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  • Karl Manders

    Tue, 09 Dec 2008 11:38

    Karl Manders worked for forty years as a journalist. He was a member of the Guardian Features Department for five years, and subsequently contributed to the paper for some years. For three years he was News Editor of Nature, and for a similar period Deputy Features Editor of The Telegraph Magazine. He has written for The Sunday Times, New Scientist, Scientific American, Radio Times and Reader's Digest. He moved to North America where he edited photographic arts titles, before returning to Europe, and particularly the Netherlands where he learned Dutch.

    Mark Thwaite: What gave you the idea for Moths?

    Karl Manders: Visiting the Site of a second world war concentration camp in Holland, where Dutch Jews were held before being sent east, I wondered what the people left behind believed their fate to be, and if they ever considered sending somebody to find out what happened to the deportees. My story began as the imagining of such a mission.

    MT: You've been a journalist for many years, what was it made you finally get down to the hard work of writing a novel?

    KM: Moths is the sixth novel I have written; it just happens to be the first one accepted for publication. Journalism, incidentally, is very hard work.

    MT: How long did it take you to write Moths?

    KM: Four months to write, and another month to revise.

    MT: Jazz plays an important part in your book -- does it play a part in your life too?

    KM: Having passed through a jazz nerd phase which began when I was fifteen, I now enjoy the music in a more laid-back way. But I still count myself a fan, and jazz means a lot to me.

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

    KM: The development of the word-processing computer was the greatest technical advance made by man since shoes. I take care to write what I mean when I sit at the computer, but it is an inexpressible luxury to be able to revise and revise again, without having to type out a whole page. That’s what I do.

    MT: What were the principle challenges of writing Moths and how did you overcome them?

    KM: When I wrote Moths I was living in a woodland cottage in the eastern Netherlands, with no access to research facilities. I simply forged ahead with the information I held in my head, and hoped for the best. Only after the book was finished was I able to do some fact checking and correction.

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

    KM: I do what most other people do – I eat, sleep, read, go to the shops and ride my bike.

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

    KM: As a journalist I always have a publication’s typical reader in mind, and write in terms of what he or she will be comfortable with. As a fiction writer I can be more self-indulgent: I speak in my own voice, and trust that the story I tell will find a sympathetic readership.

    MT: What are you working on now?

    KM: I have completed two more novels since writing Moths, and I am currently working on a collection of short stories.

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

    KM: Anton Chekhov. My favourite books would include his collected stories, Nabokov’s Pale Fire, the Collected Stories of Katherine Mansfield, The Radetzky March by Joseph Roth, J. M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians, The Good Soldier Svejk by Jaroslav Hasek, Truman Capote’s Other Voices, Other Rooms... That’s the beginning of the list.

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

    KM: Write every day. The hugely successful American author Pearl Buck (before your time my dear) wrote a page a day. That way, she said she could be sure of having at least three hundred and sixty-five pages (a substantial novel) to sell every year. When I’m writing a novel, I give myself an easily attainable daily target of seven hundred words. When things are going badly, I stop at seven hundred. When they’re going really well, I have to stop myself at two thousand words. So at worst, I can expect a novel in five months. But only by being in daily practice can you hope to meet whatever schedule you set yourself.

  • Robert Macfarlane

    Tue, 09 Dec 2008 11:38

    Robert Macfarlane is a Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, specialising in 19th- and 20th-century literatures. His first book, Mountains of the Mind (2003), won the Guardian First Book Award and a Somerset Maugham Award. His follow-up, The Wild Places, is published in September. Original Copy: Plagiarism and Originality in Nineteenth-century Literature is out now.

    Mark Thwaite: What first drew you to the subject of plagiarism?

    Robert Macfarlane: Jorge Luis Borges’s droll parable about Pierre Menard, who succeeded, according to Borges, in rewriting Cervantes’s Don Quixote, word for word and line for line, ‘without falling into a tautology’. Here Borges, as ever, concentrated and then exploded received ideas: in this case concerning authorship, ownership, originality, and creativity.

