Alex Preston, 35, studied English Literature at Oxford university and took a PhD at University College London, later working in the City as a trader. His debut novel This Bleeding City (2010), about the financial crisis, won Spear’s Best First Novel prize and the Edinburgh International Book Festival Reader’s First Novel Award. He lives in Kensal Green, London, with his wife and two children.
Which books are on your bedside table?
Thant Myint-U’s Where China Meets India, which I took with me around Burma last month. A proof of Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North, which is superb. Edward Thomas’s Collected Poems. A notebook for recording 4am satori.
Which book changed your life?
Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. I was 13 and read it in one sitting, all night, breathless on my bedroom floor.
When did you know you were going to be a writer?
I always thought that my grandfather, the Princeton professor Samuel Hynes, had burgled himself a pleasant life – long holidays, public adulation and the promise of immortality in the shape of the books he wrote every few years. Also, I couldn’t ever not write.
What is your daily writing routine?
During the day I write journalism, lesson plans, tax returns. I write fiction from nine in the evening until I’m too drunk or tired to continue. My novels come in bursts – intermittent month-long binges, which leave me broken and raddled.
Where do you write best?
You’ve got to be able to write everywhere. I wrote my first novel on the Tube, on aeroplanes, on my knees on park benches. The moment you make a fetish of place, you’re screwed.
What is the strangest thing you’ve done when researching a book?
I did a lot of skinny dipping when researching In Love and War. There’s some skinny dipping in the novel but I probably did more than I needed to.
Who are your literary influences?
F Scott Fitzgerald, Vasily Grossman, Shirley Hazzard.
What are you scared of?
Flying, but I do it with crutches of gin and Valium in either hand.
What keeps you awake at night?
Currently my daughter, who has a broken collarbone and cries when she turns over in bed.
When did you last cry?
I’ve cried twice as an adult. Boarding school mainly knocked that out of me. Once was Gatwick airport, 2008, leaving my wife and six-month-old son to go and bury my grandmother in Alabama. The second was a couple of weeks ago, watching Juno.
If you could own any painting, what would it be?
Vasily Vereshchagin’s “The Apotheosis of War”. It featured heavily in my PhD thesis [on “Violence in the Modern Novel”]. Otherwise, anything by John Piper, whom I adore.
Which book do you wish you’d written?
Shirley Hazzard’s The Transit of Venus or Laurent Binet’s HHhH.
What are you most proud of writing?
There’s one sentence at the end of the new novel I quite like.
Where is your favourite place in the world?
The steps of San Miniato, looking down over Florence.
Alex Preston’s latest book is ‘In Love and War’ (Faber)