Alex Preston: ‘My first book was decent, the second not so much, the new one is beautiful’
‘I like the thrill of the fact/fiction blur. It’s not new, but it seems more vital and vivid now than ever before’
Alex Preston: “I spent four years researching In Love and War, some of it in the UK, some in Italy. Dozens of interviews, weeks in dusty archives, in libraries, trawling through documents and diaries, maps and letters. I loved that research, and I grew as a person and a writer in that time so that when I started to write, the words just poured out of me like water”
What was the first book to make an impression on you?
I remember my father reading me Tim to the Lighthouse and the other Edward Ardizzone books when I was four or five. We lived by the sea and I loved the romance and adventure of them, the way they’d leave their trace after he’d turned the light out and I’d lie listening to the waves and dreaming of life as a stowaway.
What was your favourite book as a child?
The Weirdstone of Brisingamen by Alan Garner. I must have read it ten times as a kid, and have just read it to my own son. It is still magical, an exercise in plotting and control.
And what is your favourite book or books now?
I loved HHhH by Laurent Binet. Reading it in 2011 completely changed the way I wrote. I’m also a great admirer of the Australian author Shirley Hazzard. The Transit of Venus is a masterpiece.
What is your favourite quotation?
I love the end of Yeats’s The Circus Animals’ Desertion: “Now that my ladder’s gone, / I must lie down where all the ladders start / In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.”
Who is your favourite fictional character?
I like flawed characters. I just finished reading Richard Flanagan’s magnificent The Narrow Road to the Deep North and adored its womanising hero, Dorigo Evans.
Who is the most under-rated Irish author?
I don’t think the genius of John McGahern has been shouted quite loudly enough, at least within my hearing.
Which do you prefer – ebooks or the traditional print version?
Is that really a question? Does anyone say ebook?
What is the most beautiful book you own?
A tatty first edition of The Great Gatsby stamped with Property of the Women’s Hospital. Bound in green leather, it was given to me by my grandfather and I love it for all its dog-ears and smudges.
Where and how do you write?
Anywhere I can, but preferably in my drawing room, with a fire burning and a glass of good Italian wine.
What book changed the way you think about fiction?
HHhH (see above) but also James Salter’s Light Years. It taught me rhythm, attention to the beauty of each individual sentence, the importance of style.
What is the most research you have done for a book?
I spent four years researching In Love and War, some of it in the UK, some in Italy. Dozens of interviews, weeks in dusty archives, in libraries, trawling through documents and diaries, maps and letters. I loved that research, and I grew as a person and a writer in that time so that when I started to write, the words just poured out of me like water.
What book influenced you the most?
The Secret History by Donna Tartt made me want to be a writer. I read it in one sitting, aged 13, and melted into the rarefied world of Hampden College.
What book would you give to a friend’s child on their 18th birthday?
I have been collecting books for each of my godchildren, made out to them by the respective authors. The aim is to present them with a library, addressed to them, on their eighteenth birthdays. My favourites so far: Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre, A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan and The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst.
What book do you wish you had read when you were young?
I was too young to get Martin Amis and only read him in retrospect. I wish I’d been 18 when Money came out.
What advice would you give to an aspiring author? Pin a note above your desk that reads GET ON WITH IT.
What weight do you give reviews?
Too much to the bad, too little to the good. I’ve viewed them differently since I started reviewing myself. Just opinions, after all, and you, the writer, secretly know if a book is any good or not. My first one was decent, the second not so much, the new one is beautiful.
Where do you see the publishing industry going?
Wherever Jeff Bezos tells it to go.
What writing trends have struck you lately?
I liked David Shields’s Reality Hunger from a few years back. I like the thrill of the fact/fiction blur. It’s not new, but it seems more vital and vivid now than ever before.
What lessons have you learned about life from reading?
With books you can skip the boring bits; do your best to achieve this in life.
What has being a writer taught you?
How to file my own tax returns.
Which writers, living or dead, would you invite to your dream dinner party? Stendhal, BS Johnson, Shirley Hazzard, Colette, WG Sebald.
What is the funniest scene you’ve read?
Pretty much anything from A Confederacy of Dunces.
What is your favourite word?
If you were to write a historical novel, which event or figure would be your subject?
I just have, and chose wartime Florence and the Italian resistance as my subject.
Alex Preston’s third novel, In Love and War, was published by Faber in July. His first novel, This Bleeding City, won the Spear’s Best First Book Award and the Edinburgh International Festival Readers’ First Book Award and was selected for Waterstone’s New Voices 2010. It has been translated into 12 languages.