Compelling seeds of true history: Philip Sington’s Writing Life interview

The best historical novels are based on some element of real history which has been either neglected or is little known. Philip Sington's “The Einstein Girl” grows out of the revelation that Albert Einstein had a secret daughter. Sington takes that seed and, with the hand of a true thriller master, builds around it a story of psychiatry and love in the early days of Hitler’s Germany. It's one of the most touching, beautiful, and harrowing stories you’ll read. I met Philip, who was born in Cambridge in 1962, on a recent evening in Darmstadt, Germany, where we both read excerpts from our books – in a church, on top of the tombs of the ancient Landgraves of Hesse. After hearing him read, I immediately took up “The Einstein Girl” and was utterly swept away by it. Here’s Philip, discussing his Writing Life:

How long did it take you to get published?
I got a deal with my second book, which I finished about seven years after starting the first. Between the two enterprises there was a bit of a gap, though.

Would you recommend any books on writing?
I never read any books on writing when I was starting out. That was probably a mistake. The best book I’ve seen subsequently is Master Class in Writing Fiction by Adam Sexton (published by McGraw Hill). You’re supposed to read a particular novel before each chapter, which is a good approach.

What’s a typical writing day?
Someone once said that the writing life involves brief intervals of creativity punctuated by long intervals of staring into the fridge. That about sums it up in my case. That said, since becoming a father three years ago, I’ve had to cut down on the fridge time.

Plug your latest book. What’s it about? Why’s it so great?
The Einstein Girl is a historical novel inspired by the relatively recent discovery that Albert Einstein had a daughter in secret. It’s set in 1932, on the eve of the Nazi assumption of power, when Einstein was poised to flee Europe for America, and unfolds as a psychological mystery. I was inspired to write it because, in the course of my researches, I began to see some fascinating parallels between Einstein’s intellectual obsessions and his highly unusual private life.

How much of what you do is:
a) formula dictated by the genre within which you write?
b) formula you developed yourself and stuck with?
c) as close to complete originality as it’s possible to get each time?
In sketching out a book I’m guided more by instinct than anything. I think that’s something writers develop over time, and which becomes sharper the more they write. I don’t think I’ve ever adjusted a story because I don’t see it conforming to a model. More likely I’ll adjust it because I don’t find it satisfying or compelling enough.

What’s your favorite sentence in all literature, and why?
Did I mention that when I was fifteen I took it out of my pants and whacked off on the 107 bus from New York?
Philip Roth, Portnoy’s Complaint.
If you are going to indulge in rhetorical questions, make them good ones.

Read the rest of this post on my blog The Man of Twists and Turns.

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