The award-winning historian and novelist discusses his writing routines and rituals – including a very particular type of footwear – as well as his literary influences, favourites and preferred relaxation methods as he plans a new book on the Romanovs and the final novel in his thriller trilogy set in Stalin’s Moscow.
Where are you now?
I am writing in my office in London
Where and when do you do most of your writing?
Here. My office is a former greenhouse and it looks over the gardens behind the houses – it’s like being the captain on the bridge of a ship.
If you have one, what is your pre-writing ritual?
I have many strange rituals. Ritual is everything. I always buy a new pair of very garish scarlet sneakers for each book and wear them the first day. New shoes are all part of stimulating the mind. Oh, and a new list of music. I also sometimes run the park before starting to write.
Full-time or part-time?
Full-time. I am full on in everything I do!
Pen or keyboard?
Pen for letters, keyboard for books.
How do you relax when you’re writing?
Dancing, running and drinking bourbon and tequila.
How would you pitch your latest book in up to 25 words?
A murder thriller in post-WW2 Moscow about the hierarchy of love and the dilemmas of marriage, adultery, children and duty to the state.
Who do you write for?
I write for myself – I write what I would like to read. But this novel is for anyone who is interested in love and the choices one has to make between family, marriage and adulterous passion. I love writing about love – a perfect subject for the novelist I think, and the drama is heightened because it’s set at the time and place when the slightest mistake is punishable with death.
Who do you share your work in progress with?
No one, but I discuss it with my wife Santa who is a superb novelist (her new book The Beekeeper’s Daughter is out in July).
Which literary character do you wish you created?
Swann in Proust
Share with us your favourite line/s of dialogue, poetry or prose.
“With wandering steps and slow,
Through Eden took their solitary way.”
Milton, Paradise Lost
Which book do you wish you’d written?
Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy.
Which book/s have you most recently read and enjoyed?
I just read Hanif Kureishi’s The Last Word: most entertaining!
What’s on your bedside table or e-reader?
Numerous research materials for my next book.
Which books do you feel you ought to have read but haven’t yet?
I can’t get into Henry James. Believe me, I’ve tried.
Which book/s do you treasure the most?
I love old books and I have all sorts of sets of first editions of Dickens and eighteenth-century memoirs, like The Prince de Ligne.
What is the last work you read in translation?
Tolstoy’s The Cossacks.
Which story collections would you particularly recommend?
The greatest short story writer ever is Guy de Maupassant. No one comes close to him.
What will you read next?
I am writing a history now of the Romanov dynasty so I am only reading books on that subject. I’m currently reading a life of Tolstoy.
What are you working on next?
I’m preparing to start writing my next history book: The Romanovs 1613–1918. And after that, the follow up novel to One Night in Winter which will complete the trilogy (the first was Sashenka).
Imagine you’re the host of a literary supper, who would your dinner guests be (living or dead, real or fictional)?
Maupassant, Pushkin, Byron, Shakespeare, Colette, Balzac, Dumas, Isaac Babel, Truman Capote, Edith Wharton and Leonard Cohen.
If you weren’t writing you’d be…?
On the street and unemployed. Wait, I already am unemployed and certainly unemployable!
Simon Sebag Montefiore was born in 1965 and read history at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, where he received his Doctorate of Philosophy (PhD). He is the award-winning author of Jerusalem: The Biography, Young Stalin, Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, Catherine the Great and Potemkin and the novels Sashenka and One Night in Winter, now published in paperback by Arrow.
Follow Simon on Twitter: @simonmontefiore