As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up? A Veterinarian. I loved animals—all kinds—and would read books about caring for them as often as I could.
What inspired you to start writing? Actually, my father’s profession was a big influence on both reading and writing biographies. He is a funeral director, and when I was growing up, he worked right next door and we could go visit his office when he wasn’t too busy. There were always a lot of obituaries on his desk, and so I would read them and sometimes practice typing them out myself. Obituaries are a kind of mini-biography and you have to be very good at choosing just the right details to capture a person’s life in a few paragraphs. I think somehow I use that early experience even today when I write my own books.
What’s the hardest part of your job? I have so many ideas and topics that I want to pursue . . . but, of course, there is only so much time, and writing a good book (for any age group!) can take years. So, letting go of those ideas and topics that fascinate me, but that I have no time for, is probably the hardest part.
What’s the best part of your job? The best part is the variety of topics and the many different ways in which I can conduct my research for a book. Lots of people think that that word ‘research’ is boring, but I’ve always treated it as a great adventure!! I do, of course, use books and the internet, but I also conduct interviews, travel to interesting places, watch movies and attend plays; sometimes I even get to go ‘behind the scenes’ of a museum or an historical archive. Those times are just fascinating.
What inspired you to write this book? It was a ‘happy accident’. I had intended to take a novel I was reading along with me on a long car trip . . . but instead (I was in a hurry), I grabbed an early edition of the Thesaurus by mistake and that’s all I had to read for about five hours. I started to read through Roget’s categories and word entries in a way that I had never done before—and I was struck by what an enormous and ambitious project it was for him to put this all together (by hand!). I decided that day to find out more about Roget and to discover what his motivation was for tackling such an immensely difficult task.
What was the most interesting thing you discovered when writing this book? I found out LOTS of interesting things about Roget. To name a few: he studied Optics and wrote papers and articles that later had a great influence on the development of motion pictures (or, as we call them, ‘Movies’); he loved to play chess and invented a portable chess set; he loved math and invented a version of the slide rule; he was terribly shy as a young man, but he discovered at a New Year’s Eve party that he loved to dance. The intense physical activity seemed to calm him—and it also made him popular with the ladies!
What do you love most about the thesaurus? I love the way that I can circle back to an idea or concept just by ‘following it around’ inside the Thesaurus. For me, the Thesaurus makes connections between words and phrases that one would not ordinarily think of as similar, and because that’s also true in Nature (everything is connected to everything else) it creates a kind of beautiful ‘flow’.
What would you most like to ask Peter Roget? Hmmmm . . . if he were to come back today, I suppose the modern world would make him become more specialized (which would be sad, but probably accurate.) So—I would have to ask him: ‘if you could choose just one academic discipline with which to occupy yourself, which would it be—Linguistics? Optics? Biology? Chemistry? Botany? Mathematics?’ Lucky for us, though, he lived at a time when he could choose ‘all of these’.
Do you collect anything? Yes—Books, first and foremost. Also postcards, interesting photographs and art prints, handmade pottery. I’m also an avid birdwatcher and music-lover. As a child, I collected horse statues/figurines, seashells, rocks, and dolls.
What is something that most people might be surprised to know about you? I’m very messy. When I’m writing a book, my office (and my car) looks like a fierce wind came in and swept everything all about. I always clean up later—but my process is not exactly linear or neat!
Read my review of ‘The Right Word’ here.