    MT: What light does the argument over plagiarism shed on the notion of creativity or artistry?

    RM: Arguments over plagiarism are always also arguments over originality, which are in turn always arguments over the nature and texture of creativity. In my book, I was interested in explaining one of the historical transformations that thinking about plagiarism (therefore originality, therefore creativity) has undergone: how it was that the heroic visions of original authorship, which characterised the 1820s and 1830s, became replaced by, or at least challenged by, the stickle-brick, influence-happy creativities of Oscar Wilde and Lionel Johnson at the century's end.

    MT: How do you think new computer-based technologies are affecting the relationship between originality and plagiarism?

    RM: One of the most obvious consequences is an increase in what might generously be called ‘poor scholarly hygiene’ among students: the promiscuity of the google-search, the ease of cut-and-paste… Every university in the country has had to draft a definition of plagiarism, and a protocol concerning possible punishments if plagiarism is detected. Many universities have also begun actively to survey the coursework of their students for possible plagiarism infractions: there are now websites with massive text databases and subtle analysis programmes which will detect plagiarism in student papers.

    MT: George Eliot gets her own chapter in your book. It seems to me -- outside of the Academy -- that Eliot is no longer held in such reverence as she once was. How do you perceive her reputation and qualities?

    RM: I don’t on the whole agree with your perception of a dimming of Eliot’s aura. Judged on citation/indexical grounds, she remains a compelling subject for academic study. And undergraduates here at Cambridge are still hungry to work on her books. Though there have, it is true, been some influential attacks on her, notably from the left (Eagleton most famously), who have at times found her (especially late-Eliot) unpalatably conservative in her politics. In Eagleton’s case, I think this stems in part from a tonal misreading of Impressions of Theophrastus Such.

    MT: How long did it take you to write Original Copy?

    RM: From idea to publication, an alarming seven years. But other things – books, children – occurred in that span. Actual writing time? More like one and a half.

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

    RM: Directly onto a computer, for this book, followed by obsessive-compulsive revision on a sentence by sentence basis. For the other two books I’ve written – travel books, sort of – first into a field notebook (Moleskine: a cliche, I know, but they are functionally faultless) then onto screen.

    MT: What were the principle challenges of writing Original Copy and how did you overcome them?

    RM: The principal difficulty was preventing the concentric enlargement of the idea of originality, first out to ‘authorship’, and from there out to ‘selfhood’ and ‘individualism’. Trying to historicise such questions in any period context, let alone over the course of a century or more, would have been impossible. Oh, and avoiding cracking too many reflexive jokes about novelty/borrowedness.

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

    RM: I walk, climb and swim whenever and wherever I can. And at present I’m learning to turn wood (bowls, printing-press wheel handles) on a 1950s lathe.

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

    RM: My ideal reader was in fact my first reader – my supervisor, the writer and academic Robert Douglas-Fairhurst: scrupulous, attentive, generous and fierce as a reader. I ran every sentence of the book past an imagined version of him, and then past him.

    MT: What are you working on now?

    RM: I’ve just finished a book called The Wild Places, which is a journey through the archipelago we call Britain and Ireland, in search of what wildness or wild places remained. It’s partly a geographical voyage, but partly a historical or imaginative one; back into the historical pasts of the idea of the wild, and forwards into its possible futures. I spent four years writing and researching the book, and finishing it nearly finished me, but along the way there were some unforgettable experiences: sleeping out on islands, in snowy woods, in ancient meadows, climbing winter mountains at night, and swimming in phosphorescent seas off the Welsh coast.

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

    RM: I would prefer to nominate favourite books, so here are five: Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, J.A. Baker’s The Peregrine, and W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn. All men, I notice, and all books that are utterly – riskily – committed to their tones.

