Andrew Lycett is the biographer of Ian Fleming, Rudyard Kipling, Dylan Thomas, Arthur Conan Doyle and Wilkie Collins.
Where were you born and where did you grow up?
I was born in Stamford, Lincolnshire, and was then spirited out to live in East Africa – what was then called Tanganyika where my father started and ran an English style prep school.
What sorts of books were in your house when you were growing up?
A wide range belonging to two well-read parents – the complete Dickens, some traditional poetry (many relics of my father’s time studying English at Oxford in the 1930s), a surprising number of thrillers, and several fascinating works of reference – all a bit out of date, as we lived in the colonies.
How did Oxford help shape your tastes in literature?
I’m not sure that Oxford particularly shaped my tastes in literature as I was studying history. However I certainly read a lot while I was at university. The centre of the world appeared to be the United States so I read American authors widely: Updike, Mailer, Barth, Irving, Wolfe (Thomas and Tom) and someone who I’m not sure is much regarded today but I enjoyed at the time – Ken Kesey.
How has the work of foreign correspondents changed since you were out in Africa and the Middle East for The Times?
It’s still about getting the story. Obviously methods of communication have speeded up the process. I used to waste whole days finding fax machines and sending copy. I think it has got harder for two reasons – one, a journalist’s working environment is now more hostile; several countries really couldn’t care about fair reporting, and, two, there is a lot more competition from social media.
Who matters more in the Middle East: Donald Trump, or Vladimir Putin?
Putin has certainly altered the game in Syria. He wants to be influential in the area and, with Assad now apparently secure as President, Putin is well-positioned to change the geopolitics of the region and advance the cause of Shia Moslems. Trump remains an unknown force; a loose cannon, whose unpredictable behaviour is disturbing and makes the prospects for an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord, let alone a two state solution, even more elusive.
When did you begin writing biographies?
At school we had an essay society, and I recall writing what were basically lives of Mao Tse-Tung and Disraeli. As a journalist I wrote many different types of profile. My first biography was a life of the Libyan leader Mammar Gaddafi which I wrote with a journalistic colleague David Blundy in the mid-1980s. That gave me a taste for the genre, and I returned with what I regard as my first proper biography – about Ian Fleming – in 1993. Since then I have written one every three or four years.
How do you choose your subjects?
I’ve done books based on ideas suggested to me by my agent and my publisher, as well as working on things I have wanted to do myself. I am conscious of (though not ruled by) the demands of the marketplace. I always try to get a mixture of new material (letters, papers, diaries etc.) and real commitment from my publisher.
Are there individuals you considered, but didn’t pursue?
I once wanted to write a biography of Benjamin Disraeli, but was discouraged – I think because my publisher had his eye on an academic historian. Inevitably there are other subjects that crop up, but I discard for one reason or another.
Muammar Gaddafi, Ian Fleming, Rudyard Kipling, Dylan Thomas, Conan Doyle, Wilkie Collins: that’s quite a cast of characters! Can you say a little about what each of your subjects has taught you?
Blimey. Can I just answer generally and say that they’ve all taught me about different aspects of human existence. Getting to know about them has considerably enhanced my own life.
All of your subjects have been self-recorders one way or another. Could you imagine working on a subject who didn’t leave any traces?
I can certainly imagine it, but I think I would find it difficult. There are characters such as Jane Austen whose biographies have been written from little documentary material. I’ve been lucky to alight on subjects who have expressed themselves well. Perhaps that’s why I’m drawn to writers, although I’m very aware that there are many different types of character in the world.
How do you move from research to writing; is it difficult to begin?
I tend to do the majority of my research before I start writing. At some stage it becomes imperative to start my first chapter – usually because I can see the deadline beginning to loom. There is a fairly natural progression from research to writing, and I would also say that a certain amount of research continues right through the writing of the book, even after I finished the first draft. Ideas that I’d thought about and contacts who I’d put aside sometimes have a habit of coming back in a positive way at the end of the process.
Do you write every day? What is your writing process?
When I’m in the swing I certainly try to write every day. I don’t have a particular process, but I like to be at my desk by 10, and, if necessary, I can work for the next 10 hours – usually with an hour’s break for lunch.
Why is biography valuable? Why does it matter?
Biography is deeply humanist. Incorporating different disciplines, it provides a wonderful way of finding out, through lived experience, what really went on at different times in the past. It matters because it is history with a human face. So far as Emerson was concerned, “There is properly no history, only biography.”
As an author, what are you most proud (or embarrassed) of writing?
Let’s stick with proud. It was a wonderful moment to get my first proper biography on Ian Fleming finished – to have the feeling that I could do it – and then to get a pretty enthusiastic response.
What are you working on at the moment?
I have about five projects I’m working on, but I don’t like to talk too much about such things until I have a contract to go ahead.
Your views on book publishing? Do you enjoy reading e-books?
It’s an incredibly exciting period in publishing, with new types of media allowing different approaches to books at all levels. I don’t mind reading e-books, they are flexible and portable (so good for travel) but on the whole I regard them as a last resort – if I can’t manage to get the physical book in any other way.
Your views on how new technology has (or has not) changed your writing life?
I’ve certainly been helped by computers (being able to put ideas on a screen page and change them around) and also by the Internet, which has made the whole process of research much easier. I can now find out what papers are available in libraries across the world, and I can easily order up copies.
Your views on social media?
I enjoy being on Twitter. It keeps me in touch with different ideas and different people. However it can be intrusive, and one needs to learn to ration one’s use of it.
Your views on celebrity?
Some people are famous for being famous, but that doesn’t make them interesting. On the whole I enjoy finding out about people who’ve made a worthwhile mark on the world. I am also very aware that most people have a good story in them.
If you could go anywhere in time for one day, where would you go and why?
There is no point in going back just a shortish time, even a couple of centuries. So perhaps to Elizabethan England when the world was opening up, creative juices were flowing, and opportunities were abundant, but the transition from medieval to modern times was only just beginning to be felt.
Who are the five people, living or dead, you’d invite to a party?
Disraeli, Bob Dylan, Cerys Matthews, Julius Caesar and Madame de Staël.
Which characters in history do you like the most?
Those who are intelligent and who enhance the lives of others.
Which characters in history do you dislike the most?
Anyone who stamps on the wishes and aspirations of ordinary people.
Your idea of happiness?
I play cricket and keep wicket for the Authors XI. There is very little that beats the pleasure of making a good stumping, particularly at my age. I could take you through one in a game a Warborough last summer, but I’ll spare you that.
Your greatest unhappiness?
Dropping a catch. (See above.).
Your bedside reading?
I usually have about six books on the go beside my bed. You will find a heavyish work of non-fiction, a classic work of fiction that I’m catching up with, a piece of contemporary fiction (perhaps from the latest Man Booker prize list), something to relax with (maybe a book on cricket or music) and some poetry to dip into.
Your favourite motto?
I honestly don’t have one. But there’s a phrase that has resonated with me through the years: gnothi seauton – know thyself.
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