When I conceived the idea for these bookbybook interviews, D. J. Taylor was one of the first people I wanted to ask. He has published novels, story collections, histories and biographies – all of which stand alone, but have influenced each other. If you mapped his 30-year career you would have a pleasing diagram of interconnected books and readers.
Ironically, at the beginning of his career, David was advised: ‘the one thing you must never do in a literary career is to write books in different genres.’ He intended to adhere to this advice but ‘got diverted’. When I read this in a Guardian profile a couple of years ago, I was hooked and immersed myself in his observations on writing and the writing itself.*
Necessity is the mother of invention, as they say, and Taylor lives by his writing. Some of his heavyweight biographies have won prizes and enviable sales. Making the Booker prize longlist no doubt helped the fortunes of Derby Day. But his bread and butter has often been journalism and reviews.
Taylor admits that his early novels tended have a narrow, familiar focus but that his novels became more varied as he undertook different writing commissions. In the Guardian interview he describes how a one-off book review later fuelled a novel. His biographies paved the way for historical fiction.
He summarises his career trajectory in this extremely pleasing way:
‘I started off wanting to be a novelist and that’s what I still do, but criticism and biography and journalism have played a part in the novels themselves, and in enabling me to write them. What I’ve ultimately learned is that you write the books you write.’
What was the first book you wrote?
The Adventures of Robin Hood aged nine, and kindly typed up by my father. First published book novel Great Eastern Land (1986), although honesty requires me to reveal that I did, aged 24, contribute half of an august work for Guinness Superlatives entitled The Guinness Book of Speed Facts and Feats.
For which book would you like to be remembered?
Unanswerable. Rather shocked, on doing a count-up, to find that I have so far written 24, in a variety of genre categories, and difficult to distinguish between them.
Is there a book you abandoned partway through?
No, but I do have 100,000 words of an unpublished novel written some years back which I intend at some point to revisit.
Is there a book you know you’ll never write?
Probably an autobiography. Don’t have the necessary candour, or wish to interrogate myself with the severity these exercises require.
Which book do you believe should have fared better?
Probably the novel Ask Alice (2009), quite a lot of whose readers, so far as I can deduce, seemed to be simply mystified by it.
Have you been surprised by readers’ reactions to a particular book?
People react in such odd and multifarious ways to books that I am never really surprised – even by the Amazon critic who complained that one of my novels was ‘literate.’
What book do you wish you’d written?
One of those vast early twentieth-century machine age American novels by writers like Dreiser or Dos Passos.
What are you writing now?
Various projects on hand, whose exact nature it would be premature to divulge. But itching to write some more short stories when time allows.
*Here’s the link to that great profile from the Guardian. Speaking of short stories (above), I thoroughly recommend David’s stunning collection, Wrote for Luck, which the wonderful Galley Beggar Press has published. Find out more about this, and other books, on David’s website.