What is your latest book about?
It’s a biography of a fascinating Irishman, William Johnson. He was from Catholic, Jacobite stock, came to New York in 1738 and established himself as the official mediator between the British and the Iroquois Indians. He interests me because he was able to move so fluently between different identities: Irish and British, Catholic and Protestant, European and Indian. He used his ability to move between these different cultures to make himself rich and powerful and established himself as a kind of feudal lord in the Mohawk Valley. He survived in American culture largely as a myth: he’s the figure behind Fennimore Coopers Leatherstocking novels, the white Indian at home in the forests. I’ve tried to look behind the myth while also trying to understand why and how it arose.
What is your writing routine? Are there ideal conditions?
There probably are ideal conditions — lots of time, lots of calm — but I’m not sure I’d produce anything within them. I’m writing journalism pretty much every day, so I gather material for the books as I go along, let it simmer, and then take a block of time away from the day job to write. “White Savage” was written mostly in the Burren in County Clare, where I lived like a medieval monk in a cottage without running water. The landscape is about as far from the forests of New York as you could imagine, but the bare rock and lack of luxury concentrate the mind.
What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
Read an awful lot. It’s the most pleasant way to learn how to write and you form your own voice as a reaction to the voices of others. Then be true to your own point of view. Understand what you want to say before you start saying it.
Name three books that are memorable in terms of your reading pleasure?
Recently, Colm Toibin’s “The Master,” Sebastian Barry’s “A Long, Long Way” and Don Akenson’s witty, erudite and deliciously mordant “An Irish History of Civilisation.”
What book are you currently reading?
Robert Fisk’s “The Great War for Civilisation” — a depressing but necessary history of the conflicts in the Middle East.
Is there a book you wish you had written?
Hundreds, but perhaps Simon Schama’s history of the French revolution, “Citizens,” most of all.
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Name a book that you were pleasantly surprised by?
Thomas Lynch’s “The Undertaking” — I never thought a book about death could be so uplifting.
If you could meet one author, living or dead, who would it be?
Samuel Beckett — the nearest thing to a 20th century saint.
What book changed your life?
The Collected Works of Shakespeare — my father made me read them when I was a kid, and I’m still grateful.
What is your favorite spot in Ireland?
The bend in the road when you first see the bare hills on your left and the sea glittering on your right.
You’re Irish if . . .
Would that be if you answer a question with another question?
Fintan O’Toole will talk about “The Celtic Tiger — Cultural and Social Implications” on Wednesday, Nov. 2 at 6:30 p.m. at the South Lounge, Fordham University, Lincoln Center Campus. For more information call: (718) 817-4634 or (718) 817-3330.
The following evening, Thursday, Nov. 3, at 7 p.m., he will introduce “White Savage: William Johnson and the Invention of America” at the South Street Seaport Museum at 207 Front St., NYC.