Joseph Pearce is the prolific author of numerous literary works including Literary Converts, The Quest for Shakespeare, and Shakespeare on Love, and the editor of the Ignatius Critical Editions series. His other books include literary biographies of Oscar Wilde, J.R.R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, G. K. Chesterton and Alexander Solzhenitsyn. He is writer in residence and director of the Center for Faith and Culture at Aquinas College in Nashville, Tennessee. He recently spoke with CWR about life as an author.
CWR: You have written biography, literary criticism, essays, fiction and memoir. Do you have a favorite genre to write in?
Joseph Pearce: Not really. I enjoy writing in all genres. Like Chesterton, I am something of a Jack of all (writing) trades, though some would say, no doubt, that I am the master of none! Like most writers, I like to think that I have that one great novel in me but I suspect, deep down, that I don’t. My forte is non-fiction, though I have written the odd poem with which I am happy.
CWR: In regard to your books, how long is it normally from conception through to publication? Is there a difference depending on genre?
Pearce: There is indeed a difference depending on genre, and also depending on the other commitments with which I am contending at any given time. For example, it was much easier to predict how long it would take to research and write a book when I was a full-time writer, which was the case for five years in England, from 1996 till 2001, prior to my moving to the United States. During those five years I wrote seven books. These days, with the multifarious teaching, speaking and editing commitments vying for my time, it’s much more of a challenge to meet the next deadline for completion of a book. I feel as though I always have one deadline or another hanging over my head like the sword of Damocles!
CWR: Given the scale of some of your undertakings, have you ever felt overwhelmed by a project?
Pearce: I like to feel that I never feel overwhelmed and that I cope very well with stress, though I suspect my long-suffering wife might beg to differ! To be honest, I am no longer able to take on really large-scale projects, those which require a huge amount of research and painstaking narrative-weaving, such as was required in the writing of a book like Literary Converts. These days, I take on easier fare: books which are shorter in length and easier to research and write. It’s not laziness or a lack of desire to write heavier tomes; it simply an acknowledgment of my situation as one who is wearing many other hats, as well as that of being a writer.
CWR: In general, how much time is spent on research compared to the actual writing of a book?
Pearce: It depends on the book. With Literary Converts and my early biographies (those written and published when I was a full-time writer in England), it worked out to be about 40% research and 60% writing. These days, the sort of books I am writing take less research. I am, for instance, currently writing a book on the Chronicles of Narnia. I know the books very well and have taught them. As such, most of the research has been the studying of secondary sources, most of which are books that I already have in my own library. In this case, I suspect that the research will take no more than 20% of the total time involved.
CWR: When and where do you write? Is there a set routine?
Pearce: Yes indeed. I try to be in my office by 8am each morning and will work until around 4pm, finishing off the day with a visit to the gym. I’m a morning person so most of my best writing is done prior to lunch but, as I said, I keep going until around 4pm. That being said, I often have trouble sleeping and am sometimes writing in the middle of the night. One morning last week, for instance, I wrote two articles before breakfast.
CWR: Where and when do ideas for the next project come to you?
Pearce: Lately, I’ve been writing books that have been commissioned so I’ve been letting acquisitions editors have the ideas! I do have lots of books that I’d like to write so there’s never any shortage of ideas. The problem is that some books that I’d like to write are not really possible under present circumstances. Books that would require a great deal of research and a great deal of labour in the writing are not practical possibilities because my wife and I have school-age children to raise. I’d like, for example, to write a prequel to my book Literary Converts which would cover the century prior to 1900, which is where that book starts. The problem is that a 120,000 word book, requiring much research, will not pay any more than a 60,000 word book, requiring less research. Indeed, in our dumbed-down culture the shorter book will probably sell better. It makes no sense, therefore, if one has a family to support, to labour in vain on labours of love. I’d also like to write more on the great poetry which has animated Christendom but, alas, poetry does not sell in our prosaic culture. In short and in sum, therefore, I allow my ideas to be tempered by necessity.
CWR: Have you ever suffered writer’s block?
Pearce: Not really. (Deo gratias!) There are days when the words flow more easily than others but I always manage to grind out a good day’s writing. The writer is often blocked by other commitments, such as editing, teaching, travelling and speaking, but not by writer’s block.
CWR: How much, if any, does other media—music, film, art—feed your creative process?
Pearce: My domestic situation has made the watching of films practically impossible over the past ten years or so. I do love music, however, listening to it often, and am a great amateur aficionado of the visual arts. I edit a Catholic cultural magazine, the St. Austin Review, which has regular features on film, music and the visual arts, so I’m engaging with other media all the time, at least in an editorial capacity. Most of my writing is, however, on literary, historical or political themes, so the other arts serve more as an inspirational backdrop to my work rather than a principal focus.
CWR: Who are your favorite authors?
Pearce: I would have to say that Shakespeare is probably my main passion, though I am also passionate about Tolkien and Chesterton. Hopkins’ poetry is breath-taking and I love the poetry of T. S. Eliot and Siegfried Sassoon. I never tire of reading or teaching Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh (a masterpiece).
CWR: What books would you recommend to writers?
Pearce: One of the main pieces of advice I give to my students and to those who contact me about the art of writing is that one only writes as well as one reads. Even if one has the aptitude to write well, the gift, one can only express oneself in a manner which is informed by the literature that one reads. If we read junk, we’ll write junk. As such, I would always recommend the greatest writers as being of the greatest importance for aspiring writers. Read Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Chesterton, Tolkien, Lewis, and Waugh. And don’t forsake the great poets, who will baptize the imagination even if we are not planning to write poetry ourselves, opening our minds to the beauty of the cosmos and thereby dilating the soul into the presence of God, who is the Father of the Muses.
CWR: What do you understand by the writer’s vocation?
Pearce: The writer’s vocation is to give back to the Giver of the gift the fruits of the gift given.
CWR: If writing has taught you anything – what is it?
Pearce: I’d prefer to speak of what writing is teaching me rather than what it has taught. I feel as though my relationship with the Muse is like my relationship with God, which is hardly surprising considering that the Muse is God-given. I am, therefore, always learning more about myself and my place in the scheme of things from my relationship with the Muse. It’s a teacher, to be sure, but the lessons it teaches always open out into deeper and richer lessons. As Lewis says in The Last Battle we are always called to be going Further Up and Further In.
Related on CWR: The Creative Catholic: George Weigel (Dec 27, 2016) by K.V. Turley