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

    RM: I can only pass on the best advice I’ve ever received (courtesy of Barry Lopez, in his essay collection About This Life):

    Once I was asked by a seatmate on a trans-Pacific flight, a man who took the liberty of glancing repeatedly at the correspondence in my lap, what instruction he should give his fifteen-year-old daughter, who wanted to be a writer. I didn’t know how to answer him, but before I could think I heard myself saying, “Tell your daughter three things.” Tell her to read, I said. Tell her to read whatever interests her, and protect her if someone declares what she’s reading to be trash. No one can fathom what happens between a human being and a written language. She may be paying attention to things in the words beyond anyone else’s comprehension, things that feed her curiosity, her singular heart and mind. Tell her to read classics like The Odyssey. They’ve been around a long time because the patterns in them have proved endlessly useful.

    Second, I said, tell your daughter that she can learn a great deal about writing by reading and by studying books about grammar and the organization of ideas, but that if she wishes to write well she will have to become someone. She will have to discover her beliefs, and then speak to us from within those beliefs. If her prose doesn’t come out of her belief, whatever that proves to be, she will only be passing along information, of which we are in no great need. So help her discover what she means.

    Finally, I said, tell your daughter to get out of town, and help her do that. I don’t necessarily mean to travel to Kazakhstan, but to learn another language, to live with people other than her own, to separate herself from the familiar. Then, when she returns, she will be better able to understand why she loves the familiar, and will give us a fresh sense of how fortunate we are to share these things.

    Read. Find out what you truly believe. Get away from the familiar. Every writer, I told him, will offer you thoughts about writing that are different, but these are three that I trust.

    MT: Anything else you would like to say?

    RM: Only that every answer I have given here I have stolen from somewhere or someone else. This may or may not be true.

  • Janet Gezari

    Tue, 09 Dec 2008 11:38

    Janet Gezari received her B.A. degree from Cornell University and her Ph. D. from Yale University and has been teaching at Connecticut College, in the USA, since 1970. She was an early supporter of women's studies at the College and has served as Acting Director of Women's Studies and of Gender and Women's Studies. Janet is the editor of Emily Bronte: The Complete Poems and author of Charlotte Bronte and Defensive Conduct: the Author and the Body at Risk. Her book on Emily Bronte, Last Things: Emily Bronte's Poems, is out now.

    Mark Thwaite: What first drew you to Emily Bronte?

    Janet Gezari: That’s easy: Wuthering Heights. Although I no longer read Wuthering Heights as a love story, or at least not as the kind of love story and marriage plot it has been taken to be, Emily Bronte’s novel always felt risky and fierce. The poems were less accessible, and the ones I found first in anthologies seemed to have fallen out of some context that was unfamiliar to me. Recovering that context was the project of the edition of the complete poems that I edited for Penguin. I was sure from the start that the important context for the poems wasn’t the Gondal narrative. Last Things tries to come to terms with all that supported, enabled, and endangered Emily’s poems.

    MT: Virginia Woolf thought that Emily’s poetry would outlast her novels. At this vantage point in history, it looks like the novels are what she is remembered for, but the tide does seem to be turning a little. What are the main strengths of her verse Janet?

    JG: I’d be surprised if the tide turned in this way, but not surprised if readers of Wuthering Heights came to see that the poems are risky and fierce also and that reading them can change the way we read the novel. I think that Woolf was right to see that Emily was driven by a “gigantic ambition” to say something about relations between “the whole human race” and “the eternal powers.” Joy was primal for her, as was violence, cruelty, and the anguish associated with limits and endings. She was moved to celebrate the life around her and bear witness to her participation in it, and her poems were a way to do this. I think they came to her as naturally as breath did.

    MT: How singular is her poetry? Whilst we can understand the context in which Wuthering Heights arose, it is a unique book. Is her poetry the same?

    JG: Well, yes, I think the context for Wuthering Heights and the poems is the same. The poems are singular — they are events in the peculiar creative life of Emily Bronte — and when we read the best of them, we can experience them as events in our own lives. I think about this as having the experience for which the poems discover release, and often the experience is spiritual. By spiritual, I don’t mean religious.

