Where are you from?
Born in Bristol, England, I’ve spent all my adult life abroad and for the last 15 years have lived in southern France.
Who are your favorite writers?
‘Favourite’ is a tricky word. The writers I love best include Gogol, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Ilf and Petrov, Pushkin; Cao Yuexin, the poet Han Shan; Arthur Waley, for his translations from the Chinese and Japanese; Scott Fitzgerald; Dickens; Alexander Dumas, Zola. All classics, but after wrestling with the lives of complicated political leaders, I am happy to take refuge with them – as I do with Tolkien, van Gulik (the Judge Dee stories) or J.K. Rowling.
What are your hobbies and outside interests?
In no particular order: Books. Good food. Wine. Chinese porcelain (which I can no longer afford to buy, so what was a passion has become dormant). Sunshine (more and more important). Sunsets in the tropics. Chopping wood and clearing bush.
What is the single best piece of advice anyone ever gave you?
The best advice I ever had as a writer came from a library book about journalism which I read when I was a student. The gist of it was that when you wrote a story, you should think what would be the first words you would say to your neighbors if some momentous event had just occurred and you rushed round to tell them about it. A very simple principle, but one which can be applied to the most complex situations: a change in the tax system; a new constitution; a currency crisis. The lesson is that you must first work out what is the essence, pushing aside all extraneous flummery. Once you are clear what is the core of what you wish to say, it is easy to fill in the details because the spine of the narrative is already there. That also applies to writing books.
What is your favorite quote?
“It is undone business I speak of this morning, with the sea stretching out at my feet”—Charles Olson
What is the question most commonly asked by your readers? What is the answer?
Q. “Who are you going to write about next?”
A. ‘I have a pretty good idea, but you’ll forgive me for not telling you’.
Where do you write?
I used to write in a windowless pantry beside my kitchen, which friends referred to as ‘the monk’s cell’. When I started Mitterrand, my wife took matters in hand, reclaimed her pantry, and kicked me upstairs to what used to be my son’s bedroom, telling me there was much more space, a window overlooking the forest and room to pace about in like a caged wombat. She was right (they always are!): I have ten times more space in which to pile books and files and umpteenth drafts, and the view of the forest is no more distracting than the walls of my former ‘cell’.