How do you describe your occupation?
I describe myself as a writer.
Talk us through a typical day for you…
If I’m writing, then I get up and go swimming. Come home via our local bakery and have breakfast while reading the newspaper. I get to my desk around 9:30 am. I then write pretty much non-stop til around 4, though this varies according to the time of year; I have to walk the dog before it gets dark. In wintertime, that means by 3:30 pm the In summertime, it means before 10 pm. I live in a beautiful part of the country and the walk reminds me of that, clears my head and usually resolves most of my questions. That is pretty much the end of the writing day. I try to keep the end of the afternoon free for conference calls, diary management, email. When I’m not writing, I’m either doing speaking engagements or I am on a research trip. Those days vary completely!
What are you reading at the moment and what made you want to read it?
I’m reading The Gardens Of Villandry by Robert and Henri Carvallo. It is a history of a remarkable garden started by Joachim Carvallo, who knew as he planned it, that he would not live long enough to see its maturity and completion. I’m very interested in super long term projects – Stephen Hawking calls them ‘cathedral projects’ – and how it is that they are managed and sustained. They are beset by ambiguity and defined by uncertainty and I think they have a lot to teach us about how to manage with what we believe to be the unique uncertainty of our own age.
Can you remember the first book you read by yourself?
The first one I remember was Little Women by Louisa May Alcott because I won it as a prize for reading the most books over the summer vacation.
Are you a page folder or a bookmarker?
Mostly a folder unless it’s a fine book or a library book, in which case I’ll use any piece of scrap paper to hand.
If you could gift yourself books at age 16 and age 25 – what would they be and why?
What a great question! Age 16: I wish I’d read books by or about Mary Wollstonecraft (Romantic Outlaws by Charlotte Gordon is particularly fine) and understood far earlier what a rich feminist history exists. This was unknown to me until far later in life. Age 25: I wish I’d read Virginia Woolf by Hermione Lee: a tour de force of scholarship and imagination.
Can you remember your first demonstration of entrepreneurial ability?
About age 5, selling lemonade on the sidewalk. Thereafter, selling rocks (why did anyone buy them?!) and being paid to wash dishes after dinner parties.
If you could invite 5 authors (dead or alive) to a dinner party – who would they be and why?
Orwell. I love the rigour of his thinking. Dickens because he would be fun, had what he called “enthusymusy” and energy. W.H.Auden because of all poets, he seems the least priggish. James Baldwin, a terrific analyst of America. Elena Ferrante because who wouldn’t want to talk to her about politics, love and friendship?
What was the last book you purchased, and why did you buy it?
I bought a book by Haruki Murakami called Absolutely on Music – which it is. Mostly it is a conversation between Murakami and Seiji Ozawa, one of the great conductors. Music is important to me – I play the piano and sing in a cathedral choir – as a source of mental health and of inspiration because so much happens within it, without words.
What is your favourite thing about reading?
Being inside a different mind. Understanding what previously puzzled me. Meeting new people who are utterly different from me.
What’s the best book you’ve read in the last 6 months?
Undoubtedly Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders. An imaginative triumph: it literally made me laugh out loud and it made me weep. It is an exquisite and totally original articulation of a deep love of life.
If you could insert yourself into any book, which would you pick and why?
I feel like I am in all the books I read, just out of sight, watching and waiting. That’s what good books do: put you in a new place to see afresh.
When you think of success in the business world, who is the first person that comes to mind?
Since I don’t subscribe to the idea of entrepreneurs as heroic soloists, no ONE person comes to mind. Companies come to mind. Method Home Care is a favourite – a wildly implausible tangible product company formed at the end of the first dot com bomb by 2 guys who saw that people love their homes but clean them with products that are hideous, stink and wreck the planet – so they set out to produce cleaning materials that were just the opposite. Brilliant positioning, great products that I use daily. I think of Arup, a dazzlingly innovative employee-owned business that is extremely choiceful about the work they do: they work on buildings that matter, they don’t just chase revenue. Of course any brilliant engineer would want to work there – and they have fun! I think of Eileen Fisher, started by Eileen who (as her mother pointed out) could not even sew. All these are organizations that wanted to do something good, meaningful, that made the world a better place. And they meant it – it wasn’t nonsense PR. When they’ve had to choose between money and values, they’ve been prepared to choose values at some cost.
What is the book that you feel has had the single biggest impact on your life? What impact did it have?
Sorry to say this since it sounds so pretentious but War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. I read it in my early 20s – I had a crush on a guy who taught Russian at Sandhurst [the UK military academy] and he introduced me to it. Now I read the book roughly every 5 years. Each time it is a different book and helps me see where I am. It is not a perfect book – structurally it’s a bit of a mess – and reminds me that perfection is the dullest of ambitions. Be interesting. Be real. Be alive: these are far more important qualities in books. What impact has it had? It has reminded me to be serious – not pompous – but serious about life in the round, not to see any kind of work as separable from all of life. It’s when we separate work from life, business from society, ends and means, that bad things happen.
What two pieces of advice would you give a young aspiring entrepreneur?
It isn’t about the money. It’s too hard to be worth it just for the cash. If that’s your ambition, it isn’t big or interesting enough for good people to want to work for you. Second: even the overnight successes feel like marathons. It’s a long haul. Third (sorry) Great entrepreneurs don’t have to be pale, male and immature. Many of the greatest entrepreneurs started in their 30s, 40s and beyond. Many are female. And many are capable of great empathy and imagination. The stereotype is wrong.
Are there any books you haven’t mentioned that you feel would make your reading list?
I think The Unwinding by George Packer is a brilliant piece of journalism and if more people had read it – and taken it to heart – we would not be in such a mess as we are in today. It is the closest thing to Orwell’s journalism since Orwell. And Orwell is a must-have on my list: such rigorous observation and tough prose. Also Albert Speer: His Battle with Truth by Gitta Sereny, a biographical study of Albert Speer: a masterful hunt for one man’s conscience, it was a huge inspiration for Willful Blindness. I’m so grateful I was able to interview her before she died.
What’s the worst advice you hear given to young people looking to start their own business?
Go big or go home. Millions of great businesses will never be huge. But they will create great goods, services and jobs for people who need them. Our infatuation with size is gross and leads people to perverse behaviours, over-consumption and all of its attendant problems. Service is noble. Being useful is important. The go-big-or-stay-home nonsense comes from finance people who risk their money, sure, but entrepreneurs risk their lives: the time they invest in the companies will never return.
Which book sat on your shelf are you most excited about reading next and why?
I’m excited to read Bright Air Black by David Vann. I spent some time in Greece this summer and am going through a bit of a Greek phase – trying to get away from our rather flibbertygibbet mentality and dig deeper.