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Anke Schütze (Göttingen)

"I think after More I will do Turner and then I will probably do Shakespeare." An Interview with Peter Ackroyd

A. S.: Most of your novels take place in London. Have you always lived in London? What do you think about the city that makes you choose it for your plots?

P. A.: Well, I suppose there are various reasons. One is because I am a Londoner. I was born here and I've always been interested in the city itself. But I think also writers should really have an imaginative space, an imaginative arena. And this happens to be mine. Presumably it is partly the fact that I am acquainted with the history of London and I suppose it came to me quite instinctively.

A. S.: Is there also a connection between the city and the historical persons you choose?

P. A.: That's partly true, yes. I suppose the people, the subjects, which I have chosen, have tended to be Londoners - William Blake I have just finished the life of, Dickens or one or two others. I think what I am trying to do is understand or recreate a particular lineage of what I call "Cockney Visionarists" who are sort of London visionarists which has been a strain in London sensibility for a very long time. And I suppose while exploring that I am also exploring the city itself because these visionarists think of London as their spiritual home. Dickens didn't, Blake did.

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A. S.: Could one compare it to Joyce, Döblin or Woolf who took their inspiration from the city?

P. A.: I think any writer who is interesting to me at least has always a very firm sense of place and it tends to be rather a small space if you could call London small, but not a national or an urban space, like Hardy took a particular part of England or Dickens took particular parts of London. It is also a very strong sense of belonging to and possession of a particular territory and I think that is true of almost all the writers I am interested in.

A. S.: Could you imagine living somewhere else than in London?

P. A.: Well, I did for a while. I used to have a house in Devon. It never had the same resemblance to me that London did. I certainly couldn't live in any other city, I don't think. I always find if I go to a foreign city I feel at a loss because I don't know its history, its streets and to me that is the pleasure of living anywhere, as you know, (exactly where one went two hundred years ago in the same streets?)

A. S.: But during a scholarship you lived in America. What is your impression of the States as regards culture, and have you lived in any other country besides America?

P. A.: Yes. Well, that was twenty years ago and I think that it has changed very remarkably over the last twenty years. I can't say that American fiction particularly interests me. I don't think American culture itself particularly interests me, because of its

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emphasis on the new and upon the pionier spirit as it were in various forms of art. And that doesn't interest me as such. And obviously one can't return to the past, and at the same time I've thought that American art and fiction tends to be raised upon forgetfulness of the past and going on to something new.

A. S.: Would you say that within England you could just live in London?

P. A.: I couldn't live anywhere else in England - No. So I don't know the history of Lincolnshire, Yorkshire or Scotland. So - I mean could learn that. It wouldn't be difficult to learn it. But since here everything is available to me in this one city - so I actually feel no need to move out of it.

A. S.: You have written a biography of Charles Dickens. Are you very fond of him as a writer and his novels?

P. A.: Yes, I was. I haven't read him since I've finished the biography, but certainly I admire his novels, very much.

A. S.: What do you think of contemporary writers? Are you in regular contact with any of them?

P. A.: No, I don't really read any contemporary fiction at all. No, I am not particularly interested, I never have been. I was never particulary interested in fiction as such, I suppose. When I was a student, and even majored, my main interest was in poetry and in certain other kinds of prose, historical prose, for example. Contemporary fiction never really appealed to me.

A. S.: Are you still writing any poetry?

P. A.: No, that's all vanished - when I started writing fiction poetry stopped. But it sort of migrated into the prose.

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A. S.: What gives you the greatest "thrill" in your job? Thinking about something new to write about or the process of writing?

P. A.: Well, it all happens at once in a way. The plot for me is quite important, simply because it is a vehicle to everything else. I just begin with a very simple story and then as I begin to search and as I begin to think about it and as I begin to write, other things begin to happen in the course of writing a simple story. So it becomes more elaborate as I go along. But I can't say that I plan everything in advance. A lot of it happens by chance, as you go along.

