Meet Baillie Gifford Prize Finalist Simon Schama
The author of Belonging on loving Tolstoy and being brave
The UK’s prestigious Baillie Gifford Prize, which seeks to honor the best of non-fiction every year, written by authors of any nationality, will announce its winner on November 16th. The winner, chosen from a shortlist of six, will receive a prize of £30,000; each shortlisted author will receive £1,000. In advance of the announcement, Literary Hub interviewed Simon Schama, whose book Belonging: the Story of the Jews, 1492-1900, a new history of the Jewish people, is shortlisted for the award.
What was the greatest hurdle for you in telling this story?
The greatest hurdle was also what made the book important to write in the first place—the sheer diversity of Jewish experience—from Italy to Turkey, from Amsterdam to China and India and Yemen—and still making sure the essential motif of belonging—how do you belong to two communities at once—shone through.
Do you ever turn to fiction as a respite from the research-heavy world of nonfiction?
Fiction? Crucial. Tolstoy whenever possible, a bottomless well of inspiration and not just War and Peace; also Chekhov’s short stories, the 19th century greats—Flaubert and Stendhal. But it’s possible poetry is even more important for me as a non-fiction writer than fiction: the sheer hard clarity of perception, the economic miracle of those perceptions into tight language, cadence and line. All important for history.
What’s the best book you read this year?
Stefan Hertmans, War and Turpentine—stupendous in every way; David Grossman’s A Horse Walks into a Bar is also mind-blowingly brilliant.
What do you always want to talk about in interviews but never get to?
Never get enough time in interviews to talk about the literary form of writing about the past: it’s the heart of the matter.
What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
The last thing my father said to me: “Be brave.”