Samuel Johnson Q & A: Johnathan Bate

Posted on 2nd November 2015 by Johnathan Bate
The winner of the Samuel Johnson Award 2015 will soon be announced - in the meantime, the shortlisters have answered seven quick questions.

Describe your book in one sentence?

Ted Hughes is a big book about a larger-than-life man who was a magnificent writer.

What drew you to this topic in the first place – was it your own desire to know more or that you wanted to shine a light on the issue for other people?

The book I was born to write: all my literary passions, from Shakespeare to the Romantic poets to nature writing to the classics, come together in Ted Hughes’s obsessions

How do you go about your research? Can an author read too much into the subject matter? 

I read the hundred books he wrote; I spent four years in the archives reading tens of thousands of pages of his manuscripts, then I retired to my shepherd’s hut and wrote till I dropped. For a project such as this, it was essential to read everything I could lay my hands on.

What book do you wish that you had written?

Richard Holmes’s incomparable life of the poet P. B. Shelley - Shelly: The Pursuit.

Do you read your reviews? How do you respond to them, good or bad? Any advice on how to deal with the bad?

Alas, yes. Rule 1: never write letters complaining about bad reviews. Rule 2: don’t let one bad review get to you when there a dozen good ones. But if you’re a perfectionist like me it’s really hard to stick to Rule 2!

If you were trapped on a desert island, which two books would you want to have with you and why?

The Essays of Montaigne and the Poems of Wallace Stevens. Infinite wisdom in the former and endless mystery in the latter.

What was the last book you read?

The manuscript of my wife Paula Byrne’s new biography of Kick Kennedy, the sister of JFK who married the son of the Duke of Devonshire so nearly became chatelaine of Chatsworth. It comes out next spring.


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