17 October 2010 2 Comments

Compelling seeds of true history: Philip Sington’s Writing Life interview

The best historical novels are based on some element of real history which has been either neglected or is little known. Philip Sington’s “The Einstein Girl” grows out of the revelation that Albert Einstein had a secret daughter. Sington takes that seed and, with the hand of a true thriller master, builds around it a story of psychiatry and love in the early days of Hitler’s Germany. It’s one of the most touching, beautiful, and harrowing stories you’ll read. I met Philip, who was born in Cambridge in 1962, on a recent evening in Darmstadt, Germany, where we both read excerpts from our books – in a church, on top of the tombs of the ancient Landgraves of Hesse. After hearing him read, I immediately took up “The Einstein Girl” and was utterly swept away by it. Here’s Philip, discussing his Writing Life:

How long did it take you to get published?
I got a deal with my second book, which I finished about seven years after starting the first. Between the two enterprises there was a bit of a gap, though.

Would you recommend any books on writing?
I never read any books on writing when I was starting out. That was probably a mistake. The best book I’ve seen subsequently is Master Class in Writing Fiction by Adam Sexton (published by McGraw Hill). You’re supposed to read a particular novel before each chapter, which is a good approach.

What’s a typical writing day?
Someone once said that the writing life involves brief intervals of creativity punctuated by long intervals of staring into the fridge. That about sums it up in my case. That said, since becoming a father three years ago, I’ve had to cut down on the fridge time.

Plug your latest book. What’s it about? Why’s it so great?
The Einstein Girl is a historical novel inspired by the relatively recent discovery that Albert Einstein had a daughter in secret. It’s set in 1932, on the eve of the Nazi assumption of power, when Einstein was poised to flee Europe for America, and unfolds as a psychological mystery. I was inspired to write it because, in the course of my researches, I began to see some fascinating parallels between Einstein’s intellectual obsessions and his highly unusual private life.

How much of what you do is:
a) formula dictated by the genre within which you write?
b) formula you developed yourself and stuck with?
c) as close to complete originality as it’s possible to get each time?
In sketching out a book I’m guided more by instinct than anything. I think that’s something writers develop over time, and which becomes sharper the more they write. I don’t think I’ve ever adjusted a story because I don’t see it conforming to a model. More likely I’ll adjust it because I don’t find it satisfying or compelling enough.

What’s your favorite sentence in all literature, and why?
Did I mention that when I was fifteen I took it out of my pants and whacked off on the 107 bus from New York?
Philip Roth, Portnoy’s Complaint.
If you are going to indulge in rhetorical questions, make them good ones.

What’s the best descriptive image in all literature?
Humbert Humbert’s description of Dolores Haze in ‘Lolita’ (“She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock.”)

Who’s the greatest stylist currently writing?
Don DeLillo or James Ellroy

Who’s the greatest plotter currently writing?
Tom Wolfe

How much research is involved in each of your books?
It varies. I did 18 months research for The Einstein Girl. Typically it’s about six months, and usually involves a visit to the main locations. It isn’t just about accuracy and background. Research gives me ideas and helps me shape the story.

Where’d you get the idea for your main character?
I agree with those people who say ‘character is plot and plot is character’. I usually start with a premise and then try to develop a character who can exploit the potential of that premise to the maximum.

Do you have a pain from childhood that compels you to write? If not, what does?
I stumbled into writing thanks to a cocktail of creative frustration, naivety and a nasty lung infection. It was never a compulsion. I write now because I enjoy it (when it’s going well) and because I’m unlikely to excel at anything else.

What’s the best idea for marketing a book you can do yourself?
If you find out, please let me know.

What’s your experience with being translated?
Good translators don’t just translate well, they write well, giving your book a voice as distinctive and pleasing as your own (or more so!). In my experience, good translations make a big difference to the reception of a book – and you know you have a good translation if the foreign reviews go out of their way to praise the writing or the style. However, it seems to be largely pot luck as to whether you get a good translation or merely an adequate one. Recently, I think I’ve be particularly lucky in Germany and Spain.

Do you live entirely off your writing? How many books did you write before could make a living at it?
I started making proper money with my third book, but it’s been very up and down since then. Now that I have an expanding family to worry about, I’m looking to broaden the scope of my activities. The sale of vital organs (my own) is not ruled out.

How many books did you write before you were published?
One.

What’s the strangest thing that happened to you on a book tour?
I’ve never actually been on a book tour. I live in hope.

What’s your weirdest idea for a book you’ll never get to publish?
There are plenty of lame ideas in my Ideas File, but the weird ones are actually the more promising ones.

2 Responses to “Compelling seeds of true history: Philip Sington’s Writing Life interview”

  1. Nathalie 26 October 2010 at 11:57 pm #

    Thanks. This is inspiring.
    Can I use what he says on translation in one of my blog articles?
    Thank you.
    Nathalie

  2. Matt Beynon Rees 1 November 2010 at 7:09 am #

    I’m sure Philip would be delighted if you’d translate some of his words. And please of course put in a link to his blog, which is very personal and intriguing.


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