    MT: How long did it take you to write Last Things?

    JG: Too long, certainly by some measures. I started writing the book on a sabbatical year in London in 1995, and I continued writing it during shorter breaks from teaching. But the book didn’t grow by accretion. It had a shape from the start. I knew how many chapters there were and what they were about and how they were ordered, even though I didn’t write them in the order in which they appear.

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

    JG: I write directly into the computer, but I also make notes to myself on scraps of paper as ideas occur to me. Like many people, when I’m writing about literature, everything begins to seem relevant. I’m also a perpetual reviser, and revision for me involves a rule of absolute economy, so I think of the book as cut very close to the bone.

    MT: What were the principle challenges of writing Last Things and how did you overcome them?

    JG: I think the main challenge was to write a book that didn’t bury the poems under commentary but felt, at the same time, comprehensive and attentive. The body of work is small — under 200 surviving poems — and my aim was to get people to want to read them again. My professional training — and most of my teaching — is associated with novels, so this is probably the only book about poems I’ll write.

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

    JG: I walk a lot in the woods or on the beach with my dog, do yoga, and some stuff at the gym. I like to garden and cook, listen to music, watch films, read novels I’m not teaching.

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

    JG: I didn’t have an “ideal” reader in mind, in the sense I think you mean. I always have difficulty imagining an audience, but I wanted to write a book that non-academic readers, readers for whom poems matter, would read without lowering the level of the thinking and feeling going on in my account of the poems.

    MT: What are you working on now?

    JG: I’m working on a collection of pairings that includes canonical English novels and adaptations of them in other novels and (sometimes) films. One of the pairs is Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and J.M. Coetzee’s Foe, but the piece of this I’m currently completing is about Coetzee’s 2003 Nobel Prize lecture.

    MT: Who is your favourite writer? What is/are your favourite books?

    JG: I have to put aside poets in order to do this, because there are too many of them I can’t do without. Among the prose writers, Coetzee and W.G. Sebald are at the top of my list. I’m a huge fan of everything they’ve written, and especially — for different reasons — of Waiting for the Barbarians, The Rings of Saturn, and On the Natural History of Destruction.

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

    JG: For the aspiring writer, the only insight I have is that the work has to feel as if it’s worth doing while you’re doing it. For me, this means that the work has to be my work and not the work someone else thinks I should be doing. The risk here is always that no one else will be interested in it, but that’s a risk that academic tenure makes it possible to take.

    MT: Anything else you would like to say?

    JG: Oh, no. Your questions have been very comprehensive! Thanks for your interest in the book and (I take it) in Emily Bronte’s poems.

  • Tamar Yellin

    Tue, 09 Dec 2008 11:38

    Tamar Yellin's debut novel The Genizah at the House of Shepher won the Ribalow Prize 2006 and was recently awarded the $100,000 Sami Rohr Prize for emerging Jewish writers. Her collection, Kafka in Bronteland and other stories, received the Reform Judaism Prize 2006 and is a finalist for the Edge Hill Prize.

    Mark Thwaite: What gave you the idea for The Genizah at the House of Shepher?

    Tamar Yellin: Genizah (the Hebrew word, meaning literally 'hiding place,' refers to a depository for old or defective sacred documents) is a saga covering four generations of the Shepher family; it's also a thriller about a missing biblical codex and the search for the true text of the Bible. Its genesis goes all the way back to 1987, when I visited my grandparents' house in Jerusalem for the last time before its demolition. Guided by my uncle up a rickety ladder into the attic, I was confronted by an amazing sight: a family archive so vast the very dust on the floorboards was composed of disintegrating paper. There were family letters, diaries, newspapers, community records. And in the midst of all this, a small black printed bible which proved to be of tremendous significance. It contained notes on the text of the Aleppo Codex, widely held to be the most perfect manuscript of the Bible in existence. The Codex had been largely lost in a pogrom in 1947, and these notes were the only surviving evidence of what its text had been. With their discovery it became possible to reconstruct the vanished Codex, which was published a few years later as Keter Yerushalayim.

