Hall of Fame: Alex Von Tunzelmann

Indian Summer is a wonderful book that I reviewed back in March.  Talented young historian, Alex Von Tunzelmann is the author and in addition to selling movie rights to the book Alex was an insightful and informed guest on BBC Radio 4’s Any Questions.  She launched a new book, Red Heat, which is a political and historical thriller about the Cold War set in the Caribbean.  You can hear Alex at the Women in History debate at the Hampstead Literary Festival, 13 September.

Alex,  I loved your book Indian Summer and have recommended it to all my friends, in particular I admired the way that you can mix historical facts with people’s personalities and give a truly insightful account as to what went on during the years surrounding Partition.  Does writing come naturally to you?

Thanks for the compliment – I’m thrilled that you enjoyed the book! I always wanted to write, and loved writing stories even as a kid – but writing isn’t just a passion; it’s a skill. And that skill is not just putting together a sentence that sounds nice and is grammatically correct, though those things help. In non-fiction, of course, the most important thing is trying to represent the truth of your story as accurately and clearly as you can. In terms of writing that story as a narrative, though, you need a lot of the same skills you’d use writing a novel. Writing a book people might want to read is all about structure and character. Nobody is born with an understanding of those things. The best way to learn is to read a lot of great books and analyse how the authors have made them so gripping.

You were recently a guest on Radio 4’s Any Questions and came across confident, informed and witty – what was it like?

Well, thank you! Live debates are both thrilling and slightly terrifying. As a writer, you’re used to having plenty of time to formulate your ideas. On TV or radio, you have to respond so fast that you barely have time to think. Like any sort of argument, afterwards, you think of all the things you should have said that would have been much smarter and funnier than the things you really did say.

You have spent more time in Pakistan than I have, what draws you to the country time and again?

I love spending time in both Pakistan and India, two countries I’ve started to get to know thanks to Indian Summer. Since you’ve asked about Pakistan, what I’ve found really striking is how different the reality is from the very limited stereotype that is often portrayed in the west. It’s a very diverse place, as of course anywhere with 170 million people would be. I’m lucky enough now to have really good friends there and in India, and they keep me going back.

If you could go back in time, which historical person would you have liked to have been?

Wow, good question! Obviously the temptation is to be someone who had a lot of fun, like Louis XIV, or did something profound and wonderful, like Shakespeare. But I think it would be better to be someone utterly awful, so you could change history by behaving differently. So I’d be Stalin, but I wouldn’t set up gulags, have purges, impound grain reserves during famines or kill anyone. I might end up out of office by the time of the Second World War, but I’d save perhaps 20 million lives.

Do you find hindsight depressing when you pour over the mistakes made by leaders?

No, not at all. Sometimes it’s tragic, but it’s vital to face up to that and to understand why leaders made the decisions they made, whether those decisions were good, bad or a mix.

Do you think we learn from the past?

Not enough!

You travel a great deal to research and attend events.  What are your travel tips when abroad and in-flight?  Do you travel alone?

I love travelling alone: it makes it much easier to meet new people and see things your own way. You have a very different experience of a country when you’re in a couple or a group, though of course that can be great fun too. I have hundreds of travel tips, but it depends where in the world you’re going! A few general ones: it’s always a good time to check you’ve got your passport; pack one set of clothes in your hand luggage, especially if changing flights, in case your checked bags go missing; if you’re working or writing abroad, use an online service like Google Docs to back your work up regularly in case you lose your laptop; be nice to people and they’ll probably be nice to you; and never panic about anything, ever. Things go wrong all the time, but the best response is always calm down, accept you can’t control absolutely everything, and think coolly and practically about what to do next.

What’s the most recent film you have seen and did you enjoy it?

I watch a historical movie every week for my Reel History column in The Guardian, but that doesn’t really count. The last time I went to the cinema was to see Bridesmaids, which I loved.

What helps you to relax when you feel most tense?

A change of scene – whether that’s going on holiday or just taking a walk to the park.

What is in your handbag?

Keys, cards, iPhone, Kindle, cologne, spare contact lenses.

Who would be present at your fantasy dinner party and why? (5 guests plus you)

Five of my closest friends. If I’m going to subject anyone to my cooking, it’s best that they already like me.



4 Responses to “Hall of Fame: Alex Von Tunzelmann”

  1. Fab interview can’t wait to read red heat

  2. I’ve read Indian Summer and really liked it – I sometimes wonder how difficult it is for a writer to rein in herself and be neutral so as to maintain a clear balance between originality of content, the creative narrative and her personal self while writing such books – would they sometimes give in just to maintain their own freedom of expression? Or would they write two versions – one where their own feelings come into play so that there is continuity of emotions and a need to say what they must while the other is one where these bits are edited so as to maintain the neutrality of content?

  3. It’s really a nice and helpful piece of info. I’m glad that you simply shared this useful info with us.

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