Were you an inquisitive child? It is something of a QI maxim that all children are inherently curious; and that it is only by acting like an intelligent seven year old that you can learn the most interesting stuff. Having said that, although I did well at school, I can’t remember being particularly inquisitive compared with my peers. It was after University, when all formal education had ended, that I began to appreciate the joy of learning just for the sake of it.
What other jobs have you had? Before working at QI, I was an accountant for a chain of pubs. I simply ploughed through spreadsheets, day after day, in a freezing portakabin in Eccles, Manchester. I was very much into quizzes, and so started to send questions to the program makers in my spare time, and amazingly they gave me a job.
How did you start putting this book together? The book, ‘1,339 QI Facts to Make Your Jaw Drop’, and its predecessor ‘1,227 QI Facts to Blow Your Socks Off’, essentially grew from our Twitter feed, @qikipedia, on which we post fascinating facts every day. From that basis, I fleshed out the rest of the book using cumulative research from the last 10 years that we have been researching the television show. It happens very often that we find a nugget of information that is not quite right for television, but it is perfect for this kind of book.
What was one of the most interesting things you discovered when writing this book? Perhaps it is a throwback from my days of working through spreadsheets, but I love to trawl through lists of data to find the funny and interesting bits. So I’d say that my favourite parts of this book are those that come from that kind of research. For instance, last year, I read through the 1880 US Census and found that in that year there were 46 girls named John, 14 named Cecil and 13 named Frank.
Which books do you recommend people to read? The official QI answer is that you should read every book you can get your hands on, from front to back, including the footnotes (especially the footnotes) and make notes of everything you find interesting. We’ve done this with many hundred of books between us, including the first 12 letters of the Encyclopedia Britannica and the Oxford English Dictionary, and much of Wikipedia. But the most QI books I’ve read in the last year or so, were probably ‘Drunk Tank Pink’ by Adam Alter and ‘Electrified Sheep’ by Alex Boese; I’d also recommend anything by Mary Roach, Jon Ronson, Bill Bryson, Jan Bondeson… the list goes on. I don’t read as much fiction as I’d like, but Bradbury, Kafka and Poe are the authors that I always try to talk people into reading.
What are your favourite products? I was lost for a few days last year when Google decided to discontinue its Reader application. I have more than 70 RSS feeds that I read every day, which is the basis for much of my non-bookish research. Luckily I found inoreader.com, which does the job just as well as Google Reader, and I’d definitely say that a good RSS feed is the most important tool for my work.
Which 5 people would you most like to have over for dinner? This changes, depending on who has come up in research most recently. At the moment, if I’m allowed historical figures, I’d really like to invite dictionary writer Samuel Johnson, along with the two other notable Samuel Johnsons who were alive at the same time as him. One was a dance-master known as ‘Lord Flame’, and the other was a fellow writer who had something of a feud with the most famous Samuel Johnson, not least down to their shared name. I’d also like to invite a roguish soldier from Lancashire called Roger Aytoun who was better known at the time as ‘Spanking Roger’, and Victoria Woodhull who ran for US President 40 years before women even got the vote.
What do you choose to do in your own time? I don’t have much spare time, but when I get a day or two, I like to write short stories based on things that I researched at QI. I also play as much golf as possible and play poker when I can find time, and I watch most movies as they come out. If I ever get a holiday I like to read fiction, as I normally can’t justify spending my time reading anything other than non-fiction.
What else would you like to write a book about? As I said, I write short stories, so I hope to publish some of those in the next year or so: they’re all based loosely on things I have read about in the course of QI research and they usually go speculatively from there. I’d also like to write a book, one day, containing all of the questions that we were unable to use on QI because they were too rude. That would be a seriously funny book, but probably not one that you would buy for an elderly relative.
What are you working on next? The new season of QI begins filming next month, so I’m writing the scripts for that at the moment; I’m also working on the sequel to ‘1,339 QI Facts to Make Your Jaw Drop’ which will be available this Christmas. As well as that, we are developing new television formats, and I co-host a podcast, ‘No Such Thing As A Fish’, which is going great guns, and is currently the most listened-to podcast in the UK. So not much time for golf.
Read my review of ‘1,399 QI Facts To Make Your Jaw Drop’ here.
Read my review of ‘1,227 QI Facts To Blow Your Socks Off’ here.
Read my review of ‘1,411 QI Facts To Knock You Sideways’ here.