What better way of celebrating National Non-Fiction November could there be but to ‘speak’ to Anne Rooney, and to learn a few new facts about this tireless non-fiction writer, who would scare me witless with her ability were it not for the fact that she is very funny, and very kind.
For information, yours is probably the best and most amusing author’s website I’ve come across. And that’s really quite upsetting, for me. Could you possibly give us a very brief summary of who you are, anyway? Feel free to reply with a simple ‘yes.’
Polymath – which is not a mathematical parrot, though both maths and birds are involved. I think I’m a kind of information magpie. I pick out all the shiny, fascinating snippets of fact that float around and try to make them into interesting collages which publishers prefer to call books. That’s not what you meant, is it?
I write stuff – pretty much anything that’s up for being written, really. Fiction for children, and non-fiction for children and adults. I like writing for children best, but it’s hardest. I think on some level I must be deeply stupid in a commercial sense, as I most like writing for children who don’t want to read. Write books for people don’t want books. Yeah. Good plan. And then there’s the me that lives in the Far-from-United State of Domestic Chaos, fails to go to the opera/theatre/cinema often enough, struggles to spend enough time seeing friends, and spends far too many happy hours playing with the local baby and her plastic phoenix and peasant.
I think of you as the mistress of non-fiction writing. Am I right?
Pretty much, I guess. I do tell lies sometimes, though. But if I spend too long writing only fiction I feel ungrounded. There’s only so long you can spend with imaginary people before it gets to you. That’s why so many fiction-writers walk dogs, bake cakes and make changes to their houses – they need to engage with real stuff.
I don’t think you can write non-fiction unless you are genuinely excited by the world and still feel a sense of wonder at discovering new things. People sometimes ask me how they can get into writing non-fiction because they aren’t making enough money doing whatever they are currently doing (usually writing fiction). That’s not really going to work; you might get a couple of book contracts that way, but you won’t be successful (=happy). You might make a living but you won’t make a life.
You have written a very large number of non-fiction books, and I have read only one of them, The Story of Physics. It was very good. In what way is that typical, or not, of your writing?
It’s about half typical, I suppose. It’s atypical in that it’s for adults, whereas most of my books are for children. But it’s typical in that it’s fairly wide-ranging and it has a light, informal tone. What I aim to do in all my books is make interesting information accessible and to show that it’s interesting. That sounds very formal. All my books are, basically, variations on ‘Oooh, look at this!’
And how many books have you written?
Oh dear. I always say ‘about 150’, largely because I gave up keeping a database of them but Amazon was an unreliable guide. I’ve been saying that for a few years, though. My Amazon count has just dropped from about 400 to 198, so I’m going to assume that’s because they have stopped counting duplicates and so it’s accurate. That includes some that aren’t quite out yet, but let’s go with 198.
Should we read more non-fiction?
Yes, we should – but only if we want to. I suppose I mean we should want to read more non-fiction. Actually people spend a lot of time reading non-fiction – in newspapers, magazines, on the web, and so on. Unfortunately, rather too much of it is about which celebrities are sleeping with each other, which is of no importance unless one of them is you.
I despise the faux-pride some people take in not knowing things – being proud of their ignorance of science or supposed inability to do any maths. Being ignorant is not something to be proud of. But nor is it something to be ashamed of – it’s an opportunity to learn something.
What kind of books do you like best?
What kind of books do I like best? That’s a very difficult question as I like lots of kinds of books! I’m currently reading The Woman in White (Wilkie Collins), a 17th-century German picaresque ‘novel’ called Simplicius Simplicissimus, and a book about economics (that’s work, but it’s interesting). But I also love picture books, and books about science, and books about – well, anything interesting. I like books that are clever but not arrogant. There are whole swathes of books I don’t like at all but I won’t mention them because it’s a personal taste thing and some of my friends write those kinds of books, and I wouldn’t want to upset anyone.
It seems you have so many books on the go at any one time that you forget; either that it’s being published today, or what your deadline is, or even that you wrote the book in the first place. I suppose I can’t ask you how long it takes you to write a book, but how long on average does it take you to write 1000 words?
You are being very diplomatic; you have seen my Facebook updates!
How long it takes to write a thousand words depends on which thousand words it is. Sometimes, it will take several days to write 1,000 words. Other times it will take a couple of hours. I type at about 55 wpm, so the quickest is, I suppose, about 20 minutes. But some of them will be the wrong words and need changing, so no less than 90 mins, I guess. But writing isn’t the time-consuming bit – research takes longer. If I’m writing a book that takes a lot of research, those 1,000 words can take a week. If I’m writing a story that doesn’t need much research, it can be right in an hour, or it can take months.
And how long is your average book, if there is such a thing?
Which kind of average? Median? Mean? I’m going to say about 7,000 words. But the shortest are 300 and the longest 80,000.
Do you have to pitch ideas for books, or do publishers now come to you and say they need a short book on Swedish book bloggers?