A. S.: Do you make a plan of the plot before you start writing, including the end of the book?

P. A.: It depends upon the novel. Sometimes yes and sometimes no. It is just I can't think of examples off hand. But in many cases the ending just happens. You just know when its finished.

A. S.: Are you thinking about your next book already while you are still in the process of writing?

P. A.: Yes, I tend to work two or three books ahead. In a sense that I have the ideas for the next two or three books as I am completing one. Normally the idea is that I alternate prose fiction with ordinary prose narratives. So that has technical reasons because I do the novels in the morning and in the afternoons I research for the next book or biography.

A. S.: What gives you the idea for the novel?

P. A.: I don't know, they just come. I don't really think about

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it. For example I know the next two or three books ahead. I know what I want to do, because it is part of a pattern. So I just continue in the pattern. I research, I go to the library, I work here on the necessary preliminary work for the next book afterwards. For example at the moment I have just finished the novel in its first draft and I am preparing for the life of Sir Thomas More the fifteenth century English writer.

A. S.: So you are more interested in the classical English writers?

P. A.: I think so. Well, Thomas More was also a Londoner and I am planning the life of Turner the painter, he is also a Londoner. And I presume what is happening is that I am just exploring different aspects of London and Londoners and London visionary parts. I trying to make connections between More, Milton, Dickens and Turner. So you have a complete picture of the city of a thousand years.

A. S.: Do you consider your writing as a job or is it more creatice activity that can't be forced?

P. A.: No, I always start about the same time at seven or eight in the morning. I stop about eleven or twelve o' clock. But I do it every day on a habitual basis because I think when you are writing long books like Dickens or others, if you don't have the discipline and the momentum, then you would never finish it. But after a while you will find that these things come quite naturally, you are habituated to work in a certain way, you don't have to wait for inspiration or anything of that kind, you just carry on writing.

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A. S.: What books are you working on now?

P. A.: I have just finished the first draft of a novel called Milton in America and I am researching the life of Sir Thomas More, and my life of William Blake comes out in September. That was finished last year.

A. S.: Are you planning to write any more biographies?

P. A.: Yes, I think after More I will do Turner and then I will probably do Shakespeare. That is a very large project. It is like ten years away. But I think that is a natural step to take, but it may be that in five years time I change my mind. At the moment that is what I think I want to do.

A. S.: Do you think it is possible to turn your own books into film seeing that you worked on that idea in The Great Fire of London in connection with Dickens' Little Dorrit?

P. A.: Well, I think they are at the moment. There is a film being made in June at the end of the year of Hawksmoor which is my third novel. My last novel Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem is being filmed, I hope, next year too.

A. S.: Do you know already when it is coming out?

P. A.:Dan Leno is coming out maybe next year.

A. S.: Are you going to write the script?

P. A.: Someone else does that.

A. S.: Are you satisfied with that or would you rather do it yourself?

P. A.: I had rather someone else do it because it is much easier for a stranger to adapt.

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A. S.: The reception of your three translated novels (Hawksmoor, Chatterton, First Light) in Germany showed that they didn't like First Light but praised Hawskmoor and Chatterton. How was the reception in England?

P. A.: That was the same reaction here. I don't understand. I think it is just every writer's career goes in a curve and there are always certain books which are not appreciated.

A. S.: You don't think that has anything to do that the Germans read it differently?

P. A.: No, the same thing happened here. It was just a different kind of book. It was set in Devon and it was different.

A. S.: The German title of First Light was translated Time in the Hands of God. Would you think that fits to the novel.

P. A.: It is perfectly good. I didn't mind. The title was difficult. Originally it was going to be called just "Light" and then someone else had written a novel the year before with the same title and so we had to change it in the last minute. I don't mind what they are called.

A. S.: Are you aware that you don't give definite answers to the questions raised in your novels?

P. A.: It just happens because I don't have answers, particularly. Of course the readers are the ones who interpret the book in a certain sense and may be just the readers are finding questions which I didn't necessarily asked.

