Henry Hemming has published five works including titles from Agent M to The Ingenious Mr Pyke, a New York Times bestseller. Also a prominent writer on major outlets including The Economist, The Times and FT Magazine, his passion for history grew whilst studying History at Newcastle University. He has kindly given us the opportunity to interview him about his career, advice for aspiring history and English students and to share his experiences.
1 | What is your daily routine as an author?
My routine as an author is dictated not by the mood I’m in or if I’m feeling inspired but by childcare. As soon as I’ve dropped off our daughter at pre-school, or our son at nursery (my wife and I take it in turns), I’ll know that I have until later that afternoon to write, and that’s it. I do like a deadline. I’ll either head off to the National Archives to go through primary sources, or the British Library for memoirs and secondary sources, I might work in a local café or I’m based at home. One advantage of being at home is that you can read sections of your book out loud, which I find enormously helpful. I’ve always tried to think of a book as the transcript of a (very long) talk. So when I was asked to go to a studio to record the audiobook of ‘M’, for my most recent book, I found that I could almost recite the whole thing by heart. Another part of my daily routine, or a tool, really, for when I get stuck, is taking a walk. I find that there aren’t many writing problems that can’t be solved with a half-hour walk round our local common.
2 | From writing on many well-known news/media companies to publishing five works, you have already achieved so much. Looking back, what influenced you in choosing to become an author?
It’s probably best to talk about what got me going on my first book, which is where my career as an author began. It was a combination of two things: having a good story to tell, and a clear sense of how I wanted to see it told. I’d been on a journey through the Middle East, making and selling paintings in places like Tehran, Muscat and Baghdad. Although my paintings told some of the story, I knew that the best way to communicate what had happened, because it was so completely unlike anything which had happened to me before, would be to write it all down. I’d read many travel books, and had even written my own very short travel book at university (which was and remains unreadable), yet by the time I got back from the Middle East I had a new sense of how I wanted this book to sound, the rhythm of the language and the feel of it all. Even then, it took three years of working on this manuscript in my spare time, endlessly rewriting and redrafting, before it was taken on by a literary agent.
3 | What do you love most about being a writer and what are some aspects you don't particularly like?
What do I love? Being in charge.
Some aspects I don’t particularly like? Being in charge. There are times when it would be good to have someone else take over for a moment.
4 | Most of your works are based on historical figures. Where did your passion for historical writing originate from?
It comes from a love of detective work, and a desire to understand the world. The best way to do that, I’d argue, is by looking at the past.
5 | Who are some of your favourite authors and books you would highly recommend?
I’m a great fan of Ben Macintyre, and would highly recommend ‘Agent ZigZag’. I’m also a dedicated reader of John le Carré. ‘A Perfect Spy’ remains one of my favourite books.
6 | What is some advice for young and upcoming writers who are thinking about an English-based course at university or about to start their first work?
I heard Will Self being asked this question, and his advice to the young and upcoming writer was: don’t do it. He went on to say that anyone who is genuinely interested in writing would not be put off by that. I’d go along with that. There’s not much point setting out to write a book unless you feel passionately that you have something you want to say and, ideally, an original way of saying it. The only other advice I’d offer is not to think of yourself only as a writer, but also an editor. I spend much more of my time going through texts I’ve written – re-reading, polishing, tweaking, re-reading again, reading it out loud, polishing some more – so that the act of writing it down in the first place can often feel pretty distant.
7 | Turning back time, what do you wish you had learnt when you were young which would be useful now?
I’d always imagined that once you got your first book published that was it, in the sense that you became a writer for life, you were safe and accepted within the literary citadel. The reality is that each new book needs to be sold in its own right. Also, there’s an element of luck involved with every work. Publishing is a hit industry, and there’s no way of being able to guarantee which books will ‘break out’. I learnt early on to let go of the idea that there was a point I would reach in my career when everything was perfect – incredible sales, amazing reviews, a publisher committed to publishing my next ten books. Instead it’s enormously important, cloying and predictable as this may sound, to enjoy the ride, without really knowing where it might take you.
End of Interview
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