Where did you grow up and what was your childhood like? Did you have any particular experiences/stories that shaped your adult life?
I grew up in Bayonne, New Jersey, which is just across the Hudson from downtown Manhattan. I come from a hard-working blue-collar family; my parents each had more than one job for most of my childhood. I don’t know where my interest in books, ideas, etc comes from. No one in my immediate or extended family had any interest in this and I don’t think my parents ever read a book.
In general, my childhood was much like that of many creative individuals who are more or less misfits in their early years – because they have interests and appetites very different from those of the people around them – and come into their own later. I was very much a dark horse until I left home – under a cloud, no less – and threw myself into New York where I starved and wrote poetry and wound up playing bass and writing songs in Blondie. None of the musicians I knew among my friends back home would have ever thought I would be playing in a band and writing songs. But I had the drive, courage, talent, and absolute need to find some means of expression. The same drive and need later lead me to leave music and to eventually begin a second career as a writer.
What is something you wish you would’ve realized earlier in your life?
That not everyone has your best interests at heart – especially when it comes to signing contracts.
What are bad recommendations you hear in your profession or area of expertise?
“Write about what you know.” This limits your range to what you are already aware of. “Know about what you write” is clumsy, but it suggests that if something interests you, find out about it, study it, and then you can write about it.
I recently wrote a history of Russia from the point of view of its religious history, the idea of “Holy Russia,” that Putin has referred to in some speeches. I knew a little about Russian history, but in order to make my point, I had to learn more. I became absolutely fascinated and the book expanded to a kind of cinematic scope. It’s one of the best things I’ve written and even Russians have been impressed with it.
I would also say that one of the worse things that have happened in the world I work in, is that for a book of ideas to be taken seriously, it has to be written in dry, academic prose and be littered with footnotes and all the critical apparatus. By all means, get your facts right and provide your sources, but write something that someone will want to read.
My motto is: Write to be read, not to be studied. Ideas can be as exciting and gripping as any thriller. That’s basically what I try to do: write a kind of narrative of ideas, so that the reader gets involved and wants to find out what happens in the same way he would with a novel.
Tell me about one of the darker periods you’ve experienced in life. How you came out of it and what you learned from it?
In 1995 my marriage broke up. I had a breakdown and lost a well-paying job at a prestigious university. I wasn’t happy with the job although I told myself I should have been. I wanted to write but had by then only produced some articles and book reviews- I wasn’t doing it full-time. (There was a long stretch between retiring from music in 1982, after having a hit song and gold records, and becoming a full-time writer, which I have been since 1996.) The job was a lucrative second best, the marriage a friendship that should have remained that.
Long story short: everything collapsed, including myself. For a few months, I was in a very bad way.
At a conference in the Czech Republic that autumn, I met some people from London. I told them my tale and they suggested coming to London for a while; they would put me up, help find me a place, introduce me to people. I returned to the States, sold everything I didn’t want, gave away everything I couldn’t sell, and put what was left in storage.
I came here at the beginning of 1996, thinking I would stay for a few months. I decided that if I was ever going to become a writer – as I had wanted to since I was young – now was the time. I was forty. I knew some writers started late – Henry Miller, for example, whom I read when I was first living in New York in the early 70s – and I identified with these late bloomers. When the date for my return flight approached, I decided to let it go and to stay.
I’ve been here, in London, for twenty-five years now. During that time I’ve written twenty-three books, and I don’t know how many articles and reviews. The moral of the story is that if you have it in you to create, it will wreak havoc with your life until you do what it wants.
What is one thing that you do that you feel has been the biggest contributor to your success so far?
Meet deadlines, stick to word counts, deliver the goods. Remember who you are writing for: the reader, who is under no obligation to pay attention to you unless you make doing so something he or she enjoys.
What is your morning routine?
I’m seasonal, but I’m up usually by around 7:00 AM. I have coffee and toast while recording my dreams if any, allowing myself to slowly wake over the first cup, paying attention to anything that pops into my head (this could be a word, sentence, a phrase from a song, and image…).
Then I read, non-fiction (I reserve that for the evening) – philosophy, psychology something along these lines – for an hour or so, listening to the classical music station. Then a twenty-minute exercise routine followed by fruit while doing admin: answering emails, Twitter, blog, and such.
Then I do any housework that’s needed or go for groceries. This usually takes me up to midday, when the workday begins after a light lunch, with either reading for research or writing. This continues until 5:00 when I will take a walk or, if the weather allows, a ride on my bike.
Then I’m back home for the evening news, dinner, a film, a bit of ‘fun’ reading – I’ve been getting through Simenon’s Maigrets – then the midnight radio news and then with any luck dreams.
What habit or behaviour that you have pursued for a few years has most improved your life?
Trying to get as much as I can from little things. I’m a cheap date. A puddle will do, some sunlight on a wet stone. I try to put more into seeing things, really looking at them. If I am relaxed and in the right mood, I can catch a flash of how I saw things when I was young, with that freshness and newness. We need this, we need newness in the same way that we need food, water, or air. We dry up without it. All real poetry, real art is about cleansing the doors of perception, as Blake said.
What are your strategies for being productive and using your time most efficiently?
Keep business hours. Set yourself a daily quota of words, if you are writing, or pages to get through if you are reading for research. Keep to this: make it your god. Writing is a cumulative practice: a little each day leads to a book at the end. Have a long-term perspective. Allow yourself to relax after finishing a chapter. Take a day off and open up. Also, take care of the little things you don’t want to do first. Otherwise, they will nag and distract and use up the energy you need for real work. Like this interview, as a matter of fact… One cardinal rule: don’t talk the book, write it.
What book(s) have influenced your life the most? Why?
I’ve been an inveterate reader since the age of five and my first encounter with the printed page was through comic books. I can’t remember the first comic I read, but whatever it was, it set me off on my voyage, so it was probably the most influential book I ever read. After that, there are several, but if I have to boil it down to one, I would have to say it was Colin Wilson’s The Occult, which I read in 1975 at the age of nineteen while playing in a then relatively unknown band in NYC that would later become famous – Blondie. It turned me toward what became a life’s obsession and a career as a writer, after I left music: understanding consciousness. I devoured fantasy and science fiction growing up but my first serious reading was Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha; a hippie girl I liked gave me a copy when I was fourteen. That led to Demian, his other novels, then Nietzsche and Jung, existentialism…
Do you have any quotes you live by or think of often?
Live dangerously – Nietzsche. Or more succinctly: “Geronimo!”