Praise for THE STREET PHILOSOPHER:
‘A galloping good story’ The Times
‘Lust, avarice, envy, revenge all play their part in this brilliantly told, well-paced story, which also begs the question, so relevant today, of just how close to action journalists and recorders of war should be allowed’ Daily Mail
‘Plampin’s historical research is impressive, as is his command of detail….his true gift of descriptive power’
Independent on Sunday
From the Author
1. What was your favourite childhood book?
The William series by Richmal Crompton. The hedgerows, villages and copses of 1930s England seemed like a fascinatingly alien place to me in 1980s Essex; I remember being particularly interested by the stories that dealt (albeit rather lightly) with spy-related paranoia on the eve of the Second World War.
2. Which book has made you laugh?
Any Dickens, but especially David Copperfield; a number of Herman Melville's short stories, particularly "Bartleby the Scrivener", although he makes you feel very guilty for that laugh; Joseph Heller's Catch-22, the great novel about the sheer absurdity of war. More recently, I chuckled at the mordant mocking of self-absorbed media types in Edward Docx's Self Help.
3. Which book has made you cry?
Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth by Chris Ware - a poignant tale about family guilt, awkwardness and missed opportunities, rendered in one of the most strikingly original graphic styles I've seen. Mason and Dixon by Thomas Pynchon – after many hundreds of pages of post-modern trickery, the novel suddenly becomes an intensely moving study of loss.
4. Which book would you never have on your bookshelf?
Any form of misery memoir or celebrity autobiography.
5. Which book are you reading at the moment?
The Lieutenant by Kate Grenville; Lady Worsley's Whim by Hallie Rubenhold, an exploration of a notoriously torrid eighteenth-century divorce case; The Fall of Paris by Alistair Horne, a vivid account of the siege which ended the Franco-Prussian War.
6. Which book would you give as a present to a friend?
Anything by Chris Ware - beautiful, startling, affecting stuff that I suspect many people would not consider reading as they are graphic novels - but to my mind it's easily as engaging and intelligent as the majority of literary fiction. Very funny in places as well.
7. Which other writers do you admire?
To name only a few: Living: Peter Carey, Kate Grenville, Sarah Waters, Philip Roth, Beryl Bainbridge, Rose Tremain, James Ellroy, Gunter Grass, Chinua Achebe, Pat Barker. Dead: Charles Dickens, Herman Melville, George Eliot, Henry James, Joseph Heller, Saul Bellow, Raymond Chandler, Joseph Conrad, Angela Carter.
8. Which classic have you always meant to read and never got round to it?
Middlemarch by George Eliot. I have a pristine copy, in fact, untouched and huge, sitting accusingly on the shelf above my desk.
9. What are your top five books of all time, in order or otherwise?
No particular order:
10. What is the worst book you have ever read? Portrait of a Killer
- True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey: I'm usually a bit wary of historical novels that take the form of "real" documents - journals, letters and so on - but this is a major exception. An amazing act of ventriloquism that creates a fresh, poignant portrait of a much-represented figure, and a truly humbling experience for anyone who has tried to recreate a nineteenth-century "voice".
- Wise ChildrenA Midsummer Night's Dream at the height of Hollywood's "golden age". The style is rich and engrossing, with marvellously chaotic, carnivalesque set-pieces.
- Moby Dick by Herman Melville: Massively ambitious, sprawling, terrifying, unique and completely unforgettable. The prescience of Melville's thinking is incredible - it seemed to me in places to anticipate Conrad's Heart of Darkness by fifty years - and the white whale remains one of the towering symbols of literature.
- Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens: I reread this whilst preparing for The Street Philosopher as it was the novel Dickens wrote whilst the Crimean War was being fought. Along with an intriguing meditation on the relationship between wealth and identity (one of the great Dickensian themes), it also features some extremely acerbic Crimea-inspired satire of governmental incompetence – as embodied by the notorious Circumlocution Office, dedicated to ‘how not to do it’.
- Romola by George Eliot: One of Eliot's lesser known works, this a historical novel set in late fifteenth century Florence around the time of Savonarola and the Bonfire of the Vanities. Eliot (who considered it her best book) uses this setting to explore a central debate of her own time: the dichotomy between spiritual and worldly concerns, between religion and learning, the soul and the mind. This idea of employing the past as a means of approaching the present was a major influence on me when I started to write historical fiction.
by Patricia Cornwell, in which she argues very unconvincingly that the British post-impressionist painter Walter Sickert was Jack the Ripper. This odd thesis is backed up by no substantial evidence whatsoever, and Cornwell famously destroyed a painting in search of a fingerprint – which as an admirer of Sickert's work I find quite upsetting. 11. Is there a particular book or author that inspired you to be a writer?
I was very inspired by George Eliot's Romola
(see above). Fingersmith
by Sarah Waters also left a deep impression on me; a convincing evocation of a historical moment is paired with a taut, compelling story, a combination I now aim for in my own historical fiction.
12. What is your favourite time of day to write?
Mornings, 8.30 – 11; evenings 8 – midnight. I'm not ritualistic about it or anything though. And favourite place? My study in south-east London, surrounded by dog-eared reference books, piles of notes and photocopies, random bits of junk and empty coffee cups.
13. Longhand or word processor?
I make copious notes in longhand, and am devoted to the large-scale chart as a means of ironing out plot problems. All actual writing, however, is done on a laptop. I can't actually imagine doing it any other way - my writing style has evolved around the ability to cut and paste, and to work up sentences gradually, tinkering and rearranging at will. 14. Who, in your opinion, is the greatest writer of all time?
It has to be Charles Dickens. I have great difficulty choosing a favourite from his novels - there are at least half a dozen essentials, all of them endlessly interesting. 15. Which book have you found yourself unable to finish?
To my shame my attention wandered off a short way into Dante's Purgatorio
; I found it rather less compelling than the magnificently weird Inferno
which precedes it.
16. What is your favourite word?
Today, it's monolith.
17. Other than writing, what other jobs have you done?
I have been a freelance college lecturer in London for the past few years, mostly teaching Victorian art and architecture to visiting American students from Skidmore College and the University of Chicago. When I was a post-graduate student I worked as a gallery tour guide and a slide librarian (once a dull if necessary role in university art history departments). 18. What was the first piece you ever had in print?
An academic piece entitled A Stern and Just Respect for Truth
: John Ruskin, Giotto and the Arundel Society, published in an obscure art historical journal called Visual Culture in Britain
19. Tell us about The Gun-Maker’s Gift?
It’s a novel set around the short-lived weapons factory established in London in 1853 by the legendary American gun-maker Colonel Samuel Colt, self-proclaimed inventor of the revolver. It's a sort of loose companion piece to The Street Philosopher
, with an entirely new setting and cast of characters; the main story concerns Colt's strenuous efforts to win the patronage of the British Government in the build-up to the Crimean War, and involves political corruption at the highest levels, the (a)morality of arms dealing, and intricate, back-stabbing conspiracies - culminating in gun-fighting on the streets of Westminster.
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