How & Where They Write: Norman Stone

02 December 2013 Comments Off on How & Where They Write: Norman Stone


This is the first in a series of interviews Bilkent News will be presenting to its readers, which aspires to reveal the writing process of some of the writers at Bilkent. We thank Prof. Norman Stone of the Departments of International Relations and of History for being so kind as to answer our questions.
Alp Rodoplu:  Do you enjoy writing?
Professor Norman Stone: I think most of the time I enjoy writing. Obviously you enjoy writing certain things more than others. The book I most enjoyed writing was the “Short History” of Turkey. That’s an awfully good subject to write about, provided you never get into detail about things which will make it very difficult to read, as so many of these books about Turkey do. And the little one on the First World War, I did that in about six months. But sometimes, if you’ve something to write because you said “yes” on the phone to somebody, you can’t think how to begin it. Especially with book reviews.  Getting a book review right — that one is difficult. In the end, I have enjoyed writing since I was ten. I wrote a history of an imaginary country when I was ten or eleven. I’ve still got it; it’s very embarrassing, but I can’t bring myself to tear it up.
AR: What about “Europe Transformed”? We talked about the last chapter once. Is that the chapter you wrote on the train somewhere in Czechoslovakia?
NS: No, it wasn’t as bad as that! But, oh God, that book’s now 30 years old. Looking back on it, I think that book was the biggest intellectual challenge, and I enjoyed writing it in the end. And the story about the last chapter was that the manuscript had to be handed in sometime in August, and we had to catch a plane to Romania, so I started that last chapter around 10 in the morning the day before and just wrote solidly until 6 in the morning, keeping going with a Czech herbal liquor called Becherovka. People like that chapter, and at least it’s got some ideas. I’ve never reread it.
AR: From 10 in the morning to 6 in the morning the next day — has that been the norm for you?
NS: No. But, you know, I can write for a long time. Yesterday, for instance, I did a long article for the The Spectator about Sykes-Picot. It’s a thousand words, and I wrote solidly for 10 hours.
AR: What’s the usual way that you write?
NS: It depends on what it is. Well,  once I can get myself going, if I can start it, then I can usually finish it quite quickly. Not if it’s a book review — I always find them very difficult. I don’t do many now.
AR: When you sit down to write, do you know exactly what you’re going to say?
NS: I’ve got an idea of the general direction, yes.
AR: Is the writing process also a process of discovery for you?
NS: Sometimes you can get a good idea in the middle, yes — something you hadn’t thought of.
AR: So, what do you do in such situations? Do you immediately integrate it into the text?
NS: Put it down on paper. I’ve got all sympathy with your generation trying to do a PhD. It must be an utter nightmare trying to work out how to produce this volume of prose. The only advice I can give is that once you start, write every day. Write up notes, because you can always throw them away; but if you have some paper there, you can add to it, and you can take away from it.
AR: That’s what you’ve been doing all this time? You told me last year that you stopped taking notes, and you were a bit unhappy about that.
NS: Again, it depends what it is. I’ve been at this game for quite a long time, and automatically you remember certain things. My memory is still as good as it was, and in fact in many ways better — and it’s more disciplined. I do take notes now, and I’m writing a difficult book on Russia and Turkey. There’s a huge amount to read, and there’s an awful amount I just don’t know about.
AR: Where do you write? Here in your office? Your study?
NS: Anywhere, wherever.
AR: How about the medium? Pen and paper? Computer?
NS: It took me a long time to do it [pointing to the desktop computer]. You know, I was a master of the typewriter, and it was a disaster in my life when my typewriter was worn in such a way that the paper slipped as I tried to turn it. Otherwise I would have kept on using my typewriter. It took a long time for me to get used to that [the computer].
AR: Any rituals that you do? Do you take walks beforehand, or afterward?
NS: At my age, it’s very difficult to write without a cigarette. I did write the short history of the Second World War without smoking, and it shows.
AR: A lot of writers, apart from smoking, also drink. Do you drink when you write?
NS: In principle, I don’t. If I can’t think how to start, a couple of glasses of wine will help. It used to be whiskey, but I don’t do that anymore.
AR: Your son also writes. Would you say you’re somewhat in the same business?
NS:  But he writes thrillers. They’re quite good, and I quite like them. Regardless of, you know, him being my son, I think he’s very competent.
AR: Have you ever talked about these kinds of questions? Writing rituals, the process? Do you know how he writes?
NS: No, no, no. But the reason I write the way I do is that I was very strongly influenced by A. J. P. Taylor. I first read his work when I was about twelve — found it in the public library. His style is infectious — I was never consciously copying him, it just happened. I noticed I used short words, for instance, as he did. He didn’t write long sentences, which I don’t like either.
AR: It’s a very effective way of writing.
NS: Yes…I don’t know why so many historians find writing approachably rather difficult. You know, I picked out some American book on the abolition of serfdom in Russia, and the man starts with all the grace, all the elegance of a telephone book. I mean, oh dear…paragraph one, a cup of tea; paragraph two, a phone call; paragraph three, another phone call; paragraph four, a stiff drink. For certain books, the essential reading aid is a hatpin — you take the hatpin and shove it in your leg to keep awake.
AR: Lastly, how do you think people adopt that kind of style? Because I’d like to end on any further advice you have for aspiring writers at Bilkent.
NS:  A lot depends on the subject; some subjects are by their nature difficult to bring alive. If you’ve got a trawl load of indigestible information to offer, then you’re not going to be writing sparkling prose. The PhD is horribly difficult in this respect. Serving up eighty thousand words and making sure you’re not going to be attacked for any omission is something which can drive people mad. I do think working on a PhD for five years is not a good idea. That’s the good thing about the English system — three years. What matters with the PhD is the book that comes out of it, or the significant contribution. However, the PhD is really just a bridge to that.