Roy Foster on Hubert Butler, WB Yeats and Phineas Finn

‘The Confederation of Kilkenny in the 1640s would be a good subject for a picaresque novel full of spies and skulduggery. But as we say, it’s not my period’

 Historian  Roy Foster and actress Fiona Shaw at the National Library for a Yeats celebration. Foster spent 18 years researching his WB Yeats biography. Photograph: Alan Betson

Historian Roy Foster and actress Fiona Shaw at the National Library for a Yeats celebration. Foster spent 18 years researching his WB Yeats biography. Photograph: Alan Betson

 

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

Patricia Lynch’s The Grey Goose of Kilnevin.

What was your favourite book as a child?

Frits Muhlenweg’s Big Tiger and Christian.

And what is your favourite book or books now?

Far too many to list. All Joyce except Finnegans Wake; William Maxwell’s The Chateau; Hubert Butler’s essays.

What is your favourite quotation?

“Living well is the best revenge” – de Rochefoucauld.

Who is your favourite fictional character?

Trollope’s Phineas Finn.

Who is the most under-rated Irish author?

Kate O’Brien.

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

Print.

What is the most beautiful book you own?

A first edition of WB Yeats’s The Wind Among the Reeds with the cover designed by Alethea Gyles.

Where and how do you write?

In a v small study in front of a window on the street, with as little distraction as possible.

What book changed the way you think about fiction?

Most recently, Javier Marías’s A Heart So White and Your Face Tomorrow.

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

18 years on WB Yeats.

What book influenced you the most?

Impossible question – in what area? For what I’m working on now, FSL Lyons’s Culture and Anarchy in Ireland and David Fitzpatrick’s Politics and Irish Life would be contenders.

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

Hubert Butler’s essays. Or Balzac’s Lost Illusions.

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

Isaiah Berlin’s essays on romanticism and nationalism, which I came to late.

What advice would you give to an aspiring author?

Get up early in the morning and get on with it.

What weight do you give reviews?

Less and less.

Where do you see the publishing industry going?

Disappearing into a spiral of populism and celebrity-touting.

What writing trends have struck you lately?

Length is valued above economy and simple ideas are worked up into portentous cod-philosophy “books”.

What lessons have you learned about life from reading?

That there is nothing new under the sun, and the unexpected always happens.

What has being a writer taught you?

That there is never enough time.

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

A dinner-party composed entirely of writers is not a good idea.

What is the funniest scene you’ve read?

Impossible. The talking cat in Saki’s short story Tobermory is very funny, and countless scenes in Evelyn Waugh’s early novels, such as the car race in Vile Bodies or the sports day in Decline and Fall. But it would probably be a conversation out of Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds.

What is your favourite word?

As in the sense of one that I use, probably too much? Not for me to say, but perhaps “bizarre”. If it means in terms of sound/sense, it could be “melancholy”.

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

The Confederation of Kilkenny in the 1640s would be a good subject for a picaresque novel full of spies and skulduggery. But as we say, it’s not my period.

Vivid Faces: The Revolutionary Generation in Ireland, 1890-1923 by Roy Foster is published by Allen Lane today, priced £20. It is reviewed in The Irish Times by Diarmaid Ferriter on Saturday, October 4th.