You’re at the Hay Literature Festival – what’s the most surprising question a reader has asked you about your book on the First World War?
I’ve lost count of the number of people
who’ve asked whether I know what
happened to their great grandfather or
other ancestor. Often, it’s “I think he was in
the trenches, but I don’t know any more than that.” I usually can’t help them, of course – there were something like five and a half million men who served in the Army during the war. But the questions show how interested people are to know more about this amazing event. To me it’s the single most important element in the making of Britain today.
How much time did you spend on research as opposed to writing?
I’m a journalist – I love finding stuff out. I spend as long as I dare digging. I’m also lucky enough to have a brilliant researcher to help me. But when the deadline looms, then I have to get down to writing: I divide the number of words required by the number of days available, and then try to produce the necessary number each week.
Have you discovered anything since that you’d have loved to put in the book?
Lots of stuff, some of it from questions at events! For example, someone told me that when war broke out, the whole of the British Army only had about 80 motor vehicles. Most of the work was done by horses, of course – and the effect of bombs and bullets on them was little different to the effects on human beings.
Were you able to devote chunks of time to the book or is it squeezed in among your other commitments?
I find it easy enough to fit in research with other commitments. But once it comes to the actual writing, I like to have a clear run at it for a few weeks.
Do you have any writing rituals?
Not really, though the temptation to get up and make a sandwich or drink hundreds of cups of coffee can be very strong. I’m amazed all authors aren’t lard-mountains.
What’s your favourite time to write?
If I can, I like to get up before six in the morning – you can get more done between then and ten than between nine and one.
Of all the books you’ve written which came most easily?
That’s like asking “What’s the most difficult interview you’ve done?” It’s always the one you’re about to do. When it goes well, writing is like surfing. When it goes badly, it’s like trying to wade through treacle.
Any factual subjects you’re itching to get to grips with in the future?
Yep. But I’m not telling you. Any interest in flirting with fiction? I tried. It wasn’t good.
What are you reading at the moment? Are there any books you return to?
I’m reading The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins by Irvine Welsh, and re-reading The Go-Between by LP Hartley. Before that, it was Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies. I go back to Waugh’s Scoop when I need a laugh.
But for sheer, epic sweep, I love reading The Radetzky March by Joseph Roth, set in imperial Vienna. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
You’re leaving Newsnight. Are you looking forward to having more time to write?
There’s never enough time to write…
Explore the history of British people in the First World War with Jeremy Paxman’s Great Britain’s Great War in hardback for £18.50 (usually £25) or pre-order the paperback (released 5 June) for £7.99. Visit radiotimes.com/book22 or call 01603 648176