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A. S.: The tension is very high - one can't put them aside, but one sometimes feels a little frustrated when they end all of the sudden and leave the "reading gaps" (to quote Iser) open? Do you intend to shift the emphasis from the author to the reader?

P. A.: It is not a conscious process on my part. But I know that the writing itself is done [...] I don't think about the writing in a sense because I don't know what I am going to write and it just comes. So I don't know what questions I am asking in the first place. It just happens that questions seem to emerge from it.

A. S.: What is the task of literature for you?

P. A.: To entertain, I suppose. I can't think of any better definition. If you want to instruct people that would be ridiculous. To amuse people. I suppose also to try and create a vision of the world which is the interest of the people. Make th em see the world slightly differently. But again I am not the best person to ask about that.

A. S.: Which one of your novels do you like best?

P. A.: Every book is a new beginning in a way. And one thinks one is developing, one is getting better as one gets older. And so I suppose the best book is also the one I am writing at the moment. I couldn't look back and say this book is more interesting than the any other. I mean some to me seem better, but that is only technically.

A. S.: If you don't have to read anything as literary critic etc. what book would you choose?

P. A.: I always read books which are connected with the work I am doing at the moment. For example now I am doing Thomas More I am

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reading about Luther, the Protestant Reformation in Germany and the theology of the Renaissance. So I tend to read books which are connected with the subject. I don't really read for pleasure as such. But there isn't really time, you see, if you are doing these other projects, there is no time. Although reading itself is a pleasure. I mean I get as much pleasure out of reading Luther as I would out of reading any contemporary.

A. S.: How did you come across Doctor Dee? Where did you got the historical information from, is he that famous in England?

P. A.: In England apparently he is. I didn't realize that until the book came out. But there are a great many admirers of Doctor Dee. In fact there is a conference I noticed, a symposium on Doctor Dee which is being held at the University of London next month. He attracts a great range of admirers from different disciplines. I didn't know that - I thought he was a rather remote, rather esoteric figure. I have always been interested in him since I came across him, well I suppose fifteen or twenty years ago. I came across his name and I read something about him. He struck me as being a very interesting Tudor figure and I was just waiting for the opportunity to write about him.

A. S.: Do you write your novels for a special audience? Do you have a particular group of people in mind when writing? Do you think a reader with a broad knowledge of English literature reads your novels differently?

P. A.: It's difficult to tell. I don't know who it is I'm writing for. No, I don't think it is necessary to know authors of English literature. I mean sometimes it is helpful in certain books to know that, but not necessarily so.

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A. S.: What do you think of other contemporary writers? Are you in regular contact with any of them?

P. A.: No, not really, not at all. I'm not really part of the main stream of English fiction. I'm sort of a little bit on the side of it.

A. S.: Many critics classify your novels as postmodern. Is it a valuable classification?

P. A.: I suppose it depends what that means. I have never really internalized that belief. But I presume working and living in the late part of twentieth century there must be some psycho-streams which affect one. But whether you could call it postmodernism I don't know. Certainly I don't read any theoretical work on postmodernism. I have not read the literary or critical texts on that.

A. S.: What does the term postmodern signify to you?

P. A.: Not very much. In fact nothing. I mean I understand what it is meant to mean. I don't see how that necessarily fits me or suits me as a description. I would tend to think myself as going back to an earlier tradition, a London tradition which is a certain kind of London fiction which is examplified by people like Dickens. Although I wouldn't put myself into the same category as Dickens. A certain kind of London Cockney tradition which combines farce, pathos and melodrama. It is like the Pantomime tradition. It is the old London tradition of the more popular theatre. I

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don't mean Cockney in the twentieth century sense but the Cockney being a native Londoner. There is a definite native London art, for example Turner, and a definite native London sensibility which goes back for many hundreds of years. And I presume I'm part of that. The postmodern will be just a small part of that.

