pay-off, of course, is that I was able to relive the public events of my own adult lifetime. It was an exercise in nostalgia, but with a practical purpose.

    MT: How does your approach to the period differ from that of other historians?

    MG: I'm tempted to say that the book is different because unlike most works of history it talks about the recent past... But that wouldn’t be fair, because contemporary history isn’t completely dead. The main methodological difference is that although there is a sort of chronology in my book, it’s presented in themes (Greed, Lust etc). I also tried to widen the perspective, and to weave in elements of popular culture rather than shuffling them into a cursory chapter at the end.

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

    MG: There might be more tricky ways to write history, but I certainly found the thematic approach a considerable challenge. If you look for material which fits with your chosen themes you lose any sense of coherence in the book as a whole. So you have to plough through all the material you can lay your hands on, and let the themes emerge out of the general (messy) picture. Obviously I found this approach easier towards the end, so that by the time I’d sent off the manuscript I found myself wishing that I could start the whole thing again.

    MT: How long did it take you to write and research From Anger to Apathy Mark?

    MG: A couple of years, I think. I was doing other things for much of the time that the book was under contract – teaching, and for several months working as a research assistant to Michael Crick on his biography of Michael Howard.

    MT: Do you enjoy the research or are you always itching to get down to the actual writing?

    MG : I tend to do both at the same time, if I can. At least, if any thoughts occur to me after doing some research I usually try to put the ideas into a paragraph or two. So the initial draft of a chapter is a jumble of random thoughts, and then I have to try to stitch them together.

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

    MG: That’s a really interesting question. I used to write drafts in longhand, and then revise them as I typed them up. Now I compose directly onto the computer, print out the draft, realise it’s terrible and re-write the whole thing. I suppose that without the computer I would still be using the longhand method first, and your question makes me wonder whether my style would be any different. I seem to recall somewhere that Alexander Pope hardly ever revised his poems – the couplets just spilled out onto the page. I wonder what he would have done if someone had bought him a PC for Christmas?

    MT: Your title seems to embody a thesis -- that lack of political involvement is apathy, but can't apathy be read as non-involvement in a political process that has proven time and time again to offer nothing but more of the same?

    MG: Yes. The title was meant to be semi-ironic. Apathy implies lack of motivation, and obviously there is as much of that quality around as there ever was. However, I do think that the electorate as a whole is culpable to some extent in the lack of engagement; it doesn’t get the politicians and the press that it deserves, exactly, but intelligent voters are excessively tolerant of mediocrity. After a time you get to the position where the voters with the widest knowledge are the ones who are least likely to turn out – or at least, to vote with any enthusiasm for any of the options. So, as you say, what we call ‘apathy’ has a tendency to become self-reinforcing.

    MT: Do you see an imminent return to anger/involvement with politics now that the economic forecast ahead is so gloomy?

    MG: Well, it looks as though the dominant ideology of the last 30 years might have to face some unexpected challenges at last. You hear the name of Keynes a lot, after many years of obscurity, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s an overdue surge of interest in Marx – maybe not for his Utopian visions, but for his critique of capitalism which was always on the money (so to speak). However, the response to the problems has been typical of an ‘apathetic’ country – it seems that many people have swallowed Gordon Brown’s line about this being a time for experienced operators rather than novices. There’s plenty of anger around, but as usual it isn’t being channelled constructively.

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

    MG: I’m always reluctant to read reviews, but I get round to them in the end. I always knew that I was if for a set of mixed reviews this time, partly because the book is opinionated and guaranteed to annoy every reader at least some of the time, but also because many reviewers are roughly of my age and will have their own take on the recent past. The most irritating thing is that one or two reviewers imagined that a lot of my research had focused on newspaper headlines. Having spent about a year reading the content of newspapers, I can assure them that their assumption was ill-founded (I would rather have used a more robust phrase – authors don’t mind criticism of their mistakes, but you should never traduce their methods unless you know what you’re talking about).

    MT: What do you do when you are not writing?

    MG: Teaching at Lancaster, and over-indulging my two children.

