Antony Beevor: How I Write

The British military historian talks to Noah Charney about his pessimism, what makes him cry, and his most embarrassing moment—when he tried to buy a copy of his first book at Harrods. Plus, more ‘How I Write’ interviews with Lev Grossman and Chad Harbach.

By Noah Charney
June 13, 2012

British author Antony Beevor (pictured above at home in Kent) is a master of military history, particularly at depicting the most crucial battles between Germany and the Soviet Union in World War II. His Stalingrad and The Fall of Berlin 1945 are filled with vivid details. In his new book, The Second World War, Beevor widens his focus and surveys the entire war. He talks about “preemptive pessimism,” an ideal day (it sounds pretty nice), and his most embarrassing moment—when he tried to buy a copy of his first book at Harrods.

Where do you write?
In Kent near Canterbury where I have the peace to write in a barn converted into a library.

In my library/study/barn there is a ping-pong table, on which I can pile working books and spread maps. My desk belonged to Duff Cooper, my wife’s grandfather, where he wrote his superb biography of Talleyrand. The view is of trees, which is restful without being distracting. I used to write in a room overlooking the valley from where I could see too much, whether checking the sheep and alpacas or seeing the trout rise on the lake.

What’s your routine?
When researching I need to get into the archive as early as possible, but at home when marshalling the material and writing I start at at 8:30 or 9. When I was younger I used to get my best writing done at night, but now it has to be during the day. I usually finish work at half past seven, then go back to the house to open a bottle of wine, have dinner, and then read or watch television.

And what’s your ideal day like?
A day in the country in late May or early June when the temperature is perfect and everything is so green. I might take a break from working and catch a trout in the lake below the house for smoking later. I will go for a walk—usually between three and four miles—and then have friends for dinner to discuss writing and politics.

How do you conceive of a book?
The process follows a similar route. I read round the subject, I make a skeleton outline, and then I start work in the relevant archives. During the marshaling of the material, I copy the material from each archive file across to the relevant chapter in the skeleton outline. Sometimes there is far too much for a single chapter, so I make a triage, relegating the less important information to a reserve chapter, which I can check later. Only when all of this has been completed will I consider starting to write. Hemingway and García Marquez both believed that you should spend a long time on the first paragraph, and only if the tone, the rhythm and the pace were right, could you you then continue. To begin impatiently is the worst mistake a writer can make.

What makes you laugh?
A good anecdote, especially a “tumbrilism.”

What makes you cry?
Not much, but the other day during an interview, the subject of our daughter’s illness came up when she very nearly died as a baby, and that can take me unawares.

Do you have any superstitions?
Yes, I believe passionately in pre-emptive pessimism, especially before a book comes out. I expect the worse both from reviewers and sales and then, with any luck, I may be proved wrong.

Was there a specific moment when you felt you had “made it” as an author?
Yes, when Stalingrad won the Samuel Johnson Prize, the Wolfson Prize for History and the Hawthornden Prize for Literature all within 10 days. The book went to number one on the Sunday Times bestseller list and journalists wanted to interview me, hoping to find out the secret of writing a bestseller in case they had to give up journalism.

Please recommend three books (not your own) to your readers.
Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate, which is the War and Peace of the Stalinest era.
John Keegan’s The Face of Battle, the book which revolutionized the way we look at military history.
Javier Marías’s trilogy Your Face Tomorrow, undoubtedly the greatest work of modern European literature.

What is your next project?
The winter of 1944 on the western front, focusing mainly on the Battle of the Bulge.

What advice would you give to an aspiring author?
Hold on to the day job. Publishing has become pitiless. When I began writing, you were judged on the potential of your next book. Now you may have a book published, but if sales are disappointing, you are seldom given a second chance.

When my first novel was published, I went in great excitement round bookshops in central London to see if they had stocked it. I went to the book department in Harrods, but could not find it. An assistant asked if he could help. I asked in a vague way if they had this book by a writer called Antony Beevor and published by John Murray. He pointed to a pile behind me which I had failed to see and handed me a copy, so I had to buy it. But then I found I had no cash on me so had to pay by credit card. He looked at the name on the card and the cover of the book and I wanted to disappear into the floor.

What would you do for work if you were not a writer?
I dread to think.