A. S.: In English Music you emphasise the English tradition. How would you describe this English tradition?

P. A.: Oh, it is very difficult. The only way I can describe it is the way its described in the books. There is a distinction between the English and the London tradition. The London sensibility has also been characterized by a sort of fierceness and gaiety in the old-fashioned sense, sort of heterogeneity. So you have tragedy and romance follows next, so Pantomime is connected with Popular Theatre. It is connected with narratives of low life in the Elizabethan period. It is very difficult to incapsulate it in a phrase, but I do know that it is something of which I feel a part and postmodernism to me is just an abstraction to which I don't feel very much attached.

A. S.: What does it feel like to read reviews of your own books, especially since you are yourself a literary critic?

P. A.: Well, I don't read them. I don't get the newspapers and I don't read the reviews. I used to read them when I was younger. But then I realized there was no point, so I just stopped.

A. S.: Sometimes one gets the impression that you make fun of the reader: Think of it like a story: even if the beginning has not been understood we have to go on reading it. Just to see what happens next (Hawksmoor).

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P. A.: I suppose that is the definition of fiction. It must be continual surprise on one level.

A. S.: The scholarly reader will soon realize that I have appropriated passages from English Music; the alert reader will know why I have done so.

P. A.: I remember that. That was a mistake. I needed that to cover myself because I assumed that people would say I had used other books. And one would be accused of plagiarism because I used old chunks of other books. So I decided to put that at the beginning, so I wouldn't be misunderstood.

A. S.: What should the alert reader know or is it just a provocation?

P. A.: It is sort of a provocation. Simply a way of explaining in advance that I had decided to borrow large passages of other books.

A. S.: Do you think it is still possible to write any new plots?

P. A.: Well, I think there might be new plots. There are all sorts of different stories to be told. But it may be that the characteristics of a story have been used over and over again, but there is always a new story.

A. S.: I read that you studied the period of Enlightenment with great interest during your time at Cambridge. Is there any connection with the characters in your novels and the question of originality that came up during that particular period? Or is this a case of biographical fallacy?

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P. A.: I probably did when I was at university. I didn't really do anything interesting then. It was only since that I have become interested in those ideas. The ideas of imitation and originality in the fifteenth and sixteenth century are quite different. The task of literature was to celebrate or to readjust the works of the past and people directly modeled themselves on Virgil and Ovid and rewrote Virgil in a different sense. I thought it was a catholic sense of life and of authority and order and I believe that it is a kind of area which I am most interested in, not that idea of originality per se has been important. The idea of rearranging the languages of the authors of the past in a certain sense, for example the novel which I have just finished on Milton in America is partly about Milton fleeing to New England and starting a colony, a Puritan colony and it is partly a reworking of Paradise Lost as it were. It is just a way of reinterpreting a literature rather than creating something entirely new, which is of course impossible anyway.

A. S.: The central characters in your books are nearly all men. Is that because it is easier to write from one's own perspective, or is it just coincidence?

P. A.: I suppose that is partly true. Well, certainly it is true for the biographies. I have always written about male authors. I presume that is because I find it easier to represent their lives and enter their lives and imagine their lives, in a way it would be impossible for me with a female writer. In the fiction it is possibly less true but may be true too but I have no reason for that - I suppose it is just the way I work.

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A. S.: While reading Hawksmoor I was wondering if you hint at reincarnation?

P. A.: I suppose that is partly the thing. But I think it is more. Looking back on it I think reincarnation is one aspect of something larger, which is the perpetual present of the past. It reemerges in the most unlikely ways. It is all - pervasive.

A. S.: Where did your interest in mixing past and present come from?

P. A.: I don't know - it is just the way it happened and I have no explanation for that at all. It is just the way my imagination works. It is something I discovered almost by accident when I began writing Hawksmoor and I suppose it began when I was writing Little Dorrit on one level. I suddenly realized that my main preoccupation was this particular theme, and a lot of my books seem to contain it. I couldn't explain why. I suppose it is just the way I see the world.

A. S.: Do you take inspiration from the people that surround you? Can it happen that your friends, so to speak, "end up" as characters in your book?