    I had always been fascinated by the text of the Hebrew Bible (the Torah) and the idea that, being the Word of God, it couldn't be allowed to have any mistakes in it. According to Jewish mystical tradition the universe was created out of the letters of the Torah – they're like the world's DNA – so a change in even one letter would be tantamount to destroying the world. Sitting there in the attic, surrounded by the relics of the past, I conceived of a novel which would follow a family through several generations from the mid-nineteenth century to the present, from Lithuania to Jerusalem and England to Azerbaijan. It would somehow comprehend the whole of Jewish history back to the Garden of Eden and down to today, where it would examine complex questions of contemporary identity, exile and belonging. And at the heart of the book would be the mystery of a Codex, a variant text of the Bible – an embodiment of all the themes of truth, myth, choice and chance I would be exploring.

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

    TY: From the writing of the first sentence to the novel's publication took fifteen years. Although I had a background in biblical Hebrew and Jewish history, there was a tremendous amount of research to be undertaken, which carried me from Leeds to Oxford and Jerusalem and even to the university library in Toronto, where I was living for a while. I translated my grandfather's diaries from the First World War and his memoir of old Jerusalem in search of authentic detail. To me the life of a narrative lies in its details, and you have to get them right.

    The biggest struggle for me, though, was with the structure of the novel. I wrote draft after draft and they all seemed to fall flat, until right at the end – after it had been accepted for publication by the Toby Press – I did one final rewrite and worked out the system of alternating narrative strands, moving between past and present, myth and reality. It seems blindingly obvious now, but that was the key to keeping the story vibrant.

    MT: You also write short stories -- your wonderfully-entitled collection, Kafka in Bronteland, was recently shortlisted for the Edge Hill Prize for the Short Story. Which do you prefer writing, shorter or longer pieces?

    TY: Short stories are certainly less stressful! I honed my prose style and learned a lot about narrative structure through crafting stories. I'm naturally thrifty with words, so what I love about the short form is that you can cover a great deal in a small distance.

    Sometimes the sheer length of a novel can be wearying to a writer. You tend to get bogged down in the "muddled middle." When writing short stories I can be as brief as I like without sacrificing depth. It's an intenser process – the pleasure of completion comes more often.

    Yet there are bigger, more epic rewards to be had from novel-writing. I have big, ambitious visions that can only be realised that way. You just need to possess the stamina to stay the course.

    MT: In your own words, your work addressess those "ever-present questions of identity, exile and belonging." Do you write, then, to find out about yourself?

    TY: Writing is always a process of self-discovery. It's a form of conscious dreaming. No matter how much you plan (I'm a moderate planner precisely because I want to leave those avenues of discovery open) the creative impulse takes over and leads you in directions you didn't anticipate. I didn't know when I began writing that I would end up writing about belonging and lack of belonging. The things I felt most strongly about emerged and shaped themselves into narratives. What matters is that, through writing fiction, we reach beyond our private experience towards the universal.

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

    TY: I used to write by hand – the first few drafts of Genizah were all written in notebooks. The manuscripts were so covered in corrections they were virtually unreadable, and I was literally cutting and pasting with scissors and glue. I longed for a word processor before they'd even been invented!

    Now I write straight onto the computer – it's wonderful because no matter how many corrections I make I always have a clean copy. Each day I revise the previous day's work before continuing. Then I revise again – and again – an endless process of editing and revision. Well, not endless, obviously, but theoretically it could be.

    I still keep a diary which I write by hand. I love the feel of the pen in my fingers, I love beautiful notebooks. Your handwriting is a part of who you are, it's a kind of artwork.

    I recently looked at Hardy's MS of Tess of the D'Urbervilles online. It was wonderfully heartening in a way to see what a lot of revisions he'd made. I guess the laptop users of the present won't be providing future writers with that privilege.

    MT: Do you see yourself as a Jewish writer?

