Hilary Spurling is the author of The Unknown Matisse and Matisse the Master, which won the Whitbread Book of the Year and the Los Angeles Times biography prize in 2005. Her biography of Ivy Compton-Burnett won the Heinemann and Duff Cooper prizes. She has also written lives of Paul Scott, La Grande Thérèse (Profile) and Sonia Orwell. She has been theater critic and literary editor of the Spectator, and a lead book reviewer for the Observer and Telegraph. She founded the Royal Literary Fund’s Fellowship Scheme for writers, and lives in London. Her latest book, Burying The Bones: Pearl Buck in China, was published in 2010.
Why I write
How else would I fill the days?
Do you write every day? If so, how many hours?
When I’m actually writing a book – as opposed to researching, reading, interviewing, musing, generally mooching about with the subject – it’s all day, every day and much of the night as well. I go away by myself without giving the phone number to anyone, and I don’t see anyone until I’ve finished a chapter, generally three weeks or so, followed by a short break and a conjugal visit, before I start the next one.
Worst source of distraction?
Email, telephone, computer crash.
Best source of inspiration?
Swimming or silent solitary walks to break the day up if I’m writing. Otherwise looking at other people and listening to what they say.
How often do you get writers’ block/doubt your own ability?
Writing (books, book reviews, interviews, articles) has been my only source of income all my life so I can’t afford the first, and as for the second – self-doubt, dismay, downright self-disgust – it’s a constant undertow that you have to learn to put up with.
Contemporary writer in any medium who you never miss?
The psychologist Dorothy Rowe, and – among fellow biographers – Richard Homes and Michael Holroyd, twin pillars of the genre, and two remarkable outsiders, Nicola Shulman and Edgar Vincent, whose work I wouldn’t miss for anything judging by their first books.
Favorite Chinese writer?
Can I choose Maxine Hong Kingston, who is American-Chinese? If not, perhaps Xinran.
Best book about China?
Oracle Bones by Peter Hessler.
Impossible question because it would change as I do from one decade to the next, starting with the first book my mother read to me which was The Chinese Children Next Door by Pearl Buck. I knew that story by heart from the age of three or four. The nearest equivalent in my adult life would be Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time.
Even more impossible question for the same reason, I can’t answer it.
The book you should have read but haven’t?
Too many to mention.
You look back at the first thing you had published and think…
It was an investigative article about professional wrestling commissioned by The Spectator when I was 23 years old – I remember the wrestlers vividly and with great pleasure, but I’d hate to re-read the piece.
How did you get started writing?
Never wanted to do anything else except act. I couldn’t do either when I began but a writer – unlike an actor – doesn’t have to learn the job in full view of the audience.
Does writing change anything?
It has certainly changed me.