Simon Mawer: Without writing I am a waste of space

Simon Mawer (1948, UK) published his first novel at the age of 39. Two decades later, he was shortlisted for the prestigious Man Booker Prize with The Glass Room inspired by the Villa Tugendhat. This year, he will help judge The Brno Short Story Writing Contest supported by the Brno Expat Centre. “For aspiring writers I have two pieces of advice,” he says.

You have lived most of your life as a British expat and you have resided in Rome for several decades. Was it a hard decision to leave the UK? 

It was not hard at all to leave the UK at that time – there was an economic crisis and a three-day working week! And I was going to Malta, to live with and marry the woman who is still my wife. Since then I have lived most of my adult life in Italy, which has enough positives to overcome the negatives. Now Britain is in many ways a foreign country for me and I find it very interesting to go back. And I do go back – I’ve got a house in England and spend half the year there.

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Photo by Connie Bonello.

You have managed to combine a career of a biology schoolteacher at St George’s British International School in Rome with a career as a novelist. Have you always felt the need to write?

My desire to write novels started when I was about 11 years old. It just took me a bit of time to finish one. People always told me that trying to be a novelist was fine but you had to have a real job, hence the teaching, which was a pretty good choice as a day job because it gave long holidays in which I could write.

Your first novel, Chimera, was published when you were 39. Do you have words of encouragement for those who have always wanted to write, have not been able to make it happen, yet still believe they have something to say even relatively late in live?

I’m not sure that I ever had anything to say beyond wanting to tell a story. I have always enjoyed the creation of characters and circumstances, and the artistry required to make the fiction seem real.

For aspiring writers, even ones as old as I was when I was first published, I have two pieces of advice: first you must write, and write, and write. A concert pianist will practice 8 hours a day. So must you. And secondly you must become your own toughest critic. The latter is probably the most difficult because self-deception is almost second nature. When my first publisher read Chimera, he asked, “Is this really a first novel?” That was a tribute to the fact that for years I had rejected my own stuff because I saw that it wasn’t good enough.

Has being an expat affected your writing?

I honestly do not know. Maybe it has given me a different perspective from the one I would have had, had I stayed in Britain. I doubt I would have written The Glass Room, for example. But I’ve got no control – a Simon Mawer who stayed in Britain – to compare with!

How do you go about writing? Long hand in notebooks in Italian cafes? On a laptop in a cluttered home office? In the early morning? At night?

On a laptop, in a cluttered home office. During most of the day. And it never gets any easier.

Do you have trouble with discipline?

No. I seem to have kidded myself that this is the only thing I can do reasonably well and if I don’t do it, I’m a bit of a waste of space. So I do it. Or at least, I try.

You will help judge the 2017 Brno Short Story Contest. In your writing career, did you practice with short stories, or did you jump straight to novels?

I have barely ever written a short story. If I have a good enough idea, I think, why not turn it into a novel? In fact, short story writing is a very different craft, like the difference between a water-colour painting and painting in oils. One must be quick, deft and faultless, while the other is built up over time, with false steps, reworking, changes of direction and, often, long breaks while you reconsider things. A writer who is good at one is not necessary good at the other.

Who are the writers who inspired you? Any Czech ones?

If by inspired you mean influenced me early on, then C.S. Forester, Graham Greene, and many others. But some writers continue to inspire me whether they can be considered influences or not. Classics like James Joyce (the sun around which we mere planets and asteroids circle) and Vladimir Nabokov are the most important. Giorgio Bassani I love – Il giardino dei Finzi-Contini is probably my most loved novel.

Amongst the Czechs, Milan Kundera, of course (is he a Czech writer any longer? I suppose not), but also Hrabal, Škvorecký and others. Why are Czechs so literate? And I love the poetry and other writings of Miroslav Holub. A biologist, like me!

You spent some time in Brno. First as a biologist interested in Gregor Mendel which led to your novel Mendel’s Dwarf, later as a valued author of The Glass Room that is inspired by the Villa Tugendhat. What was your impression of the city?

I haven’t really spent a great deal of time in Brno – I would love to have lived there for some time. I like the balance of the place. It is not swamped by tourists, unlike Prague, and yet it has a fascinating mix of history, intellectual life and learning as well as an economic side. Seeing the stage production of The Glass Room at the City Theatre just stunned me. How can a medium sized city achieve something like that? It certainly wouldn’t happen in Britain, believe me. Brno seems to have remarkable and often unsung gifts.

Are you working on anything now that we can look forward to reading?

Certainly I am, and it has a Czech flavour; but I’m not going to say anything more than that.

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