Small talk: Peter Ackroyd

The last thing I read that made me laugh out loud was ‘The Amazing Mrs Shufflewick’

Much of Peter Ackroyd’s prolific writing career has been inspired by his love of London, from his first novel, The Great Fire of London’ (1982), to biographies of great Londoners (Charles Dickens, William Blake, Thomas More) and, more recently, ‘London: The Biography’ (2000) and ‘Thames: Sacred River’ (2007). Born in Middlesex, south-east England in 1949, Ackroyd graduated in English literature from Cambridge University. He worked for The Spectator for almost a decade before devoting himself to writing. Ackroyd was made CBE in 2003. He lives in London

What book changed your life?

The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis. As a young boy I was impressed by its piety.

When did you know you were going to be a writer?

When I began writing poetry at school, aged 13 or 14.

What is your daily writing routine?

I begin at 9.30am and spend the first three hours on my latest non-fiction project. Then I revise my latest fiction book and begin work on new non-fiction.

What books are currently on your bedside table?

I never read in bed, only in my study. On my pile at the moment I have Gilbert Burnet’s The History of the Reformation of the Church of England; The History of England by James Anthony Froude and The English Church in the Sixteenth Century by James Gairdner. I don’t read fiction.

Which literary character most resembles you?

Winnie the Pooh.

Who are your literary influences?

The whole English canon, from Chaucer to Shakespeare, Dickens and Blake.

What is the last thing you read that made you laugh out loud?

The Amazing Mrs Shufflewick: The Life of Rex Jameson. She was an old drag artiste. I’m weak-minded and easily led.

Who would you choose to play you in a film about your life?

Cate Blanchett.

What is the best piece of advice a parent gave you?

My mother advised me not to talk to strange men in the street. I wish I had taken it.

What are you scared of?

Rats.

When do you feel most free?

When I’m writing. I am buoyed up by the prose and forget everything else.

How do you relax?

Drinking.

What would you change about yourself?

I wish I wasn’t short-sighted.

If you could own any painting, what would it be?

Any painting by Tintoretto – for their energy.

How would you earn your living if you had to give up writing?

I would like to be a magician, or a tap-dancer.

Where is your favourite place in the world?

Clerkenwell. I’ve always been fascinated by it.

What does it mean to be a writer?

It’s simply earning a living.

Peter Ackroyd’s latest books are ‘The English Ghost’ (Chatto & Windus) and ‘The Death of King Arthur’ (Penguin)

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