Philip Hensher: ‘Don’t aspire to be an author. Just aspire to write a particular book’

‘I’ve read Proust four times and every time it felt like a major punctuation mark in my life’

Philip Hensher’s novel The Northern Clemency was shortlisted  for the Man Booker Prize in 2008. Photograph: Simon James/PA Wire

Philip Hensher’s novel The Northern Clemency was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2008. Photograph: Simon James/PA Wire

 

What was the first book to make an impression on you?

The Wizard of Oz, and especially the very weird sequel The Marvelous Land of Oz, where the hero undergoes a sex change in the penultimate chapter. Very disturbing to a five-year-old boy.

What was your favourite book as a child?

Randolph Stow’s Midnite about a good-hearted but not very intelligent bushranger. The funniest book in the world.

And what is your favourite book or books now?

Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks.

What is your favourite quotation?

“Nothing matters very much, and most things don’t matter at all.” Arthur Balfour. A great help.

Who is your favourite fictional character?

Nancy Mitford’s Cedric.

Who is the most under-rated Irish author?

Dead: Somerville and Ross. Living: Ciaran Carson.

Which do you prefer - ebooks or the traditional print version?

They each have their uses.

What is the most beautiful book you own?

The uniform 19-volume set of Ivy Compton-Burnett’s novels. I thought I’d treat myself.

Where and how do you write?

Between 7 and 10 in the morning, five or six days a week, on the end of the dining table, with a pen in a notebook.

What book changed the way you think about fiction?

Natalia Ginzburg’s Lessico Famigliare - a beautiful use of circling repetition and anecdote within a family as society crumbles.

What is the most research you have done for a book?

I once learnt an Oriental language, but I’ve forgotten most of it now.

What book influenced you the most?

Proust. I’ve read it four times now, and every time it felt like a major punctuation mark in my life.

What book would you give to a friend’s child on their 18th birthday?

A blank one.

What book do you wish you had read when you were young?

Oh, books turn up in their own time. But I read Oscar Wilde for the first time when I was grown-up, and wise to all the tricks of the trade.

What advice would you give to an aspiring author?

Don’t aspire to be an author. Just aspire to write a particular book.

What weight do you give reviews?

My own? A bit. Not enough to be rude to the perpetrators of negative ones.

Where do you see the publishing industry going?

Working out how it’s going to exist in a different ecology.

What writing trends have struck you lately?

Positive: the rise of the multiple narrative, existing in parallel. Negative: the preference of tales of immigration over examinations of birth culture.

What lessons have you learned about life from reading?

It’s nonsense to say that you can’t wear brown shoes with a blue suit.

What has being a writer taught you?

You can’t please everyone.

Which writers, living or dead, would you invite to your dream dinner party?

Constant Lambert, Dickens, Ivy Compton-Burnett, Chekhov, John Buchan, Randall Jarrell and Dawn Powell.

What is the funniest scene you’ve read?

The scene in Elmore Leonard’s Rum Punch when the three boy gangsters want to let off a rocket launch and, trying to read the instructions on the side, are baffled, let down by their American education.

What is your favourite word?

Oblong.

If you were to write a historical novel, which event or figure would be your subject?

Edwina Currie.

Philip Hensher is a British novelist, critic and journalist. His latest book The Emperor Waltz is published by Fourth Estate (2014).

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