authors · Bookbybook · meet the author

bookbybook 10: David Leavitt

I think a writer’s biggest challenge isn’t always getting published, but staying published. (Debuts have a pretty easy life, all things considered.) The next biggest challenge is writing what you want, not just what the public and your publishers expect of you. So it was a brave David Leavitt who decided – not too far into his career, which had begun in his early 20s – to shrug off the mantle ‘the great gay author of his generation’. But he knew that other writers would come along, and that not everything he wrote would be solely defined by his sexuality.

That said, his early titles The Lost Language of Cranes, Family Dancing and Equal Affections were landmarks and touchstones for readers across the world – and remain ironic thirty years on. David is remembered, too, for the controversy surrounding his novel While England Sleeps – for which he was publicly attacked by Stephen Spender for ‘plagiarising’ part of Spender’s memoir. A revised edition followed but it was a hiccup in a thus-far unblemished career.

(Let us all respectfully pause to be reminded that writers’ careers aren’t always plain sailing …)


Since then, David has published other, remarkable work including pure non-fiction –The Man Who Knew Too Much, his highly acclaimed book about Alan Turing, and recently the historical novel The Indian Clerk, which reimagines the career and relationships of an Indian mathematician in academic circles at Cambridge University during the First World War. As he says below, ‘These days I like to about worlds I don’t know personally.’

David’s is a complete life in books. He has worked in publishing, in bookselling, and now combines writing with teaching the American short story at the University of Florida and editing a literary magazine.

1. What was the first book you wrote?

The story collection Family Dancing.

2. For which book would you like to be remembered?

At the moment I’d probably say my novel The Indian Clerk.

3. Is there a book you abandoned partway through?

Dozens of them. But I save everything. Indeed, the novel I’m working on now began with the rediscovery of a forgotten fragment (forty pages) from 2009.

4. Is there a book you know you’ll never write?

For a long time I hoped to write a biography of Jean-Michel Frank and was immensely relieved when I discovered that the French historian Laurence Benaim was already writing a biography of Jean-Michel Frank. She will do a better job than I could have!

5. Which book do you believe should have fared better?

Hard to say, since a book that doesn’t do well upon publication can build up a readership over time. Maybe The Body of Jonah Boyd?

6. Have you been surprised by readers’ reactions to a particular book?

I was surprised and gratified by the enthusiastic response I received from mathematicians to my two books about mathematicians, The Man Who Knew Too Much and The Indian Clerk.

7. What book do you wish you’d written?

A memoir of the AIDS epidemic. I may still write one!

8. What are you writing now?

A novel (so far untitled) about an American interior decorator in Paris. It’s a very complex novel with a lot of characters and back story that such a brief description as the one above sentence doesn’t begin to summarize. These days I like to about worlds I don’t know personally, and this novel has led me deep into the milieu of interior decoration, to the point where I can employ the vocabulary of curtain-making with some authority.

Visit David’s website for more information on his work and for links to other resources. His most recent novel, The Two Hotel Francourts, is published by Bloomsbury. Here’s a link to an extract. I wholeheartedly recommend his collected short stories, too …

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