Henry Hitchings

How did you become a writer?

I started writing at an early age. As an only child I needed to be good at amusing myself; I was always drawing and scribbling, as well as reading, and gradually the scribbling became more coherent. First there were illustrated stories, then poems (often rather earnest) and playlets (often quite mischievous). My parents were encouraging, and I never imagined a life without writing - although by the time I was in my teens and thinking seriously about my future I was enough of a realist to recognize that I had to have a Plan B. The Plan B ended up being to pursue an academic career, but that fizzled out while I was getting my PhD, an experience that extinguished my illusions about the pleasures of the scholar’s life. 

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

I think influence happens mainly by osmosis. I can’t point to a person or a particular work and say “This was my great inspiration”, but my ideas about what constitutes good writing have been shaped by just about every book I’ve read. Sometimes, of course, I’m reacting against a book rather than admiring it, but that’s a powerful thing. 

When and where do you write? 

At home, often on my lap or at the kitchen table. I tend to find I'm most productive in the afternoon and late at night.

What are you working on now? 

I have a newborn daughter, and she’s my main focus. But I have a new book out in June, so I still feel as though I’m in the literary swim. It’s about Samuel Johnson, an author I keep returning to, and it ponders how Johnson - Dr Johnson, as he usually is, though I like to call him Sam - can be a guide to (or through) the perplexities of life. On my computer there’s also a draft of a novel, set in the eighteenth century, that’s calling for a rewrite. 

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? 

I’ve experienced setbacks and frustrations, but I wouldn’t say I have been blocked. Like most writers, I’ve from time to time found myself stymied by other people being less excited about an idea than I am. Sometimes they’ve been right to be sceptical!

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

Constantly challenge your tastes as a reader. My writing is stimulated by reading and especially by encounters with writers whose approach differs radically from my own. 

What’s your advice to new writers?

It’s a somewhat downbeat piece of advice, I’m afraid, but any emerging writer should definitely have another source of income. I don’t subscribe to the view that financial insecurity is a spur to creativity. The other thing I would say is “Look after your back.” That probably sounds as if it has some dark significance, but I mean it literally.  

Henry Hitchings was born in 1974. He has written mainly about language and history, starting in 2005 with Defining the World: The Extraordinary Story of Johnson's Dictionary, which won the Modern Language Association's prize for the year's best book by an independent scholar. The Secret Life of Words (2008) won the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize and a Somerset Maugham Award, as well as seeing him shortlisted for the title of Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year. 2011's The Language Wars completed what was in effect a trilogy of books about language. Since then he has published Sorry! The English and their Manners and edited Browse, a collection of essays about bookshops. He is a prolific critic and has made several programmes for radio and television, on subjects including Erasmus Darwin and the eighteenth-century English novel.