Alex Preston’s latest novel In Love and War weaves fact and fiction into a compelling tapestry in which a British fascist is sent to Italy to forge a union with Mussolini – and escape the fallout of a scandalous love affair. He wrote it with a pen picked up in Florence…
Where are you now?
I’m in my study on the top floor of my house, overlooking Kensal Green Cemetery.
Where and when do you do most of your writing?
At night, either here in my study or in the living room in front of the fire. I write more in winter than summer, hence the fire.
If you have one, what is your pre-writing ritual?
Firstly, disconnect from the internet (I use an app called Freedom). Then get out a glass and open a bottle of red wine. It sits there, untouched, until I’ve written 1,000 words, when I allow myself one glass. After another 500 words, I allow myself another glass. It’s all about the little rewards.
Full-time or part-time?
I guess part-time, in that I teach and write journalism. But everything else should be guided towards, and subservient to, the novels.
Pen or keyboard?
For the latest one, pen, specifically a pen I bought on the via Maggio, a few doors down from my hero’s apartment in Florence.
How do you relax when you’re writing?
How would you pitch your latest book in up to 25 words?
Wartime Florence. Art, novels, spies, car chases, assassination attempts, doomed love, a heroic leap. A book to take you into the secret heart of history.
Who do you write for?
I want to write books my children will be proud of. I guess except the sexy bits, which they’ll think are super-gross.
Who do you share your work in progress with?
My wife, my friend Tom, usually a couple of others.
Which literary character do you wish you created?
Alyosha Karamazov. Goodness is much harder than wickedness.
Share with us your favourite line/s of dialogue, poetry or prose.
The end of Yeats’s ‘The Circus Animals’ Desertion’, read, if possible, by the great Richard Holloway:
“Now that my ladder’s gone,
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.”
Also, the end of Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘Prayer’:
“Darkness outside. Inside, the radio’s prayer –
Rockall. Malin. Dogger. Finisterre.”
Which book do you wish you’d written?
Life: A User’s Manual by Georges Perec. A work of absurd genius. Also Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino.
Which book/s have you most recently read and enjoyed?
I’m currently re-reading Wuthering Heights, which is as brilliant as it was twenty years ago. I’m also pressing Renata Adler’s Speedboat on everyone I know at the moment. A glorious mindstorm of a novel.
What’s on your bedside table or e-reader?
The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields, on the recommendation of my friend Jonathan Lee. A proof of Mirza Waheed’s new novel The Book of Gold Leaves, which I’m excited about.
Which books do you feel you ought to have read but haven’t yet?
I have big gaps in the 19th century – most of Jane Austen and Dickens. This is due to the fact that my two great literary teachers – my university tutor Tom Paulin and my grandfather, Samuel Hynes, were Elizabeth Gaskell/Thackeray/Trollope fans.
Which book/s do you treasure the most?
A tatty first edition of The Great Gatsby given to me by my grandfather and stamped with ‘The Women’s Hospital’.
What is the last work you read in translation?
It was brilliant and Hungarian: Metropole by Ferenc Karinthy, translated by George Szirtes.
Which story collections would you particularly recommend?
Airships by Barry Hannah, The Foxes Come at Night by Cees Nooteboom, There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, and He Hanged Himself by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya.
What will you read next?
The Stone Diaries (see above).
What are you working on next?
A top-secret project for which I have just signed untold legal documents preventing me from talking about it…
Imagine you’re the host of a literary supper, who would your dinner guests be (living or dead, real or fictional)?
Mikhail Lermontov, Leonora Carrington, Roberto Bolaño, Richard Cobb and Djuna Barnes. It’d be wild.
If you weren’t writing you’d be…?
In a straightjacket.
Alex Preston’s first novel, This Bleeding City won the Spear’s and Edinburgh Festival first book prizes as well as being chosen as one of Waterstones’ New Voices 2010, and his second, The Revelations, was shortlisted for the Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize. Alex appears regularly on BBC Radio and television and writes for GQ, Harper’s Bazaar and Town & Country magazine as well as for the Observer’s New Review. He holds a PhD on Violence in the Modern Novel from UCL and teaches Creative Writing at the University of Kent and at regular Guardian Masterclasses. In Love and War is published by Faber & Faber. Read more.
Follow Alex on Twitter: @ahmpreston
Author portrait © Marianne I. van Abbe