The latter. I have to write three books about Swedish book bloggers this month. Actually, I am so busy writing books publishers have asked for I hardly ever get time to pitch ideas. And that makes me sad, as there are some books I want to write that I can’t see I will get round to until there is another recession.
Is there a work of non-fiction by someone else you wish you had written?
Animalium, by Katie Scott and Jenny Broom, because it’s beautiful. Otherwise, Velcro Cows by Martyn Warren but I’m not sure it is non-fiction because most of it isn’t true. No – I’ve changed my mind: Montaigne’s Essais.
Do you ever use a pseudonym? Maybe it was really you?
I have done. But obviously I’m not going to tell you what it was. I have also threatened to when a publisher majorly screwed up a book. I said I wanted my name taken off it, and suggested a pseudonym – something like Clytemnestra Sponge – that would signal that it was not a real name. They saw through it, realised I was ridiculing the book, and the uber-editor, to her credit, worked through the night to restore my original text the day before it was due to go to press. But that’s not a normal state of affairs…
You seem to have a tremendous work ethic, always working, always a book to finish. How long is your working day, or week? And do you take holidays?
There is no routine day. Some weeks I end up doing 50 or 60 hours and other weeks only 20, but on average I work a normal number of hours. I did a quick calculation for the first half of the year and I worked an average of 38 hours a week (so no holidays or sick time in that). I don’t go on holidays much at the moment, but that’s because of domestic issues. But I’ve just got back from Northern Ireland where I was visiting my daughter (Big Bint).
The best thing about your job?
I don’t have to do things I really don’t want to do – I can just turn them down. And if there is something I really do want to do, I can do it and call it work. If I can’t sell it later, it was just a bad commercial decision, not skiving.
Sometimes there is a project I really want to do and I can’t do it immediately as I’ve not got a contract for it and I need to earn money. And sometimes there will be a really good project and someone else in the process messes it up and I get disenchanted and don’t like it any more. And then I have to give it to Clytemnestra Sponge, who should have quite a body of bad books to her name by now…
Is there anything else you’d want to do for a living?
What else would I do? Something that combines history and science – medical archaeology, probably. Since I opted out of being a real academic, I can write about those things but not actually do the real research. That’s a shame. I don’t like only dealing in secondhand information all the time. I can do real research and I miss it.
How did this happen in the first place? I could see it might fit in well with bringing up children.
I’ve never worked for someone – you know, officially, doing as I’m told and turning up – except for weekend/holiday jobs as a teen and student. I had a part-time flexi-time job for 15 hours a week for a while when I was finishing my PhD, but they didn’t mind if I did all my hours in the middle of the night, so that doesn’t really count. I couldn’t really see any attraction in doing as I was told and spending hours a day getting to an office where some of the people would be unpleasant and some of the work I would have to do would be boring. I had an academic job briefly and decided that wasn’t what I wanted, and since writing was something I could do, I did that. I tried out lots of sorts of writing before settling on writing for children. Journalism was my least favourite – it seemed so pointless writing things that would just be thrown away a few days later. (This was before web archives!)
My rather weird working hours evolved when I was a single parent trying to work when my children weren’t around, so very early in the mornings, during school hours, and when they were in bed. And the times they went to their dad’s house, so that meant working weekends and long hours in parts of the school holiday.
I have a feeling that you also teach and/or have university related tasks. What, exactly? How much time do you spend on each?
The last three summers I have run a summer school programme in creative writing with Brian Keaney at Pembroke and King’s Colleges in Cambridge. It’s part of the Pembroke-King’s Summer Programme. Most of our students are undergraduates from the USA. It runs for eight weeks. This year I’m Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Newnham College, Cambridge, which is two-and-a-half days a week during term time. I’ve been RLF fellow at other universities in the past, but it tends to be one or two years on and then two years off, so some years I don’t do any university work at all. RLF Fellows don’t teach a course – they help students with academic writing, in any discipline. It’s very rewarding and a challenge. Sometimes I’ll have a chemical engineering PhD thesis to look at, followed by an essay about some aspect of the Hebrew Bible, and then an anthropology dissertation on a tribe in Bolivia… You have to be intellectually agile!
Do you have a next book? I mean, is that even possible?
You mean next coming out or next to write? I don’t write only one at once. I’m working on a Gothic novel for 9-11s, just finishing a book about inventions (8-10), starting a GCSE guide to Jekyll and Hyde and doing The Story of Maps (adult). There’s also a picture book that needs sending to my agent and a couple of adult books I’m writing outlines for that I don’t think have been announced yet. Next out is, I think, Space Record Breakers from Carlton, which is out some time early this month. It might be out already, I’m not sure.
Finally, who plays you in The Life of Rooney?
Probably a muppet… Rowlf?
I should really have got you to ask the questions, shouldn’t I?
They wouldn’t have been very sensible if I’d asked them!
Now, hasn’t this made you want to read those 198 books? (And I must point out I’m really good at maths. And exo-planets. I should also have realised that Anne would ask things like ‘mean or median?’ and given her a proper question from the start. I blame that Clytemnestra.)