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Q&A with Adam Nicolson, longlisted for 'The Mighty Dead: Why Homer matters'

6 October 2014

How does it feel to reach the longlist for the Samuel Johnson Prize?

Very good. The best thing is knowing that people have read the book and felt the same pleasure and excitement about Homer as I did.

What research did you do for writing your book?

I have been writing 'The Mighty Dead', in between everything else, for ten years. So I read many different translations of Homer and paid very close attention to the Greek in the Loeb parallel text editions. The online Liddell& Scott Greek lexicon is an unbeatable research tool if you want to get deep into the texture of the language. It would have been infinitely more difficult to penetrate the mountain of scholarship around Homer without JSTOR, the amazing compendium of online academic papers. With the writer and radio producer Tim Dee, I was able to go on some wonderful journeys to various Homeric spots in Greece and at Troy, making a series about Homer for Radio 3. And I took myself off to many other places for short two- or three-day visits. The book has always floated around in my mind as Homer by Easyjet.

 How do you feel about the status/ popularity of non-fiction books in general?

Someone once said to me that nowadays fiction is considered bad unless it is very good, non-fiction good unless it is very bad. I do think writing fiction is the higher art but I share the modern enthusiasm for the kind of non-fiction that attempts to bring the qualities of fiction—good story, multiple viewpoints, an attention to language, a satisfying architecture, an understanding of climax, tension and the need to be vivid—to the real world.

What is your favourite non-fiction book and why?

Richard Holmes’s 'Footsteps', which inspired me years ago: as a model for how imaginative empathy can have a central role in describing the past; for its combination of brilliance and rigour, wit and scholarship; and its alluring mixture of egotism and modesty. Coleridge said somewhere that writing without egotism is always dull, as is writing with nothing else. Holmes is a master of getting that right.

What are you working on next?

A book about 1797 in Somerset.


Adam Nicolson is the author of Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters (William Collins)

Photo credit to Penny Tweedie