An interview with William Fiennes

08 January 2015

As well as giving us a chance to read (or reread) some of the best works of literature from the past forty years, the advent of the Picador Classic series also seemed the perfect opportunity to ask the authors some big questions  about life and literature, their current obsessions and how times have changed.

First up is William Fiennes, whose book The Snow Geese recounts his quest to trace the million-strong flocks of snow geese making their spring flight from Texas to the Arctic tundra and the myriad of people he met along the way.

What was the last thing you wrote in your notebook?

I dreamed I’d composed a piece of music called the Epping Oratorio.

Tell us your favourite poem.

Seamus Heaney’s “The Harvest Bow”. Robert Frost’s “Birches”. Les Murray’s Fredy Neptune – the whole crazy song of it. W.S. Merwin’s “Just This”.

What are you currently obsessed with?

Channel 4’s Gogglebox. The poet Rosemary Tonks. Mad Men. Cricket.

Which writing do you find yourself returning to and why?

Shirley Hazzard’s The Transit of Venus, for its sentences, perceptions, images, mood. Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics for its imaginative boldness and freedom, and its sense of wonder. George Eliot’s Middlemarch, for pretty much everything. And Chekhov’s stories: humanity, attentiveness, curiosity, acceptingness, wit-sparkle, inexhaustible empathy…

Which other author would you most like to have for dinner and why?

Anton Chekhov. Not just because I love his writing (see above). But he was so obviously a miracle person too: adventurous, public-spirited, fun, life-hungry, generous – and all this while suffering from tuberculosis since his early twenties… He had two dachshunds called Quinine and Bromine. He planted trees. But we’d need this dinner to take place in some fantasy parallel universe in which I could speak fluent Russian. Otherwise it would just be awkward.

What’s your favourite film?

At any given moment, it might be Rome, Open City or Sexy Beast or The Year of Living Dangerously or Once Upon a Time in Anatolia or L’Atalante or Hannah and Her Sisters or The Last Picture Show

Favourite book?

The Transit of VenusFredy NeptuneWar and Peace – best if you get a paperback and use a breadknife to slice it down the spine into four short, portable volumes. Italo Calvino’s The Baron in the Trees. Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table. The great “March” books: George Eliot’s Middlemarch, Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March, Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March. David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary of Film. Lorrie Moore’s Collected Stories. Seamus Heaney’s Stepping Stones. Philip Roth’s Sabbath’s Theater. John Updike’s Rabbit series. Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red. Oh, that’s more than one, isn’t it?

Three things you would want on a desert island.

A piano; Bach’s preludes and fugues; breakfast.

>>READ THE FIRST CHAPTER OF THE SNOW GEESE

The Snow Geese The Snow Geese (Picador Classic edition) is introduced by Robert Macfarlane. Photograph of William Fiennes © Joe Miller.

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