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Simon Ings interview

Simon Ings interview

The Baillie Gifford Prize 2016 longlist

Simon Ings tells us about how his conversations with scientists, historians, and curators helped him find a voice for Stalin and the Scientists and that Alexander Luria’s Mind of a Mnemonist was his inspiration for the book.

This is part of our series of longlisted author interviews. 

What does it feel like to be longlisted?

For me to be longlisted for the Baillie Gifford is a daunting moment. For five years I’ve been variously staring at a blank page, wading through scientific papers, procrastinating, and begging for deadline extensions, and in all that time I have had little more in mind than that, if I was lucky, I might just get away with it. To have Stalin and the Scientists considered a book at all, never mind a good one, is more than I dared hope. It’s been such a ridiculously ambitious job, for which I am — or at any rate was — absurdly under-qualified.

How did you research for your book?

Though I’ve done a little bit of travelling, Stalin and the Scientists is largely, and obviously, a paper project: a distillation of a generation’s-worth of scholarship, argument, controversy, political claim and counterclaim. I can’t pretend to have done much beyond gambol about on the shoulders of giants, but this effort — to tell the whole story of a kind of science, from its philosophical foundations to its working conditions, and all through the eyes of the people who were there — really has to be the job of a novelist rather than a historian. Let’s face it, only a novelist would be naive enough to stick his or her neck out so far. A major part of this project has been to find a voice for this book, and I got this from conversations — more conversations than I can count — with scientists, historians, and curators, often in writing but, much more usefully, in person.

Which non-fiction authors do you admire?

Alexander Luria, whose book Mind of a Mnemonist describes the difficult life of Solomon Shereshevsky, was my inspiration for this book. Shereshevsky, who scratched a living as a stage memory-man, was unable to forget, and this inability made his life virtually impossible. Luria’s account more or less set the template for modern popular science and, stumbling upon it when I was young pretty much set me on the path I’m on now. Of current authors I set a lot of store by those who seem to be writing novels without realising that’s what they’re doing. (Of course they know precisely what they’re doing, but I like naivety in books, even when it’s consciously manufactured — that sense that people are inventing the form they’re writing into as they go.) Robert Macfarlane’s work means a great deal to me. W G Sebald is a touchstone. And David Shepheard is an extraordinary talent, criminally under-recognised. I keep telling myself that one day I’ll write this kind of book. Well, perhaps. One day. With a following wind.

What are you working on next?

I have a novel to deliver by the end of the year which is giving me conniptions. It’s a romantic story of a sort, set in a counterfactual London that, inevitably, is informed by Stalin and the Scientists. The over-arching idea — that knowledge and power cannot be separated, that the shape of one dictates the shape of the other — will, I am sure, also crop up in the next non-fiction, about which, at this early stage, I can only say that it will start with Prince Peter Kropotkin, the naturalist who, seeing how different species worked together to survive bitter winters in Russia’s far north, evolved an entire political system to apply those lessons to people.

Stalin and the Scientists has been described as “the *first* history of how the Soviet Union’s scientists became both the glory and the laughing stock of the intellectual world.” What inspired you to tackle this subject?

What you have to understand is that if you give a publisher’s publicist an inch, they’ll take a country mile: “first”, indeed! Certainly no-one’s been foolish enough to attempt to tell the whole story of science under Stalin in a single volume, but be assured I didn’t dig this entire thing single-handed from virgin ground. What I wanted to do was to give good explanations for the absurdities and atrocities that gritted what would otherwise have been a staggering success story — the formation of the world’s largest science base in a country that barely a generation before could barely feed itself. I find the “epic human tragedy” take on history extremely tiresome. You know the sort of thing: Soviet geneticists were ruined *because* they were geneticists, or educational theoriests were jailed *because* they were theorists. The Polish writer Stanislaw Lem (who was put against the wall by the Nazis during the second world war and then had to weather Stalinism) called this approach “two-bit demonism”. It’s bolted on after the fact to explain personal and family trauma in manageable terms. The victims are entitled to their comforts, of course, but the rest of us ought to try harder. You get much closer to the heart of things when you realise how *irrelevant* learning and expertise and even reason can become, once power abandons the ideal of truth.

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