Ben Schott

How did you become a writer?

I became a writer by mistake. My first book, "Schott’s Original Miscellany," began life as a Christmas card. While working as a freelance photographer, I sent my clients an annual festive card – essentially to remind them that I was still alive. In 2002, I decided to create a little booklet of information of use to photographers, designers, and picture editors. Included were essential data on film stocks, lighting temperatures, cropping specs, chemical formulae, and the like. To make this somewhat dry content a little more palatable, I added a host of curiosities: the kind of information at the back of our minds and on the tips of our tongue —  like wine bottle sizes and unusual phobias. A friend persuaded me to turn this card into a small book, and I printed 50 hardback copies as something of a private joke. On the advice of another friend, I sent one of these books to the head of Bloomsbury Publishing. He loved it, a contract was signed, and the book was in the shops just in time for Christmas. More than a decade later, I am still pinching myself.

Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).

A key and early writing influence was my father, who writes medical, historical and philosophical papers on the most remarkable and arcane topics. (You can see many of them here: From him I developed my love for life's footnotes.

From other writers, I developed a keen appreciation of my limitations. Every time I read a great novelist or poet I am reminded afresh that I have no capacity for fiction or poetry. Especially poetry.

And, since I typeset all of my work – books and journalism – I am also influenced by a wide range of designers and typographers: everyone from Eric Gill and Abram Games to Michael Bierut and Hoefler & Frere-Jones.

When and where do you write?

I know some writers crave routine, but I write whenever and wherever I can. At my desk, in bed, on trains, in taxis. I write first thing in the morning, late into the night, and sometimes dictate ideas into my phone as I walk down the street or scribble them on whatever is to hand.

Parenthetically, I occasionally wonder if creating very specific rules for writing exacerbates (the perception of) "writer's block". (See #5) For some writers the Right Pen on the Right Paper at the Right Desk, wearing the Right Slippers and smoking the Right Pipe at the Right Time of Day is the secret to their success. But I suspect that as many are constrained by such precisions as are liberated.

Put it like this: Tiger Woods could beat the vast majority of golfers playing after a sleepless night, in flip-flops with only a rusty 7-iron.

What are you working on now?

My latest book is just about to be published. It is called "Schottenfreude" and it contains 120 German words for the human condition.

You can see a (1 minute) trailer here:

And you can read The New York Times excerpt here:

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?

No; quite the opposite. At the risk of being irksome – and possibly minimising what is, for some, a serious issue – I am suspicious of writer's block. I can think of no other career where people get "blocked". Coalminers don't. Nor do midwives, cooks, train drivers, bricklayers, computer coders, or health and safety executives. Indeed, a wide range of jobs nowadays involve considerable amounts of writing – as is evidenced by the profusion of professional journals. But doctors, lawyers, teachers, architects, and scientists (I could go on) seem rarely to be blocked the some way (aspiring) novelists do.

Of course, everyone has good days and bad days. And there are times when compiling even the simplest of sentences is like wading through treacle.

But it sometimes seems as if a romantic, Edwardian image of the tortured writer has taken hold: the novelist, alone in his garret, tearing at his soul for one word at a time.

If it really is that tough, that agonising, that angst-inducing, then perhaps (whisper it softly) writing is not for you.

What’s your advice to new writers?

Write. You may be a good writer, a bad writer, a successful writer, or an unpublished writer – but write and you are instantly a writer.

Also, while the (Great American) novel seems to be the zenith of every writer's aspiration, there are other ways to express ideas. As publishing (d)evolves, writers might need to evolve also.

Also also, read your work out loud. I read everything I write out loud (albeit usually just under my breath). So doing allows me to judge balance, cadence, rhythm and style – or, more often than not, the lack thereof.

Also also also, love words. Delight in words. Roll them around your tongue, and escort them gallantly onto the page. Words, like cooking ingredients, should be crisp, fresh, and of delight to the eye and tongue.

Ben Schott is the author, most recently, of "Schottenfreude: German words for the human condition." He previously wrote "Schott's Original Miscellany" and its three sequels, and the "Schott's Almanac" series of yearbooks. Together these have sold some 2.5 million copies, and have been translated into 21 languages, including Braille. He lives in London and New York and has an abiding phobia of typos. More about him, and his work, can be seen at His Twitter handle is @benschott.