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Philippe Sands interview

Philippe Sands interview

The Baillie Gifford Prize 2016 longlist

Philippe Sands talks about how the writing of East West Street took seven years and spanned twelve countries.

This is part of our series of longlisted author interviews.    

What does it feel like to be longlisted?

Very lovely. A bit like winning a case at first instance, celebrating, and then realising the real challenges are still to come. 

How did you research for your book?  

With joy, patience and anxiety. The writing of East West Street, which took seven years and spanned twelve countries, involved: many journeys, often to obscure places; meetings with remarkable individuals in their 90s; an introduction to unexpected languages, and archives in dilapidated building; quite a few cemeteries, and at least one mass grave; meals that will never be forgotten; the excavation of the memories of others to be found in documents and photographs that had either been forgotten about or purposely concealed; and no less than four Hallelujah! moments. 

Which non-fiction authors do you admire? 

Stefan Zweig, for reminding us about the 1930s’s to where we seem to be returning (Beware of Pity, 1939).

The three finest reporters at the Nuremberg trial, all women, who captured the minute human details missed by others: Janet Flanner, Martha Gellhorn and Rebecca West.

Jane Mayer of the New Yorker, for courage and for humour.

What are you working on next? 

Nothing quite yet, but almost there, torn between an idea about partition, and an idea about a wholly unexpected moment of global justice that crystallised in London.  

Your journey for East West Street began when you received an invitation to deliver a lecture in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv. What did you encounter there?  

A dark and enticing city, a place that offered an unexpected point of connection between my family story and the origins of modern international law. This was a city I had never visited yet where I felt strangely at home, and from which I have been unable to tear myself away. The combination of borscht, pickles and vodka surely helped to catalyse my double detective story, one personal, the other political and intellectual.


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