Where do you write?
I write in Willesden Green Library – a brilliant building at the heart of my community, bristling with life, people, books, art and exercise classes – as well as in cafés and at home. I dream of what Montaigne referred to as an ‘arrière-boutique’, a reserved quiet room all of my own, strewn with books and with Bach playing in the background. Michelle Obama in Belonging describes how Barack Obama has always needed one of those too. It feels a long way off at present, but one day, perhaps.
What’s the last really good book you read? And the best film or theatre production?
In addition to Belonging, which I found inspiring, I enjoyed Julian Barnes’ novel The Only Story – eloquent about life, love, the consequences of the decisions one takes, all tinged with a poignant sense of sadness and regret. How Cycling Can Save the World by the Guardian journalist Peter Walker also got me back on my bike, after a long break. Best film most recently watched: Blue is the Warmest Colour. Best film of all time: The English Patient. Best theatre production of late: Don Quixote at the Royal Shakespeare Company. Favourite production of all time: Much Ado about Nothing, with Simon Russell Beale, at the National Theatre (2007).
I was able to visit Aracataca, the town where Márquez was born: still a landscape of banana plantations, the sound of salsa in the air
What book marked you as a child or teenager?
As a teenager, Gabriel García Márquez had a big impact: his evocation of Latin America, written in the most mesmerisingly beautiful Spanish, prompted an interest in that continent which continues to this day. Many years after my first encounter with ‘Gabo’, I was able to visit Aracataca, the town where he was born, on the Caribbean coast in Northern Colombia: still a landscape of banana plantations all those decades on, the sound of salsa in the air. I also had the great good fortune to meet him once on a plane from Cartagena to Bogotá: we shared the journey together, and I watched the great writer, then in his late eighties, stare out of the window at the billowing clouds below.
What book inspired you to become a writer?
I don’t consider myself a writer, really. I am if anything an impassioned amateur. One of the first books I really loved was This Sunrise of Wonder: Letters for the Journey by Michael Mayne. Mayne was the Dean of Westminster, and his book contains twenty-four letters to his grandchildren on all that inspired him in literature, music and art. Perhaps there is something of that spirit in the writing of Given Half a Chance. Michel de Montaigne is my literary hero; his Essays, my desert island book. One passage in Anna Karenina of Levin walking through the fields made time stand still for me: I remember reading it with a complete sense of awe and wonder. While editing my book, my wife Davina would frequently encourage me to seek to be more like Hemingway and Orwell – shorter sentences, crisper language, fewer words . . .
Pen and paper or laptop?
All the best writing with pen and paper, far away from a computer. Lots of editing, of course, on a laptop – and the occasional burst of inspiration there too. But to craft an argument, set out a structure, and really get to the heart of what I am trying to say, pen and paper, any day.
One day, I will re-read some of the classics . . . Lots must have been lost on me
Do you re-read books or is life too short?
I recently re-read The English Patient, and found it all the more evocative and beautifully written second (or third) time round. I’ve read Middlemarch at least twice. One day, I will re-read some of the classics I got through during an earnest gap year spent in a Tibetan monastery in Northern India: War and Peace; some Dostoevsky and Dickens; Anna Karenina; etc. Lots must have been lost on me. A general resolution in life: to read more fiction than non-fiction. He says, having just written a short book of non-fiction . . .
Who is the best fictional hero and villain?
Best fictional hero: Don Quixote. Best villain: Inspector Javert.
When did you last visit your local library?
This afternoon (Sunday, 24 March), with Oli, my soon to be two-year-old son.
What classic have you lied about reading?
No lies, but seriously behind on starting, finishing and remembering Dickens.
Finally, what’s the elevator pitch for the book you’re working on/you’re publishing?
Given Half a Chance: Ten Ways to Save the World is an optimistic book about how to save the planet and put it on a better course. We are not doomed – there is still a great opportunity to create a world in which people and the natural world thrive side by side. My book shows how, drawing on the remarkable work of leaders, governments, communities and companies happening right round the world now.