Five minutes with four times longlisted author William Dalrymple
How does it feel to reach the longlist for the Samuel Johnson Prize?
It’s an exquisite form of torture. This is my fourth appearance on the longlist. Not one of the previous three books - White Mughals, The Last Mughal and Nine Lives-- made it to the shortlist. Let's see if this one finally breaks the jinx.
What research did you do for writing your book?
The book took five years to research between archives in Delhi, Lahore, Kabul, Herat, Moscow, Inverness and London. The most tricky part was tracking down the Dari primary sources in Afghanistan: I nearly drove into a fire-fight between the government and the Taliban while retracing the route of the Retreat from Kabul near Tora Bora and got a sniper's bullet through the back window of my car in Kandahar. I was originally told there were no Dari primary sources, but in the end I found nine full length accounts, five of which were written within a decade of the war. There also turned out to be a lot of material in Urdu in Delhi.
How do you feel about the status/ popularity of non-fiction books in general?
The incredibly strong longlist shows that there is some truth in the idea that this is a golden age for non-fiction- and unlike fiction it’s something the British seem to excel in. What a formidable breadth and depth of talent to be up against! I especially admire the work by Andrew Solomon and Simon Schama, and look forward to discovering that of many of the others on the longlist in due course.
What is your favourite non-fiction book and why?
The Fall of Constantinople, 1453 by Stephen Runciman. To my mind it’s the perfect history book: remarkable research across many languages written up in language of great elegance. It has all the qualities of a great novel-- the depth of characterisation, the epic quality of its setting, the beautiful prose-- but it’s not someone's fantasies, it’s all true: these people really lived. These things really happened.
What are you working on next?
If I pluck up the courage, a sweeping cultural and artistic history of India - attempting to do for South Asia what Orlando Figes did for Russia in Natacha's Dance.
William Dalrymple is the author of Return of a King (Bloomsbury)