Monday, June 24, 2024

Interview With Author Robert Lockhart



1.      What inspired you to write the book?  

I spent ten years, mostly post-retirement, writing a massive Algebra textbook "the theory of near-rings" which was published by Springer in 2021. I have always had wide interests but that, ill-health (I had several strokes) and professional and private demands meant I ignored topics I have loved. After the book came out (to stunning silence!) I found myself at a loss and started typing notes on things that interested me, sometimes expressing the ideas in poetry - not a recipe for popular audiences! This all took on a life of its own and in four months I had a reasonable book. I sent it off to one publisher on a whim but it vanished, so as an afterthought I sent it off to another and they came back at once. The book is not well formatted and I could do little about that (they removed the index for instance and all the verse structure of the poems) but it is readable and even now I am unashamed by it, which surprises me. Most people say it is funny. I know, I pay them.


2.      What is the book about?  

It's about the intellectual, cultural and emotional experiences of a baby boomer living between Hitler and Putin. It is about modern mathematics and science, social and philosophical ideas, the people that I admire, humour, personal experiences, and, since he has had such an influence on my life, T. S. Eliot and his poems. In the dead of night, privately, I think of it as what I would say to Eliot in response to "Four Quartets".  

3.      What do you hope readers will get?  

I hope they will be entertained, made to laugh, challenged, introduced to ideas they may not have come across, irritated, and inclined to respond, either by their own further reading, or their own reaction to what I say; and I hope that some of them will find a path to the hair-raising experience of truly great poetry (and I am emphatically not referring to my own stuff here). I hope some of them will realiae the artificial boundaries that prevent them engaging in cultural and intellectual ideas are just that: artificial. I hope they will enjoy it, and they should stop reading if they do not.  

4.      How did you come to choose your title and cover? 

The title is an anagram of Eliot's greatest poem, "Little Gidding". The design was entirely done by the publisher. They asked me if there was anywhere that was important to me and I mentioned the mortuary temple of Queen Hatshepsut, in Luxor. It's a picture of that. 

5.      Any advice for fellow writers? 

Beware of well-meaning recipes as are offered in creative writing courses. Write about what you know and care about. Follow where your words take you and don't worry too much about structure. If you are bored by what you write the chances are everyone else will be too. Read more than you write and make detailed notes about information that strikes you - notes that are explicit, well-referenced, and geared to the stranger that you will be when you come back to read them. Sleep on "fine writing" and consider cutting it out when you wake. Know Orwell's guide to literary style. Accept you can finish a book your don't always agree with the contents. If you would not buy it, don't publish it. Whenever you abandon a book, come back to it. 

6.      What trends in the book world do you see? 

I am a tired old man and think in terms of printed books. We live in a bungalow upon which is tacked an upper floor that, mercifully, my disabled wife is unable to access. I have so many books upstairs that I worry about the structural stability of the upper floor and muse on buying a book on structural engineering - except it would probably be the straw that broke the camel's back. Since I wrote the algebra text, those of my friends that did not feel somehow betrayed started writing their own books - with limited results. I realized watching this that book publishing has changed and that the Internet now offers self-publishing opportunities that were unknown to me. I am still wondering about this; but remember how many truly great authors self-published their first work - Eliot among them. There are also probably blogs (whatever they are) and writer's groups that could encourage or aid first-timers. My own experience (and the near-ring book was probably the third or fourth I had attempted) that something breaks or changes while you write a book that is published. In a sense, you know things about writing you did not before. I guess the Internet might encourage an acceleration of that feeling and I guess that that might be transformational.  

7.      Any experience in your personal life connected to your writing? 

I was terrified at the response of my closest friends to this book. Few of them had any idea of my own literary interests and what I was attempting was symptomatic of the self-indulgence of the elderly. The universal response was that I had written a very self-revealing work - something I still don't see myself. I was a working class kid from a poor background. I was the first in my family to go to University or get a degree. I had a truly terrific memory, and can still quote conversations verbatim that I had half a century ago. I also had the habit of noting things that interested me and have maybe fifty small books of these notes. This book was a sort of seance for my dead experiences and memories. The book is only about the experiences of my personal life and that ought to put any right-thinking person off. I have a German friend of half a century and I sent her a copy of the book. She came back immediately and said that she knew the title must be something to do with T. S.Eliot, which, of course, it is. I am completely stunned that unlike the character "bob" in the film "the drop" everybody  sees me coming! 

8.      Describe your writing style? 

I find this hard to answer. There must be a handy sneer there somewhere. It's somewhere between Laurence Sterne in Tristram Shandy and T. S. Eliot in the Four Quartets. The poems are more like Auden in their variability, though I lack his skillset. The titles are pure sixth-form. It's about time I quoted Eliot:  

Whatever we inherit from the fortunate We have taken from the defeated What they had to leave us—a symbol,  

9.      Were there challenges to overcome in the writing of your book?  

I was really quite ill when I started the book. I had had several strokes and was frail. The first few poems seem to me to need work but I left them as they were because I at least can see my brain coming back to life (not a commercially astute decision). The later ones are as good as someone with my limitations could possibly do and I am continually surprised at not being embarrassed by them. The bizarre affectation of producing one poem for each year of my life actually helped because the blank page terror of writing something like this could be seen to be progressively dissipating.   

10.  Why should someone read your book.?  

It's cheap. It's brief. It has a nice picture on the front. It has stuff that would make most people laugh. Whatever else it is, it is not vacuous and any reader could find something for themselves in it. It's a sort of cache of stuff assembled by a Magpie mind. It will tell you things you did not know and are glad you now do. If you regret buying it you should tell the world. It's been out for four months and I have not yet encountered anyone who does. 

About The Author: Retired academic and computer scientist with research interests in several areas and literary, archeological and social interests. For more info, please see: 


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