What is your latest book about?
The second and final volume of a life of Yeats that has taken me 18 years to write, based on unprecedented access to all his papers, and reconstructing the life more fully than has previously been possible – with, I hope, the effect of seeing much of the work in a new focus.
What is your writing routine? Are there ideal conditions?
Weekends, from necessity; in Kerry or in my study at home, for choice; as early in the morning as I can face; first drafts in longhand, annotated in different colors as the draft builds up; committed to computer
earlier than used to be the case, but I’m still wary of “fixing” it too soon.
What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
Get something out of your mind and on to paper as early as you can and write down things that occur to you in the middle of
Name three books that are memorable in terms of your reading pleasure.
This is very random. “The House in Paris,” by Elizabeth Bowen, “The Radetzky March,” by Joseph Roth; “Escape from the Anthill,” Hubert Butler. Plus more Trollope than I can list here.
What book are currently reading?
I’ve just finished Salman Rushdie’s “Shalimar the Clown,” which is Rushdie on top form – an angry dissection of fundamentalism. I have just started Thomas Lynch’s “Booking Passage: We Irish and Americans,” an account of one man’s comings and goings between Ireland and America over the last 30 years- the period of contemporary history which will form the subject of my next book.
Is there a book you wish you had written?
Thousands. But among my contemporaries, I was filled with envy by David Fitzpatrick’s “Politics and Irish Life: provincial experience of war and revolution,” which showed what microhistory, allied to a powerfully empathetic historical imagination, could do to illuminate Irish experience. It continues to exercise a great influence on Irish historiography.
Never miss an issue of The Irish Echo
Subscribe to one of our great value packages.
Name a book you were pleasantly surprised by.
Lewis Namier’s “The Structure of Politics at the Accession of George III.” started it dutifully, in order to teach myself about British political history, when I suddenly had to teach it — and found it jolting, funny, sardonic and subversive, written in a wonderfully acquired Nabokovian style (Namier was an Anglicized Pole). Right or wrong, I still admire it.
If you could meet one author, living or dead, who would it be?
Predictably, it would have to be W.B. Yeats because I have so much to ask him. Whether I could believe the replies is another matter.
What book changed your life?
Possibly John Barth’s “The Sot-Weed Factor,” which I read when at school in America in 1967, at a time when I still thought I’d study English at university. Barth’s parody-novel, which drew heavily on his abandoned history PhD about Colonial Maryland, indicated how many ways there were of writing and interpreting national history. And it was blindingly and inventively funny.
What is your favorite spot in Ireland?
Milltown, Co. Kerry, where my wife’s mother’s family come from and where we spend a lot of time. It’s not spectacular, but all the beautiful places are accessible from it (Glencar, Derrynane, the Dingle peninsula) and it has its own peculiar charm, too.
You’re Irish if…
you’re relaxed enough about it to think it doesn’t really matter.