P. A.: Yes, quite a lot. Not in the direct sense. I mean I don't tend to recreate real people or real friends or neighbours or acquaintances into books. One obviously takes bits and pieces from different people and put them together.

A. S.: The symbol of the churches in Hawksmoor is a little mysterious to me. Does it stand for anything with a particular meaning or is it right to connect it as a symbol of freemasonry?

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P. A.: No, that is not true. They don't really form a pattern. I made the pattern up.

A. S.: Is Dyer a speaking name, or is that an interpretation that goes too far?

P. A.: No, I saw the name on a street-sign. I just used it because it seemed like a good name.

A. S.: Why do you choose themes like murder, violence and sex (Doctor Dee), plagues and insane people, not to mention that dissection of corpses? Are you fascinated by these "darker sides of life"?

P. A.: Not really, normally it is just a way of engaging the reader. There is a long tradition in London and England that is Gothic - Gothic novels, melodramas and dramas. It is really from that tradition - it is a way of keeping the fabulousness of the book going. I am not exactly obsessed with it myself. Most of these things are ways of engaging the readers' attention. To use things of that kind is often a very convenient way. For Hawksmoor, for example, I needed a detective story to keep the plot going and I knew about the ritual sacrificies in the pre-Christian era. I thought that would be a good way of connecting the past with the present. That tends to be a calculated thing.

A. S.: You often mix different genres. Did you combine different genres such as fictional biography and detective story to a certain end? Do think you generic theory dissolves?

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P. A.: Yes, I think that is something that happens instinctively. It is a sort of London thing. It is the Pantomime thing combining different strands of imaginative thought. That comes naturally to me, too. I think it is very urban phenomena too.

A. S.: What is it that you attracts you about the historical characters you deal with in your novels? What is the criterion for choosing a certain personality? It is the feeling of putting something right, of doing them justice?

P. A.: I suppose yes. The same is also true of the biographies but I wouldn't be able to say what perspective it was until the book is finished. I do enjoy the process of entering someone else's consciousness or life and I was trying to make sense of it in a different way. But I don't go to it with any preformed plan. It just happens as I write a book.

A. S.: Do you have the impression that fictional biographies come as close to the "truth" as biographies? When you collect your material, do you get the impression that biographers sometimes put them in the wrong light?

P. A.: No, not really. I suppose I'm more imaginatively convincing because the problem with many biographies is the fact that they are not convincing as imaginative recreations of the people. And at the same time I am recreating the period in which Oscar Wilde or someone else moved. I try to recreate the sense of the past which is more immediate and more convincing than conventional biographical narrative.

A. S.: You wrote fiction and biographies and "real ones". What would you think if someone wanted to write your biography? Have you thought of writing your own biography before someone else does it?

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P. A.: I don't know about that. I could be done by someone else and I prefer a fictional biography. I think it would be more fun. But I have not got a very interesting life, so it is very unlikely.

A. S.: Are there any autobiographical parts in your novels?

P. A.: No, not really, I suppose only spontaneously - Nothing planned or deliberate. I mean presumably every character you create is partly autobiographical, whether it is Dickens or whether it is Wilde or T.S. Eliot or Hawksmoor. There must be some overlap between me and them but there is no directly autobiographical bit.

A. S.: Did you plan to become a writer?

P. A.: No, I didn't know what I was going to do when I was at university. I had no idea at all. I only began to write seriously when I was in my early thirties. Before that I worked for the Spectator. I didn't write anything except journalism and poetry. So when I started writing fiction it came as big surprise to me and biography too. I never thought I'd ever write biographies. So the whole thing happened almost by chance. I didn't plan it from an early age.

A. S.: Are your books translated into any other languages besides German?

P. A.: Sure, French, Italian, Spanish and Russian, Swedish, Dutch. The reception of the novels is not the same in each country. For example, Chatterton was very successful in America where Hawksmoor wasn't at all. You can never be sure of the reception.