Did you always want to be a writer?
The answer must be yes, even if I didn’t know it at the time. My first ‘publication’ was a biography of my Uncle Peter which I wrote and illustrated at the age of seven then sold to its subject for ten shillings. At school I wrote stories for the school magazine and comedy sketches for the annual revue (happily a youthful Bill Bailey was on hand to perform them). At college I wrote nothing but essays but, among the reference books I bought, was a reprint of Lempriére’s Classical Dictionary (the cheapest I could find) which included a sketch of his rather uneventful life. I remember thinking that the writer of such a fascinating book should have had a more interesting existence. That was how “Lempriére’s Dictionary” was conceived.
How did you get started?
“Lemprière’s Dictionary” was my first serious attempt at fiction. When I began writing it, I was studying for a doctorate in modern American poetry, working in bars and on building sites, writing encyclopedia entries and reviews. Amongst all this, the novel was conceived as something for myself. I thought I would be an academic, or a barman. This was the late 1980’s and publication seemed very remote. I wrote some pages and threw them away. I wrote a few more and threw those away too. My then-girlfriend was urging me to get more serious about it but I didn’t feel any real urgency. Then I was given a ticket to the London Book Fair and the advice that no-one got published without an agent. The deadline seemed to unlock something. The night before I typed out a one-page synopsis which basically contained the story of “Lemprière’s Dictionary” and gave it to the first agent I encountered. She was called Carole Blake and she remained my agent for the next twenty-eight years until her death in 2016. I owe my career to her really. I wrote the first fifty pages very quickly (I’d told Carole I already had them) and then another hundred. It was sent out on submission in 1989 and a couple of publishers made offers. I had a miraculously easy ride; plenty of writers can show twenty or thirty rejection letters just from agents. I think luck plays a huge part when you’re starting out.
Where do you get your ideas?
I usually start with a fragment; something incomplete, like Lemprière’s event-starved real life versus his over-full dictionary. There’s no shortage of ideas, it’s what you do with them that counts. For “The Pope’s Rhinoceros” I had the (true) story of that beast being brought as a bribe to the Pope. But I couldn’t remember where I’d heard the story, or which Pope, or where the animal came from. My mother gave me a picture-book about rhinoceroses which, naturally, I ignored. Instead I began hunting through multi-volume histories of the Popes, histories of menageries, gazetteers, shipping records and the like. Three months later I was still rhinoceros-less and wondering if I’d just imagined the story. That’s when I flipped open the book sent by my mother. The first page began: “The first rhinoceros to reach Europe since Roman times was brought from Goa as a gift to Pope Leo X on the orders of Manolo I of Portugal….” You should always listen to your mother.
The genesis of “In the Shape of a Boar” was more complicated (I wrote an essay that touched on it) but the principal was the same. “John Saturnall’s Feast” came about through reading the chapter about the English Civil War in a history of Britain and its cooking by my friend Kate Colqhoun. The account switches abruptly from an opulent, sophisticated cuisine to bare tables and the Puritan disapproval of luxury. What, I wondered, if you were a cook? Who would you cook for? Some writers start with an image, or just a phrase. For me, it’s always an untold story.
Do you plan your books in advance?
