Q&A with Paul Preston
How does it feel to reach the shortlist for the Samuel Johnson Prize?
It came as an enormous surprise and left me with a feeling of intense puzzlement.
What research did you do for writing your book?
At one level, this book drew on much of the work that I have done over the last forty years on the origins of the Spanish Civil War, on the Civil War itself and on its long aftermath in the Franco dictatorship. More specifically, over the last twelve years or so, I did a lot of work in Spanish archives, interviewed victims and established a large collaborative network with the hundreds of local historians all over Spain. Since the book tries to cover the entire geography of Spain, the necessary research would have been impossible for one person. This collaboration was facilitated by the fact that, after the years of silence and national brain-washing imposed by the dictatorship which carried on through the war’s long shadow, finally around the turn of the century, the grandchildren of the victims had begun to demand to know what had happened.
How do you feel about the status/ popularity of non-fiction books in general?
Obviously, I wish people read more but, all things considered, I am quite amazed by the high level of things that people do read, not just history and biography but also quite complex books on science, medicine and the environment. However, the proliferation and popularity of fairly vacuous and usually ghosted ‘celebrity’ memoirs is quite alarming.
What is your favourite non-fiction book and why?
This is almost impossible to answer. However, I will go for two which, in very different ways, blur the lines between autobiography, history and fiction. The first is The Forging of a Rebel, Arturo Barea’s wonderful memoir of his life in early twentieth century Madrid, as a conscript in Morocco and during the Spanish Civil War. The second is Winston Chruchill’s massive and magisterial, if less than self-critical, history of the Second World War.
What are you working on next?
A biography of Santiago Carrillo, the Communist leader who was a prominent figure in Spanish politics from his emergence as a firebrand revolutionary aged 15 until his death recently aged 97.