It's hard not to be at least a little bit curious about a writer like Matthew Kneale. After all, he speaks 7 languages (sort of, at least), comes from a family of writers, and writes about subjects as diverse as arms dealers, Ethiopian mothers, Chinese wives and Middle England.
And on top of that, he gets to live in Rome.
When his novel "When We Were Romans" was published in Britain last year (it's now newly released in the US this summer), he sat down with the Independent's Katy Guest for an interview which confirmed my suspicion that he's a pretty interesting guy.
Perhaps my favorite gleaning from that piece (other than the image of his time spent at the beautiful Santa Maddelena writer's retreat near Florence – he says he suffered from writer's block there but it's hard for me to feel too terribly sorry for him) is his story about finding subject matter for "When We Were Romans."
Kneale had already produced the award-winning novel "English Passengers" (a historic novel about British smugglers and a revolution in Tasmania) and a short story collection called "Small Crimes in an Age of Abundance."
It's easy to imagine feeling intimidated about returning to the novel after "English Passengers" (a book that he says took him 7 years to write.) "English Passengers" won the 2000 Whitbread Prize and was shortlisted for the Booker prize. Next Kneale wrote the stories in "Small Crimes" and then he hit that patch of writer's block.
So this was his method: He decided to read whatever interested him, without trying to pick subjects that would lead him to a book. He figured that even if he never found anything to write about at least he'd get smarter. That's how he stumbled over the psychiatric case studies that inspired "When We Were Romans."
I like the method. It reminds me of the way I chose courses in college. I always felt defensive when confronted by business and computer science majors. I had to explain why I was taking medieval philosophy and modern painting. "It's interesting," was about the best I could ever manage.
But you know, in the end I got a job, too. And I still get Christmas cards from some of those more practical-minded friends and it doesn't seem to me (even after reading their lengthy family newsletters) that I have anything to envy.
So I'm with Kneale: Read what you like, not what you think you should like. In the long run, I suspect it will prove an excellent method.