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

    MG: I always try to aim at someone with a sceptical take on life, who is prepared to listen to alternative views and use dialogue as a way of developing their own ideas. I don’t write to persuade people that my own opinion is correct, and I’d be horrified if anyone agreed with all the arguments in this book. But it would be nice if it persuaded a few people that they haven’t reflected enough on the way we’ve been living over the past thirty years.

    MT: What are you working on now Mark?

    MG: I’ve just co-written a book on Conservative thinkers, with Kevin Hickson of Liverpool University. It’s more academic, but again it’s aimed at the general reader, too. It will be published by Manchester University Press next year. I’ve also finished work on the second edition of a textbook – Exploring British Politics – with Philip Lynch from Leicester University. An ongoing project is a study of the Conservative Party since 1997, which I’m writing for Palgrave with Andrew Denham (Nottingham) and Pete Dorey (Cardiff).

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

    MG: My favourite writer is William Hazlitt -- I wrote my doctorate on him and have felt very jealous of the people who’ve published books on him recently. His essay ‘On the Pleasure of Hating’ is undoubtedly the finest piece of writing in the English language. A.J.P. Taylor is a great hero of mine, for his style and general approach to the historian’s task. I loved the late Ian Gilmour’s work, and it was wonderful to work with him for many years. But if I was to name a ‘desert island book’, it would probably be Simon Schama’s Citizens – a real work of art.

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

    MG: Treat every letter of rejection as an invitation to write something else.

    MT: Anything else you would like to say?

    MG: Thanks for the thought-provoking questions!

  • Peter Ackroyd

    Tue, 09 Dec 2008 11:38

    Peter Ackroyd is an award-winning novelist, as well as a broadcaster, biographer, poet and historian. The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein has affinities with Hawksmoor, an equally creepy and brilliant historical novel, which won both the Guardian fiction prize and the Whitbread Novel of the Year, and with Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem, an East End novel which is imagined with equal power and ingenuity. His most recent novels are The Fall of Troy, The Lambs of London and the bestselling The Clerkenwell Tales. He is the author of the acclaimed non-fiction bestsellers, Thames: Sacred River and London: The Biography. He has a CBE for services to literature.

    Mark Thwaite: What first gave you the idea for writing The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein? Did you enjoy the vertiginousness of writing a novel about a character from a novel!?

    Peter Ackroyd: The idea just came to me as I was preparing myself to write for the BBC a series on the Romantic writers.

    MT: Has Mary Shelly's Frankenstein long been a favourite? What qualities do you particularly admire in it?

    PA: No, I had not read it for many years. I admire it because it is the first example of science fantasy in English literature.

    MT: You are mostly associated with London and London writers -- was it nice to get out of the Smoke and set a book in Oxford?

    PA: Much of the novel is in fact set in London, especially by the banks of the Thames. But I did enjoy writing the descriptions of Lake Geneva and its environs as well as of Marlow. They seemed to bring a breath of fresh air into the narrative.

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

    PA: The most difficult problem was in recreating the language and tone of the original. I resolved this simply by doing it.

    MT: How long did it take you to write The Casebook? Is this a usual timeframe for you?

    PA: I believe it took about eighteen months, which is about the usual amount of time.

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

    PA: I write in long hand in notebooks, and then I transfer it to the computer. There is never much editing.

    MT: Recently you've been most noted for your London: The Biography and your biography of Dickens -- was it a pleasure to get back into the novel-writing saddle? Do you prefer writing one genre over another? Do you find one easier than the other?

    PA:I have no real preference for one genre over another. I find them to be related in most respects. The process of writing in both cases is approximately the same.

    MT: You almost seem to channel London -- tell us about why the city fascinates you so, and please tell us a little about psychogeography too!

    PA: I have always been interested in the spiritual wealth of London, and have written about it on numerous occasions. I do not like the term psychogeography. I prefer to call it the territorial imperative, whereby a certain patch of ground – or street, or house – actively influences the behaviour and the character of the people who inhabit it.

    MT: Do you read the critics? Have you been pleased with the responses to your work over the years? Have you learned anything from them?

    PA: I never read the reviews.

    MT: What do you do when you are not writing?

    PA: I live.

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

    PA: No.

    MT: What are you working on now?

    PA: A six volume history of England.

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

    PA: I don’t have one.

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

    PA: Just get on with it.

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