PD Smith.


“I’m horribly busy at the moment trying to finish my book on the City. But I’ve taken a couple of photos–one of my desk (in a typical chaos of books) and one of the other end of my workroom, where I read.”

PD Smith is a writer. Doomsday Men,  a cultural history of science, superweapons and other strangeloves, is published by Penguin in the UK, St Martin’s Press in the US, and by Companhia das Letras in Brazil. He is the author of a short biography of Einstein and an academic study of science in German literature. He has taught at University College London where he is an honorary research fellow in the Science and Technology Studies Department, writes a biweekly piece for the Guardian in the weekend book-review section and is a guest contributor to the influential website 3quarksdaily, as well as reviewing for other national publications such as The Times, Independent and Times Literary Supplement.

FYD: Where do you research and work?

PD SMITH: I like the sight of familiar books, so I’m very happy working at home. Wherever I work, stalagmites of books grow around me, as well as piles of photocopies and articles. When I’m reading I make reams and reams of notes, far more than is necessary, and all longhand. I use a fountain pen – prehistoric technology in this age of iPads, but it works for me. I’ve never really liked working in libraries, although obviously I use them all the time while researching my books. But I always find myself staring at the other people in the reading room, trying to imagine what they are researching. It’s very distracting. So, whenever possible I like to find some obscure alcove, out of sight. And in libraries, too, I prefer to work with pen and paper – I find they are so much lighter and more reliable than any more recent technology.

I bet there was a Russian Strangelove behind the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko with radioactive polonium in 2006.. It was eerily reminiscent of Rudolph Maté’s 1950 film noir D.O.A.

FYD: How do you choose your material?

PD SMITH: For projects like my current one on the history of cities, I begin by reading as widely as possible. Obviously, it’s not possible to read everything on a subject as vast as cities, or even the history of superweapons, which is what my last book was about. Part of the pleasure of tackling a big subject is you learn something new every day, information you can then pass on to your readers. While reading I make extensive notes. Then I type out whatever seems most relevant, looking for original angles that cast new light on the subject. After that it’s a matter of writing, rewriting and writing again, until you get it right. As ever, it’s the process of writing that allows you to grasp the essence of the subject.

FYD: Across the pond here, Dick Cheney is the Dr. Strangelove character.  Who is another Strangelove player in pop culture or the political sphere?

PD SMITH: There are always war-mongering politicians. But Dr Strangelove was a scientist, someone in love with power in all its forms: military, political and technological. Today, there do not seem to be as many high-profile Strangeloves walking the corridors of power as there were in the Cold War, men like Edward Teller or John von Neumann. Now they prefer to stay in the shadows. But I’m sure they are still there, behind the scenes, working for think-tanks or laboratories. One nuclear scientist springs to mind – Pakistan’s Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan. And I bet there was a Russian Strangelove behind the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko with radioactive polonium in 2006.  That was a scenario straight out of the Cold War. It was eerily reminiscent of Rudolph Maté’s 1950 film noir D.O.A.

Part of the pleasure of tackling a big subject is you learn something new every day, information you can then pass on to your readers.

FYD: You reviews books for The Guardian and The Times Literary Supplement. What are your top three holiday reads for people; fiction and non fiction?

PD SMITH: My favourite non-fiction book this year was Restless Cities, an evocative and eclectic collection of essays on urban themes, edited by Matthew Beaumont and Gregory Dart. I reviewed it here. This year I also hugely enjoyed Nick Harkaway’s The Gone-Away World – a wonderfully imaginative post-apocalyptic, superweapon fantasy. It’s funny and it has ninjas – what more could you ask for? One novel I’m looking forward to reading when I’ve finished my own book is Lauren Beukes’ Zoo City (Jacana, 2010). I’ve heard great things about it and I can’t wait to read it…

FYD: When will we see your fiction?

PD SMITH: Now, that’s an unexpected question! Actually, I have been writing a novel. I guess you could call it a kind of urban fantasy. Writing fiction takes you to a different place entirely from non-fiction – a stranger, darker place. But I’m not very good at switching between fiction and non-fiction projects, so I’ve had to put the novel aside for now while I write  City: A Guidebook for the Armchair Traveller.

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2 Comments For “PD Smith.”

  1. David Dobbs says:

    Enjoyed this. Intrigued to read Peter takes notes in longhand. Fond of fountain pens myself. Longhand seems to risk not finding important notes later — not searchable and all that — but perhaps the reviewing and typing the notes up burns them better into memory anyway and creates better the mental connections that ultimately compose (in both senses of the term) the book anyway. My last book I had to take many notes by hand because the sources were in archives that allowed you to bring nothing but a (paper) notebook and pencil, so I had to work that way. And evempn after I’d typed everything up I printed it all out anyway and marked up much of it with highlighters.

    Whatever works! Like the office. Really looking forward to the book.

  2. More shelves, I need more shelves. I have shelf envy at the moment, please forgive me. I’ve been bemoaning my book addiction recently and explaining how a little order and alphabetisation may just be the remedy, if not the cure. Zoo City is fabulous, so definitely make a point of getting to that when you’re not being so industrious. That Lauren Beukes is a badass.

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