Philip Hensher

How did you become a writer?

I always had that itch to write. I suppose it needs an opportunity--an urgent subject coinciding with a stretch of time. In my case the occasional, disorganised desire to write something came to a point during four weeks in a house in Sicily in the summer of 1991, with nothing to do and nowhere to go. 

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

The influences come and go, and sometimes I've gone crazy for a writer in the period leading up to writing a particular book - Natalia Ginzburg, Henry Green, Dickens, Kingsley Amis, Arnold Bennett, Evelyn Waugh - a varied lot, I see.

When and where do you write?

When I'm writing, between 7 and 10 or 11 in the morning. I've got a desk but actually I write more naturally at the end of the dining room table. Then all the papers have to be lifted off in time for lunch. 

What are you working on now?

I finished a novel in the spring, which I'm putting on one side and will come back to in a couple of months. It's scheduled for publication in February 2018. I didn't want to rush this one.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?

No. Sometimes I haven't written for a few months or even a year. That's called not writing. If it really won't come you walk away and go and look at life and forget you're supposed to be a writer altogether. In the end it comes. Real writer's block - the sort where you just cannot do it - is rare and I believe terrifying. The sort where you just can't think of something to write isn't worth worrying about - it is a waste of everyone's time to sit and force yourself to type when the tank is empty.

What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?

Never, ever, write "As X happened, Y started to happen" unless there is a direct cause between the two. There's no need to explain how things are linked in fiction. "As John looked out of the window, Mary started to chop the tomatoes" is always inferior to "John looked out of the window. Mary started to chop the tomatoes." A simple point with profound ramifications about the writer's responsibility to the reader's imagination.

What’s your advice to new writers?

Focus on the externals when writing about character, social exchange, events. The insides of characters' heads are always much more similar than what bags they are carrying, and in the end much less revealing.

Philip Hensher was born in London in 1965. His novels have won the Ondaatje Prize, the Somerset Maugham Award and been shortlisted for many others, including the Man Booker Prize. He was elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1998 and awarded an honorary degree by Sheffield University in 2015. He is Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Bath Spa and lives in London and Geneva.