ondon the city has been an essential part of a lot of your books. How and why did it end up as the subject of this one?
My principal subject, in both biography and fiction, has been the life of London in both its past and present incarnations. It seemed a natural and inevitable step, therefore, for me to address the city in a more elaborate and direct manner. It ended up being quite a major project, and not one I would want to repeat quite frankly, because it took up a lot of effort and ingenuity and time, not to mention research that required very detailed and painstaking notation of specific sites and topographical details. It took quite a while to do -- about three years, and that was with the help of a full-time researcher.
The biography of London was much more difficult than the biography of a particular individual. London is so much a greater subject, so much a larger and more complicated subject. In a sense, it was like writing the biography of a thousand different people, which you can imagine causes problems.
Why is it the book called "A Biography"?
I termed it a biography simply because the city is for me an organic being with its own laws of growth and change. To see it as a living being of course challenges the normal approaches to the phenomenon of the city, but it is the only way in which I can understand its curious properties. There are chapters for example, on the way in which certain districts can actively effect the lives and behavior of the people who live within them. There is a chapter on the unique nature of time in the city, and on the "masculine" personality of London itself. It is a guidebook and an encyclopedia, a poem and a biography, a work of fiction and a work of fact.
So it could be called other things, too?
London is a gallery of sensation of impressions. It is a history of London in a thematic rather than a chronological sense with chapters of the history of smells, the history of silence, and the history of light. I have described the book as a labyrinth, and in that sense in complements my description of London itself.
Since 1998 you've published the award-winning Life of Thomas More and speculative novel The Plato Papers, and now the monumental London. You've been remarkably prolific, but in general your books also cover an astonishing breadth of genres, from historical to speculative fiction to biography and history. Do you have to focus specifically on one project at a time?
No, I wrote The Plato Papers while I was researching the biography of London. I tend to apportion my time by writing the novel in the morning by researching the biography in the afternoon.
Do you find writing fiction more personal or more expressive than biography?
Not necessarily. I think biography can be more personal than fiction, and certainly can be more expressive.
In terms of the work involved, in terms of the techniques, in terms of the form itself, there's very little distinction between the two. Certainly I don't approach them with any different aims or ambitions. And when I'm engaged in one, I'm really engaged in the other, not in the sense that I incorporate novelistic elements in biography or biographical elements in a novel, but simply in that the process of writing, the actual exercise of writing, is the same in both instances.
It's not as if I miss anything particular doing one or the other. For me they're just different chapters in a never-ending book.
Is there a connection between the 38th century London of your last book, The Plato Papers, and the historical London of London: The Biography?
In The Plato Papers it was actually very liberating, even exhilarating to be able to imagine a completely different city, and to have the freedom to make up its qualities and its landmarks.
The only possible literal connection is the fact that the future inhabitants of London try to rescue and revive the elements of a past London. They revive the lost underground rivers for example, which are still present but no longer seen, and they revive the old wall of London, which vanished in the 17th or 18th century. I do believe that our descendants will be much more interested in reviving the past than the present generation.
But in a sense all the books that I have set in the past I have been trying to understand the contours of the present. In The Plato Papers I wanted to get another perspective on the present moment by extrapolating into the distant future. So in that sense, there's a definite similarity of purpose between a book set in the future and a book set in the past.
So what are you working on now?
I am at the moment researching the history of the English imagination, which will be the next book after the biography of London. After that I have to write a novel, and then the life of Shakespeare. I'm pretty planned out for the next two or three years, or perhaps four or five years. I prefer it that way because it gives me a sort of reason for living.
Those are big plans.
I know it.
This interview appears in an abridged form in the Nan A. Talese Fall 2001 Catalog of Authors.