Keith Lowe, British author and editor was born in London in 1970, and grew up in Hampstead. After travelling around the world for two years, Keith went on to study English Literature at the University of Manchester, and then to work in history publishing.
His first novel, Tunnel Vision (2001), follows a man who is challenged to visit every station of the London Underground in a single day. His second novel is New Free Chocolate Sex (2005) and he has also written Inferno: The Devastation of Hamburg, a history of Second World War bombing, which was released in 2007. Keith’s newest book, Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II, is due out in April this year.
Thank you for taking the time to talk to us today. Your new book sounds really interesting – we may all have studied the Second World War at school, but the aftermath, and the suffering that continued across Europe is a lesser known topic, but an important part of our history and who we have become nonetheless. We’re pleased to be able to chat to the author, it’s a real pleasure.
Q: Right, so we’ll start with a simple one, when did you first begin to write?
I’ve enjoyed writing ever since I can remember. I wrote my first ‘book’ when I was five years old – I still have it – a tense and brilliant thriller called ‘Dracula in Monsterland’. For some reason this masterpiece has yet to find a publisher. I first set my heart on a career in writing when I was sixteen, and haven’t really taken my eyes off it since. I studied literature at university, and then went into publishing because I wanted to understand the industry. Along the way I have acquired a deep love of history, which is what I write about now.
Q: What are your three biggest pet peeves?
Parking tickets, people who don’t know how to listen, telly programmes that cut from one scene to another every half a second in order to try and make a boring subject appear interesting.
Q: Your book, ‘New Free Chocolate Sex’, tells the story of Matt and Sam, a young marketing director of a confectionary business, and a young woman who is working on a TV documentary which aims to highlight the exploitation of African people in producing chocolate for the Western world to gorge on. When they are trapped inside Matt’s chocolate factory for a weekend, they are forced to face their differences and become united in their attempts to escape. Although this book is essentially a simple story about “two people, and how they are changed by their experiences”, when speaking about your novel you have said, “throughout the book I use chocolate as a symbol not only of how the characters work, but also of how our world works, and there is a part of me that hopes that if my characters can learn to change, then we can all do so”. Since its release in 2005, do you believe national awareness of fairtrade chocolate has increased for the better?
Yes and no. There are a lot more fairtrade products out there – from coffee to bananas – and companies like Divine and Green & Blacks have been leading the way when it comes to chocolate. To a degree, the major chocolate companies have bowed to public pressure – but the pressure to keep costs low is far greater, and most still do the bare minimum for their suppliers and their workers. It’s fairly depressing, actually. We’re all so concerned for ourselves in the current economic climate that we regard it as a luxury to think of what life might be like for child labourers in Cote d’Ivoire.
Q: If you could have a superpower, what would it be?
The ability to say precisely the right thing, succinctly, without hesitation, in any situation. Not just in my writing, but in everyday life. I tend to, er, well, I don’t know… what was I saying again?
Q: How often do you experience writer’s block, and how do you go about tackling it?
When I was writing fiction I used to get writer’s block fairly frequently, and found the only way to get over it was to stop what I was doing and go out for a long walk. It’s not such a problem when writing history, because it’s less creative: the facts are there before you – you just have to know how to arrange and analyse them. If I get a block now it’s a sure sign that I haven’t done enough research.
Q: Your new book, ‘Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II’, is due out 5th April 2012. This non-fictional work acknowledges the 35 million deaths that occurred throughout the Second World War, but it continues to tell the story of the ten years that followed, and how Europe continued to suffer, outlining “the warped morality and the insatiable urge for vengeance that were the legacy of the conflict”. How long did it take to research for this book? And how did you go about cutting down the information so it would fit onto a reasonable amount of pages?
It took five years to gather together the research for this book – and that still feels like the bare minimum. I tried to cover themes that affected every country in Europe, so there was a good deal of research in foreign languages too, for which I needed plenty of help. I can struggle by in German, Italian and French, but I can’t even pretend to understand Polish, Serbo-Croat or Hungarian, so I had to employ half a dozen translators and call in lots of favours from bilingual friends and family. As you rightly say, honing down the huge amounts of information was one of my biggest challenges. It was a matter of deciding what the most important themes were, and trying give a feel for the rest without going off on any lengthy tangents. I wish I could claim that I managed all this on my own, but it would be a lie: fortunately I have a brilliant editor at Penguin who whipped me into shape.
Q: Obviously your writing style for your first two books varies greatly to your non-fiction work, what genre of writing do you prefer?
Fiction is incredibly liberating, because you can do virtually anything you want to. If you want your characters to have superpowers, they can. If you get bored of one of them, you can kill him off. But when you’re writing history books you can’t make anything up – apparently that’s quite frowned upon…! It’s a serious point, because the facts often get in the way of a good story, and there have been times when I really wished events had taken a slightly different turn, or a particular person had said something just a little more dramatic. Unfortunately real life doesn’t always arrange itself into a nice story structure.
On the other hand, the joy of writing non-fiction is that you don’t have to make anything up at all: the story is all ready for you, and all you have to do is discover it. That can be really exciting. There’s nothing like discovering a new document in an archive – something that has been handled by Churchill, or De Gaulle, and which has only been touched by a handful of people since. Writing history also gives you a perfect excuse to interview all kinds of people you would never otherwise get the chance to meet. That’s not something I ever had when I was writing fiction – instead I spent a lot of time going slightly mad in a room on my own.
Q: Who is your hero?
I have lots of heroes. My mother has to be top of the list – how she managed to raise five kids and hold down a job at the same time baffles me. Thinking historically, I have always been in awe of those who did the right thing even when it was difficult: people like Captain Oates, or Hans and Sophie Scholl. Or people with real vision, like George Kennan or Jean Monnet. I could go on…
Q: What advice would you give as an editor for authors hoping to get work published?
I’ve been out with sales reps when they’re selling books to bookshops, and it’s terrifying. They have to summarise the book in just one sentence, and then move on to the next. Put yourself in their shoes – summarise your own idea in a single sentence, and if it sounds boring then you know what sort of reception it will get from a publishers’ sales team.
Once you’ve done that, write a decent, lengthier proposal, with a gripping first paragraph and a handful of reasons why it is unlike any of the other million books out there. Then edit it. Then edit it again. And again. And then get lots of people to read it and give you their sincere opinions – and be prepared to accept criticism.
If it’s fiction, make sure the synopsis is short and punchy, and include the first three chapters. If it’s non-fiction, concentrate on showing that you know your subject backwards, and that you are the best person to write the book. And finally, no matter who you are, get yourself a good agent!
Q: And lastly, the one we ask everyone! World of Books is dedicated to providing good-quality second-hand books to the public. In a world with an ever-growing digital media base, and increasing environmental concerns, do you believe in the importance of giving each physical book the chance of a new home?
Absolutely. I could not do what I do without second hand books. My office is filled with fantastic books that have been allowed to go out of print – they are what underpins any original research I might have done. Almost none of them are available as e-books, and I don’t think I’d download them even if they were. Flicking through the pages of a real, physical book, being able to scribble notes in the margin, leaping backwards and forwards to the notes or the index, and smelling the dust and the age of the pages – no digital media can recreate that experience.
Thanks for chatting with us Keith, learn more about Keith over at the Simon and Schuster website here, or follow him on Twitter. Don’t forget to check out the World of Books site for loads of cheap books.