What is the first book you bought yourself?
As a child, I was an avid user of the library, so I don’t remember buying any books for myself. The earliest book I can remember buying, and absolutely loving, and reading repeatedly, was Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh (1945).
If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?
I came very late to writing so to a large extent there was no “younger writing self”. Even now, as a biographer, my passion is as much for the research as the writing. The advice I would give to any aspiring writers is read, read and read. There really is no better way to learn your craft, and read in all genres, as this is what hones your language and ideas.
Did publishing your first book change your writing process?
Before my first book, Wilde’s Women, was published by Duckworth in 2015, I had done quite a lot of work on a biography of Harriet Shelley, first wife of Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Although it wasn’t published, I secured an agent, Andrew Lownie, on the strength of it. Writing it was a very useful process that helped me learn how to research and structure a biography. One of my chapters, on the Shelleys in Ireland, won the Keats-Shelley Essay Prize. Short answer – no, having a book published didn’t change my writing process at all.
What were you most wrong about when you imagined being a writer?
I’m not sure I had a clear sense of what being a writer was like. I had an entirely different career for many years before turning to writing in my forties. Also, I believe that non-fiction writers have a very different experience from fiction writers, who I am absolutely in awe of. Being a biographer is a skilled job but we have the convenience of telling other people’s stories without having to invent anything at all. I can’t imagine having to write convincing dialogue.
Which 3 books do you think everyone should read?
That’s a difficult one. Three is far too few of course. I’m going to suggest:
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (1966): A brilliant, pioneering book, often described as a non-fiction novel. Capote wrote about the horrific murders of four members of the Clutter family in a sleepy farming community in Kansas while the case was unfolding. He conducted startling interviews with the perpetrators while they were on death row. It’s a gripping, insightful and beautifully written book. Of course, it helps when you have Harper Lee as your researcher.
Possession: A Romance by A.S. Byatt (1990): This superb novel won the Booker Prize in 1990. Set in present day England and the Victorian era, it follows the lives of two academics as they research the obscure romantic relationship between (fictional) Victorian poets Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte. Byatt fuses disparate styles - fictional diary entries, letters and poetry – to explore several fascinating themes, one of which is the possession biographers feel toward their subjects. Perfect for me, and a brilliantly entertaining story too.
Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer (1996): Another astonishingly well written non-fiction book, which explores themes of belonging and isolation, and examines why some people, the author included, crave wilderness from time to time. I often think about it.
Do you have a favourite book to gift and if so, what is it?
I have given several people Just Kids by Patti Smith (2010), her beautiful, lyrical memoir describing her relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe and the time they spent living at the Chelsea Hotel in New York. It’s an extraordinary book, as amazing as she is.
What song always gets you on the dance floor?
I’m not a great one for the dancing but I do love a good live gig and I was dancing away to Dinosaur Jr. in Vicar Street just this week!
Tea or Coffee?
Coffee now, although it used to be tea.
Do you Google yourself?
Yes! Absolutely! What writer doesn’t? I also have alerts set up for my name and the titles of my books. I Googled myself last week and up popped an article in the New Yorker in which Jessica Winter wrote about “Eleanor Fitzsimons’s wonderful biography “The Life and Loves of E. Nesbit,” from 2019”. Here’s a link: https://www.newyorker.com/books/under-review/the-british-socialist-who-rewrote-the-world-for-children
Why do you love Chapters?!
What’s not to love! Chapters is an absolute treasure trove of brilliant books at such bargain prices. I’ve been treating myself to regular visits for years and finding the most extraordinary gems. Just a couple of weeks ago, I popped in to buy Case Study by Graeme Macrae Burnet (2021) and came out with six books, among them three volumes of Obras Completas de Sherlock Holmes, secondhand but in perfect condition, and just €7.99 each. I’m learning Spanish so they’re such a brilliant find. I’m so pleased you reopened. It’s such a joy to browse in Chapters and something I want to be able to do for years to come
Eleanor can be found on Twitter @eleanorfitz and her wordpress site is https://eafitzsimons.wordpress.com/
She is represented by the Andrew Lowney Literary Agency