    TY: The themes in my fiction so far have often been refracted through a Jewish lens, but they aren't exclusive to Jews: roots, identity, migration, family, loss, belonging – they're themes so many people can identify with. I'd be very sorry to think that Jews alone respond to my work or want to read it. My short stories are as much about Northernness or childhood or memory or creativity as they are about Jewishness. As for Genizah, it's a history, a mystery, a love story... Though my experience of the world is always going to be mediated through my Jewishness, my writing won't always be overtly so. The novel I'm writing at the moment has no Jewish characters or content.

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

    TY: I think about writing! A lot of a writer's work is done away from the desk. I think about my work while I'm washing up, while I'm out walking, while I swim, cook, iron... My daily walk on the moors is the most fertile time. I guess the endorphins get the ideas flowing. Aside from that, I do some part-time outreach work for the Interfaith Education Centre which I feel is really important. And I read, of course, go to the cinema, listen to jazz, watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer...

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

    TY: No, I don't think while I'm writing of who might read it. It would be very inhibiting always to be trying to please someone. If anything, I write for myself, because I'm a very demanding reader. I require perfection, which makes things rather difficult for me!

    MT: What are you working on now?

    TY: I'm working on the fifth draft of my new novel, which I hope will be the last, but who knows? I also have a new book coming out in January, Tales of the Ten Lost Tribes, and I expect to start working through that with my editor any day now. It's a novel in ten stories, one for each tribe, which I actually wrote during one of my breaks from Genizah. I'd been researching the legends of the ten lost tribes of Israel who were carried away into exile by the Assyrians and disappeared from the pages of history in the eighth century BC. There were all these crazy stories about them turning up beyond seas of fire, on the other side of a river of roaring rocks, in the Amazon jungle. Also that the Burmese, Japanese, Afghans, even the ancient Saxons were descended from them. It occurred to me that if you go back far enough, we're all connected, we all come from somewhere else and in that sense we could all be Jews. It's rather fantastical and very poetic.

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

    TY: I couldn't possibly name just one favourite writer. The Brontes were my great literary heroines when I was growing up. Most of Wuthering Heights is tattooed on my brain. I still love the classics, especially Tolstoy. Katherine Mansfield's prose is a kind of alchemy. More recently, W.G. Sebald, Milan Kundera (The Unbearable Lightness of Being comes as close to perfection as any novel I've read), Primo Levi, Yehuda Amichai. The wonderful Serbian fabulist, Zoran Zivkovic.

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

    TY: Be persevering, because the likelihood is it will be a hard struggle. Don't be demoralised by rejection. There are all sorts of reasons why editors reject things. On the other hand, never stop trying to improve your writing.

    MT: Anything else you would like to say?

    TY: I'm delighted to announce that paperback rights to The Genizah at the House of Shepher have just been sold to St Martin's Press!

    Other than that - thank you for having me at The Book Depository!

  • David Horspool

    Tue, 09 Dec 2008 11:38

    David Horspool read ancient and modern history at Oxford. He is an editor with a primary responsibility for history on the Times Literary Supplement. He was born in 1971, and lives in London with his wife and son.

    Mark Thwaite: What gave you the idea for Why Alfred Burned the Cakes?

    David Horspool: The book is part of a series -- Profiles in History -- which focus on individual events that have a resonance beyond their time: the assassination of Caesar, when Stanley met Livingstone, the Fifth of November, the Fourth of July, etc.

    I am interested in medieval and Anglo-Saxon history, and I thought it might be good to have a book in the series which focused on a very famous event from that time about a very famous (if not very well- known) man, Alfred the Great. The twist was that this most famous event never actually happened: something that historians have known for a long time, and even most people who have done no more than briefly learn about Alfred at school. And yet "burning the cakes" is still the main thing associated with the king. I wanted to look into why that was, whether it concealed, or perhaps stood in for, his real achievements, and how stories like this get fixed in our national mythology.

    MT: How long did it take you to write it?

    DH: It took about a year to write (it's not terribly long!), mostly in mornings and at weekends.

