The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, newly out in paperback, earned the Harvard literary scholar and founder of New Historicism a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award. The Renaissance and Shakespeare expert resurrected a time when books were rare but beloved treasures, through the story of the discovery of On The Nature of Things, a Roman poem that was thought long lost but eventually helped bring about the modern world. We spoke with him while he is spending a year away from his normal Harvard roost, at the American Academy of Rome—let’s hope another remarkable text is in the works.
Describe your morning routine.
I am an early riser. (Around 6:45.) After we have breakfast and get our son off to school, the mornings are generally for work. (Only in Italy, where many things are closed in the afternoons, are we forced on occasion to change this routine.)
What is a distinctive habit or affectation of yours?
I am not particularly habit-driven—that is, I do just fine if I skip my morning coffee.
I recently came across the information that Leonardo da Vinci owned 118 books, quite a number for the 16th century. I could not locate the list itself, but it made me think to ask you what the must-read list would have been, circa 1500, for an educated humanist living in Italy? This list may be far too long to write out here, but then again the number of volumes that had been discovered was rather more limited. If I were to read my way through the volume of written knowledge available to someone like Leonardo, what would be on my list?
That is an amazingly large number of books. I would love to see the list, if anyone has reconstructed it. And in the case of Leonardo, it would be particularly interesting, since he was so wide-ranging in his interests. As for the reading of an early 16th-century humanist, I think that one would want to start with religious, rather than classical, writers—that is, with Augustine, Jerome, and Thomas Aquinas, and perhaps more recent theological writers (like Nicholas of Cusa). But Virgil and Cicero would certainly be on the list; perhaps Livy and Tacitus; Boccaccio and Dante. It is perhaps as interesting to think of what might not be there in 1500: Homer, for example, and much of Plato.
Do you have a writer friend who helps and inspires you?
One of my closest friends is the wonderful poet Robert Pinsky, a constant source of pleasure and rich intelligence, and imaginative wildness.
There are few famous professors who have made the jump to authors of multiple volumes. What do you think was the secret to the success of your Shakespeare biography, Will in the World, when there have been so many books about Shakespeare that did not make the same sort of impact?
I have always loved to write, that is, to pay attention to the fact that I am doing something more than amassing scholarly information. And I have always despised the monkish obscurity cultivated by certain academics. The first sentence of my doctoral dissertation was “Sir Henry Yelverton was no friend to Sir Walter Ralegh.” I liked it precisely because you could not tell if you were beginning a novel or a history or—as it happened—a Ph.D. thesis.
Is it difficult to balance your professorship with your career as an author?
No—that is, I have a very clear sense of my obligation to my students and my colleagues (as well as to my family).
Do you still write articles for peer-reviewed academic journals, or have you switched permanently to books?
I do still do so, though distinctly less often than I did when I was starting out. But this is not a new development. Even when I have written what are, in effect, articles—for example, several of the chapters in Shakespeare’s Freedom—I have tended to hold them back for use in books.
It strikes many in the publishing world as amazing how you managed to write such a gripping, successful book about an ancient poem few people had heard of. The Swerve may be more about the world of the humanists who discovered On the Nature of Things, rather than the poem itself. At what point did the story of that poem jump out to you as the topic for a book? And did you immediately know how you wanted to present its story, through the biographies of various Renaissance thinkers, or did the presentation format evolve?
In conjunction with a play I wrote, in collaboration with Charles Mee (a reimagining of Shakespeare’s lost play Cardenio), I started to think about cultural mobility—that is, about how objects move about, disappear, reappear, cross borders, get burned, get smuggled, etc. I began somewhat idly to reflect on the books that mattered to me, one of which was On the Nature of Things, and it occurred to me to wonder who found it, after its long absence. Then I was off running.
Describe your routine when conceiving of a book and its story, before the writing begins. Do you like to map out your books ahead of time, or just let it flow?
I do not generally map out books very elaborately. I try to trust the movements of my own unconscious at the beginning of a project. But, in the case of The Swerve, I did chart a plan. The problem was that, in the course of writing, I had to redo it about 10,000 times, in order to get it right.
What has to happen on page one, and in chapter one, to make for a successful book that urges you to read on?
I think it is important, directly or indirectly, to establish a personal relationship with the reader and to begin to tell a story.
Describe your writing routine, including any unusual rituals associated with the writing process, if you have them.
I do not really have unusual rituals—just ordinary self-discipline, linked to self-loathing, if a day passes in which I haven’t actually done something, however small, that justifies all the effort.
What is guaranteed to make you laugh?
What is guaranteed to make you cry?
The end (often the happy end) of good novels.
Do you have any superstitions?
I often feel a mysterious sense of gratitude when I’ve arrived home after a difficult drive, say, in a blinding rain. Gratitude to whom?
What do you need to have produced/completed in order to feel that you’ve had a productive writing day?
I feel absolutely great if I have written five pages, but I rarely succeed in doing so. I’ll settle for three.
What is the story behind the publication of your first book?
My first book was my undergraduate essay on Waugh, Orwell, and Huxley. There was a Yale University Press series that published such books from time to time. I could not bring myself to go back and look at what I wrote, but it had the effect of removing the anxiety I might later have felt in trying to get published.
Was there a specific moment when you felt you had “made it” as an author?
Not really, and I’m not sure I feel it now. But I got a distinct thrill some years back when I saw someone actually buying one of my books in a bookstore.