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Find out more about longlisted author Simon Schama

Find out more about longlisted author Simon Schama

non-fiction
books

How does it feel to reach the longlist for the Samuel Johnson Prize?

I'm rather stunned and extraordinarily thrilled to be on the Samuel Johnson longlist, not just because the very name of Samuel Johnson fills me with dread and awe but because I'm included in a list of such astonishing and daunting quality.

What research did you do for writing your book?

The research over many years covered so many disciplines - some like epigraphy, the scholarship of ancient inscriptions - was an absolute revelation in the complexity and sheer intellectual power of its arguments. Some of the most exciting work in Jewish history is now being done on illuminated manuscripts, on the archaeology of mosaics and ancient buildings and this too was very much part of the necessary updating of my knowledge. Wherever I could I tried to go to sites to match the scholarship with the actual material. And one of the curators at the Brooklyn Museum on a memorably sunlit day opened a cabinet with the Elephantine papyri from the mid-5th century BCE in it and I knew right away where I wanted the book to begin.

How do you feel about the status/ popularity of non-fiction books in general?

I am, of course, thrilled that non-fiction still makes such a strong appeal to the general reader; and that there is such a range of possible voices to embody it. Decades ago history in particular spoke with one rather lapidary voice and that's certainly no longer the case. There is such a lot of genuinely beautiful as well as wise and illuminating non-fiction writing now, some verging on the poetic - and much, alas - on the Samuel Johnson longlist this year!

What is your favourite non-fiction book and why?

Nabokov's Speak Memory. An almost unbearably perfect book with the whole world really - though seen through the lens of his own - in it. Not a word, not a sentence, not an image out of place or too much; the kind of book you read as slowly as you sip the best imaginable wine.

What are you working on next?

Volume 2 of The Story of the Jews. So much heartache but also so much grip on the appetite for life too. Right now the writing is in Venice at the turn of the 16th/17th centuries where a Jewish poetess is trying to stave off the conversionary attentions of a Christian admirer and a very great but eccentric rabbi is attempting and failing to give up gambling.

Simon Schama is the author of The Story of the Jews (The Bodley Head)

 

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