    MT: Why do you think Alfred remains such a totemic figure?

    DH: Partly it's to do with the near-accident of his being known as "the Great". Partly it really is to do with some of the stories, not just the cakes, but others, such as the king visiting his enemy's camp disguised as a minstrel, the capture of the "magical" raven banner by his forces from the Vikings, and his later association with great British institutions like the Navy, juries, England itself, and even the Empire. But Alfred's reputation isn't all smoke and mirrors: he really did save his kingdom from almost certain extinction, take an active interest in education and scholarship, reform administration, issue new laws and so on. In my book I argue that we've forgotten all that partially because serious historians have stripped away all the mythology, so that he seems a paler, less memorable figure. You don't have to believe all the stories to understand that they are a way of making a fascinating figure more enduring.

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

    DH: I am a critic who has ventured onto the other side of the net, so the least I could do was read what others wrote about me! I was absolutely amazed by the very positive things almost all of them have had to say, especially as this was my first book. Where they have been critical, I take it on the chin: everybody approaches a book in a different way, and critics are trying to give an idea to a potential reader of what they might find. But I don't think anyone would admit to writing with a critic's advice whispering in their ear (unless it was something like "don't make silly mistakes").

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

    DH: I take longhand notes, which I don't really enjoy: it makes me feel as if someone is going to test me on them. So far too early I sit down and start hammering away at the keyboard, which means that there is lots and lots of re-writing even before I hand it in, and a bit more after that!

    MT: What were the principle challenges of writing your book?

    DH: I quoted a great Victorian historian and biographer of Alfred in my acknowledgements, who said he was "More than a little jealous that the greatest name in English history should be considered a theme on which any one may try his prentice hand". Historians of Anglo-Saxon England have got less pompous since then, but they still have a natural inclination to be suspicious of non-specialists trampling over their very well-trodden field. So my main challenge was to find a new way to approach Alfred, and new things to say, without making the mistake of confronting the experts on their own territory (the nitty-gritty of primary textual research, archaeological finds, that sort of thing) but also without thinking that my own conclusions were somehow suspect because they didn't emeerge from a History Faculty.

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

    DH: Well, I work at the Times Literary Supplement four days a week, commissioning reviews of history books. The rest of the time I'm with my family, or cycling in the other direction, or trying, like my team, to settle in to the Emirates Stadium.

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

    DH: We talk at the TLS about the "intelligent general reader" quite a lot, and try to persuade our often very expert contributors to bear that person in mind when writing. I think I was going for the same sort of territory: trying to write a book that anyone, even someone who didn't think they were interested in the subject or knew very little about it, would find interesting if they could be persuaded to pick it up and start reading.

    MT: What are you working on now?

    DH: I've been commissioned to write a book on English rebels, from (roughly) Hereward the Wake to Arthur Scargill. It's a but overwhelming, and I'm stuck in the fourteenth century, but it's turning out to be a very good way to look at English history in a different light.

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

    DH: I think my favourite historian is Richard Southern, though among the living it might be Linda Colley. But I spend a lot of my time reading fiction; I love Pat Barker and earlier V. S. Naipaul, and among the reasonably recent dead, Anthony Powell and Saul Bellow. Best history book of recent times? Britons by Linda Colley. Novel? Regeneration, but as is the way of things, I might have different answers to all those questions next week.

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

    DH: Far be it from me... but OK. Find a subject, and write. I spent a lot of time thinking that I needed a new typewriter (I've been putting off starting for a long time) then computer, then internet connection, membership of the right libraries, but what I really needed to do was show myself I could concentrate for long enough, and had the stamina to see it through. And try to be regular about it. Set a time, start research if you need to research, then close the door and get going; no one has to read the stuff you put down, but you've got to put something down.

    MT: Anything else you would like to say?

    DH: Try cycling; you can't read while you're doing it, but you'll get to most places quicker, and have more time to read then. And you feel terribly virtuous, if a bit sweaty.

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