I'm the author of a novel entitled Crusaders, and of a number of books about filmmakers and filmmaking (among them the authorised biography Sean Penn: His Life and Times.) Recently my publisher Faber and Faber asked me to answer 10 questions about writing and writers for the use of http://www.faber.co.uk/. I'm supposing they saw this questionnaire as a simple way for authors like myself to greet readers within their site; so it seems a fair way for me to say hello on this one. Starting at the top...
1. I work best when... I’m meant to be doing something else, the mind on other matters. Sad to say, one doesn’t always have a pen to hand at these times.
2. I wish I’d written... inter alia, All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren, since it raises the dirty game of politics to the level of myth, and within that subject-field I can’t see how it could be bettered.
3. If I wasn’t a writer I would... be really stuck. But, needs must, and in mid-life I’m taking more of an interest in plumbing, plastering, carpentry, and other callings I wish I’d been more curious about back when I was a shiftless adolescent.
4. The most underrated writer is... the diversiform figure of Norman Mailer. His recent passing brought forth a lot of fine tributes, but for some years previous his work had suffered from a very tired and narrow reception. I started out writing ‘oral history’ biographies in homage to Peter Manso’s Mailer: His Life and Times – which I’d read because I loved The Executioner’s Song and Armies of the Night, and needed to know more about their maker. And this was before Mailer had written Harlot’s Ghost or Oswald’s Tale or The Castle in the Forest… So I didn’t know I was born, as they say.
5. My favourite short story is... Conrad’s The Secret Sharer.
6. The most romantic piece of writing I’ve ever read is... the realisation of love between Sonia and Raskolnikov at the end of Crime and Punishment.
7. My favourite bookshop is... for auld lang syne, the Queen’s University Bookshop in Belfast. That’s where I used to go as a novice reader of Good Books, and I met a great guy working there called Joe McMeekin, who helped me along.
8. If I listen to music when I write I usually put on... something that feels vaguely sympathetic to whatever it is I’m trying to hash out. Lately this has included Dylan’s three ‘Christian’ albums, and Schoenberg’s Erwartung. When the writing’s coming out rubbish I just stop and put on Led Zeppelin like any other sane being.
9. I am kept awake at night by... vaporously dark thoughts that condense into a black pool on the bedroom ceiling. You too, right?
10. If I could go back in time I would... set the controls for Berlin 1919 and do whatever I could to help out Rosa Luxembourg.