I hadn’t written any fiction when I began “Lemprière’s Dictionary” so I had no idea how to go about it. I had the rough arc of the story so I just continued along it, inventing things. It seemed easy. About a third of the way through the book I started to realise that I would have to somehow conclude all these stories, tie them all together or explain why I couldn’t and bring the book to its end. So I set aside a few days to sort that out. That’s when the nightmare began. Nothing seemed to relate to anything else. Nothing linked up. ‘Sorting it out’ took a month. In the end I had to reorganise what I had and map everything out on a plan with circles and arrows and little descriptions. It was too big to fit on one piece of paper so I used sixteen sheets of A4 and stuck them together. To read it I had to lay it on the floor and stand on a chair in the middle. So the answer for “Lemprière’s Dictionary” would be no and yes. The book works better for its unplanned-then-planned-ness, I think now. The story moves forward quite freely at first then the plot starts to grip and gets tighter until everything is resolved. “The Pope’s Rhinoceros” was conceived as five novellas related by dual quests (for the rhinoceros and a corresponding elephant) but after writing the first two parts, I realised the book would be over a thousand pages long so the later ones were reshaped. For “In the Shape of a Boar” I retold a Greek myth alongside the story of a Jewish poet (loosely based on Paul Celan) in World War II. The myth is meant as a kind of prose artefact corresponding to the poem on which the poet’s later reputation rests, and also an account of whatever real prehistoric events later inspire the myth and later still inspire the poet to write his poem. Thus the myth’s retelling is inflected through the experiences of the poet’s life to which it alludes and which allude back to it. “In the Shape of a Boar” was by far the most difficult of my books to write because it was impossible to create one part without knowing already the other part. So it was written and successively rewritten until the two parts could be brought into congruence. The footnotes added another layer of meaning, and difficulty. “John Saturnall’s Feast” was conceived in a much more straightforward way. The events of John’s life are told as they happened but each chapter is headed by a recipe from The Book of John Saturnall, written much later in his life. Gradually it becomes clear that each dish derives from the events which have befallen him; the recipe book is a kind of secret diary as John looks back. I didn’t plan it that way, it just happened as I wrote. I felt a book about a cook should have recipes.
How do you work?
All writers answer this by saying how they don’t work, and I’m no exception. The fullest account I’ve given of how any of my books got written was a diary I kept toward the end of “In the Shape of a Boar which was commissioned by the Gulbenkian Foundation. On a day to day basis, I begin work when everyone’s out of the house, break for lunch when I go and swim, then work through the afternoon. I used to work through the evenings too but that’s not so frequent. Instead I read. I make notes. I jot things down. My ‘manuscripts’ are scattered around the house on the backs of envelopes, post-it notes, receipts, scraps of paper. Research notes tend to end up in a big black exercise book. I used to use A3 size notebooks because you could see a lot at once but they got too difficult to lug about. Research and writing tend to proceed simultaneously. At some level, I think they’re the same thing. They’re both investigations.
How do you do your research?
I used to haunt the British Museum Library when it was still in the Round Reading Room. The catalogue was two concentric circular shelves filled with vast red-bound books and request slips were written by hand. Sometimes it took all day to receive a book that, physically, was less than fifty metres away. For “Lemprière’s Dictionary” I was obsessed with everything being accurate – even the weather, which is problematic in an age without forecasts. I remember reading all the newspapers in the Burney Catalogue up to 1788 (when the book is mostly set) to render the London scenes properly and tramping about the streets to check the geography. Unfortunately, a lot has changed physically since 1788; all my physical research had to be checked against archival sources – old maps, gazetteers, news-sheets, pamphlets and so on. It was even worse in Rome for “The Pope’s Rhinoceros”. Everything was similar and nothing was the same, including the Vatican, while things you would expect to be fixed – like the Column of Trajan – have been shifted about according to the whims of various Popes. Sometimes I’ve found myself visiting places or re-enacting events only after the book has been published. The second Austro-Turkic war of 1787-8 (fought partly in Bosnia) which featured in “Lemprière’s Dictionary” was disturbingly similar, I found, to the 1992-95 conflict in the same place. More happily, the descriptions of a flying man from the same book turned out to be quite close to the real experience when I took up skydiving. Generally, contemporary documents and objects (wherever they may be found) give the most even when they seem irrelevant. The will of a minor nobleman which I read for “The Pope’s Rhinoceros” furnished part of a bedroom in “John Saturnall’s Feast”. A chance remark in a seventeenth century recipe book (about boiling something for “the time it takes to say an Ave Maria slowly”) led me to rethink how a whole society conceived time. Nine-tenths of all research never makes it into the book but it has a strange invisible effect. Research is the dark matter of fiction.
Are any of your books autobiographical?
No. That’s how I answered that question the first time it was put. One of the attractions of writing “Lempriére’s Dictionary” (so I thought) was that a multinational conspiracy thriller set in the eighteenth century couldn’t possibly be interpreted as having anything to do with me. It completely passed me by that I, like Lempriére, had moved from the country to London where I was making a living writing entries for reference books…. I’ve tried to get away from myself in every book I’ve written. And every time I’ve failed. I suppose it’s inevitable: a book has to engage with its author’s life somehow. It has to express something that matters to you and that you care about. To that degree, all books are autobiographical.
