Q&A

05.30.12

The Alain de Botton Interview: How I Write

The author of sophisticated popular philosophy books like Religion for Atheists talks to Noah Charney about how his mother helps him write about very complicated ideas. Plus, more of our ‘How I Write’ series with David Eagleman, Chad Harbach, and Jodi Picoult.

Alain de Botton is a bestselling author of popular philosophy books that deal with everything from religion to Proust, in a way that is accessible to all but that does not lower the intellectual content. It is no easy feat. His latest book is Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer's Guide to the Uses of Religion.

Where did you grow up?

Zurich, Switzerland.

Where do you live and why?

London, England. Because it's easiest.

Of which of your books or projects are you most proud?

Living Architecture and How Proust Can Change Your Life.

You write about complicated subjects, like philosophy and theology, in an accessible manner. Could you describe how you convert complex, intellectual concepts into a format digestible to popular readers?

I ask myself whether my mother, who never went to university, would understand it. If she couldn't, I change it.

Describe your routine when conceiving of a book and its plot, before the writing begins.

I assemble my ideas in pieces on a computer file, then gradually find a place for them on a piece of scaffolding I erect.

What is a distinctive habit or affectation of yours?

I am always anxious.

What is your favorite item of clothing?

A gray V-neck pullover from Gap. I have 30 of them.

Please recommend three books (not your own) to readers.

John Armstrong’s The Secret Power of Beauty; Cyril Connolly’s The Unquiet Grave: A World Cycle by Palinurus; Normal Mailer’s Of a Fire on the Moon.

Do you have a writer friend who helps and inspires you?

Yes, my friend John Armstrong, a philosopher.

What is a place that inspires you?

My office. It's drab and boring, but quiet.

Describe your writing routine, including any unusual rituals associated with the writing process, if you have them.

I waste most of the day, then finally start to write around 3 p.m., totally disgusted with myself for my wasteful nature.

“I ask myself whether my mother, who never went to university, would understand it. If she couldn’t, I change it.”

Besides the obvious, what do you keep on your desk?

I keep a picture of my beloved children close by. Also water, and plenty of pads and pens.

Describe your evening routine.

Watch Newsnight on TV and go to sleep.

What is guaranteed to make you laugh?

A tragic insight gracefully delivered.

What is guaranteed to make you cry?

The illness of a child.

Do you have any superstitions?

Yes: if something too nice happens, worse is to follow.

If you could bring back to life one deceased person, who would it be and why?

My father—in order to get to know him better.

What word or phrase do you over-use?

Melancholic.

What is the story behind the publication of your first book?

I sent it to an agent, she accepted it, and off it went.

How much do you need to write in order to feel that you’ve had a productive day?

At least 1,000 words.

Tell us a funny story related to a book tour or book event.

All tours are filled with humiliation. My publisher once hired a private jet to fly me to a venue where 1,000 people were waiting. It almost bankrupted him.

What would you do for work, if you were not a writer?

An architect.

What advice would you give to an aspiring author?

Never ever become a writer. It's a nightmare.

What is your next project?

A book about sex.

What would you like carved onto your tombstone?

He tried.”

Read more of our “How I Write” series:

David Eagleman

Chad Harbach

Jodi Picoult