Which is your favourite among your books?
I think all writers have a particular affection for their first book. The success of “Lempriére’s Dictionary” far exceeded my expectations and acted as a kind of confirmation that the path I’d taken was the right one. It was surprising and exciting but it was circumstantial too. It didn’t mean the book was any better or worse than the others. The book I’m proudest of is “In the Shape of a Boar”. It was difficult to write (and to read) and in some ways it was flawed but it was about a very difficult subject and I was trying to be honest. It was short-listed for the Wingate Jewish Quarterly prize and that gave me more pleasure than anything else I’ve won. I wouldn’t write another book like that; the actual composition was very difficult (as I’ve documented elsewhere). But I’m very pleased to have got it written and published. That said, the book uppermost in my thoughts is always the one I’m working on. The best place to be is in the book you’re writing.
Will you ever write a novel with a contemporary setting?
After “In the Shape of a Boar” I worked on a novel set partly in 1981. The book lost its way, or I did, and I later abandoned it but rendering a contemporary reality was an interesting experiment. I was conscious all the time of the gravitational pull of my own lived experience, something I don’t think about much when writing historical fiction. At the same time, a mild but constant paranoia was generated by the thought of other people’s lived experience. When it comes to the present, everyone’s an expert. What I missed most was the sheer strangeness of the past and how that strangeness sits next to the everyday. The cooking scenes in “John Saturnall’s Feast” are filled with everyday actions that turn slightly odd: someone encountering a lemon and being surprised by the colour, or a sieve made of horse-hair, which was perfectly normal in the seventeenth century but slightly lip-curling now.
Who are your favourite writers and who has influenced you?
As a child I read very haphazardly, picking books more or less by chance from the shelves of the mobile library that came to our village. I remember reading an odd book about a man stuck between roads after a car accident which must have been JG Ballard’s “Concrete Island”, a lot of generic thrillers with yellow covers, all of Raymond Chandler, David Niven’s autobiography and Airy Neave’s war memoir “They have their exits” (he escaped from Colditz). At school I would choose authors and read everything I could find: Evelyn Waugh, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Andre Gide. Were they my influences? I remember the excitement of reading James Joyce for the first time. Then Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Thomas Pynchon, William Gaddis, John Barth, Gunther Grass. At college I did a very traditional degree beginning with the Battle of Maldon in Anglo-Saxon and ending with Basil Bunting’s “Briggflatts”. I was forced to read things I would never have opened otherwise and I loved it. When it came to writing “Lempriére’s Dictionary”, I had the examples of everything from Shakespeare to books like “Dog Years” or “Gravity’s Rainbow” with their multi-stranded narratives and mad plots. I think the linguistic freedom came from reading so much poetry. AS Byatt feels the same; “Possession” is about the relationship between poetry and prose, amongst many other things. You are allowed to enjoy yourself on the page; that is the most valuable lesson I’ve learned.
What book do you wish you had written and why?
I would love to have written Salinger’s story “For Esme with love and squalor”. The voice is so effortless and the twists of the story come over as both utterly unexpected and inevitable. I wish he had finished his Glass family chronicle. The novel I would most like to have written is Sterne’s “Tristram Shandy”. It’s an outrageous book, preposterous even, but totally fearless. Fielding’s “Tom Jones” would be a close second. When I was trying to organise the story in “Lempriére’s Dictionary” I remembered that someone had described “Tom Jones” as the most perfect plot in the whole of fiction. It’s quite maniacal, a much stranger achievement than it appears. If I was reborn as a poet I would like to be Elizabeth Bishop writing about hats.
What are you working on now?
I’m writing about the childhood of Elizabeth the First which was terrifying and traumatic even by Tudoe standards. Her father beheaded her mother then disowned her, her sister had her thrown in the Tower of London and her Privy Council tried to have her executed, and she had no friends. So